Spirituality and Evolution

My wrestling with various late-life questions that might be called “spiritual” has taken me to a fuller appreciation of evolution and our biological history. The sequence here, the process—or so it has seemed to me—is that I’ve been looking for answers and the result or goal has been a new appreciation of our past. Those who believe in traditional religions often describe a similar sequence: their search for meaning leads them to God. The pattern seems to be that the human impulse comes first, the connection with a spiritual something-larger follows.

But what if the sequence is actually the other way around, if the something-larger has been doing the prompting in some way, if what we experience as our search is the work of the “larger” force. This idea is quite common in Christianity. Christians often say, more or less, “I was looking for God, but of course it was God all the time who wanted me to find Him.”

Maybe a similar reversal makes some sense for naturalists who replace God with evolution and biological history. That is, perhaps it has been beneficial for our survival and reproductive success to be inclined towards thinking about such topics as how we got here, where we go when we die, what the essence of life is. Perhaps spiritual thinking has been adaptive.

One writer who has made this case is a commenter on this blog who goes by the name of Discovered Joys. He or she seems to be both a skeptic and a broad thinker. In a comment on a post, he describes how most of the inanimate,“stateless” processes that fill the universe take place without connection to the past; matter and energy do what they do without any “adjustments” to how those reactions have taken place in the past. However, a few “stateful” bits of matter—i. e., us—adjust our responses and processes according to memories of previous conditions. To make such adjustments successfully, it helps to have an understanding of how and why things come about as they do. Discovered Joys writes,

I think it likely that stateful organisms such as us are inclined (as a result of evolutionary processes) to be selected for building ‘narratives’, ‘rules of thumb’ etc. to improve our stateful responses. As a consequence we are conditioned to try and find meaning and purpose…. For me, the hunger for spiritualism (meaning and purpose) is an individual’s evolutionarily driven behaviour.

In other words, natural selection has fostered the rudiments of spirituality in us, the inclination to look deeply at how and why things have happened, because that tendency has been to our advantage for survival and reproduction.

A different connection is fleetingly suggested by a pair of sentences from a very different source. Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn’s A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (2014) is a must-read about the current reformation in our knowledge of how to help other people effectively.

At one point the authors are discussing the well-established fact that our helping others benefits our own health because it creates social ties. Then they add this: “Maybe this deep-rooted social element in all of us explains our yearning for a life of meaning. We wonder about our purpose: we care about our legacy” (17).

In other words, maybe what happens is not that we help others in order to find a life of meaning. Maybe it’s the other way around: we seek purpose and meaning in the first place because unconsciously it prompts us to get out and make the social ties that are good for us. Kristoff and WuDunn don’t say more than that, but the “deep-rootedness” of the human social drive that is so important to our well-being does suggest that any quality that contributes to it, including spirituality, would have an evolutionary benefit.

Such discussions about evolution-driven spirituality are certainly speculative. Finding out if they have any foothold in reality would require a large study of whether people with so-called spiritual characteristics, whatever those may be exactly, are more successful at survival and reproduction than a random sample of the population. For all we know, the data may show that spirituality makes no difference at all in achieving evolutionary success. It may even carry a disadvantage; moody thoughtfulness about life and purpose might turn out to be a handicap for people struggling against hard circumstances. Still, the fact that spirituality is engrained in so many of us, even in our DNA, begs the question of why it got there.

2 thoughts on “Spirituality and Evolution

  1. “Is Spirituality a Product of Evolution?” what else could it be a product of? is another question to consider, if not evolution then what?

    Interesting you talk about so called spiritual characteriscts and if they are more successful at survival and reproduction, given that there have been studies that have shown places with high church attendance often have more teenage pregnancies. Now teenage pregnancies are generally speaking, viewed as bad by society, but there is no denying they’re being succesful at reproduction. But then it possibly speaks more to their parents religious views than their own, they may be rebelling, they may only go to church with their parents because it’s what they have to do. I’ve also read, at least specifically for places in America, that places with higher church attendance seem to have higher crime rates.

    Are the higher teenage pregnancies and crime rates because of religion/spirituality? Or does the higher rate of crime push people to religion and more pregnancies? I’d suspect as with most things, I believe, its probably both those answers at once.

    I think the harsher the physical enviroment, the more of a push there is to religion

    And the harsher the psychological enviroment, the more of a push there is to spirituality.

    Religion has spirituality, but not all spirituality has religion.

    Spirituality, is less strict, less constrained, which would surely need an abundance of physical comforts.

    Religion is strict and much more constrained.

    The irony though, is that each seem to bring about the opposite result. The more constrained and strict, the more people will rebel. The less strict, the less constrained, the less need for rebellion. And so while the religions try to control sexuality and therefore reproduction, they appear to push it in the opposite direction they appear to be intending. And instead of teenagers going round reproducing as much as they do in the ‘bible thumping’ areas, in the less strict spiritual side despite them trying to have less control over sexuality, more people decide to wait for reproduction. But the less religious side, have more control than the religious people over reproduction, because of birth control. Not all religious people are against birth control or abortions, but many religions are against it and thus so are many of the followers, so they try to control sexuality as a means of controlling reproduction. But as evidence seems to come to light, it seems you can’t control sexuality, and instead can only really control reproduction.

    • I enjoy your juggling so many of the combinations of religion, spirituality, reproduction, obedience, rebellion, etc. There are so many elements involved. You mentioned the physical and psychological environment. More specifically, there’s also the economics of the time, customs of inheritance, and taboos against out-of-wedlock births, all of which influence birthrates. And it probably helps to start–you and me both–with a very precise definition of whatever we’re going to call spirituality itself.


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