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The Evolution of Religion

Whited Sepulchers

R. Elisabeth Cornwell, PhD and J. Anderson Thomson, MD

The Human Niche

Humans, like all other living beings, are a product of four billion years of evolutionary processes. We have been shaped and pounded by the rhythms of our planet's geology and climate as well by the continual interplay among biological organisms.
You exist because eons of your ancestors, from bacteria to primates, struggled and reproduced successfully. The genes that reside in each and every one of us are the ones that helped our ancestors not only to survive, but to out-reproduce their competitors. And as improbable as it might seem, you are here through the success of billions and billions of generations.

Every living species on the planet -- from cabbages to whales -- has gone through this process, and evolved to fit a particular niche. Our human niche just happens to have emphasized brains over brawn, which has given us language, creativity, curiosity, and the most complicated social system of any species. However, our incredibly powerful brain is locked in a continual battle between reason and ancestral fears. This conflict helps us understand why religion has held such a grip on humanity and why reason must still fight to be heard.

Our ability to solve complex cognitive problems evolved over our long, tenuous, evolutionary history. Many adaptations that squeezed through the sieve of environmental constraints have led up to more and more complex brains. This culminated in fine-tuned software for negotiating the competitive social hierarchies that have been a crucial aspect to primate, especially human, evolution. We humans evolved the uniquely complex communication system that is language, and it in turn drove the evolution of more and more complex social interactions.

Adaptations: Designs for Success

But we are getting ahead of ourselves: we need to consider a host of adaptations that have brought us to where we are today. Adaptations are the physical and behavioral characteristics that equip a species to survive in its own particular way. The human way being as unique and complex as it is, untangling concepts of culture, including religion, is not an easy undertaking and we are only in our infancy in exploring our evolutionary roots. One way to think about these peculiarly human adaptations is as a series of software and hardware upgrades, each dependent on the other.

A common fallacy hoisted up by creationists (including 'intelligent design' sophists) is that adaptations can't work until every part is finished and in place: they ask questions like, "What good is half an eye?" The biologist Richard Dawkins has devoted more than one book to answering questions of that kind. Darwin's theory of natural selection uncovered the mystery of how the tiniest of incremental adaptations over vast amounts of time could lead to the evolution of something as complex and sophisticated as an eye or language [*1]. The mutually supportive development of computer software and hardware echoes how adaptations have built up over time, but orders of magnitude faster. Your laptop is a supercomputer by yesterday's standards, which can dance circles around the giant computers of living memory. Through small incremental steps in both hardware and software, computing technology has advanced beyond the dreams of only a few generations ago (if you doubt this, watch an old rerun of Star Trek and wonder at the huge banks of on-board computers). Of course, the mutations and adaptations witnessed by the computing industry were actually designed by intelligent beings who had specific goals in mind. Biological adaptations, by contrast, were driven by the blind and often cruel hand of natural selection. Evolution has only one goal: successful replication.

In humans, the trajectory that took us from bacteria to fish to reptiles to mammals including primates has left an indelible mark. An interesting and fun read on our unique evolutionary pathway is Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. Shubin suggests that when we take a look at how our bodies are put together, an intelligent designer becomes ever more implausible -- there are too many flaws, too many 'patches' that don't quite work right, but good enough to squeak by. The mind is no different: we are a product of millions of tiny adaptations -- and with no one in charge to make certain they all run smoothly and correctly in conjunction -- we end up with all sorts of psychological hiccups. Religion is one of them.

Tool Making: Goals and Process

Early in our hominid past, Homo hablis -- 'handy man' -- developed the ability to make tools. Such a skill required them to plan ahead, to learn from mistakes, as well as to learn from other individuals, perhaps in 'master-apprentice' relationships. Psychologically this might have been the seed from which grew our need to see purpose in not only man-made things but all things -- tools and weapons were made for a purpose, so why not stars and rivers too? Those hominids who became slightly more proficient at tool-making, planning and orienting toward goals would have been more successful, left more descendants -- and those successful individuals became our ancestors. Through tiny mutations, both physical and psychological, our ancestors became more adept at these skills. Adaptations necessary for advanced tool-making and use would have driven the psychological need to see purpose. Picking up a piece of flint, your ancestor would have needed the skill to determine if it possessed the qualities necessary to produce a cutting tool or spear head -- and that skill is the direct result of a purpose driven mind. We will get back to the critical importance of purpose in a moment.

