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Off Topic > Evolutionary Biology of Religion

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message 1: by Mitchell (new)

Mitchell | 23 comments I'm looking for a few good BSPers. I've written a manuscript about the evolutionary biology of religion, and I need feedback from folks who have insight into evolution and the brain. While I've received positive feedback as well as relevant suggestions from early reviewers, I've been frustrated that most aren't adequately familiar with the brain and evolutionary science I cite in support of my thesis which is: intrinsic religion is a compensating mechanism for higher-order consciousness. Since I'm not associated with an academic institution, I don't have built-in pre-publishing peer reviewers to provide sane and thoughtful criticism. My request is a bit like Kickstarter, except I'm not asking for money. I'm crowd-sourcing for brain power. My manuscript references the works of Gazzaniga, Ramachandran, Cosmides and Tooby, Panksepp, Damasio, Libet, and many more. What I'm asking for is an honest critique to challenge whether or not my thesis is supported by scientific evidence. I don't care if you agree or disagree. In fact, I'd prefer to avoid opinions and adhere only to ideas that can be cited or referenced. The manuscript is freely available to read online at It's a full length book, so is too much for most to take on, but if you're willing and curious, read the first chapter and one other that strikes your fancy. Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Mitch Diamond

message 2: by David (last edited Jun 02, 2013 10:37AM) (new)

David Mcdivitt | 65 comments I read some of your book. Gave me something to think about. I am unable to see a biological component to religion, myself. I see it as a natural course of intellectual evolution, and there is no way to blend intellectual evolution with biological evolution. There is no way because these are two different contexts. For instance how can going to school and getting a degree in finance be expressed biologically? Yes, humans as living organisms come and go out of a building, but how can such be reduced to biological assertions? What point is to be made? What we must accept is being able to live in, exist, and dwell in numerous intellectual contexts simultaneously. Biology is an intellectual context. The context of biology commands a lot of attention because thoughts in that area are highly productive, but that doesn't mean biology must necessarily explain everything. There are limitations, such as explaining finance with it. I think we must look at intellectual and cultural evolution as its own context. Biology is affected, yes. Our bodies have changed as a result of culture, but trying to express both as one discipline is much too complex in my opinion. So, with regard to intellectual and cultural evolution, religion involves a certain type of reasoning that is easy to describe, and as we become more evolved intellectually we do better. I don't see that there's anything to explain with religion except that it's a moot point. I hate realism. Realism is when people try and run everything through a single context, which cannot be done.

Sorry about the realism comment. That was very opportunistic of me. I take every chance to say something bad about it.

message 3: by Scott (new)

Scott | 21 comments Mitch,
Are you familiar with Steward Guthrie's "Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion." ?

It might be very useful. It's been awhile, but Guthrie's thesis is roughly that we've evolved to see "faces in clouds" when there's really nothing there because there's an evolutionary advantage to interpreting the shadow in the woods as a tiger, and running away, than assuming it's nothing and just going about one's business.

My take is that there must be some biological underpinnings to human religious experience. William James, Mircea Eliade and Gordon Wasson are good sources on religious experience. Trances, visions, epiphanies, etc. are universal, and as far as I know have not been looked at much from the current vantage of brain science [please update me folks if I've missed something!]

I don't think you can avoid at least touching the subject of entheogen-induced states as a possible way of looking at religion. Again, this seems to be almost universal. It's also something academics since the late 60's have been wary (or unable) of addressing. There's lots of writing around this topic, but I think academics are (wisely) wary of getting associated with it, as some of it gets a bit "out there." Still, I can't see how you could avoid it.

It's very interesting that you're approaching the question from the standpoint of evolution. But to address religion, you may need to expand "evolution" from a purely biological dynamic to a sociocultural one. Homo sapiens are a social species with an uncanny drive to understand things. I love Panksepp's classification of the most basic positive emotion as the drive to explore. Combine that with curiosity with our language and metaphor-using brains (see Lakoff), and you have the ingredients for sense-making mythology that gives us a responsibility as participants in the creation of the world.

Our evolution-developed abilities to hold the past and project the future certainly have a role in the beginnings of religion, too. We seem relatively unique in our ability to think outside the present moment. Extend this via our curiosity drive, and you find us remembering ancestors and imagining what happens after death.

The relationship of meat-eating and sacrifice might also be of interest.

I realize I'm going on and on, but your post triggered a latent passion! I'll take a look at your first chapter...

message 4: by Scott (new)

Scott | 21 comments Ha ha!
Mitch, I should have read your chapter BEFORE composing the above post! You start right off with Guthrie, then go on to discuss Eliade and also Lakoff. Too uncanny!


message 5: by Mitchell (new)

Mitchell | 23 comments Scott, thanks for taking a look and providing feedback even if in reverse order. Yes, I've done my homework.

"faces in clouds" when there's really nothing there because there's an evolutionary advantage to interpreting the shadow in the woods as a tiger

This is a version of the hyperactive agency detection device, a well meaning but flawed explanation for the creation of gods. I address this in various ways in Chapters 3, 4, 5 & 8.

Entheogen-induced states; trances, visions, epiphanies, etc. are universal

Absolutely, these are aspects of religion. They are enormous topics, and I gave them short shrift. I didn't feel I needed to go in depth because these phenomena so obviously fit my thesis. I mention them briefly in the section on Dissociation in chapter 11, Prayer, although I removed the Harvard psilocybin experiments from earlier drafts in the interest of brevity.

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