David Lewis-Williams on the Origin of Religion

David Lewis-Williams’ 2010 book Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion, has two rather contradictory aims.  One is an argument for atheism, the other is an argument for a neurological origin of religion.  His argument for atheism is neither original nor interesting, and the reader can afford to skim those sections.  On the other hand, Lewis-Williams’ theory of the origin of religion is worth careful reading and consideration, for itself and for its broader implications.

For many years Lewis-Williams has examined Paleolithic rock and cave art and Neolithic constructed art with the aim of accessing through them the mental lives of their creators, and from that to gain an understanding of the neurological elements of homo sapiens that underlie human beliefs and behaviors even today.  The two books that form the background for Conceiving God are The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origin of Art (2002) and, with David Pearce, Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods (2005), although he has written numerous other books and articles on the subject of the roots of belief in human consciousness.

Basically, Lewis-Williams’ theory is that the origin of religion is not to be found in the usual suspects:  religion did not originate for social, political, or ethical reasons.  Rather, certain features of the human brain, “mental states daily and necessarily generated by the electrochemical functioning of the brain” (p. 137), including those that produce consciousness (which Lewis-Williams sees as a spectrum from everyday consciousness to an intensified consciousness whose extreme level is the realm of hallucination), are the source of religious experience.  The basic inner “seeing” is entoptic, i.e., geometric forms of grids, parallel lines, zigzags, etc., which are not sensory records from “outside” (i.e., the world of visible phenomena) but which are generated from “inside,” by the brain itself.  These entoptic phenomena are made sense of by being construed into recognizable, cultural forms, as in the visions of religious mystics such as shamans and saints (like Hildegard of Bingen, to whose visions Lewis-Williams devotes considerable space).  Thus what is essentially an “inner” experience is projected outward, that is, it is assumed to be real vision of actual phenomena which may then be further interpreted as occupants of a different dimension, a world somehow beyond the ordinary material world of everyday waking experience.  Outright hallucinations are the extreme form of these neurologically generated visions (for more contemporary versions of hallucinations, see Oliver Sacks’ recent book Hallucinations).   In other words, people believed these visions were real and developed their various beliefs in gods, the supernatural, life after death, and so forth as explanations not only for the visions themselves but also as explanations for this-world phenomena which they had no other means of understanding (i.e., the volcano erupted because the gods were angry, etc.).  “[E]arly people attached independently derived religious beliefs to recurring and powerful events” (p. 127).

Over time (a great deal of time) beliefs in the supernatural were organized into belief systems which did serve social, political, and ethical functions.  Social hierarchies, for example, were justified and reinforced by myths of the hierarchies of the gods, and grieving survivors were comforted by doctrines spelling out the rewards provided to the dead in the afterlife (and justice was served by condemning the evil dead to various post mortem punishments).  But Lewis-Williams emphasizes that these historical functions, with which we are so familiar in our own religious lives, are not the source of religion:  “the social and psychological functions of religion are better thought of as consequent upon the ‘imagining’ of gods” (p. 139, italics added):

“We should not lose sight of an important distinction.  Writers often do not distinguish between function and origin.  They list useful things that religion does for people (its functions) and then imply that religion came into being to perform these benign functions.  This is the logical trap known as teleology:  reasoning that explains developments by saying they are caused by the purposes they serve.” (pp118-119)

In other words, such explanations put the cart before the horse.  As Lewis-Williams further points out, these explanations assume that such functions are adaptive (in the Darwinian sense):

“[A]daptation has unfortunately become a sine qua non in discussions of religion.  These arguments are tautological:  without digging any deeper, we can say that they merely assert something (in this case, a religion) does what we think it does (e.g., creates social authority) and then add the word ‘adaptive’ to the supposed function.”  (p. 125)

“[B]eliefs about a supernatural realm are in themselves neither adaptive not maladaptive. ” (p.155)

“[T]he supposed adaptive advantages of religion are questionable and, even if they are advantageous, they are consequent upon belief in the supernatural, not reasons for its invention. ” (p. 157)

Given the dominance of Darwinian adaptationist explanations for each and every anatomical and behavioral trait, particularly in popular science journalism and book publishing, it may seem strange to read an assertion that something as central to human experience, so ubiquitous among homo sapiens, is not necessarily adaptive, but as Lewis-Williams notes, “natural selection is wasteful and bumbling, not economic and purposeful” (p. 83).  If natural selection were in fact purposeful, if in other words a purposeful end point such as vision were foreordained or implied in rudimentary photoreceptor proteins, natural selection would be “economic and purposeful,” that is teleological, and if that were the case we would have to ask what or who had that purpose to begin with (for it would be ridiculous to attribute such “foresight” to unicellular organisms that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and then we would find ourselves sliding into some form of “intelligent design” hypothesis, which would then in turn undermine the Darwinian project.  In other words, you cannot really have evolution by means of natural selection if the end point (or points) of evolution are already imminent in the starting points.  In other words, you cannot really have evolution by means of natural selection if you make statements such as that the human hand with its opposable thumb evolved in order to enable human beings to grasp spears so that they could increase their protein consumption or so that scribes could grasp pens so that they could record the lore of their culture and thus increase the competitive advantage of their societies.  That is, the function of a trait, what we now use that trait for, does not explain why the trait arose in the first place.

For Lewis-Williams, “the spectrum of consciousness (daily and altered)” did not become “part of human experience because shifting mental states were in themselves adaptive.  Rather, the electrochemical functioning of the brain that, as a by-product, produces the spectrum was adaptive” (p. 154).  In other words, consciousness, whether daily or altered, is not an adaptation but what Stephen J. Gould and R. C. Lewontin call an evolutionary spandrel—a side effect so to speak of the development of some other or related trait that may be or is clearly adaptive.  For example, blue eye color does not seem to have any particular adaptive function, but its association with fair skin, and especially blondes, in Caucasians may be a side effect of the evolution of fair skin in this northern population, and fair skin seems to be adaptive by enabling adequate production of vitamin D from weaker sunlight.   Lewis-Williams apparