Sunsets, Chimps and the Evolution of Spirituality

Geza Teleki tells about watching a sunset when two large wild male chimpanzees meet near the top of a small hill. They stand up and shake hands in a very human-like way, then sit down and watch the sunset together. Watching sunsets is just something chimpanzees do and and it’s been seen by Jane Goodall and others. Why? Apparently for the same reasons we do. You don’t need language to enjoy beauty. In fact sometimes it just gets in the way.

Our capacity for spirituality must exist, in part, within our body. I believe this because I feel that getting a body was a necessary part of our eternal progression. When we have a spiritual experience, for example, I believe we are feeling something in our complete personhood. It’s just not our spirit feeling (whatever that might mean) or just our body. Spirituality must be an act of the union of these aspects of our complete person. It seems to me that our body must then at least have the capacity for this sort of experience. Could it have evolved with the rest of our body? The next few posts are going to explore this question in detail. The first part will explore some of the neurology of spiritual experience and trace out some of the archeological evidence for humans engaging in religious acts as early as 40,000 years ago with hints at even earlier religious acts (some evidence exists for Neanderthal engagement in religious ritual, which would push back religious ritual to over 400,000 years ago, if we take these rituals back to a common ancestor of both humans and Neanderthals). In part II we will explore some of the reasons researchers think religious feelings may have evolved, and lastly in part III to explore the implications our for LDS views if these things are true. I’ll tell you up front that I have no problem with the idea that my body may have evolved with spiritual capacities. My body evolved with capacities to detect lightwaves (eyes, certain brain structures, etc), which use real signals to help me navigate in the world. If there are bodily apparatuses for doing the same with spiritual signals I don’t see a problem.

These ideas seem to threaten many people of faith, but I think as LDS we are uniquely placed to make better sense of this than many other religions. This because of the central role that the body plays in our theology.

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8 Responses to Sunsets, Chimps and the Evolution of Spirituality

  1. Cap says:

    I am excited to read these upcoming posts. I think that our religious faith is unique and ideas like this, and many others should be expressed and searched out. The search for knowledge is a great one.

  2. David says:

    You know I’ve often felt that there must have been some real expediency behind getting man down on this sphere. I doubt our spiritual selves previous to this life had a shelf life and yet we show up on the scene with these fragile bodies. Obviously the executive decision was that the most needed features had been evolved but given the long list of missing features I have to think urgency was a factor.
    Additionally, since I’ve seen animals react “spiritually” I wonder what those last features where that finally gave homo sapiens the thumbs up and was the notion of adam and eve truly an incident of a punctuated equilibrium or where the selected much as mankind has often been selected for spiritual callings; because they listened.

  3. . . . also looking forward to your thoughts in the next post. Thanks.

  4. Tatiana says:

    Oh this is really interesting to me. I’ve often heard nonreligious people state that the fact that spiritual experiences have a physiologic nature makes religion somehow not real. That seems silly, as you point out, since our vision and other senses have physiological components, yet we don’t at all interpret that to mean the objects being sensed are unreal.

    I can’t wait to read your thoughts in future posts.

  5. Pingback: Points of Interest, #38 « Mind, Soul, and Body

  6. Usiku says:

    Yes, spirituality is an entire experience consisting of our portion of the spirit, our body, our mind and the larger spiritual prescence that connects all things. Witnessing a sunset over the ocean blessed me with one of many of these types of experiences.

  7. Sophia says:

    I’m also looking forward to this series – you have a lot of unique insights.

    I have a question for you, maybe you can address it in a later post, or point me to a past post. What do you think the relation between our evolution into what we are today with whatever God looks like. We are told that God is “human”, but what does that mean? Has he pushed along our own evolution so that these bodies are more like him, or does he look like us only to us. We know from looking at the other species on the earth that we all come from the same place, ruling out any sort of alien/sci-fi transport (even though Mormon theology sort of supports that kind of thinking) … any thoughts?

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