Read an Excerpt
Apes to Angels
WE HUMANS CRAVE emotional connection with others. This deep desire to connect can be explained by the long evolutionary history we shared with other primates, the monkeys and apes. At the same time, it explains why humans evolved to become the spiritual ape—the ape that grew a large brain, the ape that stood up, the ape that first created art, but, above all, the ape that evolved God.
A focus on emotional connection is an exciting way to view human prehistory, but it is not the traditional way. Millions of years of human evolution are most often recounted as a series of changes in the skeletons, artifacts, and big, flashy, attention-grabbing behaviors of our ancestors. Medium–size skulls with forward–jutting jaws morph into skulls with high foreheads, large enough to house a neuron–packed human brain. Bones of the leg lengthen and shape–shift over time, so that a foot with apelike curved toes becomes a foot that imprints the sand just the way yours and mine do as we stroll along the surf. Crudely modified tools made of rough stone develop gradually into objects of antler and bone, delicately fashioned and as much symbolic as utilitarian. Caves, at first refuges for Neandertal hunters seeking shelter from hungry bears and other carnivores, become colorful art galleries when Homo sapiens begins to paint the walls with magnificent images of the animals they hunt.
Stones, bones, and “big” behaviors like tool–making and cave–painting do change over time as our ancestors evolve, and much of what we can learn about these transformations is enlightening. But the most profound, indeed the most stirring transformations in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens involve what does not fossilize and what is only sometimes made tangible: belongingness.
Belongingness is mattering to someone who matters to you. It’s about getting positive feelings from our relationships. It’s what you and I work to maintain (or what we wish for) with family and friends, and perhaps also with colleagues or people in our community; for some of us, it extends to animals as well (other animals, for we humans are first and foremost animals). Relating emotionally to others shapes the very quality of our lives.
Belongingness, then, is a useful shorthand term for the undeniable reality that humans of all ages, in all societies, thrive in relation to others. That humans crave emotional connection is obvious in some respects. Most of us marry and live in families, configured either as parents (or a single parent) living with children or, more commonly worldwide, as multiple generations living together in extended family groups. We do things, both spiritual and secular, and by choice as well as necessity, in groups of relatives, friends, and associates. We write great literature and make great art based on the deepest emotions for those we love, or pine for, or grieve for.
Who can linger over a superbly crafted love poem and doubt the depth of human yearning for belongingness? We feel, rather than merely read or hear, Emily Dickinson’s poem "Compensation":
For each ectatic instant We must an anguish pay In keen and quivering ratio To the ecstasy.
For each beloved hour Sharp pittances of years,
Bitter contested farthings And coffers heaped with tears.
For one reader, these words might conjure up two lovers separated, by death or by mere circumstance, after a too–fleeting time together, an image accompanied by a feeling of searing loss. For another reader, they might bring to mind what happens when a cherished child not only grows up but grows apart, a thought coupled with a bittersweet mingling of pride and regret at being the center of her universe no more.
Emerging from the emotional depths of this poem, a reader might wonder what new can be said about human belongingness that might shed light on the evolution of the human religious imagination. Compelling questions can guide us here.
WEAVING A STORY
How did humans go from craving belongingness to relating in profound and deep ways to God, gods, or spirits? How did an engagement with the sacred that is wholly unique to humans emerge from a desire for belongingness that is common to monkeys, apes, extinct human ancestors, and humans of today? These seem to me the most vital questions, and they will act as my touchstone as I weave two thick strands of information together into an evolutionary account of the prehistory of belongingness.
For two and a half decades, at work in zoos and research centers and in the African bush, I have observed, filmed, and interpreted the behavior of monkeys and apes. The social and emotional behavior of these close relatives of ours never fails to fascinate in its own right. In long–term study of particular social groups, any keen observer comes to recognize bitter rivalries, deep friendships, and enduring family ties—and becomes convinced that the animals, too, recognize them and act accordingly.
Like most anthropologists, however, I have been motivated ultimately by the wish to understand better the behavior of my own species. Coupling my own research with analysis of the behavior of our humanlike extinct ancestors in Africa, Asia, and Europe—as studied by other scholars—has allowed me to grasp something about just how we humans evolved. I am especially fascinated with the evolutionary history of empathy; of meaning–making; of rule–following; of imagination; and of consciousness. In what ways do monkeys and apes today express behaviors related to these aspects of emotional and cognitive life? How can we best seek evidence of these in our extinct ancestors? Can we uncover traces of our emotional prehistory in the remains, both physical and cultural, of the Neandertals and related groups? If so, how do these traces speak to us across the millennia about the development of religion?
