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.

The Fading Individual

I used to see people, including myself, as individuals first and as social creatures after that. Emotions and words, my own and others’, seemed the prime movers; groups, society as a whole, seemed a context, a setting, not an essence. I was me, Brock Haussamen, a unique bundle of thoughts and feelings, and I could insert that bundle into conversations, relationships, and social conventions or not, as I chose. This perspective came easily to an introverted young man. And it was supported by the great romance of male/Western/modern/American individualism.

But over the last decade or two I’ve come to see how life—all life, especially human life—is primarily and profoundly social. It’s been a disillusionment and a revelation at the same time. By social, I mean that living things are largely built by interactions with others and for such interactions. We like to think that we humans are distinguished from other species by our private consciousness and from each other by our winning personalities. But our consciousness and our individual traits turn out to be products of the joys, pains, love, violence, tedium, and necessity of our connections to other people and living things. The social underlies the individual, not the other way around.

Social bacteria, playing different roles (nsf.gov)

Social bacteria, playing different roles

Many ideas and pieces of information have shifted my point of view.

Bacteria: The earliest and simplest life forms relied on interactions. Billions of years ago, bacteria made the great leap forward of developing a nucleus when they absorbed other bacteria. Natural selection took off when bacteria moved beyond cloning themselves to exchanging DNA with each other. And we in turn carry around several pounds of necessary bacteria, interacting with it constantly; our body is literally a community.

Darwin: The engines of evolution described by Darwin—competition and cooperation—are largely social. Even plants, indifferent to each other, are ultimate competitors. For early humans, the social experiences of hunting and village life over hundreds of thousands of years led to language, organization, and morality. Religion relies on concepts articulated by groups and reflects a sense of security in belonging to the group itself. And current research tells us that good health, physical and mental, depends in large part on our engagement with friends, family, and community.

A social animal (peopleint.files.wordpress.com)

A social animal

Brain: Our intelligence is more of a social instrument than we might think given how private our thoughts seem to be. Whenever we finish a particular cognitive task, such as figuring out a math problem, our brain almost always reverts to thinking about ourselves or other people. (Try it.) And our consciousness itself, our self-awareness, apparently has roots in our brain’s capacity to keep track of other people and relationships; as part of monitoring that complex network, it seems that the brain constructs an “I” as an on-going player.

Species success: Viewed broadly, successful species have acquired special skills that make them effective at living in their particular environmental niches. Our human survival skill seems to be our social intelligence, and our niche seems practically global.

Of course, the importance of our social nature is obvious to us, up to a point. Love, family, community, friendship, charity, compassion, hospitality are all almost universal values. And yet we can also push back hard against the dominance of the social. When the social network feels oppressive, we stand firm on our individuality, our rights. We deny the legitimacy of the social rules, we change allies, feud with the family, withdraw. We agree with Sartre that “Hell is other people” and insist that true peace lies within us. And yet such moves towards solitude never stray too far from how we perceive others and how we imagine they perceive us.

Nodes in a network.  (vidi.cs.ucdavis.edu)

Nodes in a network.

It’s tempting to conclude that we and all living things are essentially nodes, junctions, in a network of living things and that humans happen to be the kind of node with the bizarre illusion of being separate. But that might be going overboard. A better image is a Venn diagram with each of us a very small shaded intersection where the huge ovals of other people, other organisms, and the force of the past all overlap.

Police Brutality and the Brain

The brutality against Michael Brown, Eric Garner, the prisoners tortured by the CIA, the inmates on Riker’s Island in New York, the noncombatants executed by the Islamic State—I find myself asking the old, naive question, how can people be this brutal to one another?

For these are not the brutalities of one person attacking another to rob or rape or murder. Nor are they the horrors of the battlefield, the war for turf. They are the brutalities of members of dominant groups who already exert control over apparent violators or actual captives. This brutality is not a power struggle. Power has already been achieved, or so it seems. So why the brutality?

Many believe that it comes from the dark side of disturbed cops or fanatical ideologues or even humanity itself, the fury of our animal brain that killed to eat or defend itself. The implication of such a diagnosis is that if we were better managed or trained or screened or socialized, the demons might step back. But the dynamics behind coercive brutality seem to be not so simple and not so correctable.

A helpful book is Race and Police Brutality: Roots of an Urban Dilemma by Malcolm D. Holmes and Brad W. Smith (2008). Their thesis is that police brutality is rooted in our emotions about groups, our own and others, as well as in our aggressiveness.

Tension (lancasteronline.com)


Holmes and Smith point out that it is difficult to imagine two groups more opposite from each other than a group of police officers on patrol and the minority residents of the neighborhood they are patrolling. The police see themselves as safeguarding society from its worst elements, with the tacit approval of law-abiding citizens. The residents of the ghetto or barrio believe that most of those citizens are biased against them and that they, the residents, are trying to hold the line against oppression.  Both groups have grown up learning the stereotypes of the other, heard the tales of violence, and learned the signs of danger (the weapon, the uniform). “The police and minority groups members see one another as ongoing threats. They both believe that the other is a danger to them.”

“These subjective perceptions of danger reaffirm group identity and reinforce group cohesion” (502). Here is the essential situation that underlies each particular stand-off on the street: all humans are attached to, and quick to defend, the groups they belong to. Tightly knit, organized groups are a unique human achievement. They evolved over several million years when the more casual linkages among earlier primates were no longer adequate for finding food and protection. Our brains evolved to provide nuanced social emotions such as loyalty to hold groups together and prompt them to organize. The result is football teams and nations, businesses and religion. And universally, people have the same basic emotions about groups: they favor members of their own and denigrate and often dehumanize members of competing or opposing ones.

So a police patrol in a minority neighborhood is a situation deeply primed for violence. It is surprising that it does not explode more often than it does. Police are restrained not only by regulations about excessive force but also by the risk of losing control of a tense situation. So what is it that finally triggers a gun shot or a chokehold?

It is the sequence of aggression. Smith and Holmes describe two types of aggression, and brutality results when one follows the other. Emotional aggression is immediate, passionate. It is a lashing out that arises from a surge of fear, anger, or frustration. The other type of aggression is instrumental—aggression that achieves a purpose. An assassin may calmly kill for pay. A husband may beat his wife in order to establish dominance.

On the street, in the heat of the moment, a police officer who feels threatened, who thinks he or she sees a weapon, feels a surge of aggression towards a man who is arguing. A few seconds or minutes pass by and the impulse may dissipate. Or, on the other hand, it may strengthen; roughing up the guy may serve a purpose; it may, in the mind of the officer, reestablish authority at the scene, defend the status of the police, dispense “justice” that the courts failed to deliver, or send a message to the community (1644). Brutality results.

When we think of coercive brutality, we usually picture two individuals—Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, a prisoner and his CIA tormenter, the hooded ISIL figure and the kneeling victim. But it is really the ingroups and the outgroups that are at work more than autonomous individuals. We are passionate about the rightness of our own groups and callous about the ones that challenge ours. Ingroups are a triumph of the human mind, one of the jewels of evolution, but when the tension is high, when a figure looks threatening and there might be a weapon, when violence seems justifiable, brutality happens.