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Communicative & Integrative Biology 8:5, e1046657; September/October 2015; Published with license by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

What changed during the axial age: Cognitive styles or reward systems?
Nicolas Baumard1,*, Alexandre Hyafil1, and Pascal Boyer2
Departement dEtudes Cognitives; Ecole Normale Supeieure; Paris, France; 2Department of Psychology; Washington University; Saint Louis, MO USA

T he Axial Age (500300 BCE) refers

to the period during which most of
the main religious and spiritual traditions
Confucius, and Buddha are understood to
be closer to modern people than to inhabi-
tants of early chiefdoms and archaic
emerged in Eurasian societies. Although empires. They ask the same questions and
the Axial Age has recently been the focus provide the same responses as todays reli-
of increasing interest,1-5 its existence is gious and spiritual leaders.7
still very much in dispute. The main rea- The consequence of such an atheoreti-
son for questioning the existence of the cal definition is that it is difficult to decide
Axial Age is that its nature, as well as its when the Axial Age began, and when it
spatial and temporal boundaries, remain ended. For instance, Jaspers originally pro-
very much unclear. The standard posed to include Homer (around 800
approach to the Axial Age defines it as a BCE), whose work provided the cultural
change of cognitive style, from a narrative background of Greek philosophy. How-
and analogical style to a more analytical ever, most historians working on the Axial
and reflective style, probably due to the Age now consider that there is nothing
increasing use of external memory tools. axial in Homer, as the Iliad and the Odyssey
Our recent research suggests an alternative are very similar to other epic poems com-
hypothesis, namely a change in reward ori- posed in pre-state societies. Furthermore,
entation, from a short-term materialistic these poems are read today not for religious
orientation to a long-term spiritual one.6 reasons, but mostly for aesthetic reasons. In
Here, we briefly discuss these 2 alternative the same way, Jaspers proposed to include
definitions of the Axial Age. Zarathustra in the list of axial figures prob-
Keywords: Axial Age, history, iron age,
ably because Zoroastrianism was the most
life history theory, memory, motivation,
widespread religion at the time (due to the
religion, writing
The concept of the Axial Age devel- extension of the Persian empire), and
Nicolas Baumard, Alexandre Hyal, and Pascal oped out of the observation that most of because it is supposed to have influenced
*Correspondence to: Nicolas Baumard; Email:
the current world religions (Buddhism, the Hebrew religion.7 However, Zoroastri- Hinduism, Daoism, Judaism, Christian- anism never became a world religion, never
ity, Islam) can trace their origins back to a developed the proselytism so typical of
Submitted: 02/09/2015
specific period of Antiquity around 500 to world religions, and never spread beyond
Revised: 04/21/2015
300 BCE, and that this period is the first the political borders of the Persian
Accepted: 04/22/2015 in human history to have seen the appear- Empire.8-10 ance of thinkers who still are a source of In itself, the loose and atheoretical defi-
This is an Open Access article distributed under the inspiration for present-day religious and nition of the Axial Age is not a problem.
terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non- spiritual movements: Socrates, Pythagoras, Many scientific inquiries begin with the
Commercial License ( Buddha, Mahavira, Confucius, Lao Tse, observation that several independent phe-
licenses/by-nc/3.0/), which permits unrestricted
the Hebrew prophets, etc.7 By contrast, nomena share some family resemblance
non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction
in any medium, provided the original work is prop- the Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian and that it may be possible to discover a
erly cited. The moral rights of the named author(s) religions have had no obvious impact on common cause behind this resemblance.
have been asserted. todays religious and spiritual life. In arguing that this period constitutes a
Thus, the Axial Age was defined with genuine transformation in human history
Addendum to: Baumard N, Hyal A, Morris I, reference to modern religions and the (because its thinkers have inspired so
Boyer P. Increased afuence explains the emer- modern world. It is supposed to have much of modern spirituality), rather than
gence of ascetic wisdoms and moralizing reli-
gions. Curr Biol 2014; 25:1015.
been the beginning of a new era (this is the the axial religions having been arbitrarily
origin of the term axial). Socrates, bundled together because of mere Communicative & Integrative Biology e1046657-1

