Dice Games Prove Evolution Because Humans Believed In Punitive Gods?

Evolutionary psychology tells more Just So stories than any other science

By William M Briggs Published on February 18, 2016

Answer this question: could you, by counting the number of coins some guy puts into one of two cups, deduce that mankind evolved from brutes into cooperative, altruistic animals because men sometimes believed in the existence of punitive gods?

Because that’s exactly what Benjamin Grant Purzycki and eight others did, as documented by their peer-reviewed paper “Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality” published in the prestigious journal Nature.

Yes, sir. Purzycki and friends searched places like Vanuatu and Fiji for people who believe in God or gods and would sit down and play with dice. Purzycki claimed the results of those simple games “have important implications for understanding the evolution of the wide-ranging cooperation found in large-scale societies.” Purzycki also said “the evolution of large and complex human societies and the religious features of societies with greater social complexity that are heavily populated by such gods” were explained by the dice.

If this weren’t profound enough, the dice games also proved that “the role that commitment to knowledgeable, moralistic and punitive gods plays in solidifying the social bonds that create broader imagined communities.”

What amazing insights! All from tossing a few dice around. Imagine what they could have discovered if they threw in a deck of cards, too!

What’s that? What were the dice games? Glad you asked.

In Game One, Purzycki sat participants in a room and showed them two boxes and 30 coins. One of the two boxes was said to be the participants’ own box, and the other the participant was to imagine to be for some unnamed, distant person of the same race who, participants were also asked to imagine, shared the same religious views as the participants.

The participants were told to mentally pick a box, their own or their confrere’s. Then they were told to toss a die, half the sides of which were painted black, half white. If the die came up black (a 50% chance), the participants had to put one coin into the box they pre-picked. If the die came up white, the participants had to put one coin into the box they didn’t pick.

Game Two was identical to Game One (for a total of 60 tosses and coin placements) except that the “self” box was replaced by one for some unnamed, imaginary local person of the same race who shared the same religious view as the participants.

You follow?

What about punitive gods? Well, Purzycki asked participants, after they picked the name of a god, two questions: (1) “Does [name of god] ever punish people for their behavior?”, (2) “Can [name of god] influence what happens to people after they die?” The answers, assigned values 0 or 1, where used as a “punishment index,” which was “the mean of these two questions.” Purzycki also asked similar kinds of questions about the knowledge these gods supposedly possessed, and about how these gods ever reward participants. All questions were forced into the same kind of faux-quantification as the “punishment index.”

Here’s the big if. If participants knew, understood, and remembered the rules of these dice games, and if they never got bored and hurried things along by, for instance, depositing more than one coin at a time, and if participants thought they were honoring their named gods and didn’t suspect the white-coated researchers would be counting the coins afterwards, and if a whole host of other possible explanations had no force, then the number of coins in either of the boxes shouldn’t differ too much because the blind dice would “decide” the allocations. Also, the numbers should have nothing to do with the “punishment” or other “indexes.”

Turns out, though, averaged over thousands of responses, that, in Game One (which had the self cup), slightly more coins were put into the self cup than expected. And in Game Two, there was more balance than expected, meaning the splits were closer to 50-50 than the math suggests. Plus, these discrepancies were ever-so-slightly related to the “indexes.”

So people cheated a little. Probably.

Look: you’re in a room, unseen, and perhaps bored with this dumb dice game. You know you’re going to get to keep the coins in the self box. So you slide in an extra one, or maybe two. Who cares anyway? It’s just some silly experiment. Or, in Game Two, since you’re not benefiting, you might figure the split should be 50-50, and you notice that as the experiment runs along, the dice rolls are leaning one way or other, as dice will, so you “correct” the totals a little to make them closer to 50-50.

It doesn’t take many people cheating in this (or any) way to skew the results. Certainly, everybody cheating would produce results far more off kilter than the ones Purzycki saw. But which, if any, people cheated? Nobody knows.

The big question is why. Why did (a few) people cheat or make mistakes (if they did)? Was it because they thought [name of god] would punish them if they didn’t? Maybe in some cases. Boredom? Surely in some cases. Wanting to please the researcher? Probably not infrequently. Forgetting which cup you picked and which color went with what cup? Absolutely. Or some other of hundreds of other possible reasons? You bet.

In any case, does any of this prove whatever “evolutionary explanations of prosociality” of human beings that Purzycki and others posited? Not in the least. Since no — zero, nada, none, zip, zilch — participant was asked to explain his box totals, we have no — zero, aw, skip it — idea what caused any total. Did people think about [name of god] when they tossed dice, or were they just bored? Nobody knows: everybody is guessing.

Evolutionary psychology is dismal science. Not only can dice “prove” how humans evolved, but stickers can “show” religious kids are less altruistic than atheists kids. Anything can be “proved.” All it takes is a little — a very little — imagination.

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