Ritual behaviour, intended as a specific, repetitive and rigid form of action flow, appears both in social and non-social environmental contexts, representing an ubiquitous phenomenon in animal life including human individuals and cultures. The purpose of this contribution is to investigate an evolutionary continuum in proximate and ultimate causes of ritual behavior. A phylogenetic homology in proximal mechanisms can be found, based on the repetition of genetically programmed and/or epigenetically acquired action patterns of behavior. As far as its adaptive significance, ethological comparative studies show that the tendency to ritualization is driven by the unpredictability of social or ecological environmental stimuli. In this perspective, rituals may have a “homeostatic” function over unpredictable environments, as further highlighted by psychopathological compulsions. In humans, a circular loop may have occurred among ritual practices and symbolic activity to deal with a novel culturally-mediated world. However, we suggest that the compulsion to action patterns repetition, typical of all rituals, has a genetically inborn motor foundation, thus precognitive and pre-symbolic. Rooted in such phylogenetically conserved motor structure (proximate causes), the evolution of cognitive and symbolic capacities have generated the complexity of human rituals, though maintaining the original adaptive function (ultimate causes) to cope with unpredictable environments.
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