Theory of Mind

The ability to build tools in order to achieve an end goal is only one adaptation that might have predisposed us to cultural and religious beliefs. After all, chimps are capable of making-tools, learning from other chimps, and employ goal-directed behavior. A significant adaptation that guided the course of human evolution has been our capacity to view the world through the eyes of another -- known as 'theory of mind'. This ability, which allows us to attribute mental states such as beliefs and desires to others, and intentions that differ from our own [*2], is so complex, it does not fully develop in children until around the age of four [*3]. While some scientists argue that our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, possess some abilities to perceive the intentions of others -- it is humans who have honed this ability to a fine art.

What does this have to do with religion? As our ancestors developed a sensitivity to the thoughts of others as an aid to second-guessing their outward and visible behavior, they would have started to see an intelligent creative force wherever they looked. An individual watching another chip away at a flint would attribute to him a purpose, similar to his own when he created a tool. So too would he assume that lightning, rain, the sun, the stars, the moon must have had some sort of purposeful creative force behind them. Here lie the very deepest roots of our religious beliefs.


One of the most important contributions to evolutionary science was kin selection as proposed by William D. Hamilton [*4]. His theory, which was steeped in complex mathematical equations, was brought to life in Richard Dawkins' ground-breaking book The Selfish Gene. Hamilton proposed that, while passing on our genes directly to our offspring is one way of ensuring our reproductive success, helping those individuals who are closely related to us, even at our own expense, could also ensure the survival of our genes -- more specifically the genes for helping. Any social species where relatives are likely to live in the same troop, band, or flock, would have evolved adaptations to recognize kin, assess their relatedness, and assist those who were most related. This is probably why you are more likely to donate a kidney to your sister than to your third cousin.

While all animals that live in social groups may have varying strategies to recognize and reward kinship, humans are unique in that language has allowed the development of fictive kin. Shepherds have long manipulated the concept of fictive kin within their flocks. When spring arrives and lambing begins, both ewes and lambs die. If the ewe dies, the orphaned lamb will die too unless a ewe is found who will suckle her. However, it is not in the best interest of the ewe to suckle an unrelated lamb, so shepherds have learned that by skinning the ewe's dead offspring and placing it on the orphaned lamb the ewe could be fooled into thinking that the lamb was hers. In other words, she was manipulated into accepting fictive kin.

Kinship recognition in humans comes about in two ways. The primary method is extremely archaic. We simply recognize those individuals who eat with us, share the same sleeping quarters, and provide us with food and comfort as our kin. However, with the advent of language, definitions of kinship became more complex. All cultures throughout the world name and track kinship. As our ancestors formed larger and larger groups, keeping track of kin through verbal definitions of kinship became more and more important (this helps to explain ancestor worship). But this also opened the door to creating fictive kin -- that is, giving kin names to individuals who were not closely related. This would have been extremely useful for group cohesion, especially in times of war [*5].

With the onset of agriculture, land ownership, and accumulated wealth, our ancestors began to aggregate in large, permanent settlements. The birth of villages, towns and cities, brought together masses of unrelated individuals. As these settlements grew and expanded, tribal wars over territory would have been inevitable. In a small group where everyone was closely related, sacrificing one's life in defense of close kin would have benefitted one's own genes. However, in large groups where most people were not close kin, how could leaders convince warriors to die for people who were unrelated? Language acts like the lamb's skin and tricks our minds into attributing kinship where none exists by using kin terms such as 'brother', 'father', 'sister', and 'mother'[*6]. In order to keep a small nation together, fictive kin would have been essential. It is not without reason that even today the military strives to create a sense of 'brotherhood' among soldiers. While language would have provided the platform on which to construct fictive kin, it would have been ritualized ceremonies that solidified it. Next time you attend a baptism, note the ritualization of a child being accepted into 'God's family'.

The Conflict Between Archaic Minds and Reason

Very late in our journey to modern humans, we evolved the ability to think abstractly. We could not write this article without the ability to abstract and reason, and you could not comprehend it without these abilities either. To think in such a fashion is apparently unique to humans, and even then not everyone is able. Pre-adolescent children simply do not have the brain configuration to do so. The brain configuration of a pre-adolescent child is far different from the one she will possess as an adult. It takes about 12 years or so for the frontal lobes to develop fully after reaching puberty [*7]. Our frontal lobes are key to social behavior, abstract thinking, planning and solving complex problems. Humans have evolved the most elaborate set of frontal lobes on the planet -- it is our evolutionary niche.

