Evolution of Belief: Animism
Gods are a recent phenomena on the human stage. Before the neolithic revolution, there were only spirits. But what are spirits and how did they begin?
Before we can answer that, we need to look at human development and, more importantly, the development of the human brain. Like it or not, humans are animals and like all animals they are subject to evolution. Many people think evolution is a random effect exerted on genes with no direction or guidance. Sure, there are constant random genetic and epigenetic variations and mutations, some beneficial, some detrimental – but without a guiding force, without direction, they are potentially useless. The guiding force directing evolution is the environment. Without changes in the environment evolution as we know it would not have happened.
Sometimes there are changes within the environment itself and sometimes it is a subject organism moving from one environment to another that causes change. As we are talking about humans, we can consider humans as a subject organism. Changes in environment that can affect human evolution, as with all other animals, include, though far from exclusively, changes in weather and changes in predation. Changes in weather may include substantive changes in ocean currents, for instance, and even though the human population may reside many hundreds of miles from the ocean they can be affected. Perhaps a change results in drier or wetter weather. Either may mean a change in food supply. Those humans who have a particular mutation may find they can digest a different type of meat or vegetation and they will live and pass their adaptation or mutation onto their offspring while those without the mutation will die. Changes in predation may be caused by a carnivore newly entering the environment in which humans live. Humans with a particular mutation that allows them to run faster will survive and pass on their genes, those without will die and their mutations and adaptations are lost with them.
Much the same happens when humans move into new environments. When humans split from the other great apes they came down from the trees and started walking on two legs. Those who adapted quickly and were able to run had a greater chance of survival than those who did not, and those who were able to use tools stood a greater chance of survival than those who could not. Tool use was an incredibly important stage in human evolution, for greater abilities in the use tools required a larger brain. It is debatable if tool use came first and drove an increase in brain size or if a larger brain enabled greater tool use. Later came what is said to be the most important development in all of human history – cooking. In fact, cooking wasn’t, strictly speaking, the most important development; it was the ability to realise that meat and vegetables heated for some time in or over a fire was more digestible than raw meat and vegetables. This ability to cook meant that more nutritious food was now digestible and with it came the the ingredients needed if brain size was to increase further.
Modern humans are generally sociable animals and can live in populations of hundreds of thousands, even millions, in large towns and cities. But this wasn’t always so. For most of human history, populations consisted of nomadic family groups. There was no social structure, as such, perhaps a more assertive father and mother taking the roles of alpha male and female, lesser brothers and sisters fulfilling roles with less standing within the group, and then the children at first fighting amongst themselves for supremacy, eventually growing into roles commensurate with their parents.
Life was short and often brutal as family groups hunted and were in their turn hunted by other animals. Taming their environment was an impossibility in such small groups but their brains were becoming as large as our own, and with their large brains came curiosity and invention, sympathy and empathy. They had the same hopes and fears as we do and the same feelings of loss and grief. But how were they to show their sadness at the death of loved ones? The way they chose was to imagine that the dead did not die but became spirits that inhabited the world around them. Rocks and pools, trees and large plants, all, they believed, could hold the spirits of the dead.
Once the idea had taken hold other spirits were identified, some benign and helpful, like hills and caves that brought shelter from winds, rain and cold, and some terrifying and harmful, like thunderstorms and volcanoes. Although we cannot be sure, it is likely that those early humans thought of the spirits, both of their dead and more generalised spirits, as being part of their natural world, as solid as the ground on which they walked.
These, then. were the first stages of belief. Today we call those beliefs Animism, although the Animism we know today has developed far beyond those original beliefs and has often been incorporated into more advanced forms of belief, including religions. We shall look further at the development of belief in the coming weeks.
One word of caution. Searching for early beliefs on the World Wide Web used to be a dream, consisting as it did of academic papers and learned documents. Today, the Web has been corrupted by religious groups and individuals and is full of the most ridiculous assertions and daft ideas imaginable. Luckily, it is possible to download search engines designed to strip out the garbage and highlight only academic research. Downloading academic search engines is highly recommended.