These questions emerge from my own experience as an observer of primates, a writer, and a student of others’ anthropological research—and indeed from my long-standing tendency to be attracted to the “big questions” of biological anthropology. Yet no book that purports to explain something meaningful about religion can spring entirely from a single discipline. Though biological anthropology is the most appropriate field in which to ground our inquiry, it's necessary to adopt a broad perspective.
A second set of issues beckons us further into the labyrinth that must be negotiated in any study of religion. What is religion? What is the relationship—both in the present and in the past—between religious belief and religious practice? That is, must religion be defined as a set of beliefs, or can it be something different? How do theologians and other religious thinkers portray the relationship between faith and practice? Can understanding this relationship lead us to a different take on the findings from the first set of questions, those about the prehistory of religion?
The challenge is to weave together two discrete strands: the development of the religious imagination throughout prehistory, and the phenomenon of religion itself. These two threads, each with a panoply of attendant questions, seem to lead in a dizzying variety of directions. In the following chapters, I shall draw the threads together into a coherent story. Along the way, I will compare and contrast my views with those of other writers who speculate about the origins of religion. In what ways are these theorists on the right track, and in what ways do they miss critical pieces of the puzzle?
For now, the essence of my argument can be summarized in three key points:
A fundamental characteristic of all primates, the need for belongingness is most elaborated in the African apes, our closest living relatives. Though we did not descend from chimpanzees or gorillas, we share with them a common ancestor. The everyday social behavior of this apelike ancestor laid a foundation for the evolution of religion that was to come much later, a foundation that can be reconstructed from knowledge of what today’s apes do.
Drawing on my own years of up–close–and–personal encounters with chimpanzees and gorillas, I discuss in Chapter 2 the early precursors to religion—empathy, meaning–making, rule–following, and imagination—and how these relate to the issue of ape consciousness. I am convinced that apes are highly sensitive and tuned in to one another starting in infancy, when a baby begins to negotiate with its mother about its needs. More than most other mammals, ape infants are born into a highly social world, a web of emotional interactions among relatives and other social partners. Research on animals like dolphins and elephants may someday challenge this conclusion, but it seems clear at least that the way two apes respond to each other sensitively and contingently is of different quality than what happens when two wolves, say, or two domestic cats, circle each other and adjust to each other's snarls, or lunges, in a well–honed, highly instinctual dance. It even seems different from the learned behaviors of other primates, like monkeys. The apes’ finely tuned responses to each other are rooted in belongingness, in the emotionality toward others that stems from their being so keenly dependent on their mothers and other relatives from birth onward.
Second, profound changes in emotional relating occurred as our human ancestors’ lives diverged from those of the apelike ancestors. In Chapters 3 through 6, I focus on the origins of the human religious imagination in the span of time bounded, on the one end, by the divergence of hominids (human ancestors) from the ape lineage about 6 million or 7 million years ago, and on the other by the beginning of farming and settled communities around 10,000 years ago. Admittedly, we can glean almost nothing concrete about emotional connectedness as far back as 7 million years (though we can continue to use modern–day apes as models, and speculate in useful ways). After 3 million years ago, the record of material culture—fossilized artifacts and other concrete products of hominid behavior—begins. At that point, tangible clues help us assess the changes that take place in empathy, meaning–making, rule–following, imagination, and consciousness, and, indeed, in the pattern of nurturing and caring that lays the foundation for all of these.
After all, it is not the stones and bones, the technology and art, that deserve top billing in our prehistory; it is material culture’s emotional backstory that does. Throughout the millennia, hominid mothers nurtured their children; siblings played with each other and with their friends; adults shifted alliances, supporting first this friend, then another, against a rival. The emotional dependency of ape infants on their mothers and other relatives only deepened and lengthened as the human lineage began to evolve, a fact with cascading consequences for the hominids’ whole lives.
The archaeologist Steven Mithen rescues Neandertals, for instance, from the caveman–dragging–cavewoman–by–the–hair stereotype by acknowledging this rich inner life; he writes of “intensely emotional beings: happy Neanderthals, sad Neanderthals, angry Neanderthals, disgusted Neanderthals, envious Neanderthals, guilty Neanderthals, grief–stricken Neanderthals, and Neanderthals in love.” (1) While I embrace Mithen’s sensibility, I would have put the statement a bit differently: “Neandertals making each other happy, Neandertals making each other sad…” Emotions, before, after, and during the Neandertal period, are created when individuals act together and make meaning together, starting in infancy. The excitement in understanding human evolution is centered in tracing this mutual creativity and meaning–making, indeed in tracing the evolution of belongingness.
Third, the hominid need for belongingness rippled out, eventually expanding into a wholly new realm. In tandem with, and in part driven by, changes in the natural environment, in the hominid brain, and most important, in caregiving practices, something new emerged that went beyond empathy, rule–following, and imagination within the family and immediate group, and that went beyond consciousness expressed through action and meaning-making in the here and now. As I explain in Chapters 6 and 7, language and culture became more complex as symbols and ritual practices began to play a more central role in how hominids made sense of their world. An earthly need for belongingness led to the human religious imagination and thus to the otherworldly realm of relating with God, gods, and spirits.
From the building blocks we find in apelike ancestors emerged the soulful need to pray to gods, to praise God with hymns, to shake in terror before the power of invisible spirits, to fear for one’s life at the hands of the unknown or to feel bathed in all–enveloping love from the heavens. To express in straightforward language the profound depth of this human emotional connection to the sacred is a challenge. The inaccessibility to language of the sacred experience mirrors what Martin Buber writes about when he describes human relating with God: it “is wrapped in a cloud but reveals itself, it lacks but creates language. We hear no You and yet we feel addressed; we answer—creating, thinking, acting: with our being we speak the basic word, unable to say You with our mouth.” (2)
Buber’s I and Thou is a wonderful (in the word’s literal sense) lead–in to understanding my thesis. Buber says that “all actual life is encounter,” that “in the beginning is the relation,” that “man becomes an I through a You.” (3) This is so and has been so for a very long time in our prehistory. What’s so beautiful and compelling about the human religious imagination in all its ineffable relating is how it emerges from its evolutionary precursors and yet completely transfigures them.
In highlighting this critical balance between evolutionary continuity and evolutionary transformation, I want to be crystal clear about the role of belongingness in the origins of religion. I see belongingness as one aspect of religiousness—an aspect so essential that the human religious imagination could not have evolved without it. In scientific lingo, belongingness is a necessary condition for the evolution of religion. Over the course of prehistory, belongingness was transformed from a basic emotional relating between individuals to a deeper relating, one that had the potential to become transcendent, between people and supernatural beings or forces.
My focus on belongingness distinguishes my perspective from the dominant one today. In our age of high–tech science, when gene sequencing and brain-mapping reign supreme, it is little surprise to find that the most popular theories of the origin of religion center around properties of genes and brains. Specific genetic–biochemical profiles and inherited brain “modules” devoted to the expression of religion animate these theories. While something can be learned from such scenarios, they are sterile to the degree that they fail to grasp the significance of what matters most: people deeply and emotionally engaged with others of their kind, and eventually with the sacred.
That social interactions played a central role in the origins of religion is not, of course, an original insight. Such an emphasis may no longer be favored, but at least since the time of the pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim in the early twentieth century, and indeed since Buber, theorists have expressed the importance of connections between religion and social–emotional phenomena. A few theorists continue that trend today. But as I have indicated, to fully probe the origins of religion, we must look beyond even the first glimmers of human evolution to examine the emotional lives of the apes. And so I start the evolutionary clock earlier than do others who chart the origins of the religious imagination.
The challenge at the heart of this book is to tell the story of the earliest origins of religion. As is already clear, commitment to an evolutionary perspective on religion amounts to a claim that humans evolved God gradually and not via some spiritual big bang. Before moving, in subsequent chapters, to specifics of the evolutionary perspective itself, it remains to say something more concrete about religion itself. One linguistic clarification can be made immediately. By adopting the term “the human religious imagination,” I do not mean to imply that humans simply make up God, gods, and spirits in their imaginations. Nor do I claim—nor, indeed, could I claim—that these sacred beings are real in our world. Matters of faith are not amenable to scientific analysis, experimentation, or testing; writing as a biological anthropologist, I remain agnostic on this question. My focus is on our prehistory, and on how—and why—we evolved God as that prehistory unfolded.
From the Hardcover edition.