The Recent Evolution Of Human Spirituality – OpEd


Religion is not a maladaptive “illusion” (Freud), nor is religion a manipulative “opiate” (Marx). Religious behavior is a ubiquitous biological adaptation rooted in Homo Sapiens, because religion like intelligence and language. helps human communities survive.

Religion, like intelligence and language. can be used for both good and evil purposes, but this is also true of culture, science, politics and all other important human activities. Since almost all revealed religions teach that humans have a pre-birth soul that predisposes them to respond to a Divine call even before the revelation occurs, I identify the existence of a biological based self-conscious spiritual soul with the evolution of Homo Sapiens spirituality. 

Yet Asian elephants loudly mourn and bury their dead calves, said a study by Indian scientists that details animal behavior reminiscent of human funeral rites. Researchers identified five calf burials conducted by elephants in the north of India’s Bengal region in 2022 and 2023, according to the study published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa. They found in each case that a herd carried the deceased calf by the trunk and legs before burying it in the earth with its legs facing upward.

So if tool making, culture, self awareness, language and burials do not distinguish humans from our nearest primate relatives, what unique factor makes us what we are? 

I offer a combination of all the above plus human religious behavior as an answer.

A reference to a prehistoric period when spiritual evolution was unaided  by God appears in the book of Genesis (4:26) where it states, “At that time humans began to invoke YHVH by name.” Most of the rabbinic commentators translate the verb hukhal to mean ‘profane’ taking this as a negative statement. But ‘began’ is the more normal meaning of the verb. 

The Hebrew Bible asserts that prior to Enosh humans did not practice religion based on the divine insight of revelation “invoke YHVH by name” that they were able to do later. Mystical and spiritual experiences were interpreted by human intelligence without the benefit of prophetic revelation. In the spirit of this Torah insight I offer the following account of the evolution of prehistoric human spirituality.

All sentient beings are able to respond to the challenges of life. In each species some individuals respond to new environmental challenges better than others do; and their descendants increase. Some sentient beings that are conscious are capable of learning from the challenges of life. They can improve themselves. 

A few are even able to show others what they have learned and thus improve their group and their descendants’ chances of survival. These species have developed cultural ways of meeting life’s challenges. For many centuries it was thought that mankind’s ability to use tools was what made us unique. 

A great deal of unnecessary conflict and misunderstanding has been caused by the careless use of the terms ‘human’ and ‘man’ to describe the increasing number of fossil finds of tool using biped species that may have been ancestral to Homo Sapiens. I shall try to refer to each distinct species by its scientific name only.

However, we now know that several different species use tools (including birds) and Chimps not only use but also make at least three different kinds of tools for different functions. Chimp tool use differs in different locations (a cultural not a genetic difference). Chimps also show signs of self-awareness by recognizing themselves in a mirror. So what makes us what we are? 

First, we are a small group, hierarchically organized, social primates. Any genes that enable the group (extended family and/or band) to function better will contribute to individual survival and reproduction. 

Second, the species that preceded Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal have been evolving larger and larger brains for over a million years. Eventually two species, Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal evolved that achieved self-conscious ways of meeting life’s challenges through non-material i.e. cultural and spiritual behaviors. 

Homo Neanderthals were a relative of Homo sapiens that co-inhabited in Europe and parts of western Asia with anatomically modern humans from about 120,000 to 29,000 years ago. HN were well adapted to the cold and were very muscular. In 2010 a sister species to NH was discovered by sequencing the full genome of a girl’s fossil finger bone found in a Siberian cave. 

This closely related sister group of Neanderthals lived in central Asia about 40,000 years ago. Like Neanderthals, the mysterious group interbred with modern humans, in this case leaving behind a genetic fingerprint in modern-day Melanesians of Papua New Guinea, nearly 10,000 kilometers from where the fossil was found. 

Increasing dependence on mental capacities became problematic for those individual HN and HS who malfunctioned mentally or emotionally. Any genes that would help ameliorate individual mental and emotional challenges like stress and anxiety would be selected for and would spread throughout the population. Ancient DNA from bones has revealed that humans coexisted with Neanderthals almost 45,000 years ago in Germany.

Spiritual activities among HS have evolved over the last 80-120,000 years. If one takes seriously the Biblical claim that humanity was created in the Divine image, spiritual evolution testifies to the creation of creatures who are co-creators of purpose driven non-material responses to environmental and social challenges. This prepared them to respond appropriately when Divine revelations occurred in historical times. 

