I would like to acknowledge the support of a Northern Writers’ Award in 2016 from New Writing North, supported by The Literary Consultancy, Northumbria University and Arts Council England.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Review - How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures (Robin Dunbar)

 Years ago, I read John Geiger’s The Third Man Factor. Its point of departure is the niche phenomenon of mountaineers in extremis imagining the presence of a phantom additional climber on their rope (Dougal Haston’s experience on the Eiger is probably the best known; TS Eliot’s note in The Waste Land about polar explorers will be more familiar to the deskbound). It documents the much broader experience of ‘the 3rd man’ (curiously, it is always a man . . .) whose presence may be experienced in states of extreme physical exhaustion.  Geiger concludes that these hallucinations may be induced by physical privation, a reduction of sensory stimulation or a relentless monotony (whiteout, droning, darkness). He goes on to suggest that our tendency to process this stimulus (or lack of it) into an apparition is located in an evolutionarily very recent development in modern humans’ neurology.  

This last suggestion struck me as potentially extraordinary – if these experiences of the other were enabled by the same brain circuits that, for instance, produce trance states then it could be conjectured that modern humans’ widespread expression of some form of religious experience has some basis in evolution.  Perhaps only as an accidental by-product of some other development – but if, as a hunter-gatherer (more about them later) you found yourself entering what you thought of as a spirit world or experiencing ‘your’ spirit other, then it’s not difficult to imagine a social context in which that experience enabled improved reproductive chances (membership of the hunting band, entry into adulthood, a mate), ensuring fitness-selection for religion. 

All of which at the time seemed just like fascinating conjecture, albeit potentially bad news for evolutionary scientists with pronounced views on religion, but probably worse for believers with pronounced views on Darwin.  (Religion and evolutionary psychology, among many other things, claim to be toolkits that account for the totality of what it means to be human. Both systems are about making falsifiable predictions; only one does so in order to be proved wrong).

Clearly what was needed is an evolutionary psychologist’s view of the history and development of religion and religious experience.  And Robin Dunbar’s How Religion Evolved – And Why It Endures delivers exactly that. It’s a book overflowing with ideas and insights into why we humans (uniquely, it seems) experience religion – both inwardly via a ‘mystical stance’ approximately cognate with Geiger’s accidental latter-day Alpine shamen, and also in socially organised ritual units.  It’s a breath-taking, fizzing, profoundly stimulating read. 

In highly abbreviated summary – Dunbar (who doesn’t cite Geiger, so is probably unaware of his book) does three big things: 

He traces the neurological background of what he calls ‘the mystical stance’, humanity’s apparently unique and recently evolved ability to experience an altered state of awareness (whether an Amazonian shaman or St Theresa in ecstasy rather than Haston on the Eiger, this manifests itself in some very culturally specific ways).    

Secondly, he analyses our ability to mentalise – effectively to see the world through the mind of another and understand that the other’s awareness of the world differs from our own (‘I think that you know that she believes that . . .’ ) as the basis for a shared experience and understanding of the demands of the beings encountered in the transcendent world. 

 But it’s Dunbar’s analysis of our primate-grooming-group-derived social structures that really brings the neurology and psychology into a thrilling, big-picture synthesis.  He leads us through a fascinating history of social group sizes, their functions and problems of cohesion and stability. Religious congregations (and all friendship groups) are, weirdly, bound by the same optimal limits as hunting bands, clans and tribes. (Sidenote – there’s a hint that this comparison is based largely on western Christian lay structures; it would be interesting to know how it replicates in monastic and common life groupings, and in other global religious traditions). 

He suggests the development of religious practice, from hunting-band invocation of the hunted beast’s spirit to monotheistic moralising ideologies concerned with supernatural reward and punishment arises from the need to manage ever more complex economic and social groupings kick-started by the Neolithic agricultural revolution.  (Klaxon alert for anyone projecting Edenic fantasies onto the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. H/G life though not solitary was still pretty Hobbesian: you were far more likely to be murdered by a fellow hunter than starve or be gored by a boar).  He suggests that this culminates in the replacement of local cults by highly organised law and faith-systems focused on ‘Moralising High Gods’ around the middle of the 1st millennium BC (anyone thinking of the denouement of Aeschylus’ Eumenides is probably not wrong), whose structures are still with us today.

He also looks at the problem of charismatic leadership and banal succession and proposes a scientific rationale for the chronically fissiparous nature of new faiths obsessed by the narcissism of small differences (a trait flatteringly imitated by the groupuscules of the materialist left). 

 All of which rather begs the question – if religious groupings are part of mankind’s continuous struggle to ameliorate the effects of economic growth and social complexity, how will religion evolve in an economic system that is globalised and social structures that are now virtual and hence effectively boundless?  Dunbar is (probably rightly) reticent on this.  But it’s of interest for two reasons. 

One is that most major religions have elaborate ideas about the end of human society in a catastrophe on a universal scale.  It’s worth speculating whether our fears of nuclear winter and / or climate catastrophe are performing the same cultural and psychological function as the millenarianism of earlier ages.  With the exception of a topical nod towards Extinction Rebellion, Dunbar keeps his powder dry.  Some anthropologists suggest that all humans alive today are probably descended from a very small number of people who passed through a narrow genetic bottleneck some 70,000 years ago.  The cause of the bottleneck is uncertain but was probably a profound catastrophe of environment or external change.  We cannot know whether those who survived did so through sheer random chance or the possession of genetic traits that just happened to make them more likely to do so.  Given Dunbar’s analysis of mentalisation as a necessary component of religious psychology it would perhaps be reassuring to know that the ability to envision future catastrophe once has already given us a better chance to survive it.

The second reason is that Dunbar rightly points out the failure of 20th century political atheism to suppress religion (having earlier identified Marx’s dictum about the narcotic social and political function of religious practice as a misdiagnosis).  But this misses the fact that communism was failing to replace capitalism rather than religion per se.  If the experience of the contemporary west is anything to go by then religion is already well on its way to replacement as a means of managing demographic and economic pressures (Dunbar’s essential point about the evolution of organised religious practice) by post-industrial capitalism and its dysfunctional golden-egg-laying geese-triplets science, technology and the society of the spectacle.  (An analysis that some right-wing Catholic thinkers with their opposition to consumerist liberties, are probably on to, albeit for the wrong reasons; prosperity-gospellers should be more worried).  If that’s really the case, then Dunbar may be right in identifying XR as having a stake in what will happen next, and climate fears really are occupying the same space as religious preparation for the end-times once did.  (‘We have to correct our way of living before the end comes’ is the common currency of eschatological religion through the ages, including that of Jesus). 

Of course, one of the less remarked upon effects of the catastrophic end of things that much religion more or less gleefully looks forward to is that the end of all things means the end of religion (and science) too.  Or at least the organised kind.    

Hunting and gathering, anyone?  Or would you prefer to glue yourselves to the tarmac?

Review - How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures (Robin Dunbar)

 Years ago, I read John Geiger’s The Third Man Factor . Its point of departure is the niche phenomenon of mountaineers in extremis imaginin...