Journal club of one: ‘Sacred text as cultural genome: an inheritance mechanism and method for studying cultural evolution’

This is a fun paper about something I don’t know much about: Hartberg & Sloan Wilson (2017) ‘Sacred text as cultural genome: an inheritance mechanism and method for studying cultural evolution‘. It does exactly what it says on the package: it takes an image from genome science, that of genomic DNA and gene expression, and uses it as a metaphor for how pastors in Christian churches use the Bible. So, the Bible is the genome, churches are cells, and citing bible passages in a sermon is gene expression–at least something along those lines.

The authors use a quantitative analysis analogous to differential gene expression to compare the Bible passages cited in sermons from six Protestant churches in the US with different political leanings (three conservative and three progressive; coincidentally, N = 3 is kind of the stereotypical sample size of an early 2000s gene expression study). The main message is that the churches use the Bible differently, that the conservative churches use more of the text, and that even when they draw on the same book, they use different verses.

They exemplify with Figure 3, which shows a ‘Heat map showing the frequency with which two churches, one highly conservative (C1) and one highly progressive (P1), cite specific verses within chapter 3 of the Gospel According to John in their Sunday sermons.’ I will not reproduce it for copyright reasons, but it pretty clearly shows how P1 often cites the first half of the chapter but doesn’t use the second half at all. C1, instead, uses verses from the whole chapter, but its three most used verses are all in latter half, that is the block that P1 doesn’t use at all. What are these verses? The paper doesn’t quote them except 3:16 ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life’, which is the exception to the pattern — it’s the most common verse in both churches (and generally, a very famous passage).

Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John is the story of how Jesus teaches Nicodemus. Here is John 3:1-17:

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 The same came to him by night, and said to him, ”Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered him, ”Most certainly, I tell you, unless one is born anew, he can’t see God’s Kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, ”How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, ”Most certainly I tell you, unless one is born of water and spirit, he can’t enter into God’s Kingdom. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus answered him, ”How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered him, ”Are you the teacher of Israel, and don’t understand these things? 11 Most certainly I tell you, we speak that which we know, and testify of that which we have seen, and you don’t receive our witness. 12 If I told you earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended out of heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven. 14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.”

This is the passage that P1 uses a lot, but they break before they get to the verses that come right after: John 3:18-21. The conservative church uses them the most out of this chapter.

18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

So this is consistent with the idea of the paper: In the progressive church, the pastor emphasises the story about doubt and the possibility of salvation, where Nicodemus comes to ask Jesus for explanations, and Jesus talks about being born again. It also has some beautiful perplexing Jesus-style imagery with the spirit being like the wind. In the conservative church, the part about condemnation and evildoers hating the light gets more traction.

I’m not sure that the analogy works. The metaphors are mixed, and it’s not obvious what the unit of inheritance is. For example, when the paper talks about ‘fitness-enhanching information’, does that refers to the fitness of the church, the members of the church, or the Bible itself? The paper sometimes talk as if the bible was passed on from generation to generation, for instance here in the introduction:

Any mechanism of inheritance must transmit information across generations with high fidelity and translate this information into phenotypic expression during each generation. In this article we argue that sacred texts have these properties and therefore qualify as important inheritance mechanisms in cultural evolution.

But the sacred text isn’t passed on from generation to generation. The Bible is literally a book that is transmitted by printing. What may be passed on is the way pastors interpret it and, in the authors’ words, ‘cherry pick’ verses to cite. But clearly, that is not stored in the bible ‘genome’ but somehow in the culture of churches and the institutions of learning that pastors attend.

If we want to stick to the idea of the bible as a genome, I think this story makes just as much sense: Don’t think about how this plasticity of interpretation may be adaptive for humans. Instead, take a sacred text-centric perspective, analogous to the gene-centric perspective. Think of the plasticity in interpretation as preserving the fitness of the bible by making it fit community values. Because the Bible can serve as source materials for churches with otherwise different values, it survives as one of the most important and widely read books in the world.


Hartberg, Yasha M., and David Sloan Wilson. ”Sacred text as cultural genome: an inheritance mechanism and method for studying cultural evolution.” Religion, Brain & Behavior 7.3 (2017): 178-190.

The Bible quotes are from the World English Bible translation.