Skip to content

Evolution, Primates, and Religion

From comes an interview with anthropologist Barbara King. The topic is the origins of religion and interview is prompted by King’s new book, “Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion.” King observes that non-human primates show empathy and meaning-making in their social actions. She draws conclusions about religion by analogy, suggesting that human ancestors likely did the same things – and that this may have led to religion. In King’s words:

I don’t look for things in apes that are religious. I look at how their behavior relates to the very foundation of what later became religion. For me, the question turns on how I understand religion. I want to be very careful to differentiate between what we think about religion today and how it evolved. I’m really talking about the earliest origins of religion, which was a social and emotional process.

[Watching] apes give us a clue that a lot of these emotional interactions were in place very early in our evolutionary prehistory. And then I look for an intersection with the sacred realm.

Unlike the now-common debates about the rationality of religion spurred by people like Richard Dawkins, King is not interested in the folly of being religious. She is more interested in questions related to why people are religious and why religion endures.

Teaching note: My Anthropology of Human Sexuality students should appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of research by analogy into human behavior with non-human primates. My Anthropology of Religion students who are desperate for more about the biological roots of religion will also want to read this article.

Sphere: Related Content


  1. Matt Wollenberg 1130 wrote:

    The very notion that humans evolved along the same lines as religion is a paradox. All religions have a belief in the supernatural and evolution is natures way of debunking that. The is some evidence to suggest early people groups engaged in some form of spirituality, but the reasons why are mearly speculation. It could be assumed that they, like the Greeks and the Romans and even modern day humans, wanted to have answers for something they could not explain. A being that could do everything that they could not would explain that, but the real question here is 2 fold: Why do humans feel the need to understand what they cannot explain? And when they do not have sufficient technology to explain it why then do some, but not all attribute the supernatural to it? It is clearly a trait that nature has deemed useful, because it hasn’t evolved out of us in almost 10 million years, and it is useful because it encourages science and exploration. Why do we suppress that with a blanket notion of “God”? It goes against our biological urge to understand the unexplainable.

    Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  2. Matt … thanks for weighing in. I think Barbara King tries to answer some of your questions, although perhaps not to your satisfaction. She says, for example, that religion is connected to biological survival and thus might have relevance to humans even if we can’t explain the unexplainable. Maybe part of the answer is in your own statement that not all people turn to the supernatural (or the spiritual, or whatever synonym that locally appropriate) in times of uncertainty.

    I tend to agree with you too that religion for many has something to do with explaining the unexplainable. Why do people want to explain what they don’t know? I suppose there are a host of reasons. I think we need to take care not to suggest that science is the evolutionary stage that follows religion or that those who turn to science for answers are more curious than those who don’t.

    But I am not sure I understand the paradox of religion and evolution. How is evolution a natural ‘debunking’ of religion, particularly in light of your observation that religion is useful and has not disappeared?

    Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  3. Jim wrote:

    Speculation is not necessary. Jesus came to show us what God is like. He walked on water to come to the aid of His friends. He brought vision back to the blind, He cured lepers, etc. And he came to life again after being crucified and burried’ in a cave, something that only Divinity can accomplish.

    On top of this a prophecy of Daniel told precisely when Jesus would be born, over 500 years before it happened. Daniel prophesied the stages of the world powers from circa 550 BC, down to TODAY! Only someone who received inspiration from God could do these marvelous things.

    Friday, February 2, 2007 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  4. Rob Hyndman wrote:

    If he’d just bring me a good grilled cheese sandwich, I’d be happy. Oh, and doing something about the millions of dead in Africa from AIDS spread because of his Churches’ refusals to condone the use of condoms – that would be nice, too.

    Friday, February 2, 2007 at 2:44 pm | Permalink