Evolutionary Psychology Meets the Evolution of Religion — Evaluating the Claims

Matt Rossano, an evolutionary psychologist at Southeastern Louisiana University, has published several articles on the evolution of religion.  Most of his articles are available online (open access).  You can find “The Religious Mind and the Evolution of Religion” here, and “The African Interregnum: The Where, When, and Why of the Evolution of Religion” here.  In addition Oxford University Press will soon publish Rossano’s book, which is titled Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved.  Here is the book’s promotional blurb:

In Supernatural Selection, Rossano presents an evolutionary history of religion. Neither an apologist for religion nor a religion-basher, he draws together evidence from a wide range of disciplines to show the valuable—even essential—adaptive purpose served by systematic belief in the supernatural. The roots of religion stretch as far back as half a million years, when our ancestors developed the motor control to engage in social rituals—that is, to sing and dance together. Then, about 70,000 years ago, a global ecological crisis drove humanity to the edge of extinction. It forced the survivors to create new strategies for survival, and religious rituals were foremost among them. Fundamentally, Rossano writes, religion is a way for humans to relate to each other and the world around them—and, in the grim struggles of prehistory, it offered significant survival and reproductive advantages. It emerged as our ancestors’ first health care system, and a critical part of that health care system was social support. Religious groups tended to be far more cohesive, which gave them a competitive advantage over non-religious groups, and enabled them to conquer the globe.

As is apparent from this promo (and the articles linked above), Rossano presents a comprehensive account of how, when, and why religion evolved.  In his meta-analysis of religious evolution, Rossano makes several tightly linked claims which may or may not be supported by data and evidence.  His ultimate claim — which comes close to being what John Langdon calls an “Umbrella Hypothesis” — is: “What science reveals is that religion made us human.”

These are some bold claims.  During the coming week, I will examine many of Rossano’s assertions and assess the evidence for, against, or absent.  I may invite Professor Rossano to respond, or to engage in a question and answer session.

I am going to begin by looking at one of the claims from the book’s promo blurb: “The roots of religion stretch as far back as half a million years, when our ancestors developed the motor control to engage in social rituals — that is, to sing and dance together.”

The starting point for evaluating this claim is, as it always should be, the hominid fossils which are approximately 500,000 years old.  The best web resource for hominid fossils is Talk Origins.  The two hominid taxa that straddle the “half million years ago” time period are Homo antecessor and Homo heidelbergensis (sometimes grouped as “archaic” Homo sapiens).  If you examine the fossils listed for these taxa at the Talk Origins website, you will find a number of interesting specimens — nearly all crania or portions of crania — from Spain, Germany, Zambia, France, and Greece.

Crania and portions of crania cannot tell us much about the motor control abilities of these hominids.  Neither the size nor shape of the crania, nor the size-shape of the brain endocasts molded from cranial cavities, can tell whether these hominids possessed language.  They certainly cannot tell us whether these hominids were singing and dancing.

Thus, evidence of motor control abilities which might allow for “social rituals such as singing and dancing” must come from the archaeological contexts in which these fossils were found.  Although I have not read all the site reports for these fossils, I have read several.  The assemblages are largely Acheulian and indicative of tool-making and meat consumption activities quite similar to those associated with Homo ergaster/erectus during the preceding million years.  The ability to control fire appears to have been present by this time.

Thus there is nothing I can find either in the fossils or the archaeology that would allow us to infer that half a million years ago, hominids developed new forms of motor control which specifically enabled social rituals such as dancing or singing.

What sort of evidence would allow us to infer that hominids half a million years ago were engaging in social rituals such as singing and dancing?  I suppose that if we found appropriately dated cave paintings depicting these activities, we could make the inference.  Short of that, it seems like pure speculation.

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