Thinking Big: The Evolutionary Origins of Spirituality by Matt Rossano, PhD

Dr. Rossano is past Chair, Department of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. He is an expert in evolutionary psychology, and author, including Evolutionary Psychology: The Science of Human Behavior and Evolution, and Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved.

Why be spiritual? For an evolutionist, the why question always raises issues of ancestral origins and potential adaptive significance. Why did spirituality arise in our ancestors and did it serve some adaptive function? First, one must define terms. Researchers often define spirituality as a sense of meaning resulting from an experience of “losing” the self in “something larger.” Frequently the “something larger” has religious significance; but art, music, natural beauty, and even scientific discovery can prompt spiritual experiences. What seems more important is that the experience is inspirational. It transcends and uplifts us – often motivating us to strive for the betterment of ourselves and our world. So why would our ancestors have started to think this way? Was there any advantage to it?

About 100 miles east of Moscow are the famous Sungir Upper Paleolithic burials. Three bodies were lavishly interred there, bedecked head to toe with necklaces, head bands, waist and arm bands laced through with thousands of carefully crafted beads. Grave goods, such as tools and finely fashioned (and purely decorative) ivory hunting weapons were also buried with the bodies. It has been estimated nearly 10,000 personhours of labor went into this elaborate funeral. Among existing traditional societies, such a send-off is usually indicative of ancestor worship.

Ancestor worship is ubiquitous among traditional societies and Sungir suggests that its evolutionary roots reach back nearly 30,000 years. It assumes that the “something larger” is the tribal community itself, which includes not just the earthly, but the timeless preceding generations now watching from above. Living tribe members understand themselves as players in an ongoing cultural saga whose past is known through myths revealed in fire-side dances and whose future depends on fidelity to traditions and practices passed down to them from their elders.

Sungir gives us an idea of when our ancestors starting thinking spiritually. But why do so? It is notable that nothing comparable to Sungir has been found among any of our hominin cousins. The few possibly intentional burials present among non-sapiens (Neanderthals, for example) are barren of any convincing signs of ritual or afterlife belief. The same is true for cave art. The magnificent murals of Lascaux, Altamira, and Chauvet are exclusively Homo sapiens. Neanderthals rarely ventured into caves and when they did, they left behind no art.

The best explanation we have for this exclusivity is that our ancestors were trying to construct larger, more complex social networks – possibly in response to competition from other hominins such as Neanderthals. To do this, they had to envision an even larger social order. One that both encompassed and transcended the earthly tribes themselves. They had to think big – spiritually big. But thinking wasn’t enough. They had to feel that ‘bigness.’ They had to fire a passionate commitment to that community. They had lose themselves in it. Their art and rituals were strategies for making that spiritual community ‘real’ in an emotionally compelling way. Having inherited these same sentiments, an opportunity arises. Spirituality is everhopeful. If we can agree that we are part of something larger, then maybe we can set aside our differences and work together for a common good.

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