Monday, June 1, 2009

Did the Evolution of Human Imagination Lead to Belief in Gods?

French-British anthropologist, Maurice Bloch, of the London School of Economics believes that humans alone practice religion because they're the only creatures to have evolved imagination. The development of imagination occurred at the time of the Upper Palaeolithic 'revolution' 40-50,000 years ago. Bloch challenges the popular notion that religion evolved and spread because it promoted social bonding, as has been argued by some anthropologists.

According to Bloch's theory, initially humans had to develop the essential brain architecture to imagine things and beings that don't exist physically, and the possibility that people somehow survive on after their death.

Once this was acquired, we had access to a form of social interaction unavailable to any other creatures on the planet. Exclusively, humans could use what Bloch calls the "transcendental social" to unite with groups, such as nations and clans, or even with imaginary groups such as the dead. He explained that the transcendental social also permits humans to follow the idealized codes of conduct linked with religion.

"What the transcendental social requires is the ability to live very largely in the imagination," New Scientist magazine quoted him, as saying. "One can be a member of a transcendental group, or a nation, even though one never comes in contact with the other members of it. Moreover, the composition of such groups, whether they are clans or nations, may equally include the living and the dead," he added.

He argues that no animals, not even our nearest relatives the chimpanzees, can do this. Instead, he says, they're restricted to the routine and Machiavellian social interactions of everyday life.

The reason for this, he says, is that they can't imagine beyond this immediate social circle, or backwards and forwards in time, in the same way that humans can. Bloch believes our ancestors evolved the essential neural architecture to imagine before or around a time called the Upper Palaeological Revolution, the final sub-division of the Stone Age.

"The transcendental network can, with no problem, include the dead, ancestors and gods, as well as living role holders and members of essentialised groups," he said. "Ancestors and gods are compatible with living elders or members of nations because all are equally mysterious invisible, in other words transcendental," he added. But Bloch argues that religion is only one expression of this exceptional ability to form bonds with non-existent or distant people or value-systems.

"Religious-like phenomena in general are an inseparable part of a key adaptation unique to modern humans, and this is the capacity to imagine other worlds, an adaptation that I argue is the very foundation of the sociality of modern human society," he said. "Once we realize this omnipresence of the imaginary in the everyday, nothing special is left to explain concerning religion," he added.
Originally posted by Casey Kazan.


Anonymous said...

This is such an interesting question. Which brain system "uses" religion? Was religion so adaptive for the survival that it modified the brain structures? These processes are similar to the idea of "object relations" in psychiatry and psychology. The developing child must learn to internalize the idea of the mother in order to form the developing self. Without good object relations, people are unable to imagine themselves, and experience feelings of severe emptiness when they are alone. Perhaps it was this necessary process that was then co-opted by religious experiences.

Sensei said...

Intriguing is Bloch’s concept of the “transcendental social"…

"What the transcendental social requires is the ability to live very largely in the imagination"

We are all greater artists than we realize!

Anonymous said...

Quite an interesting take on the origins of religion. The transcendental social can also be seen today in 'online' communities, where the interaction is in digital form. Yet, the bond within the network that is created can be quite strong. Our imagination allows us to move past the interaction with the machine in front of us, transcending it, and perceive it as interaction with another being.