On God, Gorillas, and the Evolution of Religion

Alright, before I take you down this slippery slope of intellecuality, I wanna tell you that as I began reading this Salon.com article, “God and gorillas” I was thinking to myself, “What a load of crap! This is outrageous!” But as I read some more, specifically on the second page of the piece, that all changed. There are some outstanding and insightful observations on great ape behaviors that I thought some of you out there may enjoy reading up on. To those out there with no concept on the intellectual and emotional capabilities of great apes, I’ll try to document that with several quotes from this article.

In case you were wondering, the Salon.com piece is more in interview format than as an article. The author, Steve Paulson, interviews anthropologist Barbara King of the College of William & Mary who has worked with other primatologists like Jane Goodall and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. In her faculty profile, Dr. King says she is interested in the evolution of communication and cognition in primates. The scope of this interview is primarily to plug her new book, “Evolving GodEvolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion,” where King argues,

“[With] two decades [of] studie[s on] ape and monkey behavior in Gabon and Kenya, and at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo… [That] religion is rooted in our social and emotional connections with each other. What’s more, we can trace back the origins of our religious impulse not just to early cave paintings and burial sites 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, but much earlier — back to our ancient ancestors millions of years ago. And today, King says, we can see the foundations of religious behavior in chimpanzees and gorillas; watching our distant cousins can do much to explain the foundations of our own beliefs.”

Before you get all up in arms, defending the sanctity of separating religion and science, King states her interests in documenting religion is not geared to focusing on institutionalized religion. Rather, King tries to decipher how, who, what, when, where, and why primates have become so emotional and so spiritual. King answered one of the first interview questions, “Are chimpanzees and gorillas empathic creatures?” with,Binti Jua, pictured with her 17-month-old infant Koola

“Yes, they are. Many people may remember an incident that happened 10 years ago at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. A female called Binti Jua was sitting with her gorilla family when a toddler tumbled into that enclosure, to the real horror of onlookers. Here’s this little kid lying on the pavement with these large gorillas. Binti Jua had an infant on her body. She walked over, picked up this human boy, carried him to the zoo staff and got him to safety. This has been interpreted by primatologists as empathy. She’s a mother who had youngsters; she saw that there was a hurt child and lots of very upset adults; and she solved the problem. “

And also, another aspect of empathy but on another level, King talks about how she has observed chimpanzees mourn the death of one of their group members named Tina,

“A chimpanzee female named Tina was killed by a bite to the neck by a leopard. She’d been living in a community of chimpanzees for quite a long time. The group didn’t just pull at her body or tug at it or ignore it. Rather, the dominant male of the group sat with her body for five hours. He kept away all the other infants and protected the body from any harm. With one exception. He let through the younger brother of Tina, a 5-year-old called Tarzan. That’s the only youngster who was allowed to come forward. And the youngster sat at his sister’s side and pulled on her hand and touched her body. I think this is not just a random occurrence. The dominant male was able to recognize the close emotional bond between Tina and Tarzan, and he acted empathically.”

This is behavior is so heartfelt to me. Even though I have had limited experiences with great apes, I have seen and felt they are empathetic organisms and am confident to say that applies all throughout homonoids. I wish I could comment on it a bit more, but I basically signed a non-disclosure agreement saying I can’t ever write about my experiences where I have gathered this conclusion.

Anyways, knowing how cohesive and social great apes are, I often wonder how they cope with death while in capitivity. As King mentions, many zoological institutions now allow fellow group members to see their recently deceased. Which shows to me how as caregivers to these organisms, our attitudes and approaches are changing towards the better. I wish all institutions will allow fellow living primate members see their dead… you know just to say goodbye.

After this section, the article takes a turn from primatology and into a discussion on paleoanthropology and interpretation of the progress of spirituality throughout the archaeological record. Those topics are geared more towards Anthropology.net, therefore I’ll avoid flooding this blog with that. I am deciding on whether I should publish that aspect of the interview over there, so keep your eyes open for something about the rest of this over at my other blog.

Suffice to say, I am humbly impressed. I thought this piece would be another moment where an anthropologist made some absurd claims on religion and tying it to evolution, but from what I have read of Dr. King’s research, I now have much more respect than I ignorantly assumed she will be saying. Her observations and conclusions are very intuitive and void of alterior religiosity fervor. I highly recommend you check out the Salon.com article… and maybe buy the book. I’m putting it on my wishlist and will buy it next time I make an Amazon.com purchase.

10 thoughts on “On God, Gorillas, and the Evolution of Religion

  1. Nature, not God, programmed us with a moral sense. It would violate Occam’s razor to put God behind nature. A two category classification of origins [natural selection] or contingency and creation [teleology] or necessary being [Russell Stannard] begs the question as Kai Nielsen and Martin Diamond show in their books on philosophy of religion. Existence is the first cause, ultimate explanation, greatest and necessary being and through natural selection, the mindless force behind new life forms as Quentin Smith might state. One should not expect theologians to have any insight on the universe!

  2. You know, skeptic griggsy, I avoided mentioning God at all except for the title of the book and post which refers to Dr. King’s work. I actually focused more on showing the depth of character of some great apes, and you decided to take it another step further and spit out some intellectual mumbo-jumbo.

    I really don’t see where, from my post, you are getting fodder for your argument. Your comment reads like a bad Nigerian email scam. And if you can’t tell, it is thoroughly confusing, ignorant, and arrogant to just jump into a discussion with no background on where you’re coming from. In the future, please give us some context, an introduction, something to help me grasp what about the post got you to think that way.

