thesis_access.pdf (640.32 kB)
Download file

The Evolutionary Origin and Biological Utility of Supernatural Expertise

Download (640.32 kB)
posted on 10.11.2021, 22:08 by Mahoney, Andrew Neil

Recent psychological and cognitive research has explored the evolutionary origins of human religiosity. In this thesis, I explore the historical origin and social function of supernatural expertise. I define supernatural expertise as the act of acquiring and expressing supernatural knowledge. I critique several recent theories from evolutionary psychology and cognitive science by assessing the extent to which they can explain supernatural expertise. Costly signalling theory is the view that religious costs are adaptations that signal the cooperative intent of individuals. This theory cannot account for supernatural expertise as expressions of supernatural knowledge are typically linguistic, and one can verbally misrepresent one’s supernatural beliefs. Sexual selection theory explains how physiological or psychological traits can become exaggerated over time if they are preferred by mating partners. Sexual selection can explain an increase in the cognitive capacities necessary for the acquisition of supernatural knowledge. However, it cannot account for the complex nature of supernatural information. Cognitively optimal theory predicts that the religious information which persists within human populations should be easily transferred and recalled. The theory cannot account for any supernatural information which requires considerable effort to acquire. The modes theory explains religion in terms of memory systems and the social arrangements that humans have developed to mediate the exchange of religious ideas. These result in two modes of religiosity. The doctrinal mode of religiosity explains why supernatural experts exist, but not how supernatural expertise originated. I conclude by arguing for an innovative theory for supernatural expertise. I employ cognitively optimal theory to explain why some supernatural concepts are difficult to recall. I explain the signalling function of supernatural expertise in terms of the costly effort invested in the acquisition of supernatural information. I propose that sexual selection for the cognitive capacities to acquire supernatural knowledge has enhanced the ability to acquire such information; this necessitates an increase in the complexity of supernatural information which ensures cooperative commitment remains a predominant motivation for the acquisition of supernatural knowledge, in spite of enhanced cognitive ability. I discuss several social conditions that result from the doctrinal mode of religiosity and how they solve cooperation problems in dense populations.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Religious Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Bulbulia, Joseph