Is Spirituality a Byproduct of Evolution?
Homo sapiens evolved to be socially intelligent. Over millions of years, perhaps more, the primate brain evolved special machinery to allow us to think socially, to build abstract concepts of each other’s minds and to react emotionally to each other in a way that more or less maintains the social web. In one theory that is gaining greater acceptance, the social machinery in the human brain is the direct cause of spirituality. Spirituality is the human brain doing exactly what it is exquisitely well evolved to do. It is the functioning of our social intelligence.
If spiders could ever become super intelligent, they might see the world through the metaphor of a web. They might talk about sticky strands of thought. They might envision a universe pulled out of a spinneret. They might judge beauty by radial symmetry.
Looking at the moon, they might see a web-in-the-moon instead of a man-in-the-moon. The natural talent of humans is to spin metaphors of minds and intentions, and that is how we evaluate almost everything around us. We understand and react to the world through our social capability. It defines us more than any other trait. Even language is a refinement of social communication. We are truly Homo socialis.
Yet the theory that spirituality is a product of social intelligence seems to have certain limitations. If spirituality is defined rather narrowly as the human tendency to believe in a spirit world — in ghosts, gods, angels, and life after death — then the explanation is plausible. We believe in spirits because we are predisposed to see minds in the things around us. But to most people, spirituality has a much larger halo of meaning including moral decency and love and religious awe and an all-embracing sense of fellowship. How are these spiritual experiences products of an evolved social machinery?
“Asking the right questions takes as much skill as giving the right answers.” – Robert Half
Awe, for example, is at its root a social emotion. Its utility lies in shaping our behavior toward others, especially others that we perceive to be wiser or more powerful than us. It is one ingredient in hierarchical social structure. Awe of a beautiful landscape, awe of music, awe of the spread of stars as you look up at night, all of these instances of awe are traditionally connected in a hazy way in people’s thoughts and feelings with awe of a larger, deistic presence. In the social intelligence theory of spirituality, these instances of spiritual awe are the result of bits of a social machinery constantly spinning, constantly computing. Such emotional reactions follow from the human tendency to see almost everything in our world through the filter of the social machinery.
As the free-will conscious manifestation of the universe (acting & interacting as tendrils of conscious energy), we may perceive reality Subjectively, but we experience it Together; it is in this sense that we are all Indistinguishably Interconnected — we are all Earthlings, we are all one, we are LOVE — Independent, but more importantly INDIVISIBLE.
Religious awe may belong to a category of biological trait along with male nipples and the gill slits in human fetuses. It has an understandable evolutionary past. The adaptive advantages that led to it are real, but the present adaptive advantage of it, if any, is not entirely straightforward. It doesn’t need an adaptive advantage to be a part of us.
“I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.” – Buckminster Fuller
Note that nowhere in my description do I condemn spirituality or scoff at awe. I am not calling for its end. I am no so-called New Atheist advocating the debunking of human spiritual belief. I consider my perspective more that of a strict naturalist trying to understand the behavior of a species of animal that happens to be my own species. I have no interest in fighting a cultural war against a natural phenomenon, the intrinsic behavior of us humans, that I am trying to study.
“There are three classes of people: those who see. Those who see when they are shown and those who do not see. The knowledge of all things is possible if we realize that everything connects to everything else. Unity is vision; it must have been part of the process of learning to see.” – Leonardo da Vinci
I would love to see us humans tackle our world problems rationally, but it is difficult to do that without first understanding who we are, and my interest, scientifically speaking, is to understand who we are. We are beings that do not see the world literally or dispassionately. We see the world filtered through our most developed talent, our social intelligence, and spirituality is a direct consequence.
If you want to change something in your life, focus on the inner, and the universe will take care of the outer.
Whether consciousness is implanted in us by something divine, or whether it is created by the efforts of our brains, the end result is the same; we are … and to exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly. The soul is infinite, made up of aspects that come and go all the time. It’s our nature for parts of the soul to travel while we meditate or dream. Through this process we grow, we learn new thoughts, thus desires, and our consciousness evolves. All wisdom contracts then expands, contracts then expands. That is how consciousness evolves.
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” – Carl Sagan
Author Bio: Michael Graziano is a neuroscientist and novelist. He is a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University. His contributions on the functioning of the brain regularly appear in scientific journals such as Science, Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. He has published books on the brain including the popular book God, Soul, Mind, Brain and Consciousness and the Social Brain. His novels include The Divine Farce and The Love Song of Monkey. More information can be obtained on his web site: www.princeton.edu/%7Egraziano/