Fishing With Gorillas!

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Image Credit / GorillaDoctorsBlog.org

Gorilla culture and tool use is currently shrouded in relative mystery when compared to our understanding of other great apes.  For example, landmark behavioural studies detailing technological variation and distribution have been published for all great apes except gorillas (e.g., bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans).

In the major gorilla tool use study I am aware of, gorillas were observed engaging in behaviours that can only reasonably be asserted to be technologically complex.  In one situation a gorilla was observed using a stick as a walking stick to aid in balance when crossing a river.  In another situation a gorilla was observed using shrubs to construct a bridge to cross a river.  Both of these observations demonstrate that gorillas have a very complex understanding of how physical systems work.  Furthermore, it is evidence that gorillas have a well-developed understanding of physical systems that extends beyond the acquisition of food.

In most situations throughout the animal kingdom, tool use is stimulated by an inaccessible and valuable nutritional resource.  This is true for New Caledonian crows, bearded capuchin monkeys, bottlenose dolphins, and most other tool using species.  Tool use that is directed towards non-food related goals is theorized to develop later.  So considering that gorillas have already been observed using tools for non-food related goals, it logically follows that they should have a tool kit that involves tools for procuring food.

Gorilla Doctors Blog is reporting that just such an observation has now been made.  The observation was made by Jean Felix, a medical doctor who was making a routine health check on a population of gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

He reported that a second ranked silverback gorilla was:

eating ants by reaching his left hand into the ant pile before putting it in his mouth. He ran away at one point – it appeared the ants were biting his arm. Afterwards, juvenile female Lisanga joined him and used a piece of wood to retract the ants from their nest.

This is an interesting observation.  It seems as though a high ranking male was unaware that access to an ant food resource required a tool in order to prevent being attacked.  Considering that this was not an official primatological study, no further data is available that I’m aware of, but the observation raises several questions:

  • Was the juvenile female teaching the silverback?
  • Why was a younger individual aware of a tool that the older individual seemed unaware of?
  • Are female gorillas more adept tool users than males?

I don’t think any primatologists have the answers to these questions at present.  But, as I stated a few months ago, I am really excited to see what future research reveals about gorilla culture and tool use.

What do you think of this observation?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

The Century of Great Ape Culture

In the past, I have discussed some of the biggest chimpanzee culture discoveries in The Ratchet.  Many of these discoveries were made in the 20th century.  This culminated in 1999 with a behavioural synthesis of 20th century chimpanzee cultural data throughout Africa (Whiten et al. 1999).  This research stimulated other primatologists to test whether cultural behaviour was exhibited within other great ape species.  As a result of this research, the 21st century has been a century of great ape culture discovery.  These discoveries are forcing us to reconceptualize our understanding of the great apes and ourselves.  There is no more question of whether our closest relatives are cultural, the focus has shifted to understanding the evolution and variation of cultural behaviour.

There have been far fewer studies conducted to understand cultural behaviour of bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas vis-à-vis chimpanzees.  Gorilla culture is perhaps the least understood.  Most of our knowledge of gorilla culture comes from a groundbreaking study by primatologists Thomas Breuer, Mireille Ndoundou-Hockemba, and Vicki Fishlock, revealing that gorillas make tools that are partially inspired by ecological problems they face in certain habitats (Breuer et al., 2005).  The team reported two interesting cases of gorilla tool use:

a) An individual utilizing a branch to test water deepness and stabilize herself during a river crossing

b) An individual using a trunk from a small shrub as a bridge to cross a deep swamp

This study shows that we may have a lot more to learn about gorilla culture.  Unfortunately, gorillas are extremely difficult to study in the wild.  There are entire subspecies of gorilla that have never really been observed at all. For researchers, this makes understanding gorilla culture and cultural variation almost impossible.  However, new motion-sensor camera traps are enabling scientists to design research studies that were impossible just a few years ago.  It is possible that future research designed with these camera traps could allow us to learn more about gorilla culture.  The 2005 paper by Breuer et al. (2005) makes me excited for the possibility of such a study.

