“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity”

And of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcass shall ye not touch; for they are unclean to you.”
-Leviticus 11:8

Having well considered the origin of flesh-foods, and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let man entirely abstain from eating flesh.”
-Manusmrti 5.49

O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may learn self-restraint But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves
-Surah 183, 194

Religion can hold a strong sway over culture and it influences how people behave in social situations by placing a strong emphasis on moral behavior and promoting group cooperation. However, the benefits of religion may come at a price and sometimes an individual must forego his or her own personal interests for the good of the religious group, perhaps by becoming a celibate religious leader, payments of tithing, or following dietary restrictions and fasting laws.

Religious taboos that prohibit the consumption of certain foods or food during certain times are particularly interesting because they seem to go against all basic survival instincts that humans have.

  • Judaism mandates that its followers must keep Kosher, which are foods acceptable to eat under Jewish Law, and there are many restrictions and taboos during the time of Passover, including prohibition of leavened bread.

  • Followers of Islam should only eat foods that are Halal or “permissible in Islamic Law” and must abstain from consuming any food during the fasting periods in the month of Ramadan.
  • Catholics may not eat red meat on Friday or during the time of Lent, when it is typical for other forms of luxuries to be given up as well.

Many different explanations for the historical origins of dietary restrictions have been proposed in the past, but research in the fields of anthropology and psychology suggests that the most plausible explanation for these seemingly detrimental rituals is that they signal devotion to a group.

An individual associates with a specific group of like-minded individuals and this membership grants them the benefits of others’ altruistic acts – aid that is given simply because someone is in the “in-group”. Being part of the group therefore provides safety, relationship opportunities, and the possibility of help from a group member. Individuals form a group by entering into a social compact where they all agree to work together and adhere to rules of the group for the greater collective good of all members.

This is known as reciprocal altruism: you help a member of the group because you expect that at some point, they would do the same for you, and everyone wins.

However, this system can only work if everyone follows the rules and if their promises of aid are honest. Otherwise the group breaks down when people invest and are not rewarded. And it is difficult to organize voluntary group cooperation without the risk of some people taking advantage of the system, so-called free riders, that reap the benefits of being in a group without returning the favor.

If a group relies on cooperation and altruism to function, there must be a way to determine who is part of the group, usually through shared behaviors, customs, dress, etc. Common forms of signaling group membership can include clothing style, such as identifying oneself as a Michigan student by donning a blue and maize sweatshirt or identifying oneself as Christian by wearing a rosary or crucifix.

Similar behavior and dress clearly identifies all member of this group as loyal fans to the University of Michigan

Similar behavior and dress clearly identifies all member of this group as loyal fans to the University of Michigan.

The flaw with these signs of group membership is that anyone who wants to take advantage of the benefits to be reaped from group camaraderie can, and by simply wearing these articles of clothing, they can appear as though they too are part of the group.

A so-called "wolf in sheep's clothing" can integrate themselves into a group to benefit from it without any intention of returning the favor

A so-called “wolf in sheep’s clothing” can integrate themselves into a group to benefit from it without any intention of returning the favor.

A group’s capacity to find and then punish or oust cheaters increases the overall success of the group, so a more effective and selective form of group identification is often required. 

Therefore, a more complex way of signaling group membership may arise in the form of a costly signal.  This is a behavior that does not directly benefit the member of the group or the group as a whole, but demonstrates a commitment to the group. If an individual is willing to go out of their way to demonstrate that they want to be part of the group, it is more likely that they have a true vested interest in the group’s outcome.

It can be argued that a dietary restriction or food taboo is an example of this type of costly group signal – health and happiness are not gained by following any such rule (except the happiness one finds in being devout in their religion). Yet, nearly every religion in the history of mankind has requested that its followers obey some sort of dietary law.

An early Judeo-Christian belief held that pork was prohibited because pigs were used by pagans such as the Romans to worship false idols, and therefore the animals were tainted in the eyes of God with a connection to idolatry and were unclean for believers to consume. However, if this were the case, then most domesticated animals should have been considered unclean to eat, because many other animals associated with pagan practices, such as the bull, ox, or sheep were not considered unclean.

This facade from the Ara Pacis in Rome indicates that sheep and cattle were also important animals in Roman ritual, yet there are few Western taboos regarding the consumption of their meat.

This facade from the Ara Pacis in Rome indicates that sheep and cattle were equally important animals in Roman ritual, yet there are few Western taboos regarding the consumption of their meat.

Many different theories and explanations have been proposed for why most major religions demand that their followers obey a variety of dietary restrictions and taboos, and they cite reasons that range from historical symbolism to biological issues.  Clearly, traditions in a religious practice have important symbolic meaning for its followers.  The practices need not require sacrifice in order to maintain this symbolism, but typically, they do.

But it turns out that where history cannot, evolutionary theory can provide an explanation for the persistence of dietary laws: following dietary restrictions is a way to show one’s commitment to a group and indicate a genuine interest in cooperation and altruism.

Any rule that elicits a food restriction immediately divides people into groups of those who follow it and those who do not. Every culture has special protocols or traditions associated with acquiring or eating certain foods, and food taboos figure prominently into many societies around the world:

  • A traditional American thanksgiving would not be complete without the male head of household sitting at the head of the table, ready to carve the family’s turkey.
  • A successful Netsilik Eskimo seal hunt ends when the meat has been meticulously divided among a hunter’s lifelong “seal partners” during a village-wide celebration.
  • A Catholic communion involves the drinking of wine and eating of bread in a highly symbolic and meaningful way, and only members of the Catholic church may participate in this special event.

These rituals are performed in such a way that anyone who is not a member of that group would not fully understand and would thus be disconnected from the others during celebrations. Consequently, it is easy for others to determine which group an individual associates with through their knowledge of food customs, taboos, and restrictions. Furthermore, anyone willing to follow complicated rules that require a sacrifice of luxury demonstrates they are not simply fair-weather followers but devoted members of the group.  

By this obvious outward sign of who is part of the culture, the religion, the “in-group”, dietary laws can function as a way of keeping groups more united because members can be more assured that their fellow group members are equally committed to the group.

 

Anyone interested in reading more on these ideas should definitely check out my inspiration:

Irons, W. 2001. Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment. Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment. R.M. Nesse (ed), pp 292-309. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Also, researchers conducted a case study of group membership signaling among religious communes.  Their findings indicated that groups which require more commitment, more “inside” knowledge, and more adherence to ritual, were more likely to be successful.

Sosis R. and E. R. Bressler. 2003. Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion. Cross-Cultural Research. 37, 211-239.

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