Tuesday, September 27

Tibetan monks display an unexpected evolutionary advantage

Why would someone join an organization where they couldn’t have a family and had to be single? Reproduction is, after all, at the heart of how we evolved into what we are today. But this is exactly what many religious groups around the world need. Anthropologists have been left wondering how celibacy could have come about in the first place.

Some people have said that people can still do things that are bad for them, like never having children, if they blindly follow rules that help the group. This is because cooperation is another important part of human evolution. Others have said that people create religious (or other) institutions in the end because it helps them or their families, and those who don’t join are looked down upon.

Now, our new study, which was done in Western China and published in Royal Society Proceedings B, looks at this important question by looking at religious celibacy for life in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.

Until recently, it was common for some Tibetan families to send one of their young sons to the local monastery to become a celibate monk for life. In the past, as many as one out of every seven boys became monks. Families often said that having a monk in the family was for religious reasons. But were economic and birth control issues also taken into account?

Together with people from Lanzhou University in China, we talked to 530 households in 21 villages in Gansu province, which is in the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau. We put together family trees by finding out about each person’s family history and if any of their relatives had been monks.

Monks Debate Buddhist Philosophy in Tibet - YouTube

Amdo Tibetans who follow patriarchy live in these villages. They raise herds of yaks and goats and farm small plots of land. In these places, wealth is usually passed down through the male line.

We found that men with a monk brother were richer and had more yaks. But sisters of monks didn’t get much or anything out of it. That’s probably because brothers fight over their parents’ money, land, and animals. Since monks can’t own property, parents can stop this fight between their sons by sending one of them to a monastery. Most firstborn sons take over the family business, while second or later-born sons often become monks.

We were also surprised to find that men with a monk brother had more children than men with brothers who weren’t monks, and that their wives had children at a younger age on average. Grandparents who had a son who was a monk also had more grandchildren because their other sons didn’t have to compete with their brothers as much. The practice of sending a son to a monastery is not expensive for a parent, so it fits with a parent’s desire to have more children.

A math model of being single
This shows that natural selection may have led to people becoming celibate. To learn more about how this happens, we made a mathematical model of the evolution of celibacy. In this model, we looked at how becoming a monk affects a man’s fitness for evolution, as well as the fitness of his brothers and other people in the village. We made models for both the case where a boy’s parents make the decision to send him to a monastery and the case where the boy himself makes the choice.

Since monks don’t get married, there are less men in the village who want to marry women. But even though it might be good for all the men in the village if one of them becomes a monk, the monk’s choice does not improve his own genetic fitness. Because of this, celibacy shouldn’t change.

This changes, though, if having a monk brother makes men richer and, as a result, more competitive in the marriage market. Natural selection can now lead to religious celibacy because, even though the monk doesn’t have any children, he helps his brothers have more. But more importantly, if a boy chooses to become a monk on his own, it is unlikely to happen very often because, from an individual’s point of view, it isn’t very good.

Ethical Mindfulness: An Interview with Tibetan Buddhist Monk and Scholar  Geshe Lhador – Buddhistdoor Global

In the model, we show that celibacy only becomes more common if the parents decide that it should. All of their children make their parents healthier, so they will send one to a monastery if it helps the others. Boys were sent to the monastery at a young age with a lot of fanfare, and they could lose their honor if they left their role later. This suggests that the practice was based on what parents wanted.

This model could also explain how other kinds of parental favoritism have changed over time in other cultures, even infanticide. And a similar model could explain why female celibates (nuns) are rare in patriarchal societies like Tibet but more common in societies where women have more inheritance rights and are more likely to compete with each other (such as in parts of Europe).

We are doing new research right now to find out why the number of monks and nuns in different religions and parts of the world is different.

People often say that the spread of new ideas, even ones that aren’t logical, can lead to the formation of new institutions as people try to live up to a new standard. But it’s possible that people’s choices about having children and making money can also change institutions.

Ruth Mace is a professor of anthropology at UCL, and Alberto Micheletti is a research fellow there.

Under a Creative Commons license, this article was taken from The Conversation and shared again. Read the article itself.

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