Bonobos have been slightly less mysterious than gorillas.  A study by Gottfried Hohmann and Barbara Fruth in 2003 partially uncovered the cultural world of our other most closely related relative.  Hohmann & Fruth were inspired by the “Cultures in chimpanzees” study by Whiten et al. (1999) and wanted to know how many of the cultural variants described in chimpanzees were also present within Lomako’s bonobo population.  By analyzing behavioural data between 1991 and 1998, they revealed that 14 cultural variants in chimpanzees are also present in bonobos.  These include branch drag, leaf sponge, branch clasp, vegetation seat, aimed throw, and the hand clasp (Hohmann & Fruth, 2003).  Although the study sample was considerably smaller than the one used by Whiten et al. (1999), this study raised the possibility that chimpanzees were more culturally complex than their sister species (Tennie, et al., 2009).  If true, the implications of such a discovery would raise some interesting questions about the evolution of culture and the behaviour of our common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos.  However, these results could also simply be a product of the fact that there are more chimpanzees that inhabit a wide and diverse number of ecological niches.

Finally the orangutan, the lone Asian great ape, has also provided researchers with impressive evidence of cultural behaviour and variation.  In fact, the geographic variation of cultural traditions among orangutans may most closely parallel those observed in chimpanzees.  In 2003, Carel P. van Schaik and a team of researchers revealed that there was a strong correlation between geographic distance and cultural distance among orangutan populations (van Schaik et al., 2003).  Surprisingly, this correlation may even be stronger than that observed among chimpanzee populations throughout Africa (Tennie et al., 2009).  Also, orangutan tool use has proven to reveal some of the most unique functions in the entire animal kingdom, including autoerotic tool-use, leaf napkin, branch swatter, seed extraction tool-use, sun cover (building a cover for a nest on bright sunny days) and branch scoop (drinking water from a deep tree hole using a leafy branch) (van Schaik et al., 2003).

Of course, all of these data indicate that many 20th century academics were wrong about culture being a defining aspect of our species.  Culture appears to be ubiquitous among the great apes, and widespread throughout the animal kingdom.  There is now evidence for large-scale patterning of culture within and between populations, and entire communities appear to possess suites of cultural behaviours (Whiten et al., 2003).  Furthermore, just like humans, culture allows the great apes to flexibly shape their environment (Breuer et al., 2005), gain access to resources (Sanz & Morgan, 2009), develop subcultures (Boesch, 2003), and share meaning (e.g., Hohmann & Fruth, 2003).

The fact that culture is present in all great apes increases the likelihood that the capacity for culture within our lineage may have been present as late as 14 million years ago (van Schaik et al., 2003).  And studies on some monkey species have suggested that it could have been present as early as 35 million years ago (Visalberghi et al., 2009).  However, despite the fact that modern primatological inquiry has revealed startling similarities between human and great ape culture, more research needs to be done in order to understand the mechanisms that enable novel behaviours to be learned (Hrubesch et al., 2009).

Also, if we are not the only cultural species, what makes us so different?  I have hinted at what primatologists have learned about this perplexing question, and I will be exploring those ideas in great detail in the near future.

If you engage in the cultural tradition of using Twitter, follow Cadell for more primate-related info!

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References:

Boesch, C.  2003.  Is culture a golden barrier between human and chimpanzee?  Evolutionary Anthropology, 12: 82-91.

Breuer, T., Ndoundou-Hockemba, M. & Fishlock, V.  2005.  First observation of tool use in wild gorillas.  PLoS ONE, 3: e380.

Hohmann, G. & Fruth, B.  2003.  Culture in bonobos?  Between-species and within-species variation in behaviour.  Current Anthropology, 44: 563-571.

Hrubesch, C., Preuschoft, S., & van Schaik, C.P.  2009.  Skill mastery inhibits adoption of observed alternative solutions among chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes).  Animal Cognition, 12: 209-216.

