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The Emergence of Religion in Human Evolution

Johan Verschueren,SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Jan 19th 2021

The last 20 years have seen significant progress in the fields of bioscience and neuroscience. Particularly interesting is the question of when and how “religious capacity” evolved in hominids, and how it should be understood from the biological point of view.

A new volume, The Emergence of Religion in Human Evolution, tries to give an initial answer to this question.[1] The study was born from the collaboration between Margaret Boone Rappaport, an American biologist and cultural anthropologist specializing in human cognitive evolution, and Christopher J. Corbally, a British astronomer and Jesuit priest, member of the research group of the Specola Vaticana at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome. Both scientists work in Tucson, Arizona (USA).

The religious capacity of Homo sapiens

The first two chapters of the book immerse us in this new research. They define the different paradigm changes, especially regarding the evolution of hominids, the genome and brain functioning. It is quite natural that, among the different genetic lines of hominids, the study tends to focus on our species, Homo sapiens, as it has evolved and continues to evolve.

According to the two authors, it is possible to demonstrate that the “religious capacity” of Homo sapiens is a highly developed neurocognitive characteristic. It seems to be based on a solid evolutionary, and therefore genetic, foundation, and seems to be traceable only in Homo sapiens. In fact, there are more and more scientific indications that it was lacking among individuals included in the categories of Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo denisova.

Homo erectus, from which these more recent human species originated, does not seem to have had a “religious capacity.” This difference between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens leads the authors to wonder what is the link between the two, since much of what we can discover in the former proved to be fundamental for the latter in its ability to express a “religious capacity” for the first time.

Homo erectus originated about 1.9 million years ago in Africa, probably from an older human species, Homo habilis. With Homo erectus, the human being left life in the trees and moved to the savannahs, in groups of about 100 individuals. Supported by valid arguments the authors claim that in these groups of hunters – remember that Homo erectus was originally carnivorous – important evolutions took place: the birth of a primordial language, the ability to dominate and use fire (about 1.5/1 million years ago), the ability to produce tools. Among these new abilities, the moral one is also highlighted. Given the importance of the latter in the development of a subsequent religious capacity, the two scientists describe and analyze it at length.

For there to be a “moral capacity,” it is necessary to have two types of neurocognitive capacity, which were likely to be present in the species Homo erectus. First, archeology has introduced us to the sophisticated level of production of the tools of Homo erectus. This reveals an aspect of thought that makes it possible both to refer to the past and to project into the future. Secondly, paleoneurology demonstrates the presence of an ability to question and explain phenomena and events. These two cognitive faculties, together with a primordial language – made possible by the anatomy of the larynx of Homo erectus – are necessary for a being to act morally.

Unfortunately, we have no direct knowledge of the genetic heritage of Homo erectus (we do not have the genome), which could provide decisive evidence to support these well-founded hypotheses. For the moment, therefore, this will remain a hypothesis, until new discoveries can help us to better understand these issues.

Moral capacity and religious capacity

The book makes it clear that moral capacity is distinguished from religious capacity. Both these abilities fall within the neurocognitive characteristics. But religious capacity requires further developments, including the presence of the FOXP2 gene (which we find in Homo sapiens), responsible for the linguistic form that characterizes us. This gene is not present in Homo neanderthalensis, which is another direct descendant of Homo erectus, which emerged about 800,000 years ago, long before Homo sapiens (present only for the last 300,000 to 400,000 years).

Another novelty of Homo sapiens is the genetic activation of the HAR zone on chromosome 20, which became responsible for the significant increase in brain volume and skull rounding in our species. It is a genetic code that has remained unchanged in our primate line for 60 million years or more, and shows in our species only, a change which allows significantly greater genetic activity.

In this regard, there is still much research to be done; but one should not expect to find something like the “God gene.” Religious ability may be a genome-based neurocognitive characteristic, but as a characteristic it is the result of the sum of several very ancient neurocognitive characteristics. With Homo sapiens, we are faced with more recent traits that cooperate in a new environment and create new possibilities. We will discuss this point in more detail later.

