The Differential Impact of Religion on Life History and Reproductive Strategy: Muslim and Orthodox Gypsies in Serbia

By Cvorovic, Jelena | Mankind Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Differential Impact of Religion on Life History and Reproductive Strategy: Muslim and Orthodox Gypsies in Serbia


Cvorovic, Jelena, Mankind Quarterly


Previous studies have found that Gypsy populations in Europe exhibit more of a low investment mode of reproduction than surrounding non-Gypsy populations. In Serbia, however, Orthodox Christian Gypsies differ from Muslim Gypsies in a variety of cultural and reproductive behaviors. Data gathered during fieldwork undertaken in three Gypsy settlements in Serbia are used to evaluate the hypothesis that religious affiliation predicts variation in reproductive strategies within Gypsy populations. This hypothesis is supported by data indicating that Orthodox Christian Gypsies give more parental care to each of their fewer children than do the Muslim Gypsies, regardless of their location, type of settlement, and socioeconomic status. Differences in the two religious traditions might be responsible for this pattern.

Key Words: Gypsies; Serbia; Reproductive strategies; Religion.

Introduction

There is agreement among many evolutionary theorists that religion is somehow related to the evolutionary history of our species, but little agreement as to the exact nature of that relationship. Although there is debate over whether religion is an adaptation or merely a by-product of other evolved human traits (see Boyer 2001; Wilson 2002; Atran 2002; Dennett 2006), it is clear that religion involves great costs in both time and resources (Irons 2001; Sosis and Alcorta 2003; Palmer et al. 2006) and influences many aspects of human behavior in ways that could be evolutionarily significant. This report suggests the possibility that different religions may produce differences in behavior that would have been evolutionarily significant. Specifically, given that even today, religion tends to be traditional, (i.e., vertically inherited from parents to offspring; see Steadman and Palmer 1995; Palmer and Steadman 2004; Palmer et al. 2006), a suggestion is put forward that different religions may have encouraged different traditional reproductive strategies and life histories. Here, based on fieldwork in Serbia, I compare differences between Muslim Gypsies and Christian Orthodox Gypsies, focusing on their reproductive and parental behavior that may have been influenced by their respective religious traditions.

After describing the basic concepts of life history and reproductive strategy, I outline the history of these two religious categories of Gypsies in Serbia. I then present data collected from fieldwork in three Gypsy communities indicating that despite living in very similar environments, there are indeed demographic differences between the two religiously defined populations. Muslim Gypsies exhibit a higher mating effort than Orthodox Gypsies, who tend to be more similar to non-Gypsy Europeans in having fewer children each of whom receives more parental care. The Muslim Gypsies exhibit characteristics of a low investment mode of reproduction: they have an earlier age at initial reproduction, more children, more marriages and higher infant and child mortality than their Orthodox counterparts, despite relative closeness and access to the health facilities. The Romanian-derived Orthodox Gypsies, on the other hand, are far more similar to the Serbs in general. It is possible that the differences of the two religious traditions may be responsible for the differences in life history and reproductive strategy between the two populations.

Life Histories and Reproductive Strategies

Many evolutionary psychologists have attempted to explain the reproductive behavior of different groups in terms of life history theory. Life history theory organizes research into the evolutionary forces shaping the timing of life events, with a particular focus on age-schedules of fertility and mortality (Kaplan, Hill, Hurtado & Lancaster 2001:293). According to life history theory, each species or subspecies has developed a characteristic life history adapted to the particular ecological problems met by its ancestors (Wilson, 1975). …

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