Religion played ‘key’ role in social evolution?


Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar and a team of researchers at Oxford University revealed during a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting a new and frankly, rather confounding theory suggesting that religion played an integral part in the social evolution of human beings, as reported in The Washington Post’s article, “A scientist’s new theory: Religion was key to humans’ social evolution.”

As this hypothesis goes, religion, with its communicative and interactive elements, helped to drive the social development and bring people together in important ways through singing, traditional rituals and customs and shared experience. Dunbar has argued that these religious components release endorphins, which, in turn, support feelings of in-group closeness and togetherness. According to Dunbar:

You need something quite literally to stop everybody from killing everybody else out of just crossness. Somehow it’s clear that religions, all these doctrinal religions, create the sense that we’re all one family.

Dunbar is best known for coming up with a sociological system known as “Dunbar’s number,” which is a tally for how many connections humans can maintain at any given time. For instance, he has argued that we can maintain ties with five intimate friends, 50 good friends, 150 friends more casual friends and as many as 1,500 acquaintances. He posits that his number is so high for humans largely because of religion. Here is The Post:

And then Dunbar turned to figuring out why Dunbar’s number is so high. Did humor help us manage it? Exercise? Storytelling? That riddle has been Dunbar’s quest for years — and religion is the latest hypothesis he’s testing in his ongoing attempt to find the answer.

“Most of these things we’re looking at, you get in religion in one form or another,” he said.

I doubt I will be the first to point out that his proposition on the role of religion on social evolution suffers from multiple fatal flaws.

First, and perhaps most obvious, is that the social evolution of humans began many millions of years before religion. Earliest estimates indicate that developing humans did not begin what we might consider religion activities (i.e. the ritual burying of the dead) until 100,000 ago or slightly earlier.

Matt Rossano, a psychology professor with Southeastern Louisiana University, in his paper, “The African Interrugnum: The ‘Where,’ ‘When,’ and ‘Why’ of the Evolution of Religion,” argues that the evolutionary foundation for religion began between 60,000-80,000 years ago:

A crucial aspect of their (anatomically modern humans’) increased sophistication was religion. It was during the time between their retreat from the Levant to the conquest of the world (The African Interrugnum) that their religion emerged. Using archeological, anthropological, psychological, and primatological evidence, this chapter proposes a theoretical model for the evolutionary emergence of religion — an emergence that is pin-pointed temporally to the ecological and social crucible that was Africa from about 80,000 to 60,000 ybp (years before present), when Homo sapiens (but for the grace of God?) nearly vanished from the earth.

Even before that, scientists have concluded that our primate ancestors coalesced around a common cause for the purposes of hunting, staying alive and yes, some kind of primitive form of socializing and even levity in between meals and child rearing. All things considered, I would even go so far as to argue that since religion has only been around for a such a short period of our common history based on the vast stretches of evolutionary time — tens of thousands of years versus millions — that it can hardly be considered as having been a major factor in the social evolution of humans. Although it might have brought some level of “sophistication,” as Rossano points out, religion was a late bloomer on the horizon of humanity.

Religion was a late bloomer on the horizon of humanity.


If The Post article accurately reflects what Dunbar thinks on religion, a couple other parts of this article are wide of the mark.

In the first quote I posted here, Dunbar suggests early humans would have just torn each other apart limb from limb in wanton displays of aggression and bloodletting were it not the moderating influence of religion and doctrine in these early human communities. Intergroup aggression and nearly endless quarrels over land and resources were hallmarks of early societies and are well documented, but even within individual communities, certainly males acted with hostility and jealousy toward other males who might threaten to wrest their mates away from them.

Even so, the sense that “we’re all one family” inside a particular tribe or culture was largely rooted in place — in the particular spot that group had captured or settled and called home, not in religion. At least in more modern ancient times, gods were viewed as distant and inaccessible. All of the other elements of religion, like singing, dancing, rituals and burial and mating practices, were secondary to maintaining and protecting whatever the concept of “home” meant for them.

Dunbar also seems to draw too close of a connection between religion and singing, as if religious worship has a monopoly on being able to evoke emotion and draw people together. Here is another quote:

What you get from dance and singing on its own is a sense of belonging. It happens very quickly. What happens, I suspect, is that it can trigger very easily trance states. Once you’ve triggered that, you’re in, I think, a different ballgame. It ramps up massively. That’s what’s triggered. There’s something there.

One can’t read this quote from Dunbar without wondering if he has been to a secular music concert in his life because if he had, he would realize that hearing an inspirational and uplifting rock anthem or a love song or a ballad produces precisely the same kinds of emotions as one can experience inside the walls of a church or in a kind of spiritual “trance.” Suggesting that singing and dancing in the name of religion is any more meaningful or creates anymore of a sense of belonging than doing these activities for their own sake or with friends or loved ones in a moment of innocent revelry seems like too far of a leap from one hypothesis to the next. These can be, and have been for millenia, enjoyed in and of themselves independent of any admonishments from heaven.

Women dancing on a vase in the Museo Borbonico, Naples.

Women dancing as depicted on a vase in the Museo Borbonico, Naples.

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

1 Comment on "Religion played ‘key’ role in social evolution?"

  1. When a guy in the parking lot of WalMart sells you a $250 iPhone, and you find that inside the box is only a block of wood wrapped in bubble wrap, the block of wood is God.

    If religion ever played a part in social evolution, it was before we looked inside the bubble wrap. Now we'll just have to rely on human decency, which is a very real thing, so don't be snarky. Snark is my job.

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