Why human sacrifice?

Several years ago, I read an interesting submission to Edge.org’s yearly “Question Center” by archaeologist Timothy Taylor, talking about how studying the Incans led him away from cultural relativism (the permalink doesn’t go straight to the individual submission, you’ll have to scroll or Ctrl+F your way down):

My colleague Andy Wilson and our team have recently examined the hair of sacrificed children found on some of the high peaks of the Andes. Contrary to historic chronicles that claim that being ritually killed to join the mountain gods was an honour that the Incan rulers accorded only to their own privileged offspring, diachronic isotopic analyses along the scalp hairs of victims indicate that it was peasant children, who, twelve months before death, were given the outward trappings of high status and a much improved diet to make them acceptable offerings. Thus we see past the self-serving accounts of those of the indigenous elite who survived on into Spanish rule. We now understand that the central command in Cuzco engineered the high-visibility sacrifice of children drawn from newly subject populations. And we can guess that this was a means to social control during the massive, ‘shock & awe’ style imperial expansion southwards into what became Argentina.

At the time, I thought this made a lot more sense that the stories I’d previously heard about ancient rules sacrificing their own children to the gods. It seems like natural selection should pretty strongly weed out a tendency to sacrifice your own children; it makes much better (evolutionary) sense to execute some children of conquered peoples in a show of force, and wrap it up in a religious ritual because hey why not.

But as I read more, I get the impression that ancient kinds really did at least sometimes sacrifice their own children. Thom Stark’s “Is God a Moral Compromiser?” has some interesting remarks on this sprinkled throughout. In particular, Stark shows that according 2 Kings 3:27, the Moabite king Mesha sacrificed his own son to Kemosh, and Kemosh rewarded him with victory over the Israelites! This tells us that even the ancient Israelites believed in the efficacy of sacrificing your own son to your god.

It’s important to note, though, that Mesha’s sacrifice seems to have been viewed not as a routine requirement of the Moabite religion, but as a matter of desperate times calling for desperate measures. Here’s Stark:

As with Jephthah, as with the Israelites against the armies of Arad, Mesha is up against a formidable foe and needs a divine boost if he’s going to come out with a victory. So he does what any heroic Israelite would do: he offers a human sacrifice to his deity in exchange for support in battle. But not just any sacrifice. Mesha already knew what Jephthah learned the hard way: deities wanted a real sacrifice. Mesha sacrificed his firstborn son, heir to the throne, to his god Kemosh.

This makes more sense. Evolution should strongly select against a tendency to always kill all your children, but selection against doing so in very rare circumstances is going to be weaker, especially when those circumstances are ones where you and your entire family might be killed by an invading army. From an evolutionary point of view, sacrificing your firstborn beats having your entire family get killed. Of course, the sacrifice won’t actually save your family, but we already knew people sometimes fall for superstitious solutions that don’t actually work.

What cinched it for me, though, was reading a blog post today by Paul Krugman that had this little metaphorical flourish:

So what the bad predictions tell us is that we are, in effect, dealing with priests who demand human sacrifices to appease their angry gods — but who actually have no insight whatsoever into what those gods actually want, and are simply projecting their own preferences onto the alleged mind of the market.

This may be more fitting than Krugman realized. Both wars and recessions are problems that a country can only face so many times in the space of living memory, which can make it hard to tell what leads to success or failure in dealing with them. It’s actually not that hard to imagine that King Mesha believed that sacrificing his own son would bring him victory, and believed it as fervently as some people believe economic delusions today (or, for that matter, as fervently as some people believed our Vietnam strategy totally made sense).

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