scilogs Biology of Religion

Evolution and the Personification of the Universe - Thoughts by Teilhard de Chardin and Ken Wilber

from Michael Blume, 22. April 2011, 14:36

These last years, the field of evolutionary studies of religiosity and religions has thrived due to the impact of a growing number of scientists and projects such as the Explaining Religion network or those dynamic Biology-of-Religion-conferences at Delmenhorst (2007) and Bristol (2010). After my doctorate thesis on religion & brain sciences, I have been happy to concentrate on the empirical study of religious demography - the peculiar fact that the religious tend to have far more children and to pass on their genes more successfully (on average) than their non-religious peers.

All fascination with these and other findings notwithstanding, I have been reluctant to interpret them in philosophical or theological terms. The first and (to me) most important reason is that I am devoted to empirical studies and do not want to jump into premature conclusions maybe blurring my perspectives on the data. And the second reason is that I feel that we have just begun to tap into a deeper understanding of the evolution of religion - a topic started by Charles Darwin himself but nearly forgotten for more than a century.

But then, a key finding has come up so constantly and repeatedly in the field, that I think it could and should be discussed. Let's call it the motivational power of personification.

Religious traditions seem to derive their motivational, cooperative and then reproductive potentials from the belief in superempirical agents - ranging from deceased ancestors to various spirits, angels and demons to gods, bodhisatvas and alien visitors from outer space to God. (Here is a slide from my presentation in Bristol.)

In fact, non-personal systems such as early Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism (etc.) had to adopt superempirical agents (such as bodhisatvas, khami, tirthankaras, the Lord Tao and many more) in order to survive demographically. The underlying logic is rooted into evolutionary theory itself: As human beings, we might be ready to accept commandments from supreme "personalities"- but not from abstract and non-living objects or principles.

As Friedrich August von Hayek rightfully observed: A theistic commandment such as "Be fruiftul and multiply" (Genesis 1, 28) may be accepted by religious believers as authoritative and even beneficial, although it cannot be verified empirically. By personification, religion is able to attribute value to forming families and having children.

In contrast, to accept empirically tested hypotheses as "teaching" normative commandments would constitute a natural fallacy contradicting our evolved feelings as well as philosophical lore. Although modern definitions of Darwinian or Evolutionary Fitness agree on the importance of reproductive success in evolutionary processes, we are simply not ready to accept any "commandments" thereof.

The second factor of religious potential is the belief that the superempirical agents are watching our behaviors - beliefs affecting our behaviors as shown by numerous contemporary experiments. Therefore, shared beliefs in superempirical agents as watching and judging personalities tend to bring about higher levels of in-group-cooperation. 

Evolution towards Assuming Personal Agency Shaping the Universe

As all empirical and especially evolutionary studies are working on historical data, I am reluctant to accept "prophecies" concerning any kind of "evolutionary progress". Nevertheless, I think that philosophies and theologies should start to debate the importance of the ongoing convergence towards "personification" in the evolution of our species mental traits. And I was intrigued to find thriving networks doing just that, such as the collaborative blog "Evolutionary Landscapes" discussing related topics. And YouTube-User "the pathlesspath" did a nice job in presenting the evolutionary ("integral") philosophy of Ken Wilber and the evolutionary ("Point Omega") theology of Teilhard de Chardin in a well-done clip.

As a Protestant voice, Michael Dowd's "Thank God for Evolution" could also be mentioned - and I am interested in finding more. Although I will stick to the empirical work of evolutionary studies in my work, I am intrigued by the philosophical and theological implications of evolutionary studies increasingly discovered and discussed abroad. 

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  1. J. A. Le Fevre @ Michael
    27.04.2011 | 21:53

    There is an old joke where an Irishman is asked about a particular superempirical agent, who responded: Nay, we Irish do not believe in Leprechauns, but we have a lot of respect for them! It is easy to find adults in any village or city who believe in a God or sacred sprit, but rare to find any who believe in tree fairies or Easter bunnies. I suggest that any model which holds all Agents equal must necessarily miss the significance of religion to mankind. It is easy to personify Darth Vader, but hard to take seriously any threat posed by his ‘dark side’.

  2. John Jacob Lyons "The Motivational Power of Personification"
    28.04.2011 | 00:21

    I agree with your observation in this regard Michael and I would seek to explain it in the following way.

    I suggest that three adaptive, genetically mediated propensities are relevant:-

    1. What has been called the 'Hyper-active Agency Detection Device'(HADD). Confronted by a potentially dangerous/ unexplained sensory input, we tend to give some priority to the possibility that it has been caused by an agency with malicious intent. This might well be a hangover from our evolutionary past when it would have been adaptive to assume danger from a malign agency on hearing an unexpected sound from the undergrowth, for example.

    Religious beliefs always invoke the idea of some 'thing' having power/ influence over experienced, but unexplained, events. Perhaps our HADD results in the embodiment/personification of the 'thing'.

    2. As young children we seem to be predisposed to believe what we are told by our main carers. Again, this is an adaptive trait and

    3. As infants we also seek 'attachment' to main carers -- for comfort, protection, nourishment, shelter etc. This behaviour is also adaptive.

    We tend to accept early parental references to a personified 'god'. Also, as it is natural to look to those parents for earthly attachment, I suggest that it is equally natural to look to the 'god' for transcendental attachment.

  3. Michael Blume @J.A. & John
    29.04.2011 | 14:01

    The topic you are discussing is known as the "Mickey-Mouse-problem" among evolutionary researches in the field. Why do many people believe in some superempircal agents (such as God) but not in others (such as Mickey Mouse)? And why are we able to read i.e. Greek mythology as entertaining fiction, whereas believers back then took it as religious truth?

    The answer that seems to be the most convincing from my view (and findings) has been formulated by Joseph Henrich as "Credibility enhancing displays". In short, religious beliefs are not only the result of narrative signals, but also of corresponding behaviors (such as offerings).
    See here, with a link to Henrich's original article:

  4. John Jacob Lyons @Michael -- Henrich's CRED
    30.04.2011 | 09:24

    My comment of 28/4 was an attempt to explain the tendency to personify transcendental concepts - ie, Why personification? The so-called 'Mickey Mouse (MM) Problem'- ie, Why one particular personification and not another? - is a related issue which needs to be considered in its own right.
    I'm aware of Henrich's 'CRED' as a proposed solution to this latter problem but I have difficulties with it.

    Firstly, I think it is doubtful that the limited cognitive ability of a very young child (say, between 2 and 4 yrs) would enable the CRED distinction to be appreciated either consciously or unconsciously. This would be the case particularly for children in non-practising families. Yet, apparently, these children have no difficulty with the distinction between the roles of god and MM!

    Secondly, MM would be typically encountered by a child as a character in a story/cartoon rather than as "god" who had (according to Mummy) wanted the (expired) family dog to be with him in a place called Heaven. I suggest that it is quickly apparent to young children that they are being told that god has agency in their world and this engages the genetically mediated HADD that I explained in my last post. This is not the case with MM. By the way, empirical results consistent with HADD have been obtained by Justin Barrett, Deborah Keleman and other researchers.

    I suggest that HADD is a more reasonable hypothesis to explain the 'MM problem' than Henrich's CRED.

  5. 01.05.2011 | 13:11

    Well, I completely agree with the HAD- (and TOM-)hypothesis and perceive the CRED-hypothesis as a strong complement.

    As I had the chance to observe with my children these last years, they were ready to accept narrations of superempirical agents such as God, Jesus Christ, Santa Clause, Bob the Builder, Lightning McQueen ("Cars"), Prinzession Lillifee, Bibi Blocksberg, Yoda and others, but slowly began to differentiate by asking and observing parents, friends and others (such as teachers and pastors). Today, they enjoy watching Yogi Bear, but don't believe in his reality, whereas they are doing prayers even if they are not aware that we are taking notice. According to my observation, they have long started to differentiate between comical fables and "serene" religious mythologies especially by CREDs.

  6. John Jacob Lyons @Michael -- Henrich's CRED
    02.05.2011 | 15:31

    Your personal experience with your own children is interesting Michael.

    Take Santa Claus for example. Young children are usually encouraged to believe in his existence as a real person and this belief lasts until a parent, sibling or friend finally ‘spills the beans’ – This is belief without the need for CREDs. But all three of the ‘Genetic Priming type’ adaptive predispositions that I have mentioned are in place for Santa; HADD, ‘parental authority’ and thirdly, ‘attachment’. I don’t believe that CREDs are either sufficient or even necessary to account for super-empirical belief in young children.

    However, I agree that so called CREDs can play a part in encouraging such belief. I see it as a constituent part of what I have called the ‘parental authority’ predisposition. In non-human animals this includes ‘filial imprinting’ and mimicking the feeding behaviour of parents. In humans, expressed parental beliefs and concomitant behaviour will also tend to be picked up and copied by young children.

    This GP account of the CRED effect doesn't rely on the dubiously high level of cognitive development in very young children assumed by Henrich's own explanation.

  7. Father Clifford Stevens 751041 Reply to J. A. Le Fevre, John Jacob Lyons & Michael Blume:
    07.09.2011 | 06:54

    I would guess that you, or some of your colleagues, hold that conscience, too, is caused by evolution, and that therefore,is purely subjective and there is no objective right or wrong - and that Survival of the Fittest is the first law of life.

    Well, there are teenagers on the streets of Chicago and Los Angeles who believe this - and there are the bodies of dead teenagers on those same streets who also believed it. I don't imagine you have thought out the moral and social consequences of Homo Darwiniosus? Well, here at Boys Town and in a dozen mini-campuses around the country, we have to welcome the broken and battered lives of those who tried to live out that doctrine.

    I don't know where conscience comes into your Darwinian science, and I wonder if a certain brand of Social Darwinism is not part of it.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska

  8. J. A. Le Fevre M & JJ: forgive me if you can
    07.09.2011 | 22:10

    My bad for encouraging nonsense spammers, but the question of conscience plays directly into my idea of why society had to wait for religion before it could develop. One of the noted characteristics of ‘modern man’ is ‘has religion’. Other notable characteristics are double the life-span (roughly 35 years max for Neanderthal and other ‘archaic’ hominids, 70 and more years max. for ‘modern’), and a dramatic increase in the rate of technology development. Core to that first (and subsequent) religion(s) was the cultural knowledge of how to teach ourselves and our children social behavior.

  9. Father Clifford Stevens 751041 Reply to John Jacob Lyons
    12.09.2011 | 15:12

    Dear Chris -

    I'm afraid that John Jacob Lyons is completely lacking in knowledge of the Human Genome and is back in the days of Ernst Haeckel and his "Theory of Recapitulation" and his even more ridiculous "Biogenic Law of Embryonic Parallelism". He is right that the Human Genome plays a significant role in the development of the central nervous system, but he does not mention the fact that the Human Genome contains non-physical elements, recognized by Max Delbruck, in fact, the informational sequences of DNA are non-physical and to deny that is to wipe Max Delbruck off the map as the most eminent and knowledgeable molecular biologist in history.

    John Jacob Lyons knowledge is not the work of personal observation and study of the Human Genome, and even if it were, the study of the Human Genome will not be exhausted in your lifetime or in mine, and Lyons refuses to recognize that the cause of HUMAN behavior is the intellectual and volitional powers of the human being and you can test that on yourself.

    The human senses are not identical to those of non-human mammalian species, they are in an entirely difference category. The central nervous system is not the cause of distintly human behavior or of distinctly human faculties and to make the assertion is either bad science or a lie.

    The neural structure of human beings is the psychosomatic base of a human being's emotional, psychological and affective life, the complex organ of sense and feeling, the foundation of taste, smell and touch, the motor of passion and physical coordination, the thermostat of pleasure and pain, and the base of locomotion and physical awareness - but not of the intellectual and volitional life of Homo Sapiens and to state otherwise is contrary to your experience and mine.

    Specificity is the core meaning of what it means to feel, to sense, to experience pain and pleasure, the neural base of human embryonic life --- and the underlying base of that specificity is a human person, endowed with intelligence. It is organically impossible that the somatic and psychosomatic development take place without an underlying subject and that underlying subject is an identifiable human person, with its own genetic signature etched across the chromosomes of its DNA, not once but thousands of times and that identifiable human subject is human, not animal, although it possesses sense faculties similar to, but not identical to, the sense faculties of noon-human mammalian species.

    John Jacob Lyons draws his knowledge of human biology, not from the Human Genome, but from the three-soul concept of medieval biology, which saw the somatic, ssense and intellectual development as totally unrelated, the human person in full consciousness, magically appearing at the end like the top of a three-storied structure. The intellectual and behavioral development of the human embro is not a development of the central nervous system, the subject of that development is present from the moment of conception and that subject is endowed with intellectual and volitional powers that are operational before the unborn child emerges from the womb.

    Joh Jacob Lyons is still back in the Naturalist period of Ernst Haeckel and is so convinced, contrary to all contemporary studies of the Human Genom, that Homo Sapiens is defined solely by his biological powers - and that bias cannot be proved by any of the pertinent evidence. He is still an amateur in matters that pertain to Homo Sapiens and that is proved by your own experience, if you study yourself very carefully.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska

  10. Father Clifford Stevens 751041 Reply to John Jacob Lyons
    12.09.2011 | 16:10

    You see Chris, something that Dr. Lyons does not realize that in the conception of any species, the parents pass on their whole nature to their offspring, not just a portion. Human parents pass on the totality of human nature to theiro= offspring and not just their biology, and that human nature includes the intellectual and volitional powers that are specific to human nature. But if you believe, as Dr. Lyons does, that human beings are really just refined animals - well you can see where that logic leads. What he states is scientifically, anthropologically, and even biologically impossible. A little course in Aristotle might have helped as Maz Delbruck said one time. Dr. Lyons mistakes human nature with animal and comes up with a biological monstrosity like Frankenstein and it belongs in fiction just like Mary Shelley's literary creation - but it is not science.l

