Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods by E. Fuller Torrey


The human brain: carefully shaped by evolution to generate religion—a fun, thoughtful and illuminating read. 

Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion by E. Fuller Torrey is a remarkable look at the cognitive theory underlying how — not why — humans developed religion.

The answer, according to Torrey, is that as our brains evolved, they developed certain capacities and capabilities that marched us inexorably toward the creation of religions. And because the journey was a function of evolutionary forces, these cognitive stages necessary for religion occurred in parallel across cultures. Therefore, plumbing the historical record gives insights to the milestones — as expressed physiologically (like, say, skull shape and size) and behaviorally (funeral practices, for example, or doing art or self-adornment) — that signal approximately when our species achieved the various cognitive requirements for religion.

As Torrey eloquently puts it: “As hominin brains grew in size and developed increasingly strong connections among various brain areas, we acquired intelligence, an ability to think about ourselves, an ability to think about what others were thinking (theory of mind), and then an introspective ability to think about ourselves thinking about ourselves. Finally, about 40,000 years ago, we acquired an autobiographical memory, an ability to project ourselves backward and forward in time in a way not previously possible. We had become modern Homo sapiens.” And modern Homo sapiens built modern religions.

Using those cognitive skills, and based on the culture and environment, religion was a natural outcome because it: answers the problem of death (“The Stygian shore beckoned uneasily 4,500 years ago, as it still does today.”) and provides other benefits such as the “psychological support that accompanies group membership as well as such benefits as physical protection, social services, and access to jobs or economic advancement,” and — at least for the major (and most successful) religions — usually develops in conjunction with the political governance of the people so that the “success or failure of each is largely determined by the economic, political, or military success of its adherents.”

Again, keeping in mind this an explanation of the “cognitive how,” and not the “social why,” Torrey provides a painstaking, amazingly detailed job of showing the research behind the thinking and building his case. Naturally, when dealing with pre-history, some assumptions must be made — especially when it comes to evolutionary psychology. We can only ever speculate about the evolutionarily adaptive forces and outcomes shaping brains and behaviors, much less the social reasons for adopting behaviors. But he certainly builds a compelling case with deep knowledge, exquisite research and above average writing with occasional creative flourishes.

“The gods were born following a pregnancy lasting approximately two million years. It took that long for hominin brains to evolve structurally and functionally from being primate-like brains to being brains that possessed the cognitive faculties of modern Homo sapiens.”

There were a few true a-ha moments, such as pointing to evolutionary changes in lice to illuminate behavioral changes (driven by cognitive changes) among humans: “…evidence for the introduction of fitted clothing consists of genetic studies of human lice and the fact that the body louse diverged from the head louse about 72,000 years ago. Body lice have claws adapted to clinging to clothing, not skin, and only lay their eggs in clothing.”

And I was intrigued by this almost casual aside related to the discovery of fitted clothes and jewelry and what that meant for self-awareness. “Thus, this may have been the first time in hominin history that a male thought his bearskin did not look good on him and a female thought her shell necklace improved her appearance. If so, it would have marked the birth of the consumer economy.”

Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods is a fun, thoughtful and illuminating read built on a convincing thesis. However, I’m predisposed to be easily convinced about a biological explanation for religion fueled by cognitive evolution. That may be too big of leap for some but, if this book has it right, perhaps evolution will surprise future generations with some new brain adaptions that make the concept more palatable, or useful to our continued survival.