    Kambiz

  3. With all respect to you skeptic griggsy, and everyone else, I believe that you, as many others in the contemporary world have been intellectually compromised by the considerably unfortunate historical circumstances which have determined our inheritance of a “personal,” theistic, omnipotent, omni-benevolent, omniscient, omnipresent, and, a however ironically and hypocritically, wrathful godhead conception.

    The Western religious tradition encompassing Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam does not represent the World on spiritual, cosmological, theological or moral interpretations. These are just a few very similar traditions, all drawing a line of descent from Zoroastrianism, which have evolved in their own times and places the dominant concept of “god,” (to use comedian George Carlin’s words), as “a really tall man in the sky who’s going to punish you if you do something ‘wrong.’” This of course is such obvious “horse fodder” that it’s extremely nuts to postulate.

    But that’s just one side of a multilayered existentially based phenomenon that some, but not all, nominally refer to as “god,” which in-and-of-itself is a non-sequitur. No one other than the talking heads of the above mentioned traditions (especially extremist, fundamentalist, Protestant Christians in American) hold or claim to hold deity-concepts such as this.

    “Morality” and practically all other concepts are just as much non-sequiturs as “god.” These are all words, interpretations, concepts, ideas, symbols, projections, etc. But, it is what they refer to that is important. (Keep in mind that to say “Nature, not God, programmed us with a moral sense” IS JUST AS ABSURD IF NOT MORE SO, than any theological concept); and if you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, this guy’s just arguing Semantics,” I say “Hell yes!”

    “Natural Selection” – how does Nature “select?” – This is a case of personifying Nature… which you might argue is the exact thing that most religious peoples are doing. “Natured programmed us…” – how does Nature “program?” –Again we have a personification and anthropomorphizing problem.

    To put in terms such as the late, great Joseph Campbell might use, those spiritual and/or religious traditions or paths of the ancient “primitive” world, tribal societies, as well as the great religious traditions of the East have “god-concepts” which are more “Elemental, representing the POWERS WITHIN NATURE.” In these cases the “god” is a manifestation of the “energy” and “mystery” of Nature rather than being the generator of cosmic energy or the “architect” of the universe.

    This concept works extremely well with the knowledge coming forward from the scientific communities.

    In the end, it might very well sound like Pantheism, but that may in fact ultimately, in turn justify statements such as, “Natural Selection,” and “Nature programmed us with a moral sense.”

    And you might ponder one of the questions I pose to my students of mythology; “If ‘god’ was the only thing which existed prior to the ‘creation’ of the universe, then what did ‘god’ create the universe out of?”

    My final note, now that I have all of this out of the way, is that there’s yet another problem with the statement, “Nature programmed us with a moral sense,” which I’d prefer to write on at a later time. But until then; “If ‘Nature programmed with a moral sense,’ then 1) Why can’t we come to an universal agreement about morality itself? And 2) Why are there some who are simply not moral in any sense of the idea?

    1. If ‘Nature programmed with a moral sense,’ then 1) Why can’t we come to an universal agreement about morality itself?

      Because differences, biologically and socially, in individuals change a person to make them act differently, have different views, and that includes any type of perspective that is negative (hence being raised in a unstable violent environment can and does change a person and their views). Thus, morality is defined differently from person to person, however there are universal morals that are, if a person is brought up “psychologically nutured”, respect a real sense of morality. Therefore, people brought up in good situations DO universally accept specific morals. Which I have found never differ. However, people are raised differently, and some raised more absurdly than others, making different people have different opinions on what is right and wrong. But, a person, coming into enlightenment, can decifer a universal moral code, such as not killing or harming a living creature, do not do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you, etc. There are only a few simple universal moral codes that if all humans abided by we could all live in harmony. It is possible for a universal moral approach, in which nature does have programmed, ready to be attained, but there are too many dumb people in this world to realize it, so instead of acting on their biological “instincts” they act on their social “opinions.”

      I was taught this in a lecture, read up on Criminology and Psychology, it explains the universal moral code that all people SHOULD know but some either ignore it or were raised to the point it would be impossible for them to know any other way.

      And 2) Why are there some who are simply not moral in any sense of the idea?

      ^ As the above, biological mutations, diseases, anything different from a “healthy brain”, etc. and the social environment (social ties, institutions, peers, etc) affect an individual. Some people are raised to not have certain morals. Children, or humans in general are born with certain preobligations, certain biological pathways to take, but as the child grows life steps in and can easily deter someone from the path. It all depends on how you are raised, BUT the biological basis for certain things IS already in your brain.

      Example… Humans are built with areas in the brain for language development, areas that change over time to allow certain phases of language development to occur. This phases also are meant for the various ages, usually between birth and 8 years old. However, it is known that just because a human is born with the ability to learn and understand language, does not mean that person will. If that child’s mother never spoke to that child, and never allowed that child to hear voices, that child would NOT develop understanding the concepts of linguistics.

      Biology and Sociology go hand in hand, Biology is there first, Sociology affects what the individual does with it.

  4. Apes are very close to us because we can identify with them, They have hands with opposing thumbs. We need more study of them.
    I am of the belief that all animals are each very different individuals much like humans are. It’s not just the great apes that posess the ability for emotion.
    Our pets, animals that are in close contact with us can sometimes show behavior that can only be described as emotional attachment.
    My adopted Mother tells a beautiful true story of a young girl with a terminal illness, who developed a relationship with her dog. After the girls’s death the family went to the cemetary to place flowers on the grave, the dog had never been there, but ran to the girls grave and layed down and started to wimper.
    We cannot generalize and say that all apes or all dogs are capable of this type of behavior, however, it touches us in a speical way to witness it when it does happen.

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