Darwinists of all stripes can hardly refrain from evolutionary storytelling when it comes to human psychology. Not surprisingly, they focus largely on their opponents–those who have faith in God. The recent work by archeologists Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery seems to follow the familiar template.1 Start with an actual study, then speculate wildly about how natural selection brought about the observed results.
During 15 years of excavation they have uncovered not some monumental temple but evidence of a critical transition in religious behavior. The record begins with a simple dancing floor, the arena for the communal religious dances held by hunter-gatherers in about 7,000 B.C. It moves to the ancestor-cult shrines that appeared after the beginning of corn-based agriculture around 1,500 B.C., and ends in A.D. 30 with the sophisticated, astronomically oriented temples of an early archaic state.
This and other research is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.
For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.
For believers, it may seem threatening to think that the mind has been shaped to believe in gods, since the actual existence of the divine may then seem less likely.
In case you missed it before, I think John Cleese’s work in this area is as good or better than any other Darwinist speculating in this area.