The Jacob Marschak Interdisciplinary Colloquium on Mathematics in the Behavioral Sciences at UCLA


APRIL 5, 2016 | 3 to 4:30 P.M.

Reservations are requested to Marschak RSVP

Johnson God Is Watching image

Why (We Think) God is Watching: Supernatural Punishment and the Evolution of Cooperation

Speaker: Dominic Johnson, Alastair Buchan Professor of International Relations, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford

Host: Daniel Blumstein, Professor and Department Chair, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCLA

Amidst the dazzling diversity of religions across the world, certain elements stand out as common to them all. One of the most widespread and powerful is belief in supernatural punishment. The idea that one’s good and bad deeds will be observed, judged and punished by God or some other supernatural agent or agency is a virtually universal feature of the worlds’ religions, both past and present. The underlying cognitive mechanisms also appear to be present among atheists, expressed in superstitions and implicit beliefs about a Just World.

In his book Why (We Think) God is Watching: Supernatural Punishment and the Evolution of Cooperation, Johnson examines the origins of belief in supernatural punishment within the framework of evolutionary theory, arguing that such a belief, even if false and costly, may in fact have brought net fitness advantages in human evolutionary history and thus was favored by natural selection over time (in different ways via both biological and cultural evolution.) The crux of the argument is that a belief in supernatural punishment for violations of social norms helped to avoid retaliation and reputational damage for selfish behavior in increasingly transparent social groups. In short, religion helped promote the evolution of cooperation.

This suggests novel insights for the origins, development, and spread of religions in human history. It also begs the question of what, if anything, is replacing supernatural punishment as the means to temper self-interest and promote cooperation in the modern world? In short, do we still need God? Drawing on new research from anthropology, evolutionary biology, experimental psychology, and neuroscience, Johnson presents a theory of supernatural punishment that offers novel insights on the evolution of religion and human cooperation.

Johnson received a DPhil in evolutionary biology from University of Oxford and a PhD in political science from Geneva University.