Sanz, C.M. & Morgan, D.B.  2009.  Flexible and persistent tool-using strategies in honey-gathering by wild chimpanzees.  International Journal of Primatology, 30: 411-427.

Tennie, C., Call, J., & Tomasello, M.  2009.  Ratcheting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture.  Philosophical Trasactions of the Royal Society.  364: 2405-2415.

van Schaik, C.P., Ancrenaz, M., Borgen, G., Galdikas, B., Knott, C.D., Singleton, I., Suzuki, A., Utami, S.S., Merrill, M.  2003.  Orangutan cultures and the evolution of material culture.  Science, 299: 102-105.

Visalberghi, E., Addessi, E., Truppa, V., Spagnoletti, N., Ottoni, E., Izar, P. & Fragaszy, D.  2009.  Selection of effective stone tools by wild bearded capuchin monkeys.  Current Biology, 19: 213-217.

The Importance of Evolutionary Anthropology

As an evolutionary anthropologist, I am constantly confronted with the public perception that anthropology has no practical utility.  Throughout America and Canada, there is a disturbingly negative perception of anthropological inquiry.  This is why Governor Rick Scott was confident to proclaim that anthropology was not a vital interest to the state (Stoller, 2011).  In some sense, many other people in the western world share this view.  However, the perspective that anthropology has no practical utility is ill informed, narrow-minded, and dangerous for the future growth of the global economy, as well as various aspects of social development  This is because a) physical anthropologists hold irreplaceable positions within both the public and private sectors, and b) produce world-class science research about our species.  This makes anthropology of incredibly vital interest to the state or province of any country.

As the anthropologists of Scott’s home state aptly pointed out, Florida’s anthropologists are currently working to increase state park revenues, aid in crime scene reconstruction, and develop preventative health care programs (Newcomb, R., 2011).  Throughout the world, evolutionary anthropologists are irreplaceable contributors to zoos, museums, hospitals, universities, and law enforcement departments.  Furthermore, several multinational corporations actively seek graduates from anthropology to help them develop internationally, and many public sector employers hire anthropologists to help them engage with an increasingly diverse citizenry.  As a result, it is increasingly common for graduates from anthropology to enter graduate programs in business, public health, and human resources.  Evolutionary anthropologists develop careers as teachers educating the next generation of thinkers in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools.  They also develop careers as doctor, offering the health care system knowledge that can only be gained from training in a subject that incorporates both the social and life sciences.

Evolutionary anthropologists are also on the forefront of producing world-class science research, on topics regarding human origins, language, societal development, religion, race, migration, genetics, evolution, and more.  For example, in 2012 evolutionary anthropologists made some of the most exciting and important science discoveries in the world.  This included large-scale mapping of the earliest complex civilizations (Menze & Ur, 2012), identifying the origins of the Indo-European language family (Bouckaert, R., et al., 2012), decoding the genome of an extinct human species (Meyer, et al., 2012), discovering the underlying cause of human cumulative culture (Dean, L.G., et al., 2012), decoding the genomes of gorillas (Scally, A., et al., 2012) and bonobos (Prufer, K., et al., 2012), understanding the genetic contribution of extinct human species to the modern human gene pool (Reich, D., et al., 2012), exploring the origin of our genus (Leakey, M.G., et al., 2012), continent-wide assessment of great ape habitat loss (Junker, J., et al., 2012), correlating linguistic and biological diversity loss (Gorenflo, L.G., et al., 2012), discovery of the oldest musical instruments (Higham, T., et al., 2012), origins of horse domestication (Warmuth et al., 2012), and identifying the key variables in causing human conflict (Riddihough, G., et al., 2012).  These discoveries were highlighted and distributed through the top science journals in the world (e.g., ScienceNaturePNASJournal of Human EvolutionPLoSONE).  Furthermore, the research and discoveries of evolutionary anthropologists are among the most discussed and highlighted works within the popular scientific press.  For example, the year-end edition of one of the largest popular scientific publications, Scientific American, focused an entire issue on how evolutionary anthropology can help us understand what it means to be human.