The birth of culture

What about the emergence of culture? Does it have a biological foundation? The two authors give a positive answer to this question. By “culture” is meant the set of behaviors and expressions that, within the species, may differ from one group to another, to the point that an individual, if included in a neighboring group, could not live and act without a necessary period of adaptation, or culture shock. In this sense, the origin of culture is placed by the two scientists further back in time, up to over eight million years ago. In fact, it seems that even chimpanzees, in a weaker form, and the various species of hominids, in a more accentuated form, possessed what we can define as “culture.” So, millions of years ago there was a common ancestor with cerebral characteristics that made possible the emergence of “culture capacity.”

The two scholars are aware that the question of the biological foundation of the phenomenon of religion, or “religious capacity,” may surprise many professional theologians or any individuals who considers religion – any religion – important to them or to the community to which they belong; but for experienced biologists it is not strange. For them, in fact, every activity of the human being, even thoughts and actions, are not only cultural expressions, but also biological characteristics. Something in our brain allows us to behave religiously, to think religiously, to have a religious experience, to recognize other traditions as religious expressions, even if they are very different from our tradition. And all this even if the observer is not a believer. Moreover, the two authors point out that not all individuals of our kind possess “religious capacity,” just as there are people today who do not have “moral capacity.”

After this account of the book’s contents, perhaps someone might want to read it. But we must warn that the text is not easy to read, even if it is well structured and develops gradually, with many references to other publications and includes an extensive bibliography. The difficulty lies in the fact that it is not a popular science book. To understand it requires a good knowledge of biology, possibly integrated with an understanding of anthropology and philosophy.

A more popular book on this topic is needed, so as to make these discoveries and the opinions of the two authors accessible to a wider audience. Perhaps this will happen in the future, but for now we have to be content with the arguments that the two scholars propose to us. It is therefore a question of bringing together and summarizing the discoveries of these nine scientific disciplines: cultural anthropology, stone and bone archeology, cognitive archeology, cognitive science, genetics, population genetics, human genome science, paleoneurology and neuroscience. Many of these sciences are still in an evolutionary phase, and new discoveries are constantly being made.

Nevertheless, based on the data already acquired, the authors formulate this statement: “The central thesis of this book states that the brain and the neural capacities that allowed an economic and socio-cognitive niche for the first Homo sapiens are the same organs and the same capacities that allowed the emergence of ‘religious thought’ and action” (p. 192). The most ancient archeological evidence in this sense can be dated to about 190,000 years ago, and exclusively in the evolutionary line of Homo sapiens .

Religious experience and genetic heritage

The two authors are aware that their book is the first in a series of future studies in this field of research. It would be good if specialized theologians would dedicate themselves to continue this research and develop its results. Perhaps this is already happening. For our part, we are convinced that this field of research could influence our conception of the human person and could lead to a new vision of the phenomenon of religion – in Christianity and elsewhere – with an impact on our religious self-understanding, on anthropology, and therefore also on theology.

The two scientists are aware of this challenge; however, they remind readers that the book does not provide guidelines for their spiritual life, but aims to reassure them and help them understand that the search for a religious experience is reasonable, that it has its origins in the evolution of our species, and that religious thought is not “strange,” or a sign of weakness, or “a symptom of a backward way of being.” To the question: “Why is religion so important to so many people around the world?” they answer: “Because it is our biological heritage.”

Regardless of cultural differences, religious experience is universal. For this reason we can recognize as “religious behavior” the activities of a shaman in the Amazon, the Eucharistic celebration of a Catholic priest in Rome, or the long meditation of a Buddhist monk in Tibet. “Religious ability is not taught or acquired during growth from childhood to adulthood, but it is a cognitive trait that varies from individual to individual, and allows each individual to decide whether to express it or not” (Preface, p.xi).

Let us now try to consider what the original contribution of neuroscience can be. It seems that our species is able to interactively influence the human brain (neuroplasticity), to modify certain capabilities, enhancing or decreasing their influence on our decisions. These contributions make us understand how fallacious is a “scientific” vision that presents people as beings totally determined by the genome in every aspect. The characteristic of our genome is to create unexpected possibilities of transcending one’s own limits. And, on the other hand, it is our way of thinking that is able to influence the evolution of our genome.

