Selected Scientific Articles

“Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict,” S. Atran & J. GInges, SCIENCE, 18 May 2012, Vol. 336 no. 6083 pp. 855-857 

Religion, in promoting outlandish beliefs and costly rituals, increases ingroup trust but also may increase mistrust and conflict with outgroups. Moralizing gods emerged over the last few millennia, enabling large-scale cooperation, and sociopolitical conquest even without war. Whether for cooperation or conflict, sacred values, like devotion to God or a collective cause, signal group identity and operate as moral imperatives that inspire nonrational exertions independent of likely outcomes. In conflict situations, otherwise mundane sociopolitical preferences may become sacred values, acquiring immunity to material incentives. Sacred values sustain intractable conflicts that defy “business-like” negotiation, but also provide surprising opportunities for resolution.

“The peacock’s tale: Lessons from evolution for effective signaling in international politics,” THE SOCIAL EVOLUTION FORUM, February 14, 2012 February 14, 2012, Daniel T. Blumstein, Scott Atran, Scott Field, Michael E. Hochberg, Dominic D. P. Johnson, Raphael Sagarin, Richard Sosis, and Bradley Thayer

Knowing how to send and interpret signals is an essential part of both diplomacy and war. Political scientists have recognized that costly signals – gestures and actions that involve significant cost or risk – are central to politics and diplomacy since modeling doyen James Fearon built his Ph.D. thesis around the concept in the 1990s. Because these signaling systems are pervasive in nature (many of these strategies arise independently and repeatedly to solve common problems suggesting evolutionary pressure to select strategies offering the most success at the least cost), their underlying strategic logic has important implications to foreign policy challenges we face today. By capitalizing on solutions derived by evolution over 3.5 billion years of life on Earth, we may identify ideas that otherwise might not have been explored in a policy context potentially offering quick, novel, and effective options to increase strategic and combat effectiveness. Here we present 8 lessons from evolution for political science…..

Berns, G., Bell, E., Capra, C., Prietula, M., Moore, S., Anderson, B., Ginges, J. & Atran (2012) The Price of Your Soul: Neural evidence for the Deontic Processing of Personal Sacred Values. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – B. 367:754-762 

Sacred values, such as those associated with religious or ethnic identity, underlie many important individual and group decisions in life, and individuals typically resist attempts to trade off their sacred values in exchange for material benefits. Deontological theory suggests that sacred values are processed based on rights and wrongs irrespective of outcomes, while utilitarian theory suggests that they are processed based on costs and benefits of potential outcomes, but which mode of processing an individual naturally uses is unknown. The study of decisions over sacred values is difficult because outcomes cannot typically be realized in a laboratory, and hence little is known about the neural representation and processing of sacred values. We used an experimental paradigm that used integrity as a proxy for sacredness and which paid real money to induce individuals to sell their personal values. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we found that values that people refused to sell (sacred values) were associated with increased activity in the left temporoparietal junction and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, regions previously associated with semantic rule retrieval. This suggests that sacred values affect behaviour through the retrieval and processing of deontic rules and not through a utilitarian evaluation of costs and benefits.

“Psychology Out of the Laboratory: The Challenge of Violent Extremism,” AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST, Ginges, J., Atran, S., Sachdeva, S., & Medin, D. (2011), v. 66, pp. 507-519

The idea that people inevitably act in accordance with their self-interest on the basis of a calculation of costs and benefits does not constitute an adequate framework for understanding political acts of violence and self-sacrifice. Recent research suggests that a better understanding is needed of how sacred values and notions of self and group identity lead people to act in terms of principles rather than prospects when the two come into conflict. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to better understand how sacred causes and moral imperatives diffuse through a population and motivate some (usually small) segment of it to commit violent actions. The challenge to psychology is to adopt an interdisciplinary focus drawing on a range of research methods and to become bolder in its choices of study populations if it is to be relevant to real-world problems.

“The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions,” Scot Atran, Joseph Henrich, BIOLOGICAL THEORY, Winter 2010, Vol. 5, No. 1:18-30 

Understanding religion requires explaining why supernatural beliefs, devotions, and rituals are both universal and variable across cultures, and why religion is so often associated with both large-scale cooperation and enduring group conflict. Emerging lines of research suggest that these oppositions result from the convergence of three processes. First, the interaction of certain reliably developing cognitive processes, such as our ability to infer the presence of intentional agents, favors—as an evolutionary by-product—the spread of certain kinds of counterintuitive concepts. Second, participation in rituals and devotions involving costly displays exploits various aspects of our evolved psychology to deepen people’s commitment to both supernatural agents and religious communities. Third, competition among societies and organizations with different faith-based beliefs and practices has increasingly connected religion with both within-group prosociality and between-group enmity. This connection has strengthened dramatically in recent millennia, as part of the evolution of complex societies, and is important to understanding cooperation and conflict in today’s world.

Scientific Articles
For additional articles on Evolutionary Psychology, Folk Biology, Environmental Decision Making, Categorization and Inference, Linguistics, Philosophy of Science, Maya Natural History, click here for transfer to his CNRS website at the Institut Jean Nicod in Paris

“Constraints on a Theory of Homminid Tool Making,” L’Homme, 1982, v. 22, pp. 35-68 

“Covert Fragmenta and the Origins of the Botanical Family,” Man, 1983, v. 18, pp. 51-71 

“Pre-theoretical aspects of Aristotelian definition and classification of animals: The case for common sense,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 1985, v. 16, pp. 113-163 

“Managing Arab Kinship and Marriage,” Social Science Information, 1985, v. 24, pp. 659-696 

“Origins of the Species and Genus Concepts,” Journal of the History of Biology, 1987, v. 20, pp. 195-279

“Le masha’a et la question foncière en Palestine, 1858-1948”, Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations, 1987, v. 42, pp. 1361-1389 

“Ordinary Constraints on the Semantics of Living Kinds: A Commonsense Alternative to Recent Treatments of Natural-Object Terms,” Mind & Language, 1987, v. 2, pp. 27-63 

“Basic Conceptual Domains,” Mind & Language, 1989, v. 4, pp. 7-16 

Atran, S. & Sperber, D. “Learning without teaching,” in L. Tolchinsky-Landsmann (Ed.) Culture, Schooling and Psychological Development. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 39-55, 1991

López, A., Atran, S., Coley, J., Medin, D. & Smith, E. The tree of life: Universal and cultural features of folkbiological taxonomies and inductions. Cognitive Psychology 32:251-295, 1997. 

Folkbiology and the anthropology of science: Cognitive Universals and cultural particulars. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21:547-609, 1998 (target article).

Itzaj Maya Folkbiological Taxonomy
In D. Medin, S. Atran, Folkbiology, MIT Press, 1999

Atran, S., Medin, D., Ross, E., Lynch, E., Coley, J., Ucan Ek’, E. & Vapnarsky, V. Folkecology and commons management in the Maya Lowlands, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. 96: 7598-7603, 1999.

The trouble with memes: Inference versus imitation in cultural creation. Human Nature, 12:351-381, 2001.

The case for modularity: Sin or Salvation? Evolution and Cognition 7:46-55, 2001 

Atran, S., Medin, D., Lynch, E., Vapnarsky, V., Ucan Ek’, U. & Sousa, P. Folkbiology doesn’t come from folkpsychology: Evidence from Yukatek Maya in cross-cultural perspective. Journal of Cognition and Culture 1:3-42, 2001.

A cheater-detection module? Dubious interpretations of the Wason Selection Task and logic. Evolution and Cognition 7: 187-193, 2001.

Bailenson, J., Shum, M., Atran, S., Medin, D. & Coley, J. A bird’s-eye view: biological categorization and reasoning within and across cultures. Cognition 84:1-53, 2002. 