Specific beliefs about God are of great concern to Monotheists, especially Triune Christians, but most other religions focus much more attention on myths about the interactions between the Gods, magic and anti-magic rituals, dietary self-discipline, public and private life cycle rituals, standards of social and personal behavior, healing sickness and sin, and community ceremonies and celebrations. 

Formal creeds and religious beliefs are a small and recent development within the much larger domain of feelings of trust and group loyalty that have been evolving among primates for hundreds of thousands of years. 

Recent brain studies have shown how biologically 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 development of a class of religious scholars who study sacred scriptures and attempt to spread the sacred teachings among the people only happens when a religion has a “book”. 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 (the One God of the revealed religions) play in all this? According to Genesis 4:26 humans only began to call upon the name of the Lord in the days of Enosh. That could mean that prior to Enosh prehistoric religions evolved naturally. Only with the rise of scriptural revelations did the One God enter directly into human consciousness. 

Or it could mean that human consciousness had risen to the level of being able to receive Divine communication from the One God. It took over 3,000 years for monotheism to spread world-wide even with scriptural revelations so it is not surprising that it took over 100,000 years to get to modern humans ready to receive revelations.  

Spirituality among Homo Sapiens has been evolving for at least 80-120,000 years. Religion is as deeply, if not more deeply rooted, in the HS brain as art or music. Recent studies, especially those on adult twins who were raised apart, suggest genes contribute about 40% of the variability in a person’s general religiousness. 

The idea that reason, socialism or modern science would replace spiritual and religious thinking has turned out to be a wish fulfillment fantasy of some people, many of whom bear a grudge against religion and spirituality. Religious rituals and ideas are ubiquitous among HS and continue to evolve as the creative intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens encounter changes in their environment. This will most likely continue as long as HS have creative intelligent minds. 

Philosophers and theologians think that big ideas like Karma and big gods, defined as moralizing deities who reward humans for doing good deeds and punish ethical transgressions, are very important in the growth and development of expanding human societies. 

Philosophers and theologians usually ignore the importance of ritual activities, dietary rules, congregational prayer and pilgrimage in building stronger and more stable bonds among expanding and changing human populations. 

But an international research team investigating the role of moralizing deities in the rise of complex large-scale societies has found that contrary to prevailing theories; beliefs in moralizing deities are a consequence, not a cause, of the evolution of complex societies. 

For their statistical analyses the researchers used the Seshat: Global History Databank, the most comprehensive collection of historical and prehistoric data, containing about 300,000 records on social complexity, religion, and other characteristics of 500 past societies, spanning 10,000 years of human history. The results were published in the journal Nature in March of 2019.

“It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals,” says Seshat director and co-author Peter Turchin. Factors such as agriculture, warfare, or religion have been proposed as main driving forces.

One prominent theory, the big or moralizing gods hypothesis, assumes that religious beliefs were key. According to this theory people are more likely to cooperate fairly if they believe in gods who will punish them if they don’t. 

“To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this hypothesis,” says lead author Harvey Whitehouse. “In almost every region of the world for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.” 

Indeed, standardized rituals (like dietary and purity rules, communal prayer, holy day celebrations and pilgrimages) tended on average to appear hundreds of years before gods who cared about human morality. 

Such rituals create a collective identity and feelings of belonging that act as social glue, making people behave more cooperatively. “Our results suggest that collective identities are more important to facilitate cooperation in societies than big idea beliefs,” says Harvey Whitehouse.

The really big idea about God is monotheism; and that idea comes directly from God himself through his prophets. Monotheism spread slowly and did not last very long; until the time of Prophet Abraham. 

After the era of Prophet Abraham things began to change greatly with the successful organization of monotheistic communities worshipping an ethical behavior demanding God. In the centuries after the era of Prophet Muhammad monotheistic religious human societies expanded greatly. The Jewish, Christian and Islamic worlds are out lasting both the polytheistic empires of the past and the secular worlds of the present.

The five pillars of Islam begin with the monotheistic profession of belief that “There is no god but God’ and then continue with four collective activities (three of them ritual): Prayer (salat), Alms (zakat). Fasting (sawm). and Pilgrimage (hajj). 

No philosophers ever originated these things; although many philosophers later tried to explain them.   

I think that most philosophers both Jewish and Muslim would agree with Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel (Pirkei Avot 1:18): “On three things (ideas) the (civilized) world stands: On justice, on truth and on peace.” but I believe most Islamic and Jewish religious teachers would agree with Rabbi Shimon the Righteous (Pirkei Avot 1:2) “The world stands on three things: Torah (revelation), worship, and deeds of loving kindness.” 

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.” (The World as I See It, Sacramento, Ca. Citadel Press, 1993 p.5)

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *