How “God” Sorta Evolved

Over at Evo Anth, Adam Benton opines on how “god” evolved. The first thing I have to do is congratulate Adam because his post was picked up by The Browser. This is an honor and will ensure he gets at least 1,000 hits for the post. The second thing I need to do is recommend that you read the post. And the third thing I need to do is briefly comment on a few of the ideas found in the post.

Idea that “Religious” Beliefs Have Become More Complex Over Time: The premise of Adam’s post is that religious ideas or beliefs have become more complex over time. He refers to a broad spectrum of religious ideas, ranging from “simple” animism to “complex” theism. With this in mind, he notes there are “certain factors which seem to be associated with the rise of complex religious beliefs (such as the “high” god)” and “more complex high god ideas.” He contrasts these allegedly “complex” ideas to the “simple” animist ideas that spirits are “responsible for the unexplained (but not much else).”

While it is conceptually possible that a simple-minded animism of this sort existed at some time in the prehistoric past, there is no evidence for it. In fact, the only (inferential) evidence we have suggests that animism-shamanism is just as complex as any more recent or modern theistic religions. I would go further and argue that for the average person or non-theologian, animist-shamanist ideas are more complex than the relatively simple idea of a singular high god and dualist cosmos. What is the evidence?

While these are imperfect analogues or proxies, we can get a sense for Paleolithic animism by examining the immense ethnographic literature on Australian Aborigines, South African Bushmen, and North American Indians. Anyone who has spent much time with this literature and takes it seriously knows that animist-shamanist worldviews are anything but simple. In fact, they are exceedingly complex and can be bewildering for those accustomed to relatively tidy theistic worlds.

The animist-shamanist world is filled with active agents and agencies who (or which) interact with people in myriad ways. There is nothing simple about this conception or cosmos, and nothing simple about the ways in which people interact with those agents-agencies. In some ways, the historically sporadic and patchy movement toward high-god ideas simplifies the animist world, making it more amenable to the manipulations and machinations of those who would be king.

There is no reason to think that Paleolithic animism, which must remain unknown, was any less complex or sophisticated than the animist ideas and cosmologies of the Aborigines, Bushmen, or Native Americans.

For those interested in the the animist-shamanist worldview, I recommend Irving Hallowell’s classic article on Ojibwa ontology, Raymond DeMallie’s Lakota Belief and Ritual (1991), Lorna Marshall’s Nyae Nyae !Kung: Beliefs and Rites (1999), and Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951). Anyone who reads these, along with the even more enormous and complex literature on Aboriginal Dreamtime, would be hard pressed to argue that high-god theism is in any way more complex than multiple-spirit animism.

Idea that Chimpanzee Mourning Suggests Incipient Soul Beliefs: Adam suggests, via a link to his “Origin of Religion” post, that the earliest evidence of “religion” comes from chimps who mourn their dead. Just how this works isn’t quite clear. He states that chimp mourning:

show[s] they have an understanding of death. That might not be as interesting as believing the soul goes somewhere when it dies, but it is important to note that understanding it is no longer here is a fundamental foundation of such a belief. Although quite far removed from the religions we see around us today it would seem that here, amongst the chimps we can see the beginning of the origin of religion.

If I understand Adam correctly, he is arguing that an ostensible understanding of death somehow shades into soul beliefs and an afterlife. That is quite a leap and before we get to it, let’s examine the idea that chimp mourning implies something more than mammalian empathy, distress, or “sadness.” Many mammals have been observed apparently “mourning” their dead — elephants are famous for it. Something similar has been seen among cetaceans, canids, and felids. Even American buffalo seem to “mourn” their dead. That is, they show distress when another dies and they will circle the carcass, prod it, and protect it.

Are we really going to argue that this widespread mammalian behavior is incipiently “religious”? The more parsimonious explanation is that mammals, especially social or gregarious ones, are capable of attachment and empathy. When a group member dies, this causes distress. This distress doesn’t have anything to do with soul beliefs or an afterlife.

All in all, it seems dubious to go looking for indicia of incipient “religion” in our primate cousins. What we today call “religion” is a complex stew of cognitive ideas and embodied experiences that are probably unique to humans. “Religion” is deeply and perhaps inextricably bound with language, narrative, and metaphor. I say this with all due respect to anthropologist Barbara King, who argues (in her 2007 book Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion) that primate social, emotional, and communicative complexity — what she calls “belongingness” — gave evolutionary rise to human religion.

Idea that Burials Are Indicative of Soul Beliefs: Later in the same post, Adam asserts that burials indicate supernatural or “spiritual” beliefs:

At Es Skhul cave in the Levant – between 130,000 and 100,000 years ago – our ancestors took a dead individual and buried them. It was careful, it was deliberate and it would’ve required effort. And putting in such effort isn’t something you do if you merely think life has left the body. There was something more going on here.

These people thought something that drove them to do this, something supernatural. Why else treat the body with respect? Ultimatley we only do so because the pile of meat is home to life but once that life is gone it is just a sack of organs again. Why respect it, unless they thought the life continued somewhere. That it still existed and so their body needed respect. It seems they believed in an afterlife.