Atran, S., Medin, D., Ross, N., Lynch, E., Vapnarsky, V., Ucan Ek’, E., Coley, J., Timura, C. & Baran, M. Folkecology, cultural epidemiology, and the spirit of the commons: A garden experiment in the Maya Lowlands, 1991-2001. Current Anthropology 43: 421-450, 2002 (target article). 

Atran, S., Medin, D. & Ross, N. Evolution and devolution of knowledge: A tale of two biologies. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (NS) 10:395-420, 2004.

Medin, D. & Atran, S. The native mind: Biological categorization and reasoning in development and across cultures. Psychological Review 111:960-983, 2004.

Adaptationism in human cognition: Strong, spurious, or weak? Mind and Language, 20:39-67, 2005.

Medin, D., Ross, N., Atran, S., Cox, D., Coley, J., Proffitt, J. & Blok, S. (2005) The biology of freshwater fish. Cognition 92:1-37, 2005. 

Atran, S., Norenzayan, A. (2005) “Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, v. 27. pp. 713-731
target article with Ara Norenzayan

Atran, S., Medin, D. & Ross, N. The cultural mind: Environmental decision making and cultural modeling within and across populations. Psychological Review 112:744-776, 2005.

“Why Folkbiology Matters: Resource Conflict Despite Shared Goals and Knowledge,” Human Evology, 2006, by D. Medin, N. Ross, D. Cox, S. Atran

We show that native American (Menominee) and European American fish experts have a common knowledge base and share values, attitudes and goals. Nonetheless, perceived group differences are dramatic, especially European American perceptions of Native Americans. Cultural differences in mental models of nature and associated reasoning processes appear to mediate these stereotypes and may be key to reducing intergroup conflict over resources.

“Beyond Belief: Religion, Science, Politics and Survival,” followup to the Salk Institute debate 

In response to suggestions about continuing the conversation I had on the podium with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris at the Salk Institute conference on “Beyond Belief,” here I would like to elaborate a bit on what I said at the time. I am always very, very leery when scientists use science to justify political or moral missions. Science can sometimes deeply inform politics or ethics; however, I do not think that science can justify either. I find it fascinating that brilliant scientists and philosophers have no clue how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based.

“The Nature of Belief” 
Science magazine, July 27, 2007

“Reframing Sacred Values,” by Scott Atran & Robert Axelrod, Negotiation Journal, July 2008 

Sacred values differ from material or instrumental values in that they incorporate moral beliefs that drive action in ways dissociated from prospects for success. Across the world, people believe that devotion to essential or core values – such as the welfare of their family and country, or their commitment to religion, honor, and justice – are, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable. Counterintuitively, understanding an opponent’s sacred values, we believe, offers surprising opportunities for breakthroughs to peace. Because of the emotional unwillingness of those in conflict situations to negotiate sacred values, conventional wisdom suggests that negotiators should either leave sacred values for last in political negotiations or try to bypass them with sufficient material incentives. Our empirical findings and historical analysis suggest that conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, offering to provide material benefits in exchange for giving up a sacred value actually makes settlement more difficult because people see the offering as an insult rather than a compromise. But we also found that making symbolic concessions of no apparent material benefit might open the way to resolving seemingly irresolvable conflicts. We offer suggestions for how negotiators can reframe their position by demonstrating respect, and/or by apologizing for what they sincerely regret. We also offer suggestions for how to overcome sacred barriers by refining sacred values to exclude outmoded claims, exploiting the inevitable ambiguity of sacred values, shifting the context, provisionally prioritizing values, and reframing responsibility.

” Cultural mosaics and mental models of nature,” Megan Bang , Douglas L. Medin ,Scott Atran 
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA,

“Religion’s Social and Cognitive Landscape: An Evolutionary Perspective,” in S. Kitayama, D. Cohen (eds.) Handbook of Cultural Psychology, 2007 (

“The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion,” in C. Crawford, D. Krebs (eds.) Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology, 2008