Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion
E. Fuller Torrey (Staff/MD Ethiopia 1964–66)
Columbia University Press
$35.00 (hardcover), $33.25 (Kindle)
By Patricia Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962-64)
“The gods were born following a pregnancy lasting approximately two million years. It took that long for hominin brains to evolve structurally and functionally from being primate-like brains to being brains that possessed the cognitive faculties of modern Homo sapiens.” Thus begins E. Fuller Torrey’s masterful book on the evolution of religion. He has reviewed, compiled, and applied the pertinent fields of paleontology, anthropology, archaeology, anatomy, brain science, psycholinguistics, and social science that contribute to his theme. Torrey had been “looking for God,” since he was a child. As an undergraduate, he majored in religious studies; as a graduate student, in anthropology. He went on to become a physician and psychiatrist who has published several books, among them, Surviving Schizophrenia: A Family Manual and American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System. The only profession that might have more fully prepared Torrey to write this book would have been that of shaman, rabbi, priest, or imam.
As a graduate student, Torrey observed that far-flung populations had “similar gods in dissimilar cultures.” His search for an explanation of this phenomenon forms the meat of this book that will make readers shudder who don’t accept evolution as proven science. The author surveys the temples, mounds, pyramids, and artifacts that emerged all over the world, at approximately the same time, as reflections of belief in an afterlife. He quotes psychoanalyst, Carl Jung: “…all ages before ours believed in gods in some form or another.” These gods, up to and including the God of the Judeo Christian tradition, were prompted by a brain that had undergone specific cognitive developments.
The author also quotes Charles Darwin who eventually stated that humans universally created their gods through the process of evolution: “We see nothing of these slow changes…until the hand of time has marked the lapse of ages.” The brains of our ancient ancestors, wherever their migrations led, evolved in similar ways as seen in their burial practices, agricultural tools, vessels, communal living, and in their belief in gods and associated taboos.
As Homo sapiens evolved, we struggled with death, and how we would not escape its accompanying decay and desiccation. How comforting, then, to believe that one day our bodies would be restored, that we would see our loved ones again, and that our lives would continue, if on a different plain.
After a span of eons, we developed a “theory of mind,” more precisely, an “introspective mind” that not only enabled us to think about our own behavior, but how others viewed it. Eventually, we considered what the gods would think of our behavior. In other words, we imputed a theory of mind to the gods as well as to ourselves. They knew us better than we knew ourselves and could reward or punish us according to our deeds, making our lives better or worse. Torrey states the following to illustrate the development of an introspective self as it applies to one God: “In Christian theology, the emergence of an introspective self is symbolized by the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, who eat fruit from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden and, for the first time, become aware of themselves and their nakedness.”
Natural phenomena became the first objects of divine reverence, like the sun that “rose and set” every day, the moon that gave light by night, rain that made crops grow, lightning and thunder that frightened and forced humans to take shelter. All these forces our ancestors imbued with divine powers. They became gods, worthy of offerings and intercession, and these gods, with different names, appeared all over the earth at approximately the same time. In Peru, for example, where I served with the Peace Corps, among the most important was the sun-god, Viracocha, whom Andeans worshiped. Every winter solstice the Inca “tied” the sun to a hitching post at Machu Picchu to prevent it and its warmth from moving north so they could plant corn and other crops and not go hungry. The re-creation of this ritual still takes place at Machu Picchu every June 21. Also in Peru, the Old Testament story of the flood and the ark is replicated in the legend of Manco Capac and his sister-wife, Mama Ocllo, who emerged from Lake Titicaca to repopulate (and re-create) the earth.
Over time, our ancestors attributed god-like powers to human beings who either believed they were gods because of their inherited positions, or they convinced their followers into believing they were divine out of power, chicanery, and intimidation. People ruled by the Incas in Peru, for example—there being only one Inca at a time—considered them gods. When the Inca died, their vassals buried them with all the resources they would need to travel to the next world, including gold vessels, food, and. in the case of royalty, the remains of humans who were sacrificed to keep them company. (Today it is said that, when North Korea’s president, Kim Jong-un was born, a new star shimmered in the sky. As further proof of his mystical talents, his body is so well calibrated, he doesn’t need to urinate or defecate.)
Using a global perspective, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism developed between eight hundred to two hundred BCE. Christianity arose from Judaism and Islam followed. Torrey points out that each of these religions helped humans cope with the reality of death.
As I tie up this review, I’m reminded of how I got down on my knees on September 10, 2017, as Hurricane Irma bore down on Naples, Florida, where my son and his family live. I prayed for their deliverance and for others in Irma’s way, for Texans in their struggle to survive the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, for the Rohinga fleeing the Myanmar military, for the people of the Middle East, and, yes, for Mr. Trump (not an easy thing for me to do) that he may make contact with that ancient impulse to believe in a force greater than he, wiser, patient, and compassionate. (As for me, I am comfortable with scientist Francis Collins’ conclusion that “the universal longing for God” is proof, in and of itself, of His existence.)
Reviewer Patricia Taylor Edmisten, a Catholic, holds a doctorate in special education with a minor in anthropology. She has taught at the School for Research and Language Disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of West Florida, where she also directed the office of international education and programs. She is the author of seven books, including A Longing For Wisdom: One Woman’s Conscience And Her Church. www.patriciaedmistenbooks.com.