Death metal, religion and the socialization of emotion

Photo by George E. Norkus

Over at The Immanent Frame, a website on religion, secularism and society supported by the Social Science Research Council (USA), Jim Robertson reflects on the presence of religion in Death Metal after a trip to Wacken Open Air (in Germany), the world’s largest music festival and ‘loud as hell’ according to its website.

Robertson’s piece, Death metal: A “pipeline to God”?, is well worth the read, if for no other reason that it will be an eye-opener for the non-metalhead to what these guys are screaming through the din. (One personal disclosure: Although I went through a phase of fascination with Canadian power trios with front-man shriekers that sounded like modern castrati — Rush, Triumph — and developed a now-mildly-embarrassing love of Supertramp, Aerosmith, and the Who, I was never really a native metalhead, so I can’t talk about these genres from any deep affection.)

I won’t rehearse all of Robertson’s arguments, but he basically asks why Death Metal and related genres are so obsessed with religion, from Satanic album covers to song lyrics that drip with Apocalyptic motifs to echoes of everything from neo-paganism to blatant anti-Christianism. It’s a great question because not every popular music genre, even iconoclastic subcultural genres, features religious imagery so heavily. One would probably have to move to something like gospel or 1970s reggae to find genres that were more saturated with spiritual symbolism (I have no statistics on this, only my own fleeting engagement with these genres).

Robertson explains:

What is fascinating here is the consistency with which black metal has pursued religious forms. Satanism is replaced, not by a basic materialist atheism but with almost anything else: Occultism, Nietzsche, paganism, mystical nazism. Such religious pluralism begs the question as to whether these are just new and interesting attempts at youth rebellion, or whether something more is playing itself out.

Robertson finds several reasons for the dominance of religious themes in Death Metal:

1) ‘Metal’s rebellious streak’ led to a backlash against attempts to censor or criticize these musical genres, most prominently efforts by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the mid-1980s. According to Robertson, the criticism actually hardened the resolves of many musicians to criticize mainstream religion, sparking very explicit anti-religious themes.

2) Extreme lifestyles among the musicians, a character of many Western popular artist communities, but featuring some extraordinary acts of violence, self-destruction and nihilism, especially among proponents of Scandinavian ‘Black Metal’ in the 1990s, Robertson discusses. In this sense, ‘Metal’s obsession with religion is part of its obsession with living at the limit.’ Robertson goes on to explain: ‘This concern with limit experiences explains metal’s obsession with religion. In its aspirations, metal parallels a kind of religious mysticism.’

3) Competition with mainstream religion to provide similar experiences, such as community belonging, emotional transcendence, and mystical experience, what one participant refers to as a ‘pipeline to God.’

4) Shifting philosophical and religious commitments within the community of Metal musicians, including a move away from Satanism toward various forms of paganism, ecological mysticism, and Nietzschean nihilism, reflect a groping to find a language to talk about these profound emotional-mystical experiences: ‘The constant grasping for new ideologies amongst the black metal scene, then, is an attempt to give this transcendental path discursive form.’

Robertson’s discussion is both colourful and insightful, but there are several dimensions I might add just to bring it into the Neuroanthropological fold. Borrowing some ideas from Simon Frith’s piece, ‘Towards an Aesthetics of Popular Music,’ I want to argue that Metal, like many musical genres, has a special role in educating emotion and moods among young people when they are trying to understand social interaction and their own emotions.

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The dog-human connection in evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgEvolutionary theorists have long recognized that the domestication of animals represented a major change in human life, providing not just a close-at-hand food source, but also non-human muscle power and a host of other advantages. Penn State anthropologist Prof. Pat Shipman argues that animal domestication is one manifestation of a larger distinctive trait of our species, the ‘animal connection,’ which unites and underwrites a number of the most important evolutionary advances of our hominin ancestors.


Shipman’s proposal is discussed in a recent forum paper in Current Anthropology and is the subject of her forthcoming book, The Animal Connection. The paper is interesting to us here at because Shipman indirectly poses fascinating questions about the evolutionary significance of human-animal relationships, including the cognitive abilities of both and how they interact.

As Shipman puts it in the Penn State press release about the research, if we only think about what domesticated animals do for us as a species, we miss the truly curious thing about our relationship to them:

No other mammal routinely adopts other species in the wild — no gazelles take in baby cheetahs, no mountain lions raise baby deer…. Every mouthful you feed to another species is one that your own children do not eat. On the face of it, caring for another species is maladaptive, so why do we humans do this?

Although researchers working on symbiotic inter-species relationships might highlight that the support of other species hardly requires adopting their young and feeding them canned kitten food (a critique Travis Pickering levels in his comments), Shipman’s statement highlights nicely that human-animal inter-species relationships seem to extend beyond merely treating them as tameable prey or means to a human end. But then again, this super-instrumentality could be ascribed to a large number of human traits.

The domestication of animals wasn’t merely about capturing a buffet-on-the-hoof, from Shipman’s perspective, but the continuation of a long-term evolutionary project by our species to study animals, first when we were prey for them, and later as predators ourselves.

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Your Brain on Nature: Outdoors and Out of Reach 2

Daniel and I exchanged emails about the recent piece in The New York Times, ‘Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain,’ by Matt Richtel. We both responded strongly to the article; although we liked the discussion of technology’s effects on cognition and the positive benefits of being in nature (and away from digital technology), getting down to thinking through the various points left us both feeling pretty cranky (maybe not enough time in nature, eh?). Daniel’s already taken on some of the issues that could be raised with the piece, but I just wanted to pick up a few other threads.

The article discusses a river trip including five neuroscientists who took time away from their typical routine of digital interaction, dwelling in built environments, and conducting research to float down a river valley in Utah and spend some quality time with bats and cliffs as well as each other. To be honest, this sounds pretty idyllic to me, and I think far more conferences should be held outdoors in tents rather than in rented hotel meeting rooms with PowerPoint slides, 15-minute papers and cellophane-wrapped muffins. A whole new industry of Adventure Academic Meetings could allow physicists to discuss new breakthroughs while spelunking or philosophers to reflect on Continental theory while snowshoeing. Sign me up for the Anthropologists Hike the Appalachian Trail conference, but count me out of International Neuroanthro-Bungee 2012!

The participants in the white-watering brain sciences tête-à-tête seem to share my enthusiasm for a change in conference formats:

“There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you,” Mr. Braver says. He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys. “It’s why I got into science, to talk about ideas.”

One of the first things that irritated me in the NYTimes piece, however, was the conflation of living the ‘life uninterrupted’ — having a small, intimate retreat with a handful of people — and being ‘in Nature,’ as if the two were inherently inextricable. Of course, one wouldn’t have to invite hundreds of people to the hotel for a conference, and the conversations would likely be a lot more intimate and less distracted, even if your small group was at a spa or dude ranch. Likewise, you can go to Nature at an outdoor music festival and feel completely over-stimulated, even though you have no access to electricity or indoor plumbing.

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Matthew Taylor on human psychology and political change

One of my students, Nikolas Dawson, hipped me to these nifty animated videos developed from lectures at the RSA, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, ‘a cradle of enlightenment thinking and a force for social progress.’ My student was pointing out a video about recent financial crises, RSA Animate – Crises of Capitalism, that combined an edited version of a David Harvey lecture with great animation, but in the process of poking around their website, I realized that there’s an interesting clip for readers at

The video is ‘RSA Animate Matthew Taylor: Left brain, right brain,’ and fortunately, it has virtually nothing to say about ‘left brain’ or ‘right brain,’ but is instead a very interesting discussion of the relation between human psychology and the possibility of social and political change. In addition, the animation is great!

The video is linked to the RSA’s project, The Social Brain, which is a platform for a number of expert speakers to discuss how the things we’re learning about the brain help us to understand a range of social issues. If you want to watch the whole video, but without the animation, you can go to YouTube recording of the whole lecture: Matthew Taylor – Left Brain, Right Brain: Human nature and political values. Matthew Taylor has his own blog as well.

The RSA website also has a piece by our colleague, Joan Chiao, ‘Face Value.’ Chiao discusses why some societies seem to prefer hierarchical governments, and others prefer leadership that promotes great egalitarianism, as well as some of the relationship between research on facial preferences and democratic decision making. She concludes:

This cultural diversity in political preferences and structures is proof that our evolutionary instincts for social hierarchy are not cultural destiny and that, through knowledge of where we come from and imagination about whom we may become, we can come closer to building a society with consideration and compassion for all.

For more information about the RSA, especially the Social Brain project, you can read below.

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What’s in your gut? Termites, for example

Science News has a fascinating short story, Gut bacteria reflect dietary differences, by Gwyneth Dickey, that highlights one of the ecological dimensions of ‘enculturation’ that I think some symbolic models of culture have a hard time grasping. It turns out that a Western diet produces a less-varied gut ecology in Italian children than was found in African children. Moreover, the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ could apply in a particularly interesting way to those who eat termites.