At the beginning of the 20th century, our species had a very poor understanding of our evolutionary history, our closest relatives, the processes that led to major economic transitions, how early peoples lived and interacted over large-scales, and how humans have impacted the past and present biosphere.  Evolutionary anthropologists are the experts in understanding these aspects of our species, and the knowledge we produce is not just knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  Understanding our species creates a more informed private sector, public sector, and general citizenry.  Without a grasp on our past, we have no way to understand the trends that are transforming our planet now.  I decided to dedicate my life to evolutionary anthropology because I care about the future of our species.  I hope that in my lifetime the negative perception of this type of scientific inquiry will transform into an appreciation for what it has, and can continue to teach us about our past, present, and future.

References:

Bouckaert, R., et al.  2012.  Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family.  Science, 337: 957-960.

Curnoe, D., et al.  2012.  Human remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians.  PLoSONE, 7: e31918.

Dean, L.G., et al.  2012.  Identification of the Social and Cognitive Processes Underlying Human Cumulative Culture.  Science, 335: 1114-1118.

Gorenflo, L.J., et al.  2012.  Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109: 8032-8037.

Higham, T., et al.  2012.  Testing models for the beginnings of the Aurignacian and the advent of figurative art and music.  Journal of Human Evolution, 62: 664-676.

Junker, J. et al.  2012.  Recent decline in suitable environmental conditions for African great apes.  Diversity and Distributions, 18: 1077-1091.

Leakey, M.G., et al.  2012.  New fossils from Koobi Fora in northern Kenya confirm taxonomic diversity in early Homo.  Nature, 488: 201-204.

Menze, B.H. & Ur, J.A.  Mapping patterns of long-term settlement in Northern Mesopotamia at a large scale.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1115472109

Meyer, M., et al.  2012.  A High-Coverage Genome Sequence from an Archaic Denisovan Individual.  Science, 338: 222-226.

Newcomb, R.  2011.  To Governor Rick Scott: What Anthropologists Can Do for Florida.  Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-newcomb/to-governor-rick-scott-wh_b_1008964.html.  Accessed January 12, 2013.

Prufer, K., et al.  2012.  The bonobo genome compared with the chimpanzee and human genomes.  Nature, doi: 10.1038/nature11128.

Reich, D., et al.  2012.  Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia.  Nature, 468: 1053-1060.

Riddihough, G., et al.  2012.  Human conflict: winning the peace.  Science, 336: 818-819.

Scally, A., et al. 2012.  Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence.  Nature, 483: 169-175.

Stoller, P.  2011.  The Limited Good of Rick Scott’s Anthropology.  Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-stoller/the-limited-good-of-rick-_b_1012356.html.  Accessed January 12, 2013.

Warmuth et al.  2012.  Solving the riddle of horse domestication.  PNAS, 109: 7949-7950.

Thinking About “The Long Now”

Does our society have a short attention span?  Or desire for immediacy?  Even though I don’t feel comfortable making temporally comparative claims about societal culture, I think most people believe that our society has adopted a culture of immediacy.  This could be reflected in our tendency to obsess over news stories in the moment, which become far removed from our collective consciousness within a few short weeks.  More generally, we seem to be mostly concerned with our own psychological present and our own geographical corner of the planet.  To be honest, I think that this has probably been true of all humans, in all cultures, in all times.  So I don’t view this cultural manifestation in our society as a degradation of any kind.  This is important because I believe narratives of societal degradation are all too often being formed from anecdotal and personal experience, and very rarely reflect our actual progress as a species.  Either way, I often wish that we embraced a culture that incorporated deeper scales of time and larger scales of geography into our perspective on a day-to-day basis.

But I am not the only one.  The Long Now Foundation is an organization established in 1996 that seeks to become very long-term institution, and provide humanity with a slower/better way of thinking.  In order to do this they engage in activities like the Rosetta Project and the Long Bet Project.  The Rosetta Project attempts to preserve all the world’s languages so that we have records of them in the distant future.  The Long Bet Project is focused on making competitive predictions with interest to society that will get people thinking more about future development.  For example, Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, has proposed the human population in 2060 will be less than it is today. You can challenge him if you disagree.  All the money at stake is philanthropic.  However, their most ambitious project is building The Clock of the Long Now.

