New Hominid Species and “The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion”

You would have to be living on a deserted island not to know that yet another transitional hominid fossil was unveiled yesterday.  The new species, dated to approximately 2 million years ago, has been named Australopithecus sediba.

Just as evolutionary theory predicts for this period in time, these new fossils have some traits that are more like our predecessors the australopithecines and some traits that are more human-like.  You can find a huge number of links to articles on the new fossils here, and a nice discussion of the “missing link” myth here.  There are no missing links in the hominid fossil record — we have a nice collection of transitional forms dating from 6 million years ago to the present.

In light of the occasion, it seems appropriate to note that the archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, whose work on rock art and shamanism I previously discussed in this post, has published a new book titled Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion.  Over at the New Statesman, AC Grayling has posted a short review and this excerpt:

Religion is one possible explanation, not for natural phenomena, but for highly complex experiences that the human brain generates. It does so in such a way that a whole range of further explanations (for natural events, death and so forth) becomes available. Moreover, religion makes possible powerful social and political hierarchies not based on sex or brute strength. The persistence of the neurology of the brain through time ensures that the “origin” of religion is always with us.

Because I have often discussed the cognitive origins of supernatural thinking in this blog, it would be appropriate to provide a short list of the brain-based cognitive mechanisms that result in supernatural beliefs.  Without further ado, these are:

  • Cause and Effect Sequencing and Causal Attribution
  • Pattern Imposition
  • Agency Detection and Agency Attribution
  • Theory of Mind (“Knowing that Others Think and Thinking about What They Think”)
  • Conscious Subjectivity leading to Commonsense Dualism
  • Narrative Necessity Linked to Language
  • Affects of Curiosity, Wonder, and Awe

Each of these cognitive mechanisms evolved for a reason or reasons having nothing to do with the supernatural or religion.  When combined, however, they inevitably result in supernatural beliefs.  This is why religion is a human universal.  We all possess brains with these attributes, and it requires considerable effort to parse these mechanisms and understand how they work.  Those who do this parsing eventually come to an understanding that is non-supernatural.

This list is neither exhaustive nor exclusive.  During the coming year, I will be covering each of these cognitive mechanisms in much more detail.  In the meantime, you might read Lewis-Williams’ new book.  The excerpt above appears to be spot on.

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  1. Pingback: “Were We Born to Believe?”

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