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How Religion Evolved: And why it endures by Robin Dunbar

29 April 2022

Mark Vernon considers an argument that faith is no mere by-product

THE answer given by Robin Dunbar (Feature, 22 April) to the questions how religion evolved and why it endures is not one that religious people might venture. The Oxford evolutionary psychologist does not argue that religions, in their manifold forms, are the product of human sensitivity to divine entities and spiritual dynamics within the world and beyond it, or that religiosity endures because the gods known by human beings are mirrors of what’s real.

Nevertheless, his book is significant in the scientific study of religion and its origins, possibly a game-changer. Dunbar is a big hitter in the field, and he advocates a shift of understanding. The longstanding tendency has been to treat the almost universal presence of religious beliefs and rituals in human populations as a by-product of human needs, from lessening the terrors of death to bolstering the moral imperatives that support sociality. But, instead of treating religions as noble lies or discardable delusions, Dunbar presents the evidence for religious practices’ being a necessary part of human evolution. This necessity is why he thinks that religion will endure and resist secularising pressures.

The nub of his argument is that, about 200,000 years ago, our ancestors developed the mental capacity to formulate systems of religion, initially held together not by doctrines but by communal rituals and shared experiences. Earlier species of the Homo genus, such as Neanderthals, probably had cognitive capacities that allowed for spiritual awareness, which might have found limited social expression, perhaps by chanting in echoing caves and shadowy forests. But the evidence of skulls, burials and artefacts, suggests Homo sapiens developed these intuitions with a distinctive subtlety and sophistication.

Such religious sensibilities had an important side effect. They were cultivated by entering altered states of consciousness, which release endorphins. These hormones have calming effects that could ease the tensions that inevitably increased as more and more humans lived together. Regardless of the veracity of the realisations afforded by mystical and trance-induced perceptions, the social benefits of the effervescence became crucial as populations grew. Further, religion has a unique ability in this regard, as modern comparative studies with secular alternatives imply.

I should say that I was financially supported to join some of the seminars that Dunbar headed to discuss the research that he describes in the book, through the auspices of the International Society for Science and Religion. My attendance meant that I could sense the spirit with which the gathered scientists and theologians approached the issue of religion’s nature and birth, which was valuable, because evolutionary psychology is not a hard science. Its conclusions routinely reflect the prejudices of investigators, who can readily corral evidence that reflects imported assumptions. Dunbar is interesting in that, while not religious, he is convinced of religion’s importance.

His book knits a complex weave of relatively casual observations from the history of religion (some readers may be surprised to read, without qualification, that cannabis aromas filled the temple in Jerusalem), alongside technical discussions of mentalising and group dynamics (which may be of particular interest to church-goers: apparently, there is good evidence that the optimal congregation size is 150). Overall, the case is well made that Homo sapiens has always been Homo spiritualis.


Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His latest book is Dante’s “Divine Comedy”: A guide for the spiritual journey (Angelico Press, 2021).

How Religion Evolved: And why it endures
Robin Dunbar
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