by Mark Vernon
Narrative accounts of human evolution are big right now. You may well have read Noah Yuval Harari’s Sapiens and its follow up, Homo Deus. And there are others, such as the “big history” of David Christian, related in his book, Origin Story.
They’re well written, packed with detail, and offer a sense of place in time. But I finish them feeling a fundamental element is missing. There’s a hole at the centre of their explanations. If there were a single word to capture that lack it might be the word, “soul”.
By soul I mean the energy that animates the human species. It’s not the struggle to survive. It’s not the drive of replicating genes. It’s the existential need to discover something of worth; to have something to live for.
The big histories of Harari and Christian write a lot about meaning, of course. Pivotal to Harari’s account is that our ancestors learnt to tell stories to one another. These fictions were useful because they helped bond large groups. That they were false, in Harari’s view, doesn’t matter because their value was instrumental. They enabled homo sapiens to survive by bringing them together, sometimes to outwit predators; sometimes to share know-how.
I’ve no doubt that stories were helpful in this way. What I do doubt is that stories became a key feature of our species solely because they were adaptively advantageous. Rather, I suspect that they had an intrinsic value of their own and that our ancestors were as delighted by them as we are by ours, now. Myths capture meaning, speak of purpose and express feelings of soul.
It’s crucial to highlight this element for at least two reasons. First, because our crises today are, at root, existential crises: I fear that soulless accounts of our evolution deepen and exacerbate the problem. Second, and more importantly, because there’s good evidence a soulful account of human evolution is true.
In other words, there is an alternative big history of our species and it puts transcendence and belief in the driving seat.
One place it’s being worked out is in relation to the evolutionary origins of religion. I recently attended a meeting of the International Society for Science and Religion. The conference was held to discuss research led by the evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar. He has proposed a new source for the religiosity tendency that’s so distinctive of we humans.
It’s wellspring was the discovery of trance. It seems that archaic humans of the middle palaeolithic realised that they could induce altered states of consciousness. That developed into animistic gatherings and shamanistic practices. With trance, entirely new worlds populated by spirits and ancestors opened up to them. The quest for meaning became multi-dimensional.
The evidence for this development ranges over archeological remains such as cave art and burial sites, studies of modern hunter-gatherers, and the role endorphins play in our physiology. The last factor is particularly striking. Large surges of endorphins are released when we execute synchronized activities, be that dancing, celebrating or performing rituals. These opioids have a useful by-product, Dunbar argues. They ease the tensions that build up in large groups, which unchecked would destroy them.
Dunbar also has evidence that transcendent experience is particularly powerful when it comes to spawning such adaptive advantages. For example, religious groups tend to grow larger than purely secular ones, and also hold together for longer. It may be that transcendence has the peculiar property of being only partly amenable to description. It has an ineffable quality, with the corollary that it’s an infinite source of fascination and soul, healing and bonding. It is, therefore, deeply satisfying and especially useful. If Dunbar and his colleagues are right, soul and survival go together.
Another, and related, alternative to the soulless big histories is being told by the anthropologist, Agustin Fuentes. Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being will be published by Yale University Press later this year. (If you want a sneak preview, the book stems from his 2018 Gifford Lectures that are online.) In it, he relates the rich and complicated story of our evolution drawing out elements that other accounts sideline – which, in my view, makes it a game-changer.
The difference can be put like this. Fuentes realises that the development of technologies rests on the reciprocal interaction of material and immaterial factors. Consider the business of making stone tools.
Clearly, you need suitable stones, agile hands and big enough brains to make flint scrappers and arrow heads. That’s the material side of the story. But you also need imagination and insight to see how a rock might not only crack nuts, but be transformed into something entirely new, like an ornamental hand axe. This is the crucial immaterial element. And it doesn’t stop there.
To gain such insights, you need an ability to contemplate your environment and, because such awareness must be sustained for long periods of time to yield insights, you also need beliefs and meaning to keep the contemplation going.
This is to say that there are activities our ancestors must have experienced as having intrinsic value, and that these activities are prior to those that delivered the instrumental benefits. Early humans must have wanted to engage with reality in a quest for connection and truths. Only then could they become great devisors of technologies. Again, they must have had soul.
Without soul, there would be no tools. The human niche is one marked by an openness to the transcendent. It’s not an optional extra. “Human beings became simultaneously transactional and transcendental beings,” Fuentes writes. The two dimensions are woven together.
Fuentes goes on to argue that this leaves us “revelation ready”, which is to say that human beings – perhaps during the Neolithic period – also become capable of receiving the intimations of reality that were captured in sacred texts and doctrinal convictions. The science cannot decide whether these beliefs are true, of course. But it does show how becoming spiritual or religious emerged and why it was so necessary.
In short, soul has always been at the centre of the human story. My sense is that it always needs to be, too. Without it, we fall into meaninglessness and purposelessness and find our circumstances unbearable, which shouldn’t surprise us. If spiritual needs drove our evolution, it’s only natural to presume they are needed to drive us, too. I look forward to new big histories being shared and told.
Mark Vernon’s new book, A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling and the Evolution of Consciousness – a big history from roughly 1000 BCE to the present – is published this month.
Image of stencilled hand images about 9,300 years old at the Cuevas de las Manos in Argentina by Mariano. Creative Commons, Wikipedia