Kin selection favours religious traditions: ancestor worship as a cultural descendant-leaving strategy

Kerstin Inge Stucky*, Andy Gardner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Downloads (Pure)


Recent years have seen renewed interest in the role of religious systems as drivers of the evolution of cooperation in human societies. One suggestion is that a cultural tradition of ancestor worship might have evolved as a "descendant-leaving strategy" of ancestors by encouraging increased altruism particularly between distant kin. Specifically, Coe and others have suggested a mechanism of cultural transmission exploiting social learning biases, whereby ancestors have been able to establish parental manipulation of kin recognition and perceived relatedness as a traditional behavior, leading to increased altruism among co-descendants and thereby maximizing the ancestor’s long-term inclusive fitness. Here, we develop a demographically explicit model in order to quantify the resulting increase in altruism and concomitant “ancestor-descendant conflict”, and to determine the evolutionary feasibility of religiously motivated cultural norms that promote altruism among co-descendants. Our analysis reveals that such norms could indeed drive an overall increase in altruism with potential for ancestor-descendant conflict, particularly in low-dispersal settings. Moreover, we find that natural selection can favor traditions encouraging increased altruism towards co-descendants under a range of conditions, with the inclusive-fitness costs of enacting an inappropriately high level of altruism being offset by inclusive-fitness benefits derived from the cultural tradition facilitating kin recognition.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages14
JournalReligion, Brain & Behavior
VolumeLatest Articles
Early online date5 Jun 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 5 Jun 2023


  • Ancestor-descendant conflict
  • Cooperation
  • Cultural tradition
  • Gene-culture conflict
  • Inclusive fitness
  • Kin selection
  • Mathematical model
  • Religion


Dive into the research topics of 'Kin selection favours religious traditions: ancestor worship as a cultural descendant-leaving strategy'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this