Religion Helped Humans Survive – OpEd


Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thought, could create artistic objects, knew how to decorate their bodies using personal ornaments and had an extremely varied diet. Yet about 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals, who had lived for hundreds of thousands of years in the western part of the Eurasian continent, gave way to Homo sapiens, who had recently arrived from Africa. 

Homo sapiens populations that came from Africa around 60,000 years ago left archaeological remains in Europe from around 45,000 years ago. This replacement was not sudden, as the two species coexisted for a few millennia, but it was permanent. So why are we still alive while they are not?

Religious activities among Homo Sapiens have evolved over the last 100-150,000 years and therefore are in general, although not in every detail, positively adaptive. The Qur’an teaches us that, unlike all other species on Planet Earth, Adam/Homo Sapiens was created to be Allah’s Vice-regents on planet Earth; (2:30, 7:11, 35:39, 38:26) and a species with God’s spirit within.” (Qur’an 15:28-9). 

The Torah of Moses also teaches us that Adam/Homo Sapiens was the one species on planet Earth created by God to be in His image ( be God’s vice-regents; Genesis 1:27)

If one takes seriously the Biblical claim that humanity was created in the Divine image, and the Qur’an statement that humans were created to be vice-regents with God, spiritual evolution testifies to the creation of creatures who are social co-creators of purpose driven non-material responses to environmental and social moral challenges. 

The evolution of religious activities that enhance the successful survival of humanity is not only concerned with enhancing the survival of our own species. Because of mankind’s unique power to pollute or purify large parts of nature itself, the teachings of God’s prophets and messengers offer mankind the ability to act properly as Allah’s Vice-regents. 

With the relatively recent domestication of plants and animals; and the very recent industrial revolution, humans acquired a great deal of responsibility for the evolution and survival of many of the species on the planet itself. Thus the behavior of religious people themselves now becomes a factor in the evolution of life on earth. 

Religious behaviors are evidence of self-conscious creative thought processes most people associate with Homo Sapiens. Religious behaviors are the creative responses of intelligent minds to certain challenges and situations in life. 

Also as successful bands of Homo Sapiens got more numerous, it became harder and harder to keep them from internal conflict and splitting. Larger groups, or groups with strong alliances, were more likely to win when there was inter-group conflict. They also had reduced negative effects from inbreeding. 

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

Anything that helped larger groups create bonds that were more inclusive than just extended family  behavioral norms, would increase survival rates for bands, clans, tribes, and larger tribal communities. 

A genetic study by Svante Pääbo, a major pioneer in ancient genetics at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, found that compared to Homo Neanderthals our species had much greater genetic variety. 

Homo Neanderthal genes suggested that sometime prior to 500,000 years ago, Neanderthal numbers decreased and the population stayed small, Pääbo’s group determined. 

According to Pääbo, “Neanderthals had even less genetic variation than present-day Homo Sapiens. Genetic diversity among Neanderthals was about one-fourth as much as is seen among modern Africans, and one-third that of modern Europeans or Asians.

So why did ancient Homo Sapiens have a larger population size than Homo Neanderthals? Until recently the standard explanation was that our species was smarter or more technologically advanced then ‘them” 

But the real difference might have been the greater success that human religion had in keeping larger bands of hunter-gathers together over time; and in bringing them back together from time to time even after they had moved apart, through the establishment of religious pilgrimage festivals. 

Another human survival benefit of pilgrimage sites is that they periodically bring people together from very distant places; which then promoted marriage arrangements that helped reduce the negative impact of large scale inbreeding that results from people living in small hunter/gather bands. 

A report in the journal Science (October 2017) found genetic evidence that early humans avoided the dangers of inbreeding at least 34,000 years ago, by developing surprisingly sophisticated religious, social and mating networks to reduce it. This is reflected by the directions given to Homo Sapiens for pilgrimage traditions to non-local sacred spots found in so many religions especially Judaism and Islam: 

“We designated for Abraham the site of the (Holy) House: “Do not associate anything with Me and purify My House for those who perform Tawaf and those who stand (in prayer) and those who bow and prostrate. And proclaim to the people the Hajj (pilgrimage); they will come to you on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every distant place.” (Qur’an 22:26-7)

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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