An Adaptive Theory for Human Belief Systems

  • Gerard Cheshire

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


The thesis expounds a unifying theory, which draws from many scholarly disciplines to build an argument that human belief systems are adaptive, resulting from memetic-genetic co-evolution. The term ‘belief systems’ is intended to describe collections of beliefs within human minds that belong to different classes of belief and in different proportions, with the result that each belief system elicits particular behaviours. It is the range in elicited behaviours between individuals that natural selection acts on and which, therefore, has affected our species’ evolutionary direction. Key assumptions and predictions from the general hypothesis were tested in a series of questionnaires. The first hypothesis, that there are three main types of belief – epistemic (empirical), prosagogic (supernatural) & efevresic (societal) – was supported by the first questionnaire. The latter also supported the prediction that there is an antagonistic relationship between epistemic and prosagogic beliefs, and that efevresic beliefs are distinct from, and orthogonal to, the other two, as they are hypothesized to belong to a separate scale. Cluster analysis of responses to two distinct questionnaires, one with national and the other global reach, indicated that people fell into three main groups, the largest consisting of participants with strong responses related to social conformity, religious tolerance and spiritual beliefs unconnected to mainstream religion. This group was quite separate from two other clusters: those with strong traditional religious beliefs and those with strong secular superstitions. The religious cluster, thanks to the larger sample size of the pan-global questionnaire (n=5,000), was shown to consist of two distinct clusters: those who strongly accept all superstition and those who accept religious but reject secular superstitions. It is suggested that, in human prehistory, pre-religious superstitions allowed an ‘intentional stance’ that placed inexplicable events within a coherent world view. This, genetically underpinned, way of thinking was then susceptible to more elaborate memes, the (memetically) coevolved groupings of which constitute today’s religions. However, I propose that it is the same fundamental cognitive architecture that supports both religious and secular superstitions, the balance of power within minds varying in response to upbringing and social pressures.
Date of Award7 May 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SponsorsEvolution Education Trust
SupervisorInnes C Cuthill (Supervisor) & John McNamara (Supervisor)


  • Human Belief Systems

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