Thursday, May 1, 2008

"The Ape that Evolved God."

Quite a title, but it's not; it is in the first paragraph of a book written by an anthropologist with the desire to discover, through scientific inquiry, if 'religiosity' is an inborn trait of humans. Anthropology professor Barbara J. King of William and Mary penned this opening paragraph of her book: "We humans crave emotional connection with others. This deep desire... can be explained by the long evolutionary history we shared with other primates.... At the same time, it explains why humans evolved to become the spiritual ape--the ape that grew a large brain, the ape that stood up, the ape that first created art, but, above all, the ape that evolved God."

No doubt there is a great collective gasp from the fundamentalist community at this statement, but I'm not the least bit interested in what they have to say; I've heard it all and it doesn't impress nor educate me one bit. No funny Fundy comments, please.

The book is Evolving God, a puzzling title in itself. Dr. King's website includes an interview she had with NPR as well as an interview with Steve Paulson of Salon He writes this about the author:

"King argues that religion is rooted in our social and emotional connections with each other. What's more, we can trace back the origins of our religious impulse not just to early cave paintings and burial sites 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, but much earlier -- back to our ancient ancestors millions of years ago. And today, King says, we can see the foundations of religious behavior in chimpanzees and gorillas; watching our distant cousins can do much to explain the foundations of our own beliefs."

Paulson asked her: Why would an anthropologist who studies apes be interested in religion?

She answered: "I think religion is all about emotional engagement and social action. And we can get a whole new read on the evolutionary history of religion by asking the kinds of questions that we ask of language and culture. We can see that way back in our past -- literally, millions of years ago -- some practices are visible in the archaeological record that reflect the deepest roots of religion. And apes today are pretty good stand-ins for those very early human ancestors. So when I go to the National Zoo in Washington, or spend time in Kenya looking at monkeys, what I see is very social. It's about emotional connection that's at the very ancient roots of religion."

When asked to clarify this connection with the religious King explains: "I'm not talking about a set of beliefs. When I think about religion, what comes to mind are personal relationships with the supernatural, with God or with spirits, and compassionate action. Not necessarily books or texts that you read, but some sort of action in the world."

This point clearly separates her from those who would automatically condemn her for linking apes and a deity. She clarifies it: "And the way I approach that is to look at the active expression of this emotional connection in something that I can identify as a spiritual realm."

Here are four things Dr. king looks for in studying her apes: "I look at four different kinds of behavior -- meaning-making, imagination, empathy and following the rules. Together, I think they give us a sense of what religion might have started out to be."

Ha! Following the rules. Hammer hits nail. Imagination was noted just this week in an article highlighting the work of anthropologist Maurice Bloch: Religion a figment of human imagination

King goes on: "The apes have bits and pieces of all these four things, but not in a coherent pattern that adds up to religious behavior. To my mind, apes are conscious beings and they do these four things in incredibly fascinating ways."

I would like to be able to discover if Homo Erectus, that extinct human species, left any clues to that would shed light on this question. After all, he is the link from the ape to the human. So is Neanderthal - the first of the human species that buried the dead. Of course, 'why' they buried them is not known; it could have been that strong emotional connection that Dr. King proposed. Perhaps Neanderthals didn't like to see their dead relatives eaten by carnivores- the ones painted on their cave walls.

Somewhere along the evolutionary chain an epiphany moment occurred in one of these primitive humans that began the idea that maybe there is more to life than just living and dying. And thus , the ape evolved God.

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