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A phylogenetic analysis of revolution and afterlife beliefs


Beliefs about the fate of humanity and the soul after death may structure behaviours of religious groups. Here we test theories from religious studies: that belief in an imminent apocalypse co-evolved with and facilitated revolutionary violence, whereas belief in reincarnation caused people to acquiesce to existing social orders and withdraw from political activism. We test these hypotheses by building a cultural phylogeny of historical Islamic sects and schools from the seventh to twentieth centuries and use phylogenetic comparative methods to show that these two types of belief display distinct relationships with intergroup violence. There is substantial evidence that apocalyptic beliefs co-evolved with revolutionary violence, whereas reincarnation beliefs were evolutionarily stable in peaceful groups. In both cases, violence precedes the emergence of beliefs, which suggests that conditions that generate revolutionary violence changed beliefs rather than beliefs generating violence. We also found that apocalyptic beliefs are associated with accelerated group extinction, although causal relationships cannot be determined.

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Fig. 1: Time-calibrated reconstruction of the phylogeny of Islamic sects.
Fig. 2: Inferred transition rates between states of eschatological belief and intergroup violence.
Fig. 3: Survival probability of sects with reincarnation belief, apocalyptic belief, revolutionary violence or religious violence (i.e., traits investigated in our coevolution analyses) versus sects without the trait (belief/violence against time).

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Data Availability

All codes and sources can be found in Supplementary Data 1. The nexus file of the reconstructed phylogeny is available in Supplementary Data 2.

Code Availability

Source code for BayesTraits software is available at and is released under GNU General Public License v.3.0.


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This research received no specific grant from any funding agency. We thank L. Matthews for his advice on defining religious taxa and M. Syed for his helpful comments on the manuscript and the dataset.

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Authors and Affiliations



Conception: K.B. and R.M.; data collection: K.B. and H.Z.; data analyses and visualization: H.Z.; writing: K.B., H.Z. and R.M.; and editing: K.B., H.Z. and R.M.

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Correspondence to Hanzhi Zhang.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information, Supplementary Tables 1–10 and Supplementary References.

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Supplementary Data 1

Supplementary Data.

Supplementary Data 2

Nexus file of phylogeny.

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Basava, K., Zhang, H. & Mace, R. A phylogenetic analysis of revolution and afterlife beliefs. Nat Hum Behav 5, 604–611 (2021).

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