Religious Origins Of Important Human Behaviors Among Anatomically Modern Humans – OpEd


Crucial questions in the debate on the origin of quintessential human behaviors are whether modern cognition and associated innovations are unique to our Homo Sapiens species and whether these innovations emerged abruptly or gradually. 

Three scenarios have been proposed to account for the origin of cultural modernity. The first argues that modern cognition is unique to our Homo Sapiens species and the result of a genetic mutation that took place about 50,000+ years ago in Africa among anatomically modern humans.

The second scenario posits that cultural modernity emerged gradually in both south and north Africa starting 200,000+ years ago; and is directly linked to the origin of our species in Africa. Pigments used at sites dated to at least 160-140,000 years ago for abstract engravings on rock and bone with ochre; and personal ornaments dated to between 105 and 70,000 years ago support this view. 

The third scenario states that innovations indicative of modern cognition are not restricted to our species alone; and appear and disappear in Africa, Europe, and the Near East between 200,000 and 60-50,000 years ago, before becoming fully consolidated. The main driving force in this last scenario is long-term climatic variability and its effect on population dynamics.

A fourth scenario can also be proposed to account for the origin of a multifaceted cultural modernity, and the origin of quintessential human behaviors among anatomically modern humans: organized religion. It is this scenario that I will explain with the insights of the Torah and the Qur’an. 

Anatomically modern humans are very much more genetically diverse than their nearest living relatives: Chimpanzees and Bonobos. This is true even though humans, unlike Chimpanzees and Bonobos, have been able to spread to all ecological niches throughout the world. 

The Qur’an and the Torah do not claim Adam and Eve were the first humans. Each scripture specifically states that all presently living humans are the descendants of one genetic father and one genetic mother and therefore we all are closely related genetically to one another. The Torah states: “The man called his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living (humans). (Genesis 3:20)

Also all humans are closely related genetically to one another because Homo Sapiens went through a major population bottleneck in the past before permanently spreading throughout the world. as the Qur’an states: “O Mankind, We created you from a single male and female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you” (49:13). This is also the meaning of the parable of the Tower of Babel. 

The conventional understanding of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is that humanity arrogantly challenged God ‘s space by invading/building a “tower; with its head reaching up to the heavens”. This is the gloss of the Qur’an when the Pharaoh, mockingly and arrogantly asks his associate Haman to build a lofty tower. Pharaoh said: “O Haman! Fire up (a kiln to bake bricks) of clay, and build me a lofty tower, that I may mount up to the God of Moses: but as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!” [Qur’an 28:38] 

However, a careful reading of the Torah text shows that what the people built was an entire city made out of manufactured uniform bricks (Genesis 11:3); and the reason they built the city and the tower was not to challenge God, but to “make a name for themselves, lest they be dispersed over the whole earth.”

In the aftermath of a destructive flood, many generations of humans were fearful and anxiety ridden. They felt very weak and vulnerable; and they only wanted to huddle together like a herd in one place. Humanity did not want curiosity to lead people to explore other locations and thus promote change and development (going against God”s blessing to “fill up the earth”); and they did not want to expand their knowledge and vocabulary because that promotes non conformity and diversity. Humans were proud that every single human being spoke the same language, and that their one language had only “a few words” (11:1), my literal translation from Hebrew.

When the post flood humans said “to one another; come let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” (11:3) they were doing much more than discussing building methods. Bricks are one of the first building materials created by human beings. Ancient brick makers learned to “burn” bricks by baking them in a very hot oven called a kiln.

When the post flood humans said “to one another; come let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” (11:3) they wanted to build their city with uniform manufactured bricks, instead of natural uncut stones. They did not want each stone to be a different shape and color from all the other stones because they wanted to unify themselves by highly organized, conformist, teamwork, as well as an all encompassing common purpose.  

The Torah’s opposition to the use of baked bricks in a ritual religious context is also connected with our interpretation of the sin of the city builders. Immediately after the giving of the ten commandments the Torah says, “An altar of earth you shall make for me…(Exodus 20:21) and “If you make me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stone, for if you use a tool on it, you pollute it. (20:25). Thus, an altar of natural unshaped building material is preferred by the Torah to manufactured materials.

The fear of dispersal and the need to make a name for themselves shows that the generations following the flood (bottleneck) lacked both a self-confident individual identity and an established positive tribal group identity. 

Their polytheistic account of the flood, found in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, relates that the gods decided to destroy humanity because humans made too much noise, and kept the gods from sleeping. These early humans believed violence was natural, normal and thus inevitable. Widespread human and animal violence would not be punished by the gods because, in polytheistic myths, the gods themselves spend a lot of time fighting and killing each other. 

Finally, they believed that one language would guarantee co-operation, so they would not have to learn to respect social or personal differences because there would be no differences between individuals or groups of people. There would be only one group of people, with one and the same language for all humanity. This seemed to them to be an ideal way for humans to create harmony; and avoid strife and violence.

Their plan for the city might have been modeled on bee hives or termite mounds: lots of close contact, with a high degree of conformity and common purpose. When God sees what they are scheming to do, and what effects that master plan will have on the future of humanity; God confounds their language, and disperses them all over the surface of the earth. This geographical expansion will promote linguistic, cultural and religious diversity which in turn will greatly enrich humanity’s cultural, artistic and spiritual productivity. 

Indeed, there are 6,909 known spoken languages today, although about half are  endangered, and will very likely no longer be spoken in another two to four generations. Although globalization will lead to the disappearance of many languages and cultures, it is hard to argue that we should or will ever go back to the days when humanity had only “one language with a few words.”

As the Qur’an says: “For every community We have appointed a whole system of worship which they are to observe. So do not let them draw you into disputes concerning this matter.” (22:67)

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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