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How Do We Explain The Evolution Of Religion?

by Barbara J. King
Apr 18, 2014

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Barbara J. King

Religion is a cross-cultural universal, even though not every human being professes faith in God or some other supernatural being. Those of us who are atheist or agnostic make up 6 percent of the American population. A further 14 percent say they are not affiliated with any particular religion.

But religiosity is found in every human culture and biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists keenly debate how it arose. Just like language, technology and bipedalism, religion too evolved over time. But how did that happen?

In a new paper published online in the journal Animal Behaviour, biologists Bernard Crespi and Kyle Summers ask a specific version of this question:

"How did religion actually originate and evolve, step by small step, with Darwinian continuity and explicable selective pressures mediating each stage?"

The answer Crespi and Summers favor is grounded in kin selection theory, as posited in 1964 by W.D. Hamilton. Kin selection turns on the concept of inclusive fitness, the idea that an organism's biological fitness derives not only from the direct production of offspring, but also from aiding the reproduction of its other relatives.

Copies of some percentage of our genes reside in our relatives' bodies: 50 percent for our parents, children and sibs, 25 percent for grandparents, and so on. When, under certain conditions, we help our relatives, we may boost our own genetic legacy. (You can read up on kin selection and inclusive fitness in the Encyclopedia of Ecology.)

Crespi and Summers' hypothesis is this:

"Religion and the concept of God originated and are maintained in the context of maximizing inclusive fitness through serving the interests of one's circle of kin and one's larger-scale social and cultural groups."

In other words, serving God and serving the "circle" of people to whom one is psychologically (and sometimes genetically) tied becomes, in Crespi and Summers' formulation, synonymous.

Crespi and Summers define religion as "a sociocultural belief and behavior system involving both supernatural ideas and morality." Definitions of institutions as complex as religiosity are always arguable; I'd have preferred a more explicit emphasis on practice, on specifically what people do. In fact I think Crespi and Summers do, as they lay out their hypothesis, rely heavily on practice rather than only beliefs, more so than their definition suggests. We see this in the initial stage of their proposed evolutionary trajectory, which focuses on the biological family:

"Grandparents and parents should seek to inculcate prosocial, mutualistic and altruistic behavior among their descendants, over whom they exert pervasive psychological influences during early child development."

The grandparents and parents themselves would directly benefit from this transmission of values — that is, from the practices resulting from such transmission — Crespi and Summers note.

Over time the "circle of kin" expands to include more and more non-relatives, as within-group ties are strengthened by shared practices and beliefs. A key step in this process involves the onset of belief in the supernatural, which Crespi and Summers see as beginning when the influence of the ancestors was felt in the group even after their death:

"Initially it was ancestors who apparently became the first supernatural agents and gods: they were absent, of human form, morally powerful, immutable, and mysterious yet comforting by virtue of warm, supportive bonds of kinship. Religious rituals focused on ancestors also necessarily strengthen kinship links and foster cooperation more generally ... . Ancestors, and other kinship figure gods, may serve to unify groups through psychological kinship at increasingly higher levels as human populations increase."

While this hypothesis is rooted in cooperation, it doesn't ignore competition — especially between groups. Competition of this nature may be driven by differences in religious ideology, as we see all too readily in the modern world. Religion, the authors recognize, "generates new conflicts as well as suppressing previous ones."

Crespi and Summers offer more nuance in their evolutionary thinking than I can convey here and some of their thinking I just don't buy.

They are quite taken with a significant role for oxytocin in priming religious tendencies, to take but one example. As the science writer Ed Yong has noted, wild claims for oxytocin are not uncommon. But far from being the hormone of love and cooperation as often advertised, oxytocin works in ways heavily dependent on context. In certain situations, oxytocin is associated with greater dishonesty, as Yong reports.