Danny Hillis, co-founder of the Long Now Foundation, first proposed the Clock of the Long Now in 1986.  At the moment there is 2m prototype at the Science Museum in London.  He wants the clock to be able to embody deep time for our species.  As Hillis explained: “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year.  The century hand advanced once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium.  I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years.” (Brand, 1999).  Such a clock would be designed to embody deep time for all humans.  The people working on this project believe the Clock of the Long Now can embed the idea of long-term thinking in the popular consciousness because it would invite people to engage with deep time personally.  The founders compare the experience to contemplating the crushing scale of time one encounters when looking at the Grand Canyon.  However, we have become accustomed to thinking of geologic and/or astronomical structures to contemplate deep time, the Long Now Clock could change that.  The clock would embody four hundred generations on a human scale (Brand, 1999).  If the clock achieved its goal, long-term thinking would become more automatic and common in human culture.

For me, this is an interesting project.  It is one of the first examples of a human institution that is actively striving for relevance on more of a geologic time scale, as opposed to a human time scale.  This type of thinking could inspire a different culture, as Kevin Kelly said: “If you have a Clock ticking for 10,000 years what kinds of generational-scale questions and projects will it suggest?”  Will it force everyone to ask: “Are we being good ancestors?” (Brand, 1999).  However, this might only be the beginning of human institutions inspired by scientific concepts and ways of thinking that force us to reconsider our long-term relationship to the planet in real ways.  I think that as our species continues to lengthen human lifespan, our traditional concepts of the human ageing process will deteriorate, and long-term thinking should become more and more pervasive.  This perspective stems from my own personal attempt to exercise long-term thinking.  What happens if technological futurists are right and we experience a technological singularity?  How will our species think in the year 2100 when human consciousness can exist for centuries, as opposed to decades?

Overall, the Clock of the Long Now represents an important idea, and could help human cultures adapt notions of long-term thinking more easily.  As opposed to thinking about our species on the scale of our own personal lifetime, let’s start thinking about our species on the scale of civilization’s lifetime.  Human civilization has been around for roughly 10,000 years.  Can civilization endure another 10,000 years?  What have the trends of the past 10,000 years taught us about the way civilization rises and falls?  What have we learned about technological evolution?  Can past trends be extrapolated to accurately estimate future realities?  Hopefully these are questions that the Clock of the Long Now can inspire in all of us.

References

Brand, S.  1999.  The Clock of the Long Now.  New York: Basic Books.

What Is Happiness?

This post is about happiness.  And it is probably going to be one of my most reflective posts in a while.  From an academic perspective, happiness has been confusing to me for several years now.  So, over the past few months I have made an effort to start familiarizing myself with the “happiness literature” to see if scientific research has made any progress in understanding human happiness.  What I discovered was that researchers over the past few decades have been equally puzzled by human happiness.

Trying to be happy is something of importance to all humans.  Why is it so hard to figure out what maximizes happiness?  As it turns out, many of the things that we are socialized to believe make us happy, tend to not correlate with actual happiness when measured by social scientists.  For example, psychologist Dan Gilbert conducted an experiment to find out the difference in happiness between two groups of people that most people would expect to be very happy or very unhappy.  The two groups he surveyed were lottery winners and paraplegics.  What he discovered was that both groups were equally happy a year after either winning the lottery, or losing a limb.  These results are bizarre to me.  Gilbert believes his data show us that we are socialized to believe that material wealth will make us quantitatively happier people, but that in reality, it has little to no effect on actual long-term happiness.  Gilbert has found that happiness has some form of correlation with variables we would expect (i.e., career success, relationship stability, comfortable home, expensive cars, etc.), but that overall they cannot truly determine happiness.

Two Types of Happiness?

