Totemism, metaphor and tradition: Incorporating cultural traditions into evolutionary psychology explanations of religion

Craig T. Palmer, Lyle B. Steadman, Chris Cassidy, Kathryn Coe

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    4 Scopus citations


    Totemism, a topic that fascinated and then was summarily dismissed by anthropologists, has been resurrected by evolutionary psychologists' recent attempts to explain religion. New approaches to religion are all based on the assumption that religious behavior is the result of evolved psychological mechanisms. We focus on two aspects of Totemism that may present challenges to this view. First, if religious behavior is simply the result of evolved psychological mechanisms, would it not spring forth anew each generation from an individual's psychological mechanisms? Yet, Australian Totemism, like other forms of Totemism, is profoundly traditional, copied by one generation from the prior ones for hundreds of generations. Regardless of personal inclinations, individuals are obligated to participate. Second, it is problematic to assume that all practitioners of Totemism actually believe their religious claims. We propose an alternative explanation that accounts for the persistence of Totemism and that does not rely on an assumption that its practitioners are preliterate or naive because they have strange beliefs. We focus on Totemism as a cultural mechanism aimed at building and sustaining social relationships among close and distant kinsmen.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)719-735
    Number of pages17
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - Sep 8 2008



    • Evolutionary psychology
    • Religion
    • Totemism
    • Tradition

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Cultural Studies
    • Education
    • Religious studies

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