Worldbuilding. With SCIENCE!

Today, I felt like meandering around a random piece of my mind that is a bit outside my usual blogging territory. Most of my academic reading (and consequently, most of my stuff here) is in the general areas of evolutionary biology, developmental biology, palaeontology and intersections thereof. Occasionally I’ll see something about abiogenesis or exoplanets or animal cognition and read it for the coolness. However, besides being a scientist, I also happen to be an avid reader and occasional writer of fantasy fiction, and one of the most appealing aspects of that genre for me is worldbuilding.

I am fascinated by the diversity of human cultures; the myriad different ways of seeing the world and constructing identities for ourselves. I love reading novels with interesting, well thought-out cultures, and tinkering with my own world is one of my favourite pastimes. If I had unlimited money and weren’t the lazy sod I am, I’d probably be thinking about getting a cultural anthropology degree on top of my first one in evolutionary biology*. Since I have very limited money and motivation, I content myself with watching out for interesting titles in the generalist journals I read. Even as a worldbuilder, I can’t stop being a scientist, so I love seeing scientific takes on what makes cultures the way they are.

Music, the many ways thereof

The other day, for example, I bumped into an analysis of music from around the world in PNAS (PNAS is a pretty good general journal for the occasional worldbuilding fodder.) Savage et al. (2015) searched for universal features of human music in about 300 recordings from around the world. It was particularly interesting to me because I have a culture with what I always suspected was a really weird religious prohibition relating to music. From what I can gather from this paper, my suspicion was correct: my little religious gimmick would be very unusual in the real world.

One of the main points of the study, however, is that there aren’t really any truly universal properties of music. There are exceptions even to “self-evident” rules that stem from the way our brains work, like having a regular beat or (if the music isn’t purely percussion) a scale made of discrete pitches. (So: I can do what I want with the music of my imaginary cultures, as long as I don’t make them all weird in the same way. Science says so. *smug face*)

There’s also the fact that most of the music recorded in the database is performed by men despite the fact that women are just as capable of making music. This is a valuable piece of information for a worldbuilder, one I wasn’t (consciously) aware of before I read this paper, and also one that highlights the importance of context. Me being a girl and rather acutely aware of the curses of patriarchy from a young age, I have thought up several societies that are either gender-equal or matriarchal (most of these societies are not human). How would that change the balance? If the hypothesis that male-dominated music has something to do with sexual selection is correct, should we see pretty much equal participation in cultures where both men and women are promiscuous and participate in literal mating displays? (Playing with sexuality in a fantasy world is even more fun than playing with religion! Also, an evolutionary biology degree can give you some really funky worldbuilding ideas…)

(Incidentally, Savage et al. draw a parallel between male-dominated music in humans and male-dominated vocalisations in, among other groups, songbirds. I find it curious that they didn’t mention a recent study that suggested that actually, females probably also sang in the ancestral songbird, and pointed out that this state of affairs is still the norm rather than the exception when you look at the whole group [Odom et al., 2014].)

Religions evolving

Today, I found a paper introducing a really shiny new database in PLoS ONE (which is why I decided to ramble about worldbuilding). “Pulotu” (Watts et al., 2015a) is a free database of supernatural beliefs and practices from 100+ Austronesian cultures, designed to study the cultural evolution of religion. Austronesian peoples originated from Taiwan many thousands of years ago. Today, they inhabit a huge area including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, zillions of Pacific islands (Polynesians!) and Madagascar. They are a very diverse bunch in every respect, and their family tree is pretty well understood from linguistics and genetics. A decent database of those diverse cultural traits combined with the understanding of history is truly an amazing resource for those interested in how said cultural traits evolve. (Seriously, this thing looks like a goddamned gold mine.)

The authors have clearly done thorough work, using multiple sources, ethnographies written by scholars who actually met the people in question where possible, to characterise each culture. The database has three separate time focuses to distinguish the “pristine” state of a culture from what happened after contact with major religions like Hinduism or Christianity. They recorded both characteristics of religion like the types of supernatural beings worshipped and the types of rituals practiced, and characteristics of the societies themselves such as how they get most of their food, and how many layers of political hierarchy they have. You can visualise these features on a map with a couple of clicks, so you can immediately see if they are randomly distributed or found in particular places.

So what can you learn about cultural evolution from this treasure trove? One example the paper gives concerns something I came across years ago when I was researching theories about the evolution of religion for an undergrad assignment. The idea is that fear of supernatural punishment, particularly the belief in “high gods” who punish immoral acts, fosters cooperation and promotes the formation of large and politically complex societies. The supernatural punishment hypothesis has been around for a while, but I think I first encountered it in Johnson (2005).

Johnson tried to test the idea by looking at correlations between belief in moralising high gods and various proxies of cooperation (e.g. size of the society, presence of money lending, centralised authorities) in a cross-cultural sample. However, correlation does not equal causation, so that kind of study leaves it unclear whether moralising gods lead to complex societies or the other way round. However, with a solid family tree of cultures, you can add a historical dimension to a cross-cultural comparison, which allows you to infer causality.

When the Pulotu authors did this (Watts et al., 2015b), they found that Johnson probably got his causal arrow pointing the wrong way. If moralising gods do indeed lead to complex societies, then societies with moralising gods should increase in complexity more often than societies without. What actually seems to be happening in Austronesia is that complex societies came first, and they were more likely to develop beliefs in moralising gods. Nonetheless, a more general version of the supernatural punishment hypothesis, in which agents that aren’t high gods (e.g. karma, ancestors) may do the punishing, is supported by the analysis.

That’s mostly irrelevant for worldbuilding, where the correlation alone is enough to work out what’s “realistic”, but I also find the science fascinating in its own right. And while I’ve not tried downloading the Pulotu dataset (as I said, I only found out about it today, and I’ve been writing this post since), from a brief look it’s a handy text file that appears to be useable by anyone who knows the first thing about spreadsheets. I might have to go and play with it. Just have to think of some interesting questions…

So, now you know. I’m a hopeless geek even when I’m not officially being a scientist. (Does this surprise anyone?)


*If I had unlimited money, I’d probably spend my entire life at university…


Johnson DDP (2005) God’s punishment and public goods. A test of the supernatural punishment hypothesis in 186 world cultures. Human Nature 16:410-446

Odom KJ et al. (2014) Female song is widespread and ancestral in songbirds. Nature Communications 5:3379

Savage PE et al. (2015) Statistical universals reveal the structures and functions of human music. PNAS 112:8987-8992

Watts J et al. (2015a) Pulotu: database of Austronesian supernatural beliefs and practices. PLoS ONE 10:e0136783

Watts J et al. (2015b) Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282:20142556


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