Monday, 16 January 2017

Evolutionary Origins of Religion

On 11 January Guy Otten, GMH Secretary, looked at the evolutionary origins of religion.  He mapped the evolution of early man from 6 million years ago to the present day, highlighting the factors that led to the growth of religion. He correlated changes in the brain of our ancestors with the development of the conditions that led to the growth of religion.  The elements of intelligence mapped were 1. general intelligence which includes learning by trial and error and associative learning, 2. social intelligence which involves the ability to infer the mental states of others, 3. technical skills relating for example to the use of tools, 4. awareness of the natural world and 5. language skills.  Evolutionary psychologists believe that modern chimps are likely to resemble our ancestors from 6 million years ago.  

At that time they would have had some intelligence, such as minimal technical skills, for example using sticks to reach into bee hives for honey, and some awareness of the natural world, but the various kinds of intelligence were separate. They would have lived in groups and would not have had any language skills as we know them.  Guy talked through the changes to the brain at different periods:  4 million years ago with the appearance of the first early hominines, 1.8 million years ago and the emergence of Homo Erectus, 500 thousand years ago when Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals appeared.  The brain grew in size, there were advances in technical skills, tools were becoming more advanced, and social and communication skills were developing.  Our ancestors gradually moved out of Africa and by the Stone Age reached remote places such as Southern England.  By 100 thousand years ago the areas of intelligence in Homo Sapiens started to overlap, with the barriers between different parts of the brain weakening.  At that time Homo Sapiens could for instance think about the social world using technical ideas or the natural world using social ideas.  This accompanied the development of language, a higher level of consciousness, and a growth of imagination, all caused by cross-fertilization of the formerly separated intelligence domains.  At this time there is evidence of art in the form of beads, necklaces, figurines and burials with grave goods.

Guy talked about the role that the quick reactions of animals play in ensuring sensory responses to threats and their survival generally.  When language abilities are developed, words can describe dangers.  In addition, language can also facilitate the sharing of knowledge of technical skills about hunting and tool making.  With the development of language came story telling, which played an important role in these societies.  Pre-scientific humans, grappling with phenomena that they did not understand, developed stories about hunting, battles with large animals, changes in the environment, weather phenomena, shortage of food, illness and death, and warfare.  Stories about exaggerated mythical ancestors and mysterious forces that caused events, agents of harm and agents who could save, were also common.  These advances in human thinking set the conditions for the growth of religion.  Religion in this sense is a belief in non-physical beings.  Variants of belief systems involved individuals who claimed to be able to communicate with the spirit world.  Evidence of this type of religion appears at the dawn of recorded history with burials in Egypt from 3100 BCE of the Pharaohs with everything they needed to live in the afterlife.  The burial of the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang in c 210-09 BCE with his Terracotta warriors to defend him in the afterlife provides a further example.  There were also rituals in the ancient world designed to propitiate the gods.  These form the origins of church services today, which generally include prayers to the deity.  Shamanic types of religious thinking had their own cosmologies to answer questions about the earth’s origins.  Guy questioned whether their ideas are any different qualitatively from those of the Abrahamic faiths.

This array of religious thinking developed in many parts of the world into the polytheisms of ancient history and still prevails in parts of the world today.  From polytheism came monotheism, as was the case with Judaism and Islam, with belief in one god being just the latest development of magical thinking about the spirit world.  There is an association with primitive people and religion and the cargo cult in Melanesia is a case in point.  In Vanuatu there is a cult that believes that Prince Philip is a god.  Guy pointed out that all religious thinking and beliefs in gods emanates from the same beginnings and are completely unfounded evidence wise.  He argues that when one puts the evolution of religion into perspective one can see a history of some 60 thousand years with religious thinking persisting and different religions coming and going.  Guy concluded that there was little reason to think that the current dominant religions would last indefinitely but we should be mindful that at this point we only have a few hundred years of scientific thinking to aid this turnaround.