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Cognitive Evolution

There are many ways in which serious theories of the biological evolution of the human brain can offer hypotheses about the nature of religion and variations across history and across subgroups in the population with respect to religious beliefs and practices (Watts and Turner, 2014).  Most obviously, if evidence shows that religion has on balance been beneficial for humanity, it can be said to have evolved over time through natural selection from the varieties of ideas and activities oriented toward the supernatural that naturally spring up.  However, that simple idea leaves open whether the evolution was primarily biological or cultural, and it does not immediately suggest what kinds of research could clarify the mechanisms involved and establish the degree of truth to the theory.  Recently, innovative theory development and empirical research had raised legitimate hopes that very reliable answers to fundamental questions about the human mind can be answered using such techniques as functional magnetic imaging “brain scans” and genetic sequencing to compare the biological characteristics of people who exhibit different patterns of behavior.  This really does seem to be a time of very rapid scientific advance, but too early to be entirely confident in any of the specific hypotheses or research findings.

One area that is relatively easy to understand but where conclusive research remains an accomplishment for the future concerns memory.  The brain’s methods for storing information appear to be very complex, placing different kinds of memory in different locations and probably coding them in different ways as well.  One standard distinction is between episodic memory, which remembers specific events, and semantic memory, which is more abstract and remembers facts or procedures that apply to multiple situations.  A memory of when a cat caused a Christmas tree to fall down by climbing it is episodic and associated with an image of exactly where that tree stood in which house, while knowledge that ornamented Christmas trees are a well-established tradition is semantic and does not refer to a specific time or place.  Harvey Whitehouse (2004) has suggested that different kinds of religious organizations may favor one or the other kind of memory.

Whitehouse says that sects emphasize episodic memory, while mainstream denominations emphasize semantic memory, although the difference is a matter of degree and all religions make some use of both.  Sects give greater significance to extreme religious experiences, that happen under specific circumstances and are very emotional, thus having their enduring effect through episodic memories, for example of an adult baptism.  Low-intensity denominations make greater use of repetition of standard doctrines, and someone who was baptized as an infant will lack a memory of that episode, but will have learned beliefs and developed commitment gradually as an older child in Sunday school and other settings, relying upon semantic memory.

Although episodic and semantic memories are distinguishable, they blend into each other, and one of the interesting but underdeveloped topics of research is how religious episodic memories may change over time, for example to come semantically into conformity with the doctrines of the religion to which the individual belongs.  Somewhat controversially, Michael Carroll (1983, 1985) examined the ways in which ill-defined psychologically extreme episodes could be shaped by the beliefs of the community to become memories of apparitions of the Virgin Mary.  Cognitive scientists have explored more fully how episodic and other kinds of memory may change over time, especially becoming incorrect, often excessively simplified or adjusted to fit a stereotype (Conway 1997, 2001).  This raises the worrisome possibility that all memories of communication with supernatural beings are false, explainable in terms of common cognitive errors.

A frequently discussed theory of the origins of religion concerns the possibility that the human brain contains a module that evolved to model the behavior of other people, allowing us to interact and cooperate with each other.  This possibility has been theorized in various ways.  For example, H. Porter Abbott (2003) suggests that the main cognitive process that guides human action, above the low-level details that may be non-verbal such as how to grasp and lift an object, is structured in terms of narrative.  In a narrative you seek to achieve a goal, but face obstacles, must gain resources and allies, then go through a series of steps toward that goal.  In everyday life as well as in literary narratives including the bible, we understand the behavior of other people in terms of that kind of narrative structure.  Perhaps we also apply that mode of thinking to any complex process, and interpret natural processes like the weather in terms of the actions of conscious beings or gods.  Abbott notes the irony that our propensity to think in terms of narratives is a result of biological evolution, yet it makes it difficult for people to accept the theory of evolution through natural selection from random variations, because it is “non-narratable” and does not fit that model of intentional action.

