Debate Magazine

Darwin & The Descent: Animism-Religion

By Cris

Yesterday was spent with Darwin. It was a good day and something I need to do more often. One of the curious things about Darwin is that he is so well known, so much a part of evolutionary discourse, that we never bother reading his work. While most of us have read the Origin at some point, it was probably assigned reading done rapidly during an advanced undergraduate or early graduate course, and not something we particularly enjoyed or studied with particular care. Many of us probably think that our secondary exposure to Darwin is sufficient and that the experts who have studied Darwin have distilled him for us. Because the evolutionary literature is replete with obligatory homages and referential glosses to Darwin and his work, we assume we are getting our fill and know his work.

As I realized yesterday, this is a mistake. There is really no excuse for it and I should know better. I certainly have been taught better. My adviser (Matt Sponheimer), along with Darwin scholars such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, regularly counsel the need to read Darwin. Why, then, do I find myself avoiding Darwin and reading instead the enormous secondary literature? There are probably two reasons: the writing is slightly awkward (but not bad) and Darwin is dense. You can’t just sit down with him and expect an easy read. To do Darwin justice, you need to slow down and focus.

While I would like to announce that I just finished a close study of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), this wouldn’t be truthful. Because my interest was limited to anything and everything Darwin published on religion and its evolution, I cheated using the wonders of modern technology. Most of what Darwin had to say on this subject appears in The Descent, so I simply downloaded the (free) book and searched using terms relevant to religion. Having identified the relevant chapters and passages this way, I ended up reading about 100 pages.

What did I discover? First, it is a mistake to think you know what Darwin said or thought about any subject based on the secondary or tertiary literature. Darwin may be in the air around us but simply breathing is not the same as actually imbibing. Second, Darwin was exceptionally smart, careful, and subtle. This shouldn’t have been a surprise (I had, after all, learned this from the secondary literature) but it still was. Third, Darwin can — in the parlance used by scholars in evolutionary religious studies — be characterized as both a byproduct theorist and an adaptationist. Unlike many modern scholars, Darwin does not see these hypotheses as mutually exclusive or contradictory.

In these excerpts (which I have condensed for convenience), Darwin proposes that animist-type thinking arises as a natural consequence or byproduct of various mental (cognitive) faculties working together:

As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence….Nevertheless I cannot but suspect that there is a still earlier and ruder stage, when anything which manifests power or movement is thought to be endowed with some form of life, and with mental faculties analogous to our own.) But until the faculties of imagination, curiosity, reason, etc., had been fairly well developed in the mind of man, his dreams would not have led him to believe in spirits….The same high mental faculties which first led man to believe in unseen spiritual agencies, then in fetishism, polytheism, and ultimately in monotheism, would infallibly lead him, as long as his reasoning powers remained poorly developed, to various strange superstitions and customs….These miserable and indirect consequences of our highest faculties may be compared with the incidental and occasional mistakes of the instincts of the lower animals.

Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals….If it could be proved that certain high mental powers, such as the formation of general concepts, self-consciousness, etc., were absolutely peculiar to man, which seems extremely doubtful, it is not improbable that these qualities are merely the incidental results of other highly-advanced intellectual faculties; and these again mainly the result of the continued use of a perfect language….The half-art, half-instinct of language still bears the stamp of its gradual evolution. The ennobling belief in God is not universal with man; and the belief in spiritual agencies naturally follows from other mental powers.

The belief in God has often been advanced as not only the greatest, but the most complete of all the distinctions between man and the lower animals. It is however impossible, as we have seen, to maintain that this belief is innate or instinctive in man. On the other hand a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in man’s reason, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder.

In the preceding passages, Darwin espouses the “intellectualist” view of animism-religion favored by Tylor and Frazer. Today we would call this a cognitivist approach. As you can see, Darwin long ago detailed nearly all the faculties that modern cognitive scholars recognize as giving rise to (or supporting) animist-religious ideation. He even characterizes this ideation as incidental and (empirically) mistaken, as modern byproduct theorists often do.

In the following passages (again, condensed for convenience), Darwin espouses another view — one that has more in common with social-functional and ritual view of animism-religion favored by Durkheim and his intellectual descendants. It is also a view favored by modern group level selectionists such as David Sloan Wilson:

Turning now to the social and moral faculties. In order that primeval men, or the ape-like progenitors of man, should become social, they must have acquired the same instinctive feelings, which impel other animals to live in a body [group]; and they no doubt exhibited the same general disposition. They would have felt uneasy when separated from their comrades, for whom they would have felt some degree of love; they would have warned each other of danger, and have given mutual aid in attack or defence. All this implies some degree of sympathy, fidelity, and courage. Such social qualities, the paramount importance of which to the lower animals is disputed by no one, were no doubt acquired by the progenitors of man in a similar manner, namely, through natural selection, aided by inherited habit. When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other. Let it be borne in mind how all important in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be.

Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes: but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world.

Ultimately our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment—originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit. It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.

This is a classic expression of the idea, advanced today by neo-Durkheimian functionalists and group level selectionists, that animist-religious action (often in the form of ritual) arose because it makes people more prosocial, cooperative, and altruistic. Anything that could foster such attributes would of course be adaptive and favored by selection.

As is evident, Darwin keenly presaged all the subsequent debates and framed the issues as they are more or less studied by modern scholars. One thing Darwin didn’t do: set these ideas in opposition or use them to advance overt-covert agendas.

Darwin & The Descent: Animism-Religion


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