“Spirituality” as Evolutionary Byproduct

A friend recently pointed me to Michael Graziano’s article “Is Spirituality a Byproduct of Evolution?” Because it is posted over at Huff or Fluff-Po, I was immediately skeptical.

Anyone who has perused Fluff-Po’s Religion section knows it is filled scientific sounding metaphysics and countless articles by progressive religionists telling us that their non-progressive counterparts have gotten it all wrong. The non-progressives (i.e., the majority) apparently just need to be better (i.e., more liberal and ecumenical) readers.

Because non-progressive religionists don’t read Fluff-Po, the progressives are talking mostly to each other about what the texts “really say” and how the traditions should be “properly understood.” It’s all about love and understanding and tolerance, you know. It is nice to see the Rodney Kings (or Karen Armstrongs) of religions all trying to get along.

This is all fine and good but when an evolutionary psychologist tells us (on good authority of the pope) that resurrection does not contradict nature or science and death is not really death, FluffPo Religion makes my Index Librorum Prohibitorum. I may have to lift the ban for Graziano (though I do wish he would post in a more serious and substantive forum).

Graziano is a neuroscientist at Princeton with an impressive list of publications, dealing primarily with the motor system, perception, and consciousness. His writing is not, however, limited to neuroscience; Graziano is also a novelist and has written several popular books, including God, Soul, Mind, Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spirit World. I haven’t read it yet but will report back after I do.

As for Graziano’s recent article, I have questions about the following assertions, which are pivotal to his argument:

Awe, for example, is at its root a social emotion. Its utility lies in shaping our behavior toward others, especially others that we perceive to be wiser or more powerful than us. It is one ingredient in hierarchical social structure.

Awe of a beautiful landscape, awe of music (another spiritual experience I’ve written about before), awe of the spread of stars as you look up at night, all of these instances of awe are traditionally connected in a hazy way in people’s thoughts and feelings with awe of a larger, deistic presence.

Religious awe may belong to a category of biological trait along with male nipples and the gill slits in human fetuses. It has an understandable evolutionary past.

Whatever else it may be, “awe” is not a straightforward or basic evolutionary emotion. Fear, on the other hand, is. When a social animal recognizes another as more powerful, the resulting ranking or hierarchy owes as much or more to fear than “awe.”

“Awe” certainly is an important aspect of supernaturalism and religion, but it is more properly categorized as a “feeling.” I think Antonio Damasio is right when he says that feelings such as awe are the complex result of basic emotion combined with complex cognition. Feelings such as awe are in no way like physical features such as male nipples or gill slits.

Religious awe arises from intense cultural patterning, which is made possible by a neurobiology that is primed for supernaturalism. Graziano’s “social intelligence theory of spirituality” is but one piece of a much larger puzzle. Supernaturalism and religion are complex phenomena that require multi-causal explanations.

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3 thoughts on ““Spirituality” as Evolutionary Byproduct

  1. Craig

    Don’t know about the “awe” and “feeling” stuff—I’ll leave that to the biologists—but the FluffPo rant was brilliant. Posted to fb!

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