But what type of happiness was Gilbert measuring?  Is there only one type of happiness?  Or are there several types of happiness?  Behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman believes that researchers studying happiness have been approaching it the wrong way.  Kahneman has found that there is a significant difference between being happy in your life, and being happy with your life.  These are two different concepts that relate to the experiencing self and the remembering self.  So how do these selves differ?  The remembering self is the narrator of your life, and the experiencing self is the version of you living in the “psychological present”.  As Kahneman explained in a recent TED talk, when you’re in a doctor’s office, the remembering self is answering the question “how have you been feeling?” and the experiencing self is answering the question “how do you feel right now?”  Since watching this video, I have realized that what makes these two aspects of myself happy are quite different.

Research by Gallup has shown that to the remembering self, culturally constructed notions of happiness are extremely important.  In a recent survey, over 600,000 Americans were asked to evaluate how they feel about their life as a whole (i.e., their remembering self).  It was found that people’s happiness about their life was directly correlated with how much money (or material wealth) they had.  So, at least in the western developed world, how much money you possess, seems to have a strong effect on how happy your remembering self is with your life as a whole.  But the experiencing self is different.  To the experiencing self, the relationship between material wealth and happiness is more complex.  In the same survey, it was found that money can only effect the experiencing self’s happiness up to a point.  For Americans making between $0-60,000 dollars, the experiencing self’s happiness is perfectly correlated with material wealth.  However, for people making $60,000 or more, the experiencing self’s happiness flat lined.  The lession?  Money can be you happiness, but only to a point.

It was surprising to see these results, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense in the context of my own happiness.  My experiential happiness is very rarely related to anything material.  However, my remembering self’s happiness is constantly concerned with culturally constructed notions of success!  Should I care about what makes my remembering self happy?  Or should I live in the moment?  Can I find a balance between the two?

Track Your Happiness

According to psychologist Matt Killingsworth, the key to happiness would be to forget about the remembering self and live moment-to-moment.  In an ambitious project called “Track Your Happiness”, Killingsworth collected 650,000 happiness data reports, from 15,000 people, from 86 different occupations, in 80 different countries.  Killingsworth hopes this will help us understand what makes humans intrinsically happy in the moment.  What he found was that moment-to-moment happiness was largely dependent on the degree an individual engaged in ‘mind-wandering’.  He found that when focused on the present, people reported being “66% happy” overall.  When people were focused on something other than the present (i.e., past, future), they were only “57% happy”.  Interestingly, even people who tended to think about positive things while mind-wandering, were still more unhappy overall than people who were unhappy, but still focused on the present.  This was still the case when he tried to control for activity.  Regardless of the activity people engaged in, they were still happier when focused on the present, as opposed to mind-wandering.  What is even more interesting, is that people mind-wander all-the-time, despite the fact that it tends to make us less happy.  Killingsworth gave the analogy of a person that kept playing a slot machine where the only three potential outcomes were losing $50, $20, or $1!

So in order to find out how this related to my life, I decided to participate in the study on trackyourhappiness.org.  What did my personal data reveal?

With a few exceptions, I did seem to experience greater happiness when focused on the present.

The study also revealed other interesting data for me to chew on over the next few months.  For example, I am happier when I’m being productive (as opposed to relaxing), I’m happier when I’m with people (as opposed to alone), and I’m happier when outside (as opposed to being at home).  All in all, it was an interesting experience participating in the survey, and I definitely suggest taking it if your interested in the variables that make you happy.  However, I am still unsure about whether I am any closer to understanding happiness.  I still think that there may be a conflict between my experiencing self and my remembering self.  I’m not sure which side of myself has a bigger appetite.  I suppose trying to find a balance between the two selves, is something we all strive for.  For now, I’m going to keep engaging in activities that bring me the most happiness (e.g., reading books, running, spending time with family and friends, writing blog posts in The Ratchet).  And I hope that in the long run I don’t have to sacrifice them for the happiness of my remembering self.