The original article, Impact of diet in shaping gut microbiota revealed by a comparative study in children from Europe (urban Florence) and rural Africa (Boulkiemde province, Burkina Faso), by Carlotta De Filippo and colleagues, is open access on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences website, so you should definitely surf over there if you find this interesting.

De Filippo and colleagues discuss the microbiome, the ‘complex consortium of trillions of microbes, whose collective genomes contain at least 100 times as many genes as our own eukaryote genome’ (see also Gill et al. 2006). This enormous, varied ecosystem in the gut, a symbiotic community, supplements human metabolic capabilities, provides a first line of defense against pathogens, modulates gastrointestinal development and even informs the configuration of the immune system (paraphrased from De Filippo et al. 2010).

Different gut ecologies brought about both by environmental factors and by food production techniques, dietary preferences, and even food handling practices are one way that human groups might inadvertently induce biological variation in our species, a subtle culture-biology link through the populations in our gastrointestinal tracts. Now De Filippo and colleagues has gone out and actually demonstrated this variation empirically, using high-throughput 16S rDNA sequencing and biochemical analyses of fecal microbiota.

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Language extinction ain’t no big thing?

Language diversity around the world is decreasing and Razib Khan of the Discover science blog, Gene Expression, doesn’t think you should care. I was going to let it slide because I don’t like getting in little blog tiffs, but then Khan went and tried to co-opt into the whole thing, so he forced my hand.

I had started to do a quick survey of the obvious, easily Googled data that might support or refute Khan’s argument, but decided that it was petty to point out the glaring logical, empirical and philosophical problems with his arguments, so I was just going to let it go. But then Khan took the liberty of demeaning my discipline and even linked through to my own site to supposedly support his argument, so I’m going to take the liberty of blogging while angry, which is kind of like drunk texting only more time consuming. I’m not really worried that Khan will actually read this post carefully, however, as he apparently didn’t bother to read closely the post to which he actually linked.

Khan doesn’t think linguistic diversity matters. After all, language diversity correlates with poverty, he argues. The evidence he produces for this is a graph that is apparently more of a thought experiment than any sort of actual data plot. So I thought I might just explore this question with a little anecdotal data like comparisons between nominal GDP/capita and numbers of indigenous languages in Ethnologue and how well these seem to correlate. I’m neither a statistician nor do I want to devote more time to this, but I want to just present some evidence in the discussion (especially because he implies anthropology is a kind of salon game for the intelligentsia and for fact-challenged jargon heads).

Normally, I try to be a pretty positive online presence, not prone to hurling invective or belittling other writers, but there are a few things that get me really hacked off, and one of them is conservative Social Darwinism thinly veiled with pseudo-science, as if this is just ‘nature’s’ way of sorting out the winners from the losers. Razib Khan’s example makes me particularly angry because he links in the direction of like something we argue supports this (please take down the link, Khan, if you read it – we don’t need your traffic if it comes from people who think we’re in your corner). Moreover, Khan’s argument demonstrates an extraordinary callousness, suggesting that concern about language rights assured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other UN human rights documents are just a kind of bourgie latté sippers’ hysteria that people concerned about the ‘real world’ don’t share.

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Four Stone Hearth brought to you by Zenobia

That's MacTut, laddie!

Zenobia: Empress of the East is hosting the latest edition of Four Stone Hearth, the anthropo-carnival. It it’s 97th edition, the carnival this time brings us a pile of good stuff, and although Judith admits she prefers her subjects long dead, and buried in hardened volcanic ash, she brings us a wide range of the fun and fascinating. From Pompeii to monkey adoption, prognasticating octopus to the first cuneiform tablet ever found in Jerusalem to King Tut’s surprisingly small penis, you know that Four Stone Hearth is going to bring you the best of virtual anthropology. And the best is damn good.

So if you’re wondering whether Tut was cursed to be both under-endowed and Scottish (ouch), whether passive sentences are really hard to understand or if it’s just the ‘paper-airplane effect’ in action, or if the Dutch truly have found the answer to the question of overcoming human differences — orange — the what are you still reading this for!? Get ye to Four Stone Hearth!

And by the way, am I the only her person who winds up shouting at the television set, ‘Caster Semanya’s GENDER was never in question! It was her SEX, dammit!’ simply because I hate the way that the word ‘gender’ seems to have simply become a euphemism for whether someone has a winky or not? Okay, maybe it’s just me.