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Selecting for Celibacy:  Cultural Evolution and the Puzzling Case of Buddhist Celibacy

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posted on 2021-11-12, 00:09 authored by Dalzell, Caitlin

Buddhist celibacy provides an example of religious behaviour which appears puzzling from the vantage point of genetic selection, but whose maintenance can be partially explained because of the dynamics of cultural selection. In this thesis, I examine how and why celibacy is maintained and perpetuated within Buddhism and how this relates to the explanations cultural selection offers for costs within groups. I argue that celibacy is adaptive because it divides Buddhist communities into two parts, stimulating innate tendencies towards in-group cooperation without the need for an outside group. Because Buddhist celibates are also materially non-productive their presence necessitates increased cooperative behaviours in lay communities. I argue that the endurance of the parts of Buddhist traditions which are necessary to maintaining celibate practise provides evidence that cultural selection has shaped the tradition to perpetuate and reinforce celibacy, a behaviour which is adaptive because it promotes cooperative behaviours within a divided cultural group. Celibacy increases the cultural fitness of Buddhist communities.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Religious Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Bulbulia, Joseph; Radich, Michael