Notes on Bruce McConachie’s Evolutionary perspective on Play, Performance and Ritual

The paper by Bruce McConachie titled “An Evolutionary perspective on Play, Performance and Ritual” attempts to give how these three categories might have evolved out of each other. As McConachie claims “this evolutionary perspective on play, performance, and ritual rests on a recent synthesis of evidence from anthropology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and other empirically based disciplines”. He also attempts to articulate new definitions of these key terms ie Play, Performance and Ritual in this paper. As a response to this text, I would like to highlight the concept of Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD) that McConachie elaborates in the Religious Ritual and Performance section.

10600626_1506632282949986_3011552146061300276_nAnthropologists like Guthrie, Lanman, Whitehouse and Barrett emphasise on the importance of HADD in the minds of hominid and later Homo Sapien as primary reason for our species’ creation and worship of gods. Many psychological experiments have demonstrated that people often claim that they have detected animate agency in images, natural events, and accidents where none really exists. For example, people believe they can see the face of a deity in the embers of a fire, for example, or are able to perceive the workings of the gods in a thunderstorm. This is referred as HADD. According to these four anthropologists, HADD, initially an evolutionary adaptation that sensitized our ancestors to the possibility of dangerous agency, led to the secondary cognitive effect of helping them to invent and perpetuate religion. HADD facilitated the extension of performance into religious ritual.

Having been a witness to ritualistic performances like Muharram and Guru Purab recently, I’ve been curious to understand how and why people ascribe their beliefs to a mythic figure and participate in these rituals while often putting their bodies at stake in memory of it. Be it self-flagellating men in Muharram processions or young Sikh men displaying sword fights to invoke a sense of grief and pride respectively, what is the force that drives these men to do these acts? For instance, in Muharram procession, while the men are hurting their body, the spectators beat their chest and weep. What is it that is embodied in these performances which invokes a sense of grief into people who are witnessing it?

Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)
Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)

Scott Atran (whom McConachie quotes in this paper) in his book In Gods We Trust: Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, seems to confirm the crucial role of HADD in religion. According to Atran,

“Most primitive religious rituals rehearsed situations of danger, stress, pain, and occasional death to enable humans to process traumatic experiences in their lives that have no logical or probable explanation or outcome. Such events played a much larger part in human history 50 thousand years ago than they do today, when disease, starvation, and violent death were more frequent occurrences. Despite appearances, sacrifice, mutilation, and similar ritual practices sanctioned by religious belief helped Homo sapiens to deal with life-threatening events and to bind individuals more tightly to their group.”

I am not sure if HADD is the answer to the questions that were raised after watching the Muharram procession but it seems to hint at it.


Reads old newspapers and researches on Goan History.

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