Gods Deconstructed

Beliefs and their objects, dismantled.

Archive for the tag “hunter-gatherers”

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.

Costs.

  • 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.

Benefits.

  • 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.

Conclusions.

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.

Comments.

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 …

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Evolution of Belief: Fetishism

It would be a mistake to think that the evolution of belief was like some sort of punctuated equilibrium, one belief being dropped when another was invented. Far from it. It would be more accurate to think of beliefs as memes that act like DNA, gradually evolving and building a genome over time. Animism did not give way to totemism, rather elements of animism and totemism merged as human beliefs evolved. Sure, over time one belief may have eventually been superseded by another but the evolving beliefs invariably incorporated elements of the earlier beliefs. Maybe earlier beliefs were eventually junked but they often remained in the background of people’s minds, reappearing as superstitions, which, while not real, helped humans get through their often miserable existences.

The evolution of beliefs usually went hand-in-hand with the social evolution of a family, eventually the amalgamation of a number of families and the evolution of social structures associated with a tribe. Each family’s beliefs merged or the biggest or most powerful family forced its beliefs on weaker ones. Usually the retention of a belief in its original form depended on a group of families, a tribe, being completely isolated from other tribes and societies.

The evolution of fetishism as a belief is often confused with magic or sexual deviation but it was one of the most important developments in human thinking. A fetish is an object, usually artistic, which has a special meaning. We saw that the artistic elements of totemism probably began as paintings on cave walls or rocks and probably depicted the totem of a family. It is, however, impossible to isolate painting as an art form. Remember that humans were still early in the stone age but were developing ever more sophisticated tools for killing and cutting meat, preparing vegetables, skinning animals for their fur and building living accommodation and modes of transport. Boats. As improved methods of working flint developed, chipping ever smaller pieces of flint became possible. Thin slivers were ideal not only for skinning but also for carving objects from materials like wood.

At first, objects were decorative, often used for bodily adornment. However, humans found that their brains could do something quite remarkable. They could think in the abstract.

Let us not forget that humans, although their societies were increasing in size and complexity, were still hunter-gatherers moving from place to place within an area. Painting a totem on a cave wall or rock meant that it would have to be repeated in all areas the tribe visited and would have become a particularly odious task. So the painting would instead be in one cave or on one rock in a place visited by the tribe. How much easier it would be to be able to carry a family’s totem with them? But there was a serious problem with that idea; if a family’s totem was a wolf but they visited areas where wolves did not roam, how could a model of the totem represent the animal in which their ancestors resided. The totem was a real thing, a part of their world, and as real as their departed ancestors. If the wolf was not in a place they visited before they developed the fetish they knew they would eventually return to the place where the wolf did roam and therefore they would return to their ancestors. Their ancestors were never far away.

Thinking in abstract, however, allowed humans to think of the object depicting their totem, their fetish, as a representation of their dead. But if their dead resided in the totem but not in the fetish, how could they keep their ancestors with them? For some humans it would not have made sense. So maybe their ancestors did not actually live in the totem but instead lived in a different world, a spirit world, and their spirits could coexist in the spirit world and in their fetish? Or their fetish need merely be a representation of the spirits who existed in the spirit world?

The development of fetishism meant that humans had to devise a new way of thinking about their dead. Being able to think in the abstract about their world allowed the invention of a spirit world. The evolution of of abstract thoughts about spirits would eventually lead to the invention of religion. Before then, however, humans found they had a more pressing problem. Their fetishes were all well and good but they couldn’t converse with the spirits of their ancestors residing within them like they could a living totem. The totem need not be able to speak but it could show them the way and protect them. Maybe each family or tribe needed someone special who could communicate with the spirit world and let them know what their dead were trying to tell them that would help them, the living, in the real, non-spirit world.

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.

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