But highly developed frontal lobes came late into the game, and they have to compete with the archaic brain that was the engine behind our evolutionary success. Just as Shubin argues that our bodies are more like bits and bobs from a rummage sale that have been shoe-horned together and sort of work...the brain too is made up of parts that are often in conflict because they have different jobs and priorities.

Let's call our frontal lobes the 'smart-self' and the more archaic part of our brain the 'primal-self'. Our smart-selves know that over-eating and under-exercising is bad for us, leading to heart disease, diabetes, and a shorter life-span. But our primal-selves are still primed for the risk of starvation, thus it simply cannot understand why the smart-self would deny you a nice Big Mac with a large order of fries and a chocolate shake. It throws fits as you drive by those Golden Arches, and causes your brain to send messages that scream 'STOP or we could die!’. The smart-brain is just not designed to prevent the primal brain from taking over because the abundance of food most of us are surrounded by is a fairly new development in human history. Perhaps given another few thousand years, those individuals with the will-power to resist all that tasty fat, protein, sugar and salt will out-reproduce those that don't.

The point is, that there is an instant conflict between what we know is good for us and what we feel we want -- and we often fall victim to our more primal needs even when we know they are harmful.

Religion As The Ultimate Big Mac

Religion's success is undeniable. It is in every culture, and in every corner of the world. We spend billions and billions of dollars on building monuments to it, supporting it, and of course proselytizing on behalf of our own favored brand of it. Individuals give up sex and eschew family and friends for religion. Beyond that, we sacrifice time and effort to its rituals, and indoctrinate our children and grandchildren to do the same. We are even willing to kill for it.

Modern science, particularly modern biology, has given us the freedom to shuck off the idea that our existence and the existence of the universe requires an intelligent being. In fact, as Richard Dawkins pointed out in The God Delusion, invoking an intelligent being doesn't explain anything -- it just pushes the question back to 'Who designed the designer?' Despite the illogic of believing that some great being in the heavens, capable of creating not only the laws of physics, the principles of evolution, and the vastness of time also cares a great deal about whether or not you use your left hand to clean up after defecating, eat a cracker while sinless, or not mix cheese with chicken, we still seem to sup it up like mother's milk.

The reason religion is so successful is that it taps into our primal-brains in much the same way that a Big Mac does -- only more so. Religion gained its foothold by hijacking the need to give purpose at a time when humans had only their imagination -- as opposed to the evidence and reason that we have today -- to fathom their world. Spirits and demons were the explanation for illnesses that we now know are caused by bacterial diseases and genetic disorders. The whims of the gods were why earthquakes, volcanos, floods and droughts occurred. Our ancestors were driven to sacrifice everything from goats to one another to satisfy those gods.

Along with the need to attribute purpose, our faculty to intuit the intent of others spills over into a predilection for determining the intentions of gods and goddesses (or spirits, demons, and angels). Of course the major problem has been that we can never quite agree among ourselves about god's intentions, which often ends in unfortunate violent discussions. Our evolved proclivity for aggression feeds into that as well. We justify our prejudices, hatred, murders, and war by attributing our own biases to a god. As long as we kill in god's name, we are doing good.

Our primal-brains that keep track of kin can be easily hijacked through language and rituals, which is why religion uses terms such as 'god the father', 'Mary the mother of heaven', 'brother', and 'sister'. Rituals reinforce fictitious kin through feasts, worship, and ceremonies such as marriages and funerals. Despite our smart-brains being able to recognize the difference between real kin and not, those ties created within religious organizations bind tightly. Leaving the faith one was born into would certainly have led our ancestors to being shunned if not worse. In Islam, the punishment for apostasy is death. And in Western cultures, it is not uncommon to hear of individuals whose families and friends have turned their backs because they have disavowed their religious beliefs.

The fear of losing family and friends is a powerful force for keeping people in tow. It is far easier to ignore the evidence that there is no god than to give up the love and friendship of a community. Our survival depends much more on being part of a community, even in today's modern world, than on abandoning religion. Psychological studies strongly suggest that our social network, that is family and friends, are essential to personal happiness. For our ancestors it was more than that, it was necessary for our very survival itself. Exclusion would have meant death, and our primal-brains have not forgotten. We did not evolve to be solitary creatures, nor to be independent of social support. Religion has, for better or worse, always offered a ready social network, an entire (fictive) extended family. Our primal brains are designed to not only strive to maintain close family and social relationships, but when coupled with the attribution of our own primal fears to the mind of god along with our tendency for aggression, we are more than willing to commit the most heinous acts to protect our fictive kin and beliefs.

Of course there are other factors that contribute to this tangled web, such as the desire for power, land, wealth, and, where men are concerned, access to females for reproduction. All of these extant drives ingrained in the human psyche have also been justified through religion. No matter how terrible the deed, by attributing to god our own fears and hatreds -- anything could be justified. Religion and gods were extremely useful to the ruthless and power-hungry.

The Battle For Reason

Our archaic brains, which served us so well during our evolutionary past, now threaten our very existence. While our smart-brains have given us modern technology and science and the privilege of understanding not only ourselves but our universe, our primal brains are stuck in the stone-age. Reason must always fight our tendencies to give way to superstitions and fears. This is especially true when we have the capability to destroy not only ourselves, but our planet.

Much of the world's population still believe in a god forged out of the fears of a desert people and, worse, fully believe not only that their view of god and his wishes are right, but that those who disagree must be converted or face eternal torment (sometimes even offering some help to get there). The primal fears instilled by religious fever act as impenetrable walls to reason. According to a recent Gallup poll, 66% of the US population agrees strongly with the statement 'God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years'. Given the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to the contrary, such obstinate belief should frighten any reasonable thinking person. It also is testimony to the wealthy and powerful religious organizations who spend billions of dollars on public relations, creating controversies where none exist and spewing lies about the evidence for evolution [*8]. But none of this would be possible without our brains being ready and available to take in the message they are delivering. It is easy enough for atheists and humanists to chuckle at the credulity of believers, but we do so at our own peril.

Religion needs to be taken seriously. Understanding its roots, how it can seize command of our psychology and take control of our culture, may well be one of the most important endeavors we pursue. For even with all our grand technology, modern medical advances, and volumes of knowledge, if we do not stop our archaic past from overriding our modern reason we are surely doomed.

For further information on this on this topic:

We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers (parts 1-3) -- J. Anderson Thomson

Why They Kill -- J. Anderson Thomson

Why We Believe In Gods -- J. Anderson Thomson

Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer

Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus

Please visit for more discussions, articles, and videos concerning religion in the modern world.


*1. For more on this matter read Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable.

*2. Premack, D. G & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 515-526.

*3. Lewis C & Osborne A. (1990). Three-year-olds' problems with false belief: conceptual deficit or linguistic artifact? Child Development 61(5):1514-9.

*4. Hamilton, W.D. (1964). The genetical evolution of social behaviour I and II -- Journal of Theoretical Biology 7: 1-16 and 17-52.

*5. Thomson, J.A. (2007). We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers -- AAI 2007 conference in Washington, D.C.

*6. For example, in English the word 'King' is thought to be derived from the Old English word cynn, which means family or race.

*7. For more on this matter read Barbara Strauch's The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us about Our Kids.

*8. Forrest, B & Gross, P (2004). Creationism's Trojan Horse: The wedge of intelligent design.

R. Elisabeth Cornwell is an Assistant Professor of Research at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Her research includes work in the area of hormones, pheromones, and sexual selection in humans. Her most recent paper can be found in Animal Behavior, regarding evidence in support of various theories of mate selection in humans. Most recently her work has involved differences between theist and atheists on a variety of psychological profiles.

J. Anderson (Andy) Thomson received his B.A. from Duke University and his M.D. from the University of Virginia. His academic publications address PTSD, suicide terrorism, narcissistic personality disorder, religious identity, religious belief, and evolutionary theories of depression. He has done international conflict resolution work in Latvia, Estonia, Turkey, the Republic of Georgia, South Ossetia, and Kuwait. Currently he is a staff psychiatrist at the University of Virginia Counseling and Psychological Services, and at the University's Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy. He maintains a private practice in adult general psychiatry and forensic psychiatry, and is a trustee with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. would like to thank Richard Dawkins for facilitating this article.

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