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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  • http://johnivorjones.blogspot.co.uk John Jones

    It doesn’t matter what the topic is about, and this one is no different, the evolutionary miltary tatoo is still obliged to drum up the same old platitudes and incoherencie on the atheist’s parade ground. What a chore. But good for the troops, despite aching feet.

    In this article, which meets all academic standards, old incoherencies abound.

    Possibly the worst of these is the idea that evolution is about survival. Of course, nothing survives, not even the genes or allels in whose service the phenotype is supposedly obliged to blindly crash its way about the world.
    Evolution is not about survival of course, it is about death. Species do not evolve. There is no object, not phenotype, gene, allele, or any other bunch of chemicals, that can legitimately lay claim to either “evolution” or “survival” as it is claimed in evolutionary literature. This is why “survival” in atheistic evolution is a supernatural doctrine. Mirroring biblical resurrection it declares a survival across the barrier of death.
    Also in the evolution incoherency tick-box list tonight is “selection”. Phenotypes do not get selected as we know. For one they die, for another it’s an odd sort of selection that is made between things that are not present or between a thing that is present and a thing that is not present. Maybe it’s the chemicals, genes, alleles that get selected. Ignoring the animistic gesture of a Nature that “selects”, we see in the success of alleles the selection of favoured groups of alleles. Copies of alleles that turn up again are said to be successful. If this is to avoid being an empty circularity (they are here because they are succesful and they are succesful because they are here) we have to say that certain alleles are intrinsically favoured across generations, much like the Biblical prophets in the lineage of the prophets.

    The upshot is that here, as everywhere, there is no statement, article, thesis, hypothesis, etc. of evolution or atheism that does not mirror either Biblical or mystical doctrine; there is no effort by any evolutionary or atheist crusader that cannot be delivered over to hated supernaturalism. But do not worry, the news is not out yet.

  • Mick

    John Jones writes:
    This is why “survival” in atheistic evolution is a supernatural doctrine. Mirroring biblical resurrection it declares a survival across the barrier of death.

    I’ve never heard it put quite like that before. Can you elaborate? Are there any studies on the subject?

    • Amakudari

      I think he’s saying that genetic code surviving an organism’s death mirrors the Biblical account of Jesus living on after his own death (thus the Bible is true or something). It also mirrors the Buddhist belief in karma surviving death or your high score at the arcade living on after you run out of quarters.

  • http://johnivorjones.blogspot.co.uk/ John Jones

    (This isn’t my website and I don’t want to swamp it. I’ll be gone very soon, if anyone is worrying)

    In response to both you guys:
    Amakudari was right when he said
    ” he’s saying that genetic code surviving an organism’s death mirrors the Biblical account of Jesus living on after his own death”

    But please add this crucial amendment

    ” he’s saying that genes surviving an organism’s death and their own death mirrors the Biblical account of Jesus living on after his own death ”

    I had to remove the word “code” which is an oxymoron. “Code” means a physical form, like the physical gene, but is also a non-physical form or pattern. Physical forms do not survive their own death, and the idea of a non-material pattern surviving death is like the idea of a non-material spirit surviving death. Either way, the idea of “survival” in evolution points to a supernatural process.

  • pneumo

    Following Johns argument, since none of my cells are the same ones as when I was born, I am dead.

    • eric

      Yes indeedy. Given that the carbon atoms in me today are different than the ones that were in me 10 years ago, its not particulaly damaging to the TOE that its a different set of carbon atoms in the parent vs. child gene either.