When, seven years ago, my book Evolving God was published and I gave interviews based on it such as this one at Salon, I grappled with the same basic questions that preoccupy Crespi and Summers. I went in a different direction by emphasizing that human religiosity was primed by the meaning-making, imagination, empathy and rule-following of other primates (primates with whom we shared a common ancestor in the past, or those common ancestors themselves). Religious imagination flowered later, in the hominin lineage, as our brains were increasingly selected over time to think beyond the here-and-now.

My framework back then focused more on preconditions for human religiosity than Crespi and Summers' does, and also on attempting to pinpoint the roots of religion in the archaeologically visible behavior of Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens. But I see the two core sets of ideas as basically complementary.

Crespi and Summers' hypothesis invites thought — about the relative roles of cooperation and competition, and the intergenerational transfer of practices as well as ideas — in the growing literature on the evolution of religion.

While we work to explain the evolution of religion, another question arises: How do we explain the equally pervasive and persistent existence of atheism? I wonder what research is being done to explain this phenomenon.


Barbara's most recent book on animals will be released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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A masked pro-Russia gunman looks through a window of a regional administration building seized earlier in Donetsk, Ukraine. (AP)

Deal In Doubt As Separatists Refuse To Budge In Ukraine

Apr 18, 2014

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"Armed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine said on Friday they were not bound by an international deal ordering them to disarm and were looking for more assurances about their security before leaving the public buildings they are holding," Reuters reports.

What's more, "the separatists' spokesman told the BBC that the Kiev government was 'illegal,' so they would not go until the Kiev government stepped down."

The Washington Post sums up the situation this way:

"The pro-Russian militants occupying the Donetsk government offices said they supported an accord signed Thursday in Geneva that seeks to calm the potential for violence in the restive region. But they said they would lay down their weapons and leave only if the new national government in Kiev steps down."

Thursday evening in Geneva, as we reported, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, emerged from meetings with foreign ministers from Ukraine and the European Union to say that the parties had agreed that all "illegal armed groups" in Ukraine should immediately lay down their weapons. Also, all "illegally seized buildings" in eastern Ukraine were to be returned to that nation's authorities.

The deal was seen as something of a breakthrough. But, as Kerry cautioned, would need to be followed by actions on the ground.

Now, the BBC notes, "a tense standoff continues in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists — many of them armed — are occupying official buildings in at least nine cities and towns."

On Morning Edition, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson said it doesn't appear the protesters in eastern Ukraine will be leaving those locations anytime soon. Some of them have said, she pointed out, that they want to see the demonstrators in Kiev's Maidan Square — the people whose protests led to the February collapse of Ukraine's previous, pro-Russia government — dismantle their camps first.

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We're all in agreement that Alison (Tatiana Maslany) is our favorite Orphan Black character. Here, she hangs out with Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and Donnie (Kristian Bruun). (BBC America)

Pop Culture Happy Hour: 'Orphan Black' And Dream Sequences

Apr 18, 2014

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First things first: It's hard to figure out exactly how to talk about the BBC America series Orphan Black in any way that's remotely meaningful without revealing at least the premise, which takes a couple of episodes to develop in the first season. So while we — including Petra Mayer of NPR Books — did our best not to spoil you on the season that's past, and while we say nothing at all about the opening of the second season (which we watched in preparation), understand that the basic What's Going On? question that arises in the pilot is the premise of our conversation. Not the twists and not the turns, but the general road we're on, if that makes sense. And as promised, we can tell you that BBC America is indeed marathoning that first season — it's underway as of 9:00 a.m. Eastern time Friday, and will begin again at Episode 1 at 8:00 p.m.

If you prefer to skip the Orphan Black discussion, you can skip to about the 19:30 mark, where you'll find our second topic this week: dream sequences. David Lynch! Buster Keaton! My So-Called Life! Emotional work and narrative work and another taxonomy courtesy of Glen! We talk about dream logic (as Glen calls it, "my teeth are falling out I gotta take a test I'm naked") and dream locales, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer gets its second mention of the week.

As always, we close the show with what's making us happy this week. Stephen is happy about a Buzzfeed longread that he's too modest to tell you should lead you to a classic A.V. Club longread. As many (many, many) of you knew he would be, Glen is happy about the release of a new record that echoes an idea Glen told you about long, long ago. Petra is happy about the noises that baby animals make, because sometimes, that's just what the heart needs. More substantively, she's also happy about some gaming news. And I'm happy about a movie and story that taught me a lot about adaptation.

Find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter: me, Stephen, Glen, Petra, producers Nick and Jessica, and our dear pal Mike.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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We're all in agreement that Alison (Tatiana Maslany) is our favorite Orphan Black character. Here, she hangs out with Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and Donnie (Kristian Bruun). (BBC America)

Top Stories: No Rescues From Korean Ferry; Deadly Everest Avalanche

Apr 18, 2014

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Good morning, here are our early stories:

— As Rescue Efforts Continue, Korean Ferry Sinks Below Surface.

— Tragedy Atop The World: Everest Avalanche Kills At Least 12.

And here are more early headlines:

Despite Geneva Agreement, Ukrainian Separatists Won't Surrender. (VOA)

First Anniversary Of Boston Officer's Death In Bombing Case. (Boston Globe)

Texas Seizes Polygamist Ranch, Used In "Criminal Enterprise". (Salt Lake Tribune)

Missouri Police Arrest Suspect In Freeway Gunfire. (Kansas City Star)

A Year After Texas Fertilizer Plant Blast, Video Shows Its Destruction. (CNN)

China Reveals Nearly 20% Of Farmland Is Heavily Polluted. (Wall Street Journal)

New Card Data Breach At Michaels Art And Craft Stores. (CNET)

White House Website Explains Its Privacy And Sharing Rules. (AP)

Nik Wallenda Wants To Walk Between Chicago Skyscrapers. (Chicago Tribune)

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The sun shines on the peak of Mount Everest in this October 2011 photo. On Friday, an avalanche killed at least 12 Sherpas on the mountain. (AP)

Tragedy Atop The World: Everest Avalanche Kills At Least 12

Apr 18, 2014

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At least 12 Sherpa guides died Friday on Nepal's side of Mount Everest when an avalanche buried them on the world's tallest mountain.

The death toll may go higher: The Himalayan Times reports that while 12 bodies have been recovered, an additional body "has been sighted buried in the snow," and that as the day ended another five Sherpas were still missing. CNN quotes a Nepalese Tourism Ministry official as saying at least four Sherpas were still unaccounted for. We will watch for updates.

Regardless of the final toll, it's the single deadliest day ever on Everest — surpassing the eight deaths in May 1996 when a storm struck. That tragedy was the basis for the best-selling book Into Thin Air.

According to Reuters, the avalanche "hit the most popular route to the mountain's peak ... between base camp and camp 1." CNN says the site of the disaster is about 20,000 feet above sea level. Everest's peak is an estimated 29,035 feet above sea level.

This is the climbing season on Everest, which more than 4,000 people have successfully climbed. About 250 have died on the mountain that borders Nepal and Tibet, Reuters notes. The Sherpas who were killed Friday and some climbers had in recent days been setting ropes, preparing camps and acclimating to the altitude, CNN reports.

While dangerous, Everest is not the world's "deadliest" mountain, according to various analyses. As The Daily Beast has noted, Nepal's Annapurna has a "death rate" of nearly 38 percent — or, as The Telegraph has put it, Annapurna has "the highest fatality-to-summit ratio of any mountain over 8,000 meters [26,247 feet]." While about 160 people have reached the top of Annapurna and returned, at least 60 have died trying.

Everest's death rate stands at about 6 percent. Other mountains with higher death rates than Everest, according to The Daily Beast's calculations, include:

— K2, which straddles China and Pakistan (23 percent)

— Nanga Parbat, in Pakistan (22 percent).

— Kangchenjunga, on the border of India and Nepal (19 percent).

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