orientations became culturally dominant.
These behavioral changes concern coopera-
tive behaviors (which can be seen in reli-
gious concerns for compassion and
charity) and sexual behaviors (visible in
religious concerns for chastity and socially
imposed monogamy), but also economic
behaviors (condemnation of greed and
conspicuous consumption) and parenting
behaviors (increasing investment in chil-
dren). In short, these changes represent a
major psychological transformation. In
our paper,6 we suggested that these coordi-
Figure 1. The mythic and theoretic styles of cognitive governance (adapted from Donald, 2012).
nated changes could result from an adap-
tive response to a more affluent behavior.
Indeed, Life-History Theory has recently
temporal coincidence, scientists, philoso- human culture has gone through 3 transi- suggested that humans adaptively respond
phers, anthropologists, historians, sociolo- tions: from ape culture to mimetic culture to a more favorable environment by
gists have proposed a number of theories (through the expansion of executive func- slowing down their strategies and display-
of the Axial Age. tions), from mimetic to mythic culture ing more long-term oriented behaviors
To date, most theorists have suggested (through the emergence of linguistic sym- such as high investment in children, in
that the nature of the axial change was cog- bols), and from mythic culture to theoretic pair-bonding, in health or in cooperation.
nitive or intellectual. In particular, it has culture (through the invention of writing). This cultural dynamic does not entail
often been argued that, during the Axial According to Bellah, the Axial Age corre- that Iron Age societies became predomi-
Age, people began to be more sponds to the transition from mythic to nantly axial. On the contrary, most people
reflexive.2,3,11,12 For instance, Jaspers theoretic culture. And indeed, a range of in Iron Age societies still lived only a little
originally opposed mythos to logos, and characteristics imputed by Donald to theo- way above bare subsistence level, and con-
defined reflexivity as general conscious- retic culture do appear to have been cen- sequently saw only minor modifications
ness and as thinking about thinking: tral in the Axial Age as it is defined by the to their preferences. In consequence, our
Hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, standard cognitive approach (Fig. 1). model applies to the initial emergence of
customs and conditions, Jaspers writes, According to Donald, the key element Axial Age doctrines as an elite interest, not
were subjected to examination, ques- in the emergence of a theoretic culture is to their subsequent diffusion among large
tioned and liquidated.7 This radical ques- the invention of external symbolic memory populations. In fact, once they achieve
tioning of tradition led, he claims, to technology.4,14 The development of exter- cultural domination, moralizing and spiri-
monotheism in the eastern part of the East- nal memory in the form of writing, lists, tual religions usually start to be
ern Mediterranean, and to the birth of phi- scriptures, etc., massively enhanced indi- despiritualized by the materialistic needs
losophy in its western part. viduals abilities to reflect on their own of the less affluent classes, producing phe-
Philosophers and historians of religions thoughts and challenge prior beliefs, which nomena such as the cult of the saints, the
have proposed a range of terms for what eventually led to a new kind of culture and pilgrimages toward holy sanctuaries, and
they take to be the psychological basis of a new way of dealing with the world. the venerations of relics.16,17
the axial change. For instance, Voegelin In our paper,6 we propose a new char- More generally, it is to be expected that
coined the term mythospeculation;13 acterization of the Axial Age based not on there was a wide spectrum of axial
Momigliano used the term criticism;11 a cognitive change but on a behavioral one believers, ranging from people who had a
Schwartz proposed the term Age of Tran- (Fig. 2). We argue that the real change is superficial knowledge of spiritual and
scendence, referring to the new ability of the emergence of self-discipline and self- moralizing religions but liked them, to
standing back and looking beyond and lessness, which were new at the time and people who committed some resources
of self-distanciation;12 and Assman sug- which today form the core of world reli- through alms giving, to people who actu-
gested the Mosaic distinction and gions. On this view, the reason why such ally went and lived in the desert and made
cognitive disembedding from the symbi- figures as Buddha, the Stoics, Lao Tse and vows of poverty. Roman accounts of con-
otic embeddedness of early man in the Confucius are still read today is that they version to Christianity describe all these
cycles of nature, political institutions, and proposed a new way of life in which motives, and more.18 Ultimately, all spiri-
social constellations.4 morality and self-discipline are central. tual movements had to make concessions
In recent years, Robert Bellah3 has pro- On this view, the Axial Age is major about the kind of life they asked from
posed to use Merlin Donalds theory of psychological change from a period in their followers, and most ended up split-
cognitive change14,15 to explain the axial which short-term orientations dominated, ting believers into 2 broad classes, the
change. According to Donalds theory, toward a period in which long-term individuals fully committed to a spiritual

e1046657-2 Communicative & Integrative Biology Volume 8 Issue 5

NB thanks PSL* for funding its Chaire
dexcellence and the 2 grants ANR-10-
LABX-0087 IEC and ANR-10-IDEX-
0001-02 PSL*.

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