Global Religiosity

I always love reading international science polls.  I find it interesting to see the variation in thought and interpreting the data to try and make sense of the results.  I have even written a blog post about a poll (here)!  And now it seems time for another one.

I stumbled upon a recent Gallup International Poll that attempted to understand global religiosity and atheism. You may remember that earlier in the year Gallup released a similar poll indicating there has been no change in American creationist belief over the past 30 years.  Although that poll was shocking (and disappointing for me), the global polling results for religious belief do not reveal similar trends.

First what data was collected?  The Gallup International Poll collected data from 50,000 individuals from 57 countries and compared it with data collected in 2005 to analyze global trends in religious belief.

The facts

Global religious belief:

Religious 59%                                      Not religious 23%                              Atheist 13%

Alright so these stats were actually a little surprising for me.  The percentage of individuals claiming to be religious is lower than I expected, but I imagine it would be higher if the question was asking about belief in God, instead of affiliation to a religion.  Also, the percentage claiming to be atheist was a little higher than I expected, but still a sizeable global minority.

Where are the atheists?

  1. China 47%
  2. Japan 31%
  3. Czech Republic 30%
  4. France 29%
  5. South Korea 15%
  6. Germany 15%
  7. Netherlands 14%
  8. Austria 10%
  9. Iceland 10%
  10. Australia 10%                                  
  11. Ireland 10%

These results were completely unexpected to me and I think the data is subject to extreme interpretation.  China and Japan having the highest proportion of atheists may be because Buddhists do not always consider themselves religious.  Or it could be that people in general who do not adhere to a Abrahamic religion may not think about religious denomination in the same way as someone who has been influenced by Judeo-Christian culture.  I was also surprised that Canada, Sweden and Finland (all included in the study) did not have more self-identified atheists.

Who is the most religious?

  1. Ghana 96%
  2. Nigeria 93%
  3. Armenia 92%
  4. Fiji 92%
  5. Macedonia 90%
  6. Romania 89%
  7. Iraq 88%
  8. Kenya 88%
  9. Peru 86%                                          
  10. Brazil 85%

It is not surprising that 3 of the 6 African countries surveyed ranked in the top 10 of religiosity (and the other three were not far behind).  After colonization Christian and Islamic theocracies politically dominated the continent and as I’ll show below, poverty (ironically) is highly correlated with religious belief.  No developed country ranked in the top 20 religious countries.  For those interested the most religious G-20 countries are Italy (73%), Argentina (72%), South Africa (64%) and the United States (60%).

Religiosity among the poor

Bottom quintile 66%
Medium-low quintile 65%
Medium quintile 56%

Medium-high quintile 51%                                                                                   High quintile 49%

The trend is strong and significant.  The richer the country, the less religious.  Statistically, the United States is a noticeable outlier being the richest highly religious country.  China, Turkey, Vietnam and the Czech Republic are also outliers being the poorest least religious countries.  Despite this the overall trend is clear.  Richer countries can invest more in educating their population, and as the statistics also reveal (below), the more educated an individual, the less likely they are to be religious.

Religion and education

Less than secondary school 68%

Secondary education 61%

Higher education 52%

These stats were also not surprising.  The more education you have the more critical you become of religion and God in general.  The stats reflect that both nationally and internationally and could also explain the outliers in the economic trend (above).  The United States, although rich, does not invest enough in the education of its own population (or at least it is fair to say that there is disproportionate investment).  Whereas, China, Vietnam, Czech Republic and Turkey may be investing more in their education system, despite major economic constraints.

Global trends since 2005

  1. Vietnam 23%
  2. Switzerland 21%
  3. France 21%
  4. South Africa 19%
  5. Iceland 17%
  6. Ecuador 15%
  7. United States 13%
  8. Canada 12%
  9. Austria 10%
  10. Germany 9%

Religious decline does not necessarily seem concentrated in one particular region, although most countries experiencing steep religious declines are also developed countries.  They also seem to be countries with individuals that predominantly adhere to a Judeo-Christian religion.  There is a noticeable absence of countries from the Middle East and Africa on the list, but this is not surprising.  

