Interestingly, a very clear place to find Bob Dylan’s inner evolutionary psychologist is found in his oft-discarded Christian religious works from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bob Dylan is singing about why everyone should convert to Christianity? This seems like a far cry from the exercises in freedom (think Chimes of Freedom) from his earlier work that was just so prototypically 1960s. Once again, the audience must have thought, he’s gone too far this time.
But when we think of Dylan not as a protest singer, or a visionary for some particularly generation, but, rather, as dyed-in-the-wool evolutionist charged with the mission of documenting human nature, even his deeply Christian writings become illuminated and, in turn, they illuminate the nature of our kind.
In 1979, Columbia Records released the album Slow Train Coming – which included “Gotta Serve Somebody” – an unapologetic comment on the importance of following God’s code in life. For instance, Dylan writes,
“You may own guns, and you may even own tanks, you may be somebody’s landlord, you may even own banks … but you’re still going to have to serve somebody ……… yeah, you gotta serve somebody …. It may be the devil – or it might be the Lord – but you’re going to have to serve somebody.”
And the entire song is filled with this kind of stuff. It doesn’t make a difference who you are. If you’re a human, then you’ve got a spiritual obligation to serve a large and powerful deity.
You’re human – so get humble – and show respect – and realize that you’re a speck at your largest. And the very best that you can do is honor an all-powerful being who is responsible for creating you and everything you can see and/or imagine.
That’s pretty much what Dylan’s getting at – but how is this evolutionary psychology? Doesn’t evolutionary psychology sort of not sit well with that religion stuff? In fact, this is a common misunderstanding. Modern evolutionary psychology takes religion seriously, in fact, and many writings in the field focus on how evolutionary principles can help us shed light on the juggernaut that is religion – an inescapable aspect of the human condition.
In a recent trip to Oregon to attend the annual meeting of the Western Psychological Association, I was fortunate to hear a great talk by Azim Shariff (2014) of the University of Oregon. In his talk, titled “Evolution of religious prosociality: How gods make us good and how they don’t,” Shariff did a great job of talking about why religions moved in the direction of single, powerful, fear-inducing deities from the poly-deity religions of earlier times. In short, Shariff’s story is this:
After agriculture became dominant, people didn’t have to be hunters and gatherers – they could stick around where the food is. And once that happened, everything changed in a relatively short amount of time. People no longer had follow the food – and people were starting to live in larger scale societies – of thousands or even tens of thousands of individuals. Well, this environment that emerged was evolutionarily unprecedented in the species. And some things had to change as a result.
If your society now had to control 10,000 people in a shot, as opposed to 150, rules and other things needed to change. One thing that emerged during this time period was the single, powerful God of the primary monotheistic religions.
Why would a single, powerful, monotheistic God make more sense in a large-scale than in a small-scale society? Shariff gave several examples to address this question – but the example that tells it best is found in the story of the library at the University of Salamanca in Spain – a truly old university going back nearly 1,000 years. In a reading room that is highly remote from the rest of the library, evidence of students urinating on the walls goes back for centuries. As Shariff put it, if you’re deep in your studies and the closest out-house is 10 minutes away, you may as well just pee on the wall.
But this strategy, of course, is not so great from the university’s perspective. So what did the university administration do? They were smart. They started painting and sculpting saints all over the affected parts of the building. Suppose you’re a religious, God-fearing student. You going to go ahead and pee on a saint? No. No you’re not. That’s because Christianity builds in enormous respect for the single God and his saints and disciples who comprise the all-powerful and all-knowing who are responsible for everything. Don’t mess with that. Hold it in and go outside! And that is exactly what people did. Making God salient in this situation clearly facilitated prosocial behavior (in the form of not peeing on the wall).
You want to build in prosocial behavior into some human social ecosystem? Throw in some classic religious icons all over the place, make sure they are highly visible, and watch your human subjects start to “do the right thing.” And throw in a splash of God-fearing.
In large-scale societies, when controlling the behavior of a large number of individuals is foundational to success of the group (and the individuals therein), a single powerful and vengeful deity who elicits both respect and fear is going to have the capacity to cultivate “prosocial behavior” – and this will help the leaders of the group run the group without too much mutiny – and the ensuing organizational outcomes, should feed back and, to some extent, benefit the individuals of a group that has got this whole “big deity” thing down.
This all is pretty consistent with what David Sloan Wilson (2002) had to say about religion in Darwin’s Chathedral and what I have to say on religion in Evolutionary Psychology 101 (Geher, 2014).
Dylan’s simple words betray eons of human cultures that have mastered the development and implementation of monotheistic religions to deal with the evolutionarily unprecedented situation of large and stable human groups. If you find yourself needing to control a large number of individuals in a stable human group, getting them to know and fear a singular god is an effective strategy. And having artists, who have traditionally conveyed the essence of such gods, give messages as “You gotta serve somebody,” will go far in advancing the goals of the religion.
Why did monotheistic religions come to out-exist poly-theistic religions? Especially in large-scale societies? Shariff’s work helps us understand why. And when Dylan tells us that, no matter who you are, you gotta serve somebody, he’s putting a specific face to this basic aspect of the evolutionary underpinnings of human religion.
Here’s an awesome version of the "Gotta Serve Somebody." Eerie? Powerful? Relentless? These features of “Serve Somebody” are fully predicted by Shariff’s evolutionary perspective on the nature of large-scale religion. And, wouldn’t you know, Dylan nails it. His ability to understand the core of modern human religion – speaking ultimately to the evolved psychology that underlies human religion, is what makes “Serve Somebody” – and the many other songs from this era of his career – powerful reflections of who we are.
Dylan, B. (1979). Slow train coming. New York: Columbia Records.
Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.
Shariff, A. (2014). Evolution of religious prosociality: How gods make us good and how they don’t. Invited presentation at the annual meeting of the Western Psychological Association. Portland, OR.
Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.