Genetic drift and religious capacity

Reading the book, one is impressed by the discoveries that have been made in recent decades. It is fascinating to realize the uniqueness of the genome and brain of Homo sapiens, which make the human body and lifestyle unique in all of creation. Completely surprising is the discovery that our evolution has been strongly influenced by what population genetics today calls “genetic drift.” This is an evolutionary phenomenon that temporarily subordinates the mechanisms of natural selection, when the population of a certain species ends up in a “bottleneck”, which our ancestors apparently experienced several times in the Paleolithic age.

Ultimately, our species seems to be characterized by a very small genetic variety. By “genetic drift” we mean the phenomenon that some genetic mutations in a numerically restricted population were not selected and eliminated, even when they had harmful side effects (such as schizophrenia etc.), but also made possible surprising innovations (such as Euclidean spatial sensations, high sensitivity etc.). Examples of this are the development of the cerebral parietal lobes and the round skull (see the HAR zone, which we have mentioned above).

It is these novelties, together with other existing capacities (phenomena such as neuroplasticity and neuro-networks), that have made the emergence of religious capacity possible. This has proved to be an advantage for the social cohesion of the group and, in combination with the economy (the answer to the question “how to survive?”), has advanced our human evolutionary line. The emergence of moral capacity – and, later, religious capacity – seems to have offered an answer to certain forms of uniqueness and specificity in the group and to the transmission of genes, which otherwise would not have had the opportunity to express themselves. In this way, the first signs that the human species could and wanted gradually to withdraw from the brutal logic of natural selection and survival of the strongest made their entrance into the evolution of society. This whole process culminated in those typically human capabilities thanks to which today we can take control of our evolution. The authors dedicate the final chapter to this topic.

It is interesting to note that from the discoveries and hypotheses of these scholars an image of humanity emerges that is no longer condemned to fall within a rigid deterministic framework, in which it is at the mercy of the brutal forces of natural selection, and in which freedom is an illusion. The authors emphasize that the 20th century synthesis between 19th century Darwinism and Mendelian inheritance is no longer sufficient to explain the evolution of complex neurocognitive characteristics, such as social capacity, cultural capacity, moral capacity and religious capacity. Meanwhile, evolutionary biologists are working on a new synthesis, called EES (Extended Evolutionary Synthesis), which does not replace the old one, but integrates it with new functions and concepts, such as “mutual causality” (feedback mechanisms between genome and choice of expression), group selection, non-genetic heredity, etc. These concepts increase our amazement before the mystery of the human person.

The science of life and religion

We also note that in this evolution the two authors of the book do not find any teleology: there is no “causal necessity” in it. For example: why did Homo neanderthalensis, unlike Homo sapiens, never develop “religious capacity,” even though they are both descended from a common ancestor? And why, unlike Homo habilis, has the evolutionary line of Australopithecus not found its own specific way?

On the basis of our studies of biology and theology we find it surprising that from all these hypotheses a new vision of the human person is emerging that reduces, rather than increases, the distance between the sciences of life and religion. Many, when it was understood that the 21st century would become the century of brain research, expected that this distance could turn into a real abyss. If religious behavior and religious capacity can also be understood as a complex biological possibility that helps and assists our species, then this no longer sounds strange to the ears of a professional theologian. Christian tradition has emphasized for 2000 years that human beings have the freedom to believe or not, and that gift, grace – what is offered to them, including the possibility to believe – and the freedom to choose to believe or not – free will – go hand in hand.

And what about our “talking about God,” that is, “theology”? Will it be influenced by this new representation of the human person? The two scholars are in favor of an affirmative answer, even if they do not venture to explore its possibilities; in fact, they do not claim to write about theology as such.

We would like to conclude these reflections on a properly theological note. Undoubtedly, the results of contemporary biological research will enrich our vision of the human being, and this, consequently, will affect theology. It has always been so: all our talk about God comes from limited knowledge (cf. 1 Cor 13:9), and we continue to try to approach this great mystery with limited words. Yet we always attempt to do so with new words, because our reality is constantly changing. Therefore, we can predict that the new discoveries will make our speaking of God as Creator become a language that emphasizes that God is a Creator of infinite possibilities, who unceasingly and unpredictably allows the new to arise from the old.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 11 art. 3, 1120: 10.32009/22072446.1120.3

[1].    M. Boone Rappaport – C. J. Corbally, The Emergence of Religion in Human Evolution, London – New York, Routledge, 2019.

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