Final thoughts

Although the overall trend is clear and religious belief is clearly being questioned globally, I don’t think these statistics indicate that religion is disappearing or will disappear in the near future.  The great majority of countries are still overwhelmingly religious and even the overall global religiosity index survey is biased because proportionally fewer people in the developing world (particularly Africans, Latin Americans and Middle Easterners) were interviewed.  If every country was surveyed and a larger sample was collected, I have no doubt that the global religious belief would be higher than 59%.

 

Welcome to the South

As some of you know, I have been down in Georgia conducting research on ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) for a few weeks now.  During most of this trip I have been isolated on the St. Catherines research and conservation island near mainland Savannah.  However, occasionally I come to the mainland to get groceries and supplies for the field, and being from Canada, I always experience a little bit of culture shock when I’m in America.  Specifically while down in Georgia, I couldn’t help but notice confederate flags everywhere.  They were used as bumper stickers, flown from cars as flags and adorned on front porches.  For me, these flags are symbolic of southern racism, oppression and slavery.  In my mind having a confederate flag on your tailgate is equivalent to an “I support slavery” bumper sticker.  But I know that symbolism changes both over space and through time, and may not mean the same thing to people in 21st century Georgia that it meant to people in 19th century Georgia or to someone from southern Ontario.

So I decided to ask people from the south who were staying on the island and I got some answers that validated my own opinion about the use of confederate flags and also some deeper, more nuanced opinion about their use in the 21st century south.

First and foremost the general consensus was that people who celebrate the confederate flag are in fact – as I suspected – parading around the fact that they are racist and that they support what the Confederate States of America stood for back in the 1860’s.  However, there are those who see the flag as a culturally important part of southern identity and attempt to detach the flag’s symbolic connectedness to racism, oppression and slavery and instead re-create it as a symbol of southern unity, strength and distinctiveness.  I personally don’t support this because to me that would be no different than if Nazi flags were still celebrated by people in modern Germany as re-imagined symbols of German strength and determination.  People who attempt to do this with the confederate flag are ignorant of the countless citizens of Georgia who still (and will always) associate the flag with feelings of deep pain and resentment.

Almost more importantly, I learned an important aspect of the flags meaning to those people of Georgia who identify as African-American.  I wondered while I was on the streets of Georgia whether most of them thought the same thing as I did when I saw the flag, and apparently the answer is both yes and no.  From the people I spoke with it seems as though it has become generational.  For the the older generation of African-American Georgians the confederate flag is still associated with real pain, resentment, and even fear.  To many of them they grew up in a culture where if they encountered someone with a confederate flag, that was someone who hated them solely because they existed.  And many still remember that those people beat, lynched or killed their family members and friends while growing up.  To me this is heartbreaking because they have to live in a society where they can’t escape the symbolism and consequently can’t escape from the associated feelings that the confederate flag evokes.

However, for the younger generations, who have had to struggle far less with racism and oppression than the older generations of southern African-Americans, the confederate flag is now seen as a symbol of the south and part of southern culture.  I do not know exactly how I feel about this, a part of me really finds it disturbing, but a part of me feels like it is not my place to say how a new generation of southern African-Americans feels about this symbol, since I do not live here and obviously I have my own preconceived notions of what the confederate flag represents.  Of course, not all southern African-Americans see the symbol as an innocuous representation of southern identity, but the feelings do seem to have changed substantially from past generations.

I know my opinion is heavily biased, because if I had my own way, the flag would be banned – as the Nazi flag in Germany has been banned.  However, banning the Confederate flag would infringe on freedom of speech and expression, which are both corner stones of American culture and society.  And I’ll also admit, that maybe it isn’t my place to engage in this debate.  I am a visitor.  I come from a different country and have been influenced by different local and regional experiences.  But for what my opinion is worth, when I see it proudly displayed on cars, houses and shops, I see a society that is embracing a dark past instead of trying to distance themselves from it, and in the process they are implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) allowing racism and oppression to become synonymous with what it means to be southern.