Fuller Torrey, Edvin. Evolving Brains Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion

Fuller Torrey, Edvin. Evolving Brains Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. Pp. 288. ISBN: 978-023-183369.

In his thought-provoking book, Evolving Brains Emerging Gods, E. Fuller Torrey offers an evolutionary account for the widespread belief in gods. Charles Darwin recognized that a belief in supernatural agents was prevalent in all human societies and that in order to have such convictions, there must have been considerable growth in human cognition. The Brain Evolution Theory posits that religious thought and accompanying behaviour are natural due to the structure of the human cognitive hardware. Torrey convincingly outlines five crucial cognitive developments in the evolutionary history of hominins that were necessary for this type of belief.

While an evolutionary approach has proven to be the most successful method for providing an understanding of why humans believe in gods, not all scholars are in agreement with the evidence. For instance, some authors, point to an evolutionary function of religion and suggest that the idea of god was evolutionarily advantageous. This argument rests on the assumption that a fear of god or other supernatural agents discourages selfishness and moral transgressions and this fear makes us more cooperative. This assumes a Hobbesian view of human nature and, according to this reasoning, without a god looking over our shoulder to suppress our selfish desires, life would be nasty, brutish, and short. Torrey counters that there is no evidence to support such a conclusion, and as I have argued elsewhere, the evidence offered by these authors to support such a theory, does not survive a critical investigation.

A fewer number of scholars, including Torrey, offer a much more reasonable hypothesis, characterizing gods as a by-product of evolution. The argument here is that, while a belief in gods is indeed a natural phenomenon, there is no survival value to such a belief. While Dawkins maintains that such belief has been counter-productive, Torrey remains agnostic as to whether the gods have been beneficial for society. While avoiding the question as to whether the idea of god was good for society, Torrey provides credible evidence for why we have such convictions in the first place.

For Torrey, it was not until about 40,000 years ago that the human brain was ready for complex thought and subsequently a belief in gods. Torrey correctly suggests that to understand why humans believe in gods we have to consider the evolution of the hominin brain. Beginning about 2.3–2.8 million years ago, the archeological evidence suggests that the brain of Homo habilis began to grow expeditiously and this led habilis to be more intelligent than its predecessors. This was the first cognitive development identified by Torrey, and while more intelligent, habilis was not aware of this fact.

The second cognitive leap did not take place until about 1.8 million years ago with Homo erectus, who evolved self-awareness. For Torrey, these hominins were aware of one another, but this does not mean that they understood what others were thinking. To support his hypothesis, Torrey takes great care in weaving in studies from developmental psychology to argue that self-awareness in Homo erectus would have developed very slowly.

The third vital advancement in hominin cognition was the acquisition of a Theory of Mind (ToM). Without a ToM, humans would not have the capacity to imagine the mind of a god. While equipped with a ToM they still lacked a second order ToM, as well as the ability to project themselves into the past or future. Evidence for an introspective self did not take place until about 100,000 years ago, where we find unique behaviours such as self-decoration. Torrey notes that an introspective self would have been especially advantageous in the social world of early Homo sapiens.

Beginning around 40,000 years ago there is evidence for an increase in innovation, experimentation and creative thought. This type of behaviour can be partly explained by the human capacity for autobiographical memory. This is the final important stage of cognitive evolution and subsequently, the emergence of religious thought. What has attracted much interest among scholars is the cave art that has been found in southern France and Spain. Prominently, David Lewis-Williams suggested a shamanistic explanation of such art, proposing that the art was a product of the shamans trance-like states in religious ceremonies. For Lewis-Williams, the cave art represents a high level of conceptual thought and evidence of religious behaviour. In contrast, psychologist Nicholas Humphrey argues that the paintings are indeed fascinating; however, the makers of the work had distinctly pre-modern minds. Humphrey compares the paintings of a young modern autistic girl named Nadia with the paleolithic cave art to support his conclusions. Torrey sides with Humphrey and sees the hypothesis offered by Williams-Lewis as excessive religious speculation. Having seen the art at Pech Merle, I suggest that the painters penetrated the deep limestone cave for a particular purpose, possibly to ‘connect with the gods’, and the art is not simply the fruit of paleolithic taggers.

Nevertheless, this is a terrific book about a fascinating subject. Torrey provides an excellent account of the emergence of religious thinking and it is an important book for anyone investigating religious thought.


Glenn Barenthin
Trinity College, University of Toronto

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.32777/r.2019.2.4.8 

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