A rather different but not necessarily contradictory cognitive theory postulates that there exists a distinct organ in the brain, sometimes called “mirror neurons” (Dapretto et al, 2006), that evolved specifically to model the behavior of other people.  How distinct these neurons may be is a question for empirical research, for example doing brain scans that identify where in the brain the neurons are active when a person performs a specific action, like grasping and lifting an object, in comparison with brain scans when the person watches somebody else perform the same action.  Several cognitive scientists have argued that belief in gods reflects hyperactivity of a module in the mind that interprets the intentions of other minds (Boyer, 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004).  The fact that some portion of the human brain serves practical functions very well does not mean that it does an equally good job outside the area of life for which it evolved.  Yet this kind of theory may have explanatory power, placing religious phenomena into new contexts of understanding without completely rejecting them.  For example, if we develop mental models in our own mind of the people closest to us in life, such as our parents, those models will endure after the biological deaths of those significant others.  That is to say, if a version of our deceased parent’s mind persists within our own brain, then it has entered a kind of afterlife, if not exactly the form described at the church we attend (Bering, 2006).

Recent research has taken this kind of thinking to a new level.  Clearly our brains do contain specialized modules, most obvious in the case of anatomically distinct components like the cerebrum and cerebellum, and people may differ in the relative strengths of some of these components, whether for genetic reasons or because environmental conditions favored development of one or another brain component during childhood.  One possibility considered by several cognitive scientists is that two modules in the brain may actually be in competition with each other: one perhaps based in mirror neurons that enables social bonding, and another that energizes abstract thought.  Given the complexity and constant change in human society, evolution may ultimately favor both, and even favor diversity such that individuals differ greatly in the dominance of one or the other of these two functions.  A standard game theory principle in the evolution of a cognitively complex species is that evolution that favors cooperation may set the stage for individualism, by giving some individuals the opportunity to exploit their more docile con-specifics (Maynard Smith 1982).

However, given how unstable the human environment has been over the millennia, as our species emerged from East Africa and developed technologies that allowed us to thrive in a vast diversity of environments, having a diverse gene pool allowed us to benefit from a division of labor, in which many people were content to live in a stable community, while some were more able to deal with novel circumstances.  This is the starting point for analysis by sociologist Satoshi Kanazawa (2010) in a provocatively titled article, “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent.”  He does not assert that political liberals and faithless atheists are better, but that the component of their brains responsible for what psychologists traditionally called general intelligence is not really intellectually superior, but had evolved to handle novelty, such as changes in the surrounding environment.  Conservatives and religious people have stronger brain components devoted to maintenance of beneficial traditions and social solidarity.  Over the course of human history, both propensities combined to serve human survival and well-being, so neither kind of brain module became dominant in the gene pool.

A significant number and diversity of individually limited research studies already explore ideas like this from a variety of perspectives, but raising new questions simultaneously with improving research methods.  A 2016 research article begins by framing one subset of these questions:

Prior work has established that analytic thinking is associated with disbelief in God, whereas religious and spiritual beliefs have been positively linked to social and emotional cognition. However, social and emotional cognition can be subdivided into a number of distinct dimensions, and some work suggests that analytic thinking is in tension with some aspects of social-emotional cognition. This leaves open two questions. First, is belief linked to social and emotional cognition in general, or a specific dimension in particular? Second, does the negative relationship between belief and analytic thinking still hold after relationships with social and emotional cognition are taken into account? (Jack et al, 2016:1; cf. Gervais and Norenzayan, 2012)

On the basis of eight studies, this particular article suggested that the brain function associated with religion might not be a hyperactive “other minds” module that misinterprets natural events as the actions of conscious supernatural beings, but rather a module responsible for ethical thinking and thus moral behavior.  Without jumping to the premature conclusion that we now understand the human mind, we should ponder how this theory places morality at the center of religion, rather than gods.  However, a recent review essay by Paul Bloom (2012:179), one of the most influential cognitive scientists who has studied religion, admitted that definitive scientific knowledge in this area may not yet exist: “I conclude that religion has powerfully good moral effects and powerfully bad moral effects, but these are due to aspects of religion that are shared by other human practices. There is surprisingly little evidence for a moral effect of specifically religious beliefs.”

