Evolution of Belief: Costs and Benefits
Before I move on there is one other aspect of the earliest beliefs I want to consider. There must have been benefits that explain why belief was of use to early humans and there must also have been costs involved with the invention and evolution of their beliefs. Here I consider some of those costs and benefits.
- As touched on before, humans were food fodder for other animals. Brave humans who stood their ground and fought the beasts that would eat them were likely to end up dead. Humans who believed the spirits of their ancestors helped them survive would tend to be braver than those who could not accept the existence of spirits thus negating any advantage of a flight rather than fight response.
- The ever-increasing use of a large brain required a greater intake of food.
- Humans needed to band together in larger family groups, with the potential for increased social friction.
- Some humans believed they could speak to the dead but because of friction with group leaders they tended to isolate themselves, travelling between groups with the increased risk that they would be killed.
- Humans who turned and ran at the slightest possibility of becoming a meal survived.
- To explain the shadows that may or may not be beasts, humans invented the concept of spirits of the dead that helped them and ensured their survival.
- The idea of spirits that exist in the real world and can help humans came from complex and intelligent brain. Those humans who could understand and accept belief in spirits were likely to be intelligent themselves. Those who did not accept the belief would be rejected by family groups and therefore have greater difficult in feeding themselves and staying alive long enough to breed. Therefore more intelligent humans would better fit their violent and dangerous environment.
- Brains that could accept that spirits lived alongside them would almost certainly be more capable of inventing and using progressively more efficient tools. They would also have been more adept at developing more efficient hunting techniques.
- Social interaction increased and acted as a significant force, for example in the evolution of language skills.
- With larger family groups came the ability to recognise behaviour that was detrimental and led to deformities in offspring. This led to social taboos such as the need to limit inbreeding.
The majority of humans are naturally conservative and once they have a belief like to pass it from parent to child. They do not change their beliefs unless there is a compelling reason why they should. Beliefs can therefore restrict social evolution.
Humans’ natural conservatism meant that human social groups remained stable for many thousands of years and would eventually allow humans to expand into many continents. Constant changes to society and beliefs would have been detrimental to human expansion.
The evolution of human society was delayed by the need, as hunter-gatherers, to move from place to place within a relatively small area with the seasons.
These are some of the costs and benefits. You may be able to think of more if these posts encourage you to delve into human belief systems for yourself. You may think of criticisms or have additional ideas. If so, then they have served their purpose.
In the following posts I move on to consider what made humans leave their home territories, evolve greater social groups, expand throughout the world and the role of their evolving beliefs in enabling them to do just that …