Of course that conclusion is pushing at the very bounds of what we can infer from remains. There may be another reason people buried their dead but given how widespread the phenomenon is, a supernatural belief seems to be the most parsimonious explanation.

Actually, the most parsimonious explanation for burials is that if you have a home base or camp and someone dies there, leaving a stinking, bloating, infectious, and rotting corpse exposed is not an option. So what do you do? You dispose of it, perhaps by burial. While burial (or burning) may require effort, it is probably easier than hauling a body the considerable distance required to keep away unwanted smells, insects, vermin, and dangerous scavengers (such as bears and hyenas). This aside, it is probably emotionally upsetting or distressing to sit and stare at your rotting kin.

In this post on hominin burials and soul beliefs, I examined these issues in detail. The long and parsimonious short of it is that even if archaeologists are able to determine a burial is deliberate (no easy task), a deliberate burial — with nothing more, does not indicate supernatural or “spiritual” beliefs. When grave goods are unequivocally present, it is a different story. All historically and ethnographically known peoples that use grave goods in their mortuary practices have indicated that such goods are provided for the benefit of the deceased, and that such goods in some way serve the spirit or soul of the deceased.

Idea that Subsistence Complexity Correlates with High God Beliefs: In the remainder of his post, Adam admirably covers a new study showing correlations between societal complexity and active or moral high god concepts. While I have serious doubts about the way in which “high god” concepts are measured and scored for these kinds of studies (the ethnographic databases are filled with errors and oversimplifications on this fraught issue), it is no surprise to learn:

belief in moral High Gods was fostered by emerging leaders in societies dependent on resources that were difficult to manage and defend without group cooperation. These leaders used the concept of a supernatural moral enforcer to manipulate others into cooperating.

Lest we get too warm and fuzzy about all this cooperation under the watchful eye of moralizing gods, we would do well to remember that elites in emerging societies associated or identified themselves with these gods for another purpose: to command.


Peoples HC, & Marlowe FW (2012). Subsistence and the Evolution of Religion. Human nature (Hawthorne, N.Y.) PMID: 22837060

Did you like this? Share it:

5 thoughts on “How “God” Sorta Evolved

  1. Adam Benton

    Interesting post and well thought-out post. And yes, I have been noticing the view count trickle upwards. Clearly some kind of witchcraft is at work!

    #1: Yeah, “simple” was a bad word but it was the best of a bad bunch. I was having difficulty describing the spectrum of religious belief, so if you have a better word I’ll happily change it. Chalk this one up to ignorance of the English language more than ignorance of anthropology.

    #2: The point with the chimps (and other animals) is that they have an ‘understanding’ that life is different to death. This is the very germ of religious thought. I wasn’t attempting to say this was in of itself religious.

    #3 I don’t have my notes handy so you’ll have to forgive me, this ramble will contain references to “that cave” and lack specifics. Anyway, if you look at the burials they’re going above & beyond the call for mere disposal. As you noted in your other post there are grave goods and in some sites the bodies are orientated the same way. Further, if you contrast that to how they disposed of other things, like animal bones, there is a marked difference. There may also be the Sima de los Huesos remains (I think). Although I don’t buy into the fact there was religion occurring, they may well have just been dumping of the bodies for utilitarian purposes. And the Middle Easter burials are significantly different from this utilitarian activity. Now, the comparison may not be the strongest (animal versus human remains may not be directly comparable) but even if you take the most extreme position and reject all of it, I still think the argument can stand on the additional effort they put into the burial via grave goods, orientation etc.

  2. rondolc

    Is anything known about superstitious behaviour in animals? I vaguely remember watching a documentary in which a bonobo appeared to be ritualistically moving around a waterfall (or something).

    Any animal capable of reasoning could develop false positives/negatives into something like a superstition, right?

  3. Jim Birch

    I buried my cat with some grave goods, to wit, a can of tuna. I don’t believe in the afterlife for my cat, or for myself. Except in this sense: the self and one’s life is clearly not identical to the body. It is a cluster of narratives, even to yourself when you are alive, and as a set of narratives you are only dead when no one remembers them.

    What I’m getting at is that burial goods might not imply an explicit belief in the afterlife but rather more like an acknowledgement of the persistence of memory. I’m not sure if this is too philosophically complex for prehistoric man.

  4. Cris Post author

    Adam — I’m not sure that comprehending the alive:dead binary is the germ of “religious” thought. Most mammals (and indeed most animals) can apprehend this difference. What we call “religious” thought is more than thinking-cognition or perception. It is also embodied experiencing and cultural learning.

    As for the burials, I think we just need to be parsimonious and not let traditional stories or enthusiastic narratives drive our assessments. Other than these quibbles, I quite enjoy your posts on these and other matters.

    Rondolc — Something is known about “superstitious” behavior in other animals. Skinner’s classic experiment with pigeons is an example — you can find “Superstition in the Pigeon” at this link:

  5. Cris Post author

    Jim — burying your cat with grave goods might also be the result of cultural learning or idea diffusion. The concept of burial with grave goods is so cross-culturally pervasive (and so widely known) that doing something like this might simply be reflexive (i.e., it feels like a right or respectful thing to do), even for those who don’t believe in souls. Meow she rest in peace.

Leave a Reply