RObin Dunbar proposes to offer nothing less than a “comprehensive theory of why and how humans are religious”. Unlike most writers on such themes, he is largely indifferent to the truth or otherwise of religious claims and has little to say about the damage done by religions, though he does refer to their “militant violence” and predatory promiscuity. found in charismatics. leaders of small sects. But he is intrigued by the “apparent universality” of religions and their constant tendency to fragment. His thought-provoking and hugely ambitious book therefore uses a variety of different approaches to shed light on three truly important questions: “what functions religion has performed”, “the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms that make this possible”, and “the timing of the origins of religion “.
At the emotional heart of religion, according to Dunbar, is something he calls “the mystical stance”, which includes “a susceptibility to enter trance states”, “belief in a transcendental (or spiritual) world and “a belief that we can call upon hidden powers to aid us.” pagan mysticism”. One of the key questions is how original immersive or shamanic forms of religion evolve into elaborate doctrinal religions.
Since Dunbar is Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University, his book is “firmly rooted in our current understanding of the theory of evolution.” Those who adhere to religions, he points out, “can incur severe costs in terms of self-imposed pain, celibacy and even self-denial.” This raises obvious moral questions, but it also doesn’t make evolutionary sense for creatures struggling to survive and reproduce. So, do religions offer compensating benefits to individuals or communities? Or are they “the misfit byproduct of cognitive traits or processes that have evolved for other perfectly respectable biological ends”, like the lower back pain we have to endure in exchange for the benefits of walking upright?
Here Dunbar studies the main evolutionary explanations for religions, the evidence that they make people healthier and happier, and their role in building a sense of cohesion (which apparently means that religious communities tend to be larger and more sustainable than their secular counterparts). It also draws on “nearly two decades of research…on the nature of sociality and the mechanisms of communal bonding in primates and humans.”
One of the weird things Dunbar is famous for is the number 150. He argued in several earlier books – such as How Does a person need many friends? – that it is a “natural” size for human groups, as large as possible while allowing us to organize our social interactions by keeping track of all individual members. Evidence for this claim, he suggests here, comes from research on “wedding guest lists,” Facebook friends, and “egocentric social networks” (the number of friends and family members with which we consciously strive to keep in touch) and, more specifically, “the typical size of hunter-gatherer communities, the form of society in which we have spent more than 95% of our existence as a species”.
While other primates resolve conflicts and maintain cohesion in much smaller groups by grooming each other, humans rely on laughter, song, dance and feasting – and the rituals of religion – to release endorphins and overcome inevitable tension. Yet, as societies grow, we continue to bump into a series of glass ceilings that require ever more elaborate and lawful forms of religion to avoid collapse.
how religion Evolved offers insight into why “all the great religions of the world emerged in the very narrow latitudinal band of the northern subtropical zone which lies immediately above the tropics”. He also sketches a four-phase model, taking us from “informal, immersive… ancestral religions,” which were “designed to bind together very small hunter-gatherer communities of 100-200 individuals living in scattered camps of 35-50 to much more formal styles of religion, incorporating temples, professional priests and complex rituals, which emerged around 4,000 years ago alongside “a dramatic increase in the size of settlements and polities in which they are integrated”.
The result is a compelling intellectual workout. Dunbar offers a powerful central argument, an excellent survey of alternative theories, and a wide range of vivid and illuminating examples. These include extreme and painful rituals, wishing wells and malevolent witches, experiments exploring the impact of synchrony in rowers, and common fears among those who visit spirit worlds while in trance. ‘they can never find their way back to the real world. . Many people today are, of course, indifferent, if not actively hostile, to religion. Still, it would be a shame if it caused them to miss this book. If Dunbar is correct that religion is “unlikely to have evolved before the appearance of anatomically modern humans around 200,000 years ago”, that also makes it “something that distinguishes humans”. The story he tells is important to all of us.