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska

  11. Jason Tannery The reliability of evolution theory
    24.09.2011 | 02:02

    Biologists have used atavisms and ERVs to support evolution theory.
    Refer to the website addresses,, pertaining to the explanation of atavisms. The following are the extracts:
    Humans do not have tails, but do we have “what it takes” for a tail? Hens don’t have teeth, but they have the genes for it. With atavism, it is as if our genomes serve as archives of our evolutionary past.
    The following are the possibilities that atavisms might not be the good source to support evolution:
    1)The appearance of atavisms among living things in the past might not give the implication that certain animals could be evolved from another due to it might be the result of the poor condition of the genes or DNA or sperms or menses or etc., itself that would have led to the exceptional physical shortfalls or the excessive and extraordinary growth in the physical bodies by accident that have nothing to do with evolution.
    Refer to the websites addresses below for abnormal growth of certain parts of their bodies among animals in the past:,, picturescontent/uploads/2008/11/image099.jpg&imgrefurl=
    From the above pictures of the websites address, could a person come to the conclusion that living things could have their ancestors with more than one head due to pigs and human beings, turtles and etc., could give birth to their offspring with more than a head? Could a person comment that his ancestor could be born with three legs by seeing the horse that has been born with three legs? Could a person mention that his ancestor could be born with eyes balls without eyes pupils just judging that there have been blind men or women that have been born without eyes pupils? Could a person comment that his ancestor could be born with six fingers per hand simply by judging that there are human beings that have been born with six fingers from time to time? Could a person comment that his ancestor, i.e. the animal, could be mentally retarded, by judging that some human beings are born to be so even though their parents are physically healthy? Thus, it is irrational to use the abnormal growth of living thing, such as, fingers, tail, extra bones, and etc., to arrive at a conclusion that this animal should be the ancestor of this or that for the support of evolution. This is due to atavisms might be occurred in accident or as a result of the poor condition as well as malfunction of gene or DNA or sperms or menses that might have led to abnormal growth or the weakness in genes that ultimately might have led to physical shortfalls or the excessive growth of flesh, bones and etc., that would seem to look alike as certain features of other ancestors.
    2)Atavisms might also occur as a result of external factors that would influence the genes or DNAs or etc. to cause abnormal growth that would have led to animals with extraordinary feature that could not be found commonly among them, such as, tail from human beings in the past or skeleton that seems to be leg from whale or etc. This might not be able to serve as an evidence if this were merely the cause of flesh and bone that have grown abnormally due to certain bad physical condition of genes and DNA as a result of the influence of external factors, such as, the poor physical bodies of their parents that give rise to poor genes; or the illnesses of their parents that could cause the defect of genes or DNA to the ultimate formation of abnormal living things; or the direct attack and influence of bacteria that could ultimately cause the genes or DNA to be in defect; or etc. This ultimately would lead to animals to have given birth to offspring to have the co-incidence that have the feature that could not be found commonly among their kind of animals instead, from others.
    Refer to the website address,, pertaining to the evidence that ERVs could be used as an evidence to support evolution theory. The following are the reasons that ERVs might not be suitable to be used as an evidence to support evolution theory:
    1)There could be a possibility that a living thing would have been created initially to have the identical feature or ERVs or genes or DNA or pattern or anatomy or genomes or etc., as others co-incidentally instead of by means of evolution. If that could be so during the creation, it is irrational to arrive at the conclusion that this animal could be the ancestor of the others by means of comparing the similarities of genes or DNA; or the similarities of loci in the genomes; or etc.
    2)As there are only a few animals in the fossils, such as, dinosaurs fossils, could be dug out by archeologists and yet the population of the animals that are in the fossils in the past should be more than hundred or million especially at the place where the fossils have been dug out, there places a possibility about the missing fossils in which many animals, such as, dinosaurs, would have their bones and skulls to turn into dust and vanished in the ground. If that could be so, the arrangement of animals in the timeline of homo sapiens would be in question. For instance, how could we know that human beings were once alive prior to 15 Ma? Biologists have placed human beings after the apes’ period was due to they could not locate any human skulls prior to 15 Ma. What if human beings did exist prior to 15 Ma and yet their bones and skulls would have been vanished under the ground and this would have resulted that no evidence could prove the existence of human beings prior to 15 Ma. This certainly would turn the timeline upside down that biologists might suggest that human beings would evolve to apes. Thus, the possibility of missing fossils has placed the reliability of timeline of homo sapiens into question.
    3)Biologists did not perform experiment to ensure that human beings could be evolved from animals. Besides, nobody in this world did have eye-witness that animals could evolve from one to another. Thus, their theory simply is not tested. This places the reliability of evolution theory to be in question.
    4)The irregularity of probabilities of genes as well as DNA in the website address,, pertaining to DNA sequence in the genome of other organisms has placed the reliability of evolution theory into question.
    The probabilities of human gene sequence that codes for protein are extracted from the website address above as follows: Chimpanzee (100%); Dog (99%); Mouse (99%); Chicken (75%); Fruitfly (60%); and Roundworm (35%). From the list of the probabilities of the human gene sequence that codes for protein, it is obvious that there is an irregularity of human gene among these animals. The probability for roundworm (35%) is lesser than fruitfly (60%) despite the size of the roundworm might be comparatively bigger than the fruitfly. Not only that, mouse should be smaller in size than chicken and yet its probability could be far as high as 99%. In comparison of the capability to adapt the environment or in terms of size, dog could be no much better than chimpanzee and yet the probability of the dog could be as high as 99%. As there is an irregularity of probability of human gene sequence that codes for protein among the animals above, it places the query about the reliability of evolution theory into question. This is due to it is rational to think that the smallest animals could have the lowest probability of human genes than the biggest as a result of evolution. The initial common ancestor might well be small in size. As and when the animals keep on evolving, the creatures would turn up to be bigger in size in each evolution with the improvement in the development of gene. As the probabilities of human gene sequence that codes for protein show irregular genes among animals, it does not seem to provide a clue that existing animals would have been formed from evolution. Why should there be an irregularity of human gene that codes for protein among animals?
    The probabilities of human random DNA segment between genes could not code for proteins among different animals are listed below: Chimpanzee (98%); Dog (52%); Mouse (40%); Chicken (4%); Fruitfly (-0%); and Roundworm (-0%). Again, despite the mouse is smaller in size as compared to chicken, yet the probability of human DNA that could be located in mouse is much higher than it. The dog is slightly bigger in size as compared to chicken and yet the probability of human DNA could be as high as 52%. Thus, the probabilities of human random DNA segment between genes among animals are irregular. As there are irregularities of probability of DNA among the animals, it is hard to use these variations to conclude animals would have been evolved from time to time.
    Some biologists might comment that the adverse evolution from complexity of animals to simplicity was merely the result of genetic deletion. The following are the website addresses for the proof that biologists did perform successfully in causing the change of feature of animals through genetic deletion or insertion or duplication or even amplification:,,,,
    Despite genetic deletion or insertion or amplification or etc. has been performed successfully upon mice or even bacteria, they could only alter the feature of the living thing, such as, changing its characteristics or behaviour or etc. However, they could not transform that living thing, such as, bacteria, into another type, such as, bee or etc. Or in other words, when a genetic deletion or insertion or etc. would be performed on a specific animal, such as, mice, the end result still remains as that animal, i.e. mice, instead of creating a new creature. As they could not transform the more complexity of animals into simplicity through genetic deletion or vice versa, it is irrational to use genetic deletion or insertion or amplification or etc. to support that animals could be evolved from one to another through one of these methods since biologists could only change the feature of animals instead of creating new creatures through these experiments.

