Quaker Universalist Conversations

Darwin’s Dog, or the Evolution of Religion

Religion, Briefly Considered: Part 1

Winston Davis’ “Religion, Briefly Considered” series:
Part 2: When You Wish upon a Star: The Projection Theory of Religion
Part 3: Carving the Buddha: Was Feuerbach Right?.
Part 4: Dojo: Rethinking Projection Theory
Part 5: Religious Magic
Part 6: Religious Experience – An Open Letter.

Long before scientists discovered that whales can sing, the church, in the canticle “Benedicite, omnia opera Domini,” urged the great behemoths of the deep to lift their voices in praise of the Creator.

O ye whales…bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him forever.

Underwater photograph of humpback whales in Hawaii. ©Tsuneo Nakamura.

The idea of whales praising the Lord is charming, but, I’m afraid, a bit fishy. As far as I can see, whales are not very religious. They may sing and communicate with each other, but they don’t sing hymns. The reason for this is that they can’t really talk. This means they can’t ruminate about the gods, miracles or salvation.

The only animals capable of doing so are those that can “fabulate” (tell stories) about powerful, invisible beings who (they think) can help or harm them. Here whales fall short. They can no more fabulate than they can lie or tell the truth. On the other hand, we humans are absolutely “polymorphously perverse” when it comes to storytelling. We tell all sorts of stories, stories that are true and untrue, uplifting and destructive, innocent and perverse.

The Faith Instinct How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, by Nicholas Wade Some believe that man is religious by nature. Mircea Eliade, one of my teachers at the University of Chicago, dubbed our species homo religiosus, a term that implies that humans have always worshiped the gods and will always do so. Nicholas Wade (The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, 2009) argues, however, that there could have been no religion (and therefore no gods) before humans began to talk.

When was that?

Researchers recently discovered a family in London that has great difficulty with language. Experts from Oxford University found that the family lacked a gene, FOXP2, that is necessary for producing speech.1 This gene apparently spread through the human genome only 150,000 to 350,000 years ago.

It seems to me that language is necessary for, and therefore necessarily predates religion. If language evolved as recently as scientists think it did, the gods are no more than 350,000 years old. Before that, culturally transmitted religions could not have existed. Measured against the vast expanse of evolutionary time, the gods seem to be mere, metaphysical toddlers.

Since only 26% of Americans accept the theory of evolution, many will be shocked to learn that scholars today are studying the evolutionary origins of religion itself. Charles Darwin prompted this line of inquiry himself when he noted that his dog’s behavior threw light on the origins of animism, i.e., “the tendency in savages to imagine that natural objects and agencies are animated by spiritual or living essences” (Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871).

Darwin wrote:

My dog was lying on the lawn during a hot and still day; but at a little distance a slight breeze occasionally moved an open parasol, which would have been wholly disregarded by the dog, had any one stood near it. As it was, every time that the parasol slightly moved, the dog growled fiercely and barked. He must, I think, have reasoned to himself in a rapid and unconscious manner, that movement without any apparent cause indicated the presence of some strange living agent, and that no stranger had a right to be on his territory.

Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, by Stewart E. Guthrie (1995) Evolutionary psychologists today believe that, like Darwin’s dog, humans have an innate, hyperactive tendency to detect personal agency in the natural world. Some believe that we developed a primordial “agency detection system” during the course of the perennial warfare among primitive tribes. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie (Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, 1993) points out that, thanks to our tendency to see personality in everything, we often “hear a wind-slammed door as an intruder, see AIDS as punishment, or find design in nature.”2

It’s possible that, once we learned to speak, the tendency to see invisible, personal agents at work in impersonal, natural events virtually hard-wired us for religion, at least for theism (the belief in personal gods). Because our deadliest enemies have always been other human beings, the Faces we see in the clouds look suspiciously like our own. This seems to be why anthropomorphism, animism and theism have dominated the history of religion.

Hanuman, Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons The evolution of homo sapiens also explains why we think of the gods as the creators, molders and fixers of the universe. When we humans became bipedal—long before we learned to speak—we no longer needed our hands for “knuckle-walking” and could devote them to making tools and weapons. Bipedal Man became homo faber, man the maker.

Genesis implies that the god who created the world (deus faber?) was bipedal. At least we know he “walked in the garden.” Even Hindu worshippers of the monkey-god Hanuman picture their god walking on human legs even though he is always depicted with a monkey’s face and tail. As far as I know, no one has every worshiped a knuckle-walking god. Walking on two feet and having the free, skillful hands of a craftsman, helper or savior seem to be nearly universal attributes of the gods.

Long before people started to talk about the evolution of religion skeptical thinkers speculated that the gods didn’t create man; man created them—in his own image. This theory (“projection theory”) is a philosophical or speculative supplement to the evolutionary theory of religion.

The idea goes back at least to the Greek philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570-475 BCE) who argued that “if cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, [they] would depict the gods’ shapes similar to the form they themselves have.” Xenophanes also pointed out that “the Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed and black, the Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.”

Does projection theory count against the truth-claims of contemporary theism? We’ll talk about this next time.

In the meantime, please let me know what you think about all of this—which is entirely open to correction.

Part 2: When You Wish upon a Star: The Projection Theory of Religion
Part 3: Carving the Buddha: Was Feuerbach Right?
Part 4: Dogo: Rethinking Projection Theory.


1 FOXP2 is not the only gene controlling language. In a different form it is even carried by mice. For more information on FOXP2, see these sources cited by Wikipedia :

2 Guthrie seems to have stumbled upon the evolutionary roots of the anti-Darwinist theory of “Intelligent Design.” Just as Darwin’s dog saw an agent behind the moving parasol, believers in Intelligent Design see a mysterious Face behind nature in general. Indeed, given the power of our innate agency detection systems, it’s hard not to do so. Creationists claim, of course, that Intelligent Design is science. But the Design they see in nature seems to be merely fabulation about the “Face in the Clouds” first seen in Genesis.

Image Sources

Humpback whales in Hawaii ©Tsuneo Nakamura, from Discovery of Sound in the Sea

Hanuman, by Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


I am grateful to Friend Winston for articulating so clearly this aspect of the history of religion.

There is a powerful and tragic irony in the evolution of human consciousness.

The earliest storytellers knew the magic of using imagination to give salutary meaning to events in the physical and emotional world of their audiences. Even with stories retold for generations, listeners knew that the storyteller might revise and reframe a traditional story to address the human community’s changing experiences—and their attendant need to find workable new meanings for old stories. They experienced the blessing of the storyteller as she helped them find continuity while adapting to new realities.

In the modern era, though, we have divorced sacred storytelling from its real purposes. Instead, since the earliest stirrings of empirical science in Europe, we have gradually mistaken these stories for factual accounts—and then argued and warred endlessly over which versions of the stories are “true.”

Worse, we have denied empirical knowledge when we cannot fit it into our stories, or else we have warped and distorted the stories to make them fit what we now take for granted about the material, scientifically understood world.

Perhaps Friend Winston’s reflections will help us to rediscover sacred story as the art that it is, while allowing science to teach us about our material existence.