To get at the possibility of the evolution of spirituality let’s take a diversion into current attempts by evolutionary biologists to explain the evolution of religion. Pascal Boyer speculates that religion arose as part of evolving human cognitive abilities.
First, the mind evolved to the point it was able to imagine possibilities that do not exist in reality. We can consider counterfactuals. We can combine the stuff of thought in new ways that suggests possible worlds that really have no necessary tie to reality. In fact, we can imagine impossible worlds. In our minds we can take the wings of bird and put them on a monkey and imagine a world of flying monkeys.
The second factor Boyer thinks is necessary for the evolution or religion is our awareness of agents. As the Book of Mormon points out there the universe is composed of ‘things to act and things to be cacted upon.‘ Agents act with purpose. Why did that lion stalk that herd of gnus? Because it wants to eat one. Why did the elephant lift its trunk and pull down a large branch from the acacia tree? Because it wanted the sweet and tender leafs on the uppermost parts of the tree. Agents act intentionally. Agents have behavior. We don’t talk about the behavior of rocks, trees, or hammers. But we are most savvy about how other agents act, especially other humans. We know that they are driven by motivations, thoughts, plans, and perceptions similar to ours. We have an ability to intuit what others feel.
The next step, Boyer suggests, is our awareness of possible unseen predators. Our human body evolved in a dangerous world. It was filled with animals that wanted to eat us and still is. This made us careful and wary. When we walked passed a patch of brush that might hide the menacing form of a lion, we could imagine and visualize that there really was a lion there, whether there was or not. We could feel the lion. And so we take the same steps behaviorally as we pass the bushes that we would take if we could actually see a lion. The lion became an invisible agent to which we attributed the intention of making a meal out of us. These types of feelings are with us today and are a common part of our experience.
For example, during the summer while riding my bike, I passed another bike rider. I saw that she sped up slightly as I passed her and I knew I was in a race. I could feel the person behind me. I could feel their intent to re-pass me. This person’s presence was as real to me as anyone in my forward field of vision. I never turned around, I did not want her to know, that I knew we were racing (think about that), so in some strange way the rider behind me became an invisible agent, the predator I could not see but knew was there. I had invented intentions for my ghost-rider (to pass me), and I was acting on these suppositions. The strange thing was that the rider had taken a different fork in the road soon after I passed her (Actually, she could have just stopped, or died, or been captured by spies, or lots of other things, but I’m choosing the most likely scenario given my familiarity of the road and what I know about riders on the road who typically take one of two forks at a certain point). But I felt her presence behind me for miles. Her presence haunted me into a unnecessarily rapid pace. When I finally turned around I was genuinely surprised to find her not on my tail. But during that time as I was racing her, I could ‘feel’ her there. She was a real presence.
Boyer calls this ability to be aware of unseen agents our intuitive psychology system. He sees this as one of the root causes in our ability to believe in what he sees as the biggest unseen agent of all: God. Boyer believes that there are also two other systems which facilitate our belief in God (or Gods). The first of these he calls an exchange system. This system is used in our social interactions with others. We are an economic species and have set up hierarchies in which we exchange goods, are aware of people that have ripped us off or those who have been fair with us. We keep a tally of who has offended and who has helped us. Boyer speculates that this is why gossip is such an important and universal activity for humans all over the world. We need good information on who we can trust and who we can’t if we are going to live in a well-oiled society. The second is our awareness of cause and effect.
So according to Boyer we now have in place all we need for the evolution of religion. We can imagine alternative worlds; we can feel the presence of agents we cannot see; we are wired to interact with others through exchanges, keeping track of cheaters and helpers; we are not comfortable until we understand the reasons behind things and seek explanations based on cause and effect. So out of this set of facilities he sees our religious beliefs and in such things as participatory prayer with an unseen agent with who we want to negotiate action in the world.
Now a couple of points are worth making. This activity of Boyer is what we might call hypothesis generation. One part of an early scientific explanation is first lining up the facts that need explaining and trying to arrange them in a coherent way. So this is not a fully scientific explanation yet. And, indeed, Boyer is controversial even among evolutionary biologists. But his attempt does illustrate one of the ways that science progresses. You can see this sort of activity when Einstein sat on a train imagining he was riding on a lightwave. But Boyer’s work does point to brain processes that might be examined to find genetic and developmental pathways that are used in religious behavior. Which pathways are under possible selective control and hence evolution. This is all part of science. The naive positivist view that science is just hypothesis testing and theory falsification is now considered by philosophers of science passé and not reflective of the complex activity that is science.
So what if Boyer is right? Are such ideas threating to our faith? Next time. (Short answer: Of course not).