One source of perplexity may be the fact that “religion” itself may have evolved through human history.  Sects and denominations are complex social movements and societal institutions, that seek to serve multiple functions for members, emerging under particular historical conditions, and employing many of the cultural and technological tools like literature and architecture that are employed by other institutions.  Cognitive science largely lacks a social science component, and thus its studies of religion examine individual human beings rather than church congregations or even individuals playing distinct roles in an institution such as clergy.

Kanazawa’s (2004) work offers a precautionary concept he calls the savannah principle: Human brains evolved under conditions on the savannah of East Africa, when people lived in small hunter-gatherer bands that lacked large-scale formal organizations, and humans have not changed much biologically since then, even as we have developed many additional learned mental skills.  Thus, cognitive science and studies of the brain can provide insights of value for understanding modern institutions like church congregations and multi-million-member denominations, but must be combined with social science perspectives designed to explain the modern world.  Furthermore, if the savannah principle is even only partly correct, then religion is only partially anchored by the results of human biological evolution, and very significant changes in religious cultures and organizations remain possible for the future.


Abbott, H. Porter.  2003.  “Unnarratable Knowledge: The Difficulty of Understanding Evolution by Natural Selection,” pp. 143-162 in Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences, edited by David Herman.  Stanford, California: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Atran, Scott.  2002.  In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Barrett, Justin L.  2004.  Why Would Anyone Believe in God?  Walnut Creek, California: AltaMira.

Bering, Jesse M.  2006.  “The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural,” American Scientist 94: 142-149.

Bloom, Paul.  2012.  “Religion, Morality, Evolution,” Annual Review of Psychology 63:179-199.

Boyer, Pascal.  2001.  Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Carroll, Michael P.  1983. “Visions of the Virgin Mary: The Effect of Family Structures on Marian Apparitions,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 22:205-221.

Carroll, Michael P.  1985.  “The Virgin Mary at LaSalette and Lourdes: Whom Did the Children See?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 24:56-74.

Conway, Martin A. (ed.).  1997.  Cognitive Models of Memory.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Conway, Martin A.  2001.  “Sensory-perceptual Episodic Memory and its Context: Autobiographical Memory,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences 356(1413):1375-1384.

Dapretto, Mirella, Mari S. Davies, Jennifer H. Pfeifer, Ashley A. Scott, Marian Sigman, Susan Y. Bookheimer, and Marco Iacoboni.  2006.  “Understanding Emotions in Others: Mirror Neuron Dysfunction in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Nature Neuroscience 9(1):28-30.

Gervais, Will M., and Ara Norenzayan.  2012.  “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief,” Science 336: 493-496.

Jack, Anthony Ian, Jared Parker Friedman, Richard Eleftherios Boyatzis and Scott Nolan Taylor.  2016.  “Why Do You Believe in God? Relationships between Religious Belief, Analytic Thinking, Mentalizing and Moral Concern,” PLOS ONE  DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0149989.

Kanazawa, Satoshi.  2004.  “The Savanna Principle,” Managerial and Decision Economics 25(1):41-54.

Kanazawa, Satoshi. 2010.  “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent,” Social Psychology Quarterly 73(1):33-57.

Maynard Smith, John.  Evolution and the Theory of Games.  1982.  New York: Cambridge University Press.  [sic: he considers “Maynard Smith” without a hyphen to be his last name.]

Watts, Fraser, and Leon Turner. 2014.  Evolution, Religion, and Cognitive Science.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, Harvey.  2004.  Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission.  Walnut Creek, California: Altamira.

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