The Religious Evolution Of Human Minds – OpEd


When did Adam [modern Homo sapiens] first appear on the planet? Fossils and DNA suggest anatomically modern Homo sapiens evolved around 250-300,000 years ago. But archeology—tools, grave goods and cave art—suggest “behavioral modernity,” evolved more recently: about 50,000-70,000 years ago.

Skulls and genes tell us about physical brains, artifacts about non-physical society culture. Our brains became modern before our minds did, and our souls seem to have stimulated our self-conscious minds to develop the religious and legal culture we needed to develop inter tribal trading, farming and city life. Many anthropologists now believe that humans probably did not develop a verbal culture until around 60-70,000 years ago.

An article by Nick Longrich in The Conversation [9/9/20], states “For 200,000-300,000 years after Homo sapiens first appeared, tools and artifacts remained very simple, little better than Neanderthal tools. Longrich then continues with an excellent, but totally non-religious, account of the importance of mind [thoughts] as well as body [genes] in human evolution. 

I respond to his article with a spiritual religious Bible-Qur’an version that I think offers a spiritual religious approach more akin to that of Albert Einstein. 

Starting about 70,000 to 50,000 years ago, weapons such as bows and spear-throwers appeared and Homo sapiens started burying some people with grave goods. People started making representational art – cave paintings of horses, ivory and wooden goddesses, lion-headed idols etc. And the arrival of humans in Australia 60-65,000 years ago shows humans mastered seafaring.

One of the reasons that other species of Homo disappeared once modern Homo Sapiens came out of Africa is that making bows and arrows was invented by Homo sapiens at least 80,000 years ago in Africa, and brought by them into Eurasia by 55,000 years ago. In conflicts between Homo Sapiens and other spices of Homo, the latter would have suffered a major disadvantage.

Bones of primitive Homo sapiens first appeared 250-300,000 years ago in Africa, with brains as large or larger than ours. They are followed by anatomically modern Homo sapiens at least 200,000 years ago, and brain shape became essentially modern by at least 100,000 years ago. At this point, humans had brain-cases similar in size and shape to ours.

Assuming the brain was as modern as the skull that held it, our African Homo sapiens ancestors theoretically could have invented farming and domesticated animals over 100,000 years ago. So why didn’t they? 

All their descendants share certain peculiar behaviors absent in the other species of Homo that preceded the arrival of our species: like advanced language skills: We sing, dance, and make religious art. We adorn our bodies with ornaments, tattoos and makeup. We teach, tell stories, and engage in international trade. We have religions, morals and laws. We contemplate life’s meaning and what follows death.

The details of our tools, fashions, families, morals and religions vary from tribe to tribe and culture to culture, but all living humans have these behaviors. That suggests these behaviors—or at least, the capacity for them—are innate. These shared behaviors unite all modern Homo sapiens— Adam/humans. They are what it means to be Adam/human, and they result from a shared material biological ancestry; plus a non-material, non-biological mind/soul social and religious cultural ancestry that started growing and revealing itself from about 50-70.000 years ago.  

But if old stone age hunter-gatherers were as smart as new stone age hunter-gatherers, why did their culture remain so primitive for so long? Why did we need over 100-150,000 years to develop advanced language skills, ritual burials, and invent bows, sewing needles, and clothing?

Clothing and ritual burials are actually the crucial things. No other species of Homo prior to modern Homo sapiens/Adam/mankind wore clothing or made ritual burials with grave goods. 

Life began on planet Earth over four billion years ago. Conscious life evolved much later and self-conscious life evolved only recently (following a pattern already established in many other solar systems). The purpose of this essay is to combine the insights of the Book of Genesis and the Qur’an with contemporary paleoanthropology to understand the religious evolution of the only creature on Planet Earth created in the Divine image. 

Genesis teaches us that God called upon nature to produce life; “Let the earth bring forth vegetation” (1:11), “Let the waters swarm” (1:20), “Let the earth bring forth living creatures” (1:24). But when it came to the creation of Adam-modern Homo Sapiens, the Torah states that God made it a joint venture of the earth’s biological/genetic evolution with God’s own spiritual/cultural/religious revelation: “Let us make humans” (Genesis 1:26). 

And the Qur’an informs us in four different verses that each affirm God’s joint creation of human beings from clay or Earth (30:20, 20:5, 53:59 and 23:12). The Qur’an also describes how Allah created Adam: “We created man from sounding clay, from mud molded into shape…” (15:26) And, “He began the creation of man from clay, and made his progeny from a quintessence of fluid [sperm]” (Qur’an 32:7-8). 

While the creation of Eve is not described in detail, the Qur’an does make it clear that a ‘mate’ was created with Adam, from the same nature and soul for the spiritual experience of romantic love. “It is He Who created you [humans]  from a single person, and made his mate of like nature, in order that he [the husband] might dwell with her [his wife] in love.” (7:189) 

This Qur’an verse shows the joint aspect of human creation by concluding ‘dwell with her in love’ which is a spiritual/religious experience as Al-Arabi would say. 

The evolution of Homo Sapiens also results in creatures who, according to Genesis, will “rule over the fish in the sea, the birds of the heavens, and every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (1:28). Thus, Adam’s descendants will impact the environment more than the environment will impact us, and our ongoing development will be influenced more by non-material religious and cultural factors than by natural factors. 

The Qur’an also tells us that Adam was given vicegerent power and responsibility:  “Behold, your Lord said to the angels: ‘I will create a vicegerent [khalîfah] on earth.’ … And He taught Adam…” [2:30-31]

We cannot say exactly when this transition took place but it was most likely about 2,000-3,000 generations ago. 

There is no undisputed evidence in the archeological record of either art or burials prior to 70-80,000 years ago. Ritual burials became increasingly common after 50-70,000 years ago and rock/cave art became common 25-35,000 years ago. Language also may have undergone a major development during or just prior to this period. Although religion, art and language are all interrelated I will focus on the evolution of religion in the rest of this essay.  

First, technological advances and the accumulation of other know-how get a jump start as populations expand, according to evolutionary biologist Maxime Derex of the University of Montpellier 2 in France. His laboratory experiments reported November 13, 2013 in Nature, indicate that improvements in tool design occur more frequently as group size grows.

Anything that helped larger groups create bonds that were more than just family clans, and behavioral norms that were more than mimicking the elders would increase survival rates.  Individuals with a mental illness could not contribute much to a tribe or band. Anything that helped heal or integrate these individuals would help survival rates. These are some of the situations faced by a species that began using its mind more and more.

The first challenge is also the ultimate one: death. Homo Sapiens is the only living species that knows in advance that death is inevitable. Genesis 2:17 teaches “on the day you eat it (the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you will know) you will surely die.” Elephants, Chimpanzees and Orangutans have been observed to mourn for a dead child, but no other living species practices ritual burial. 

Adam humans responded to the death of loved ones by creating funeral rites and rituals of ancestor worship. Evidence from Qafzeh cave in northern Israel of ritual burial and grave goods (red ocher and mollusk shells of an inedible species) goes back 90,000 years or more. 

These funeral rituals brought comfort and solace to the mourners. Funeral rituals also had the important effect of strengthening group solidarity at a time when leadership might be challenged and changing. Strengthening group solidarity reduced internal conflict and violence thus increasing the chances of raising children to adulthood.   

Another challenge is illness, especially mental illnesses that tend to be chronic rather than fatal, provided serious challenges to Adam mankind. Epilepsy, Schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Phobias, Bipolar Disorders and other brain diseases occur in at least 2-3% of the population worldwide. Thus, there should be at least one or two cases in every clan tribe of 50-100 people. 

Severe cases are very scary and disabling, but humans could challenge mild cases with a variety of rituals and practices that served to alleviate the symptoms through mind-body interactions that we recognize today as placebo faith healing. Placebo faith healing works primarily by reducing pain through endorphin release and increasing the strength of an individual’s immune response, which is weakened by stress and anxiety. Only Adam mankind are known to be capable of placebo spiritual healing. 

Only a minority of individuals are able to heal themselves with the aid of placebo faith healing. The hope that ritual can heal, and the ability to trust a healer are powerful factors that frequently bring about improvement. Chanting, drumming, dancing, meditation and fasting are widespread ways of inducing an alternative consciousness that helps alleviate pain, stress and anxiety. With the support of a community of believers, and a tradition that enhances their individual hope and trust results would be even better. 

A cure, either short or long term, isn’t the only outcome in faith healing. The ceremony itself can reduce many of the side effects of the illness such as depression, stress, anger and negativity. This often ameliorates symptoms and brings relief. Chronic illness negatively impacts the immune system and eventually increases death rates. Ritual faith healing ameliorates symptoms for many people in these types of situations. This reintegrates the ‘possessed’ into a support group, and reduces stress, strengthens the immune system and reduces death rates. 

Finally recent brain studies have shown how organic trust and sharing are to human minds. Activities that build group loyalty and interpersonal trust enhance individual survival and promote individual spirituality much more than cognitive beliefs and ideologies. But urbanization, writing and mass communications may be changing this. Written revelation introduced a tremendous force expanding the power of religion both in space and time. 

The impact of religions with written revelations on historic human culture is comparable to the impact of modern science and invention on 20th century lifestyles.  Both together will make the 21st century a turning point in human destiny.

What role does God play in all this? According to Genesis 4:26 the children of Adam [humans] only began to call upon the name of the Lord in the days of Enosh. That could mean that prior to Enosh prehistoric polytheistic religions evolved naturally. Only with the rise of written scriptural revelations did the One God penetrate human consciousness. 

Or it could mean that human consciousness had finally risen to the level of being able to receive and understand Divine communication from the One God. It took over 3,000 years for monotheism to spread world-wide even with written scriptural revelations, so it is not surprising that it took over 50-70,000 years to get humans ready to receive revelations.  

Religious rituals and ideas are ubiquitous and continue to evolve as intelligent Adam mankind encounters changes in their social/political environment. This will most likely continue as long as Adam mankind has creative intelligent minds. 

Or as Albert Einstein put it: “What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in asking it? I answer, people who regard their own life and that of their fellow creatures as meaningless, are not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.”

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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