The Emergence of Religion in Human Evolution

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Johan Verschueren, SJ

 Johan Verschueren, SJ / Church Life / 26 October 2020


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The last 20 years have seen significant progress in the fields of bioscience and neuroscience. Particularly interesting is the question of when and how “religious capacity” evolved in hominids, and how it should be understood from the biological point of view.

A new volume, The Emergence of Religion in Human Evolution, tries to give an initial answer to this question.[1] The study was born from the collaboration between Margaret Boone Rappaport, an American biologist and cultural anthropologist specializing in human cognitive evolution, and Christopher J. Corbally, a British astronomer and Jesuit priest, member of the research group of the Specola Vaticana at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome. Both scientists work in Tucson, Arizona (USA).

The religious capacity of Homo sapiens

The first two chapters of the book immerse us in this new research. They define the different paradigm changes, especially regarding the evolution of hominids, the genome and brain functioning. It is quite natural that, among the different genetic lines of hominids, the study tends to focus on our species, Homo sapiens, as it has evolved and continues to evolve.

According to the two authors, it is possible to demonstrate that the “religious capacity” of Homo sapiens is a highly developed neurocognitive characteristic. It seems to be based on a solid evolutionary, and therefore genetic, foundation, and seems to be traceable only in Homo sapiens. In fact, there are more and more scientific indications that it was lacking among individuals included in the categories of Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo denisova.

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