  12. J. A. LeFevre @ Jason
    24.09.2011 | 18:12

    Never forget, in your quest for truth, that a billion years is a really long time, and a lot of things are possible over a billion years that cannot be anticipated nor projected from a few thousand year historical record. It is also a very long time for ‘evidence’ to survive. The earth recycles its own, and most of the evidence you seek has simply returned to dust. We may lament the paucity of such evidence, but we must also make do.

  13. Jason Tannery Subject
    25.09.2011 | 01:12

    J. A. LeFevre, Biologists hve mentioned that evolution would take millions of years to transform from one creature to another. As they would suggest such a long time for evolving from one creature to another, it implies that nobody did have eye-witness that new creature could be formed through genetic deletion or insertion or amplification or etc., evolutionary theory is simply not tested and it still remains myth and remains just a concept. What if evolution in reality could not really work in that way, nobody knows since nobody has eye-witness that it really could work. No doubt biologists did perform successfully on genetic deletion or insertion or amplification or etc., yet no evidence that this could cause a new creature to be created through this experiment.

  14. J. A. LeFevre @ Jason
    25.09.2011 | 04:10

    Evolution has been tested for the last 3.5 billion years or so. It's just that most of the evidence has been destroyed.

  15. Nenita Troendle Subject
    17.05.2012 | 22:28

    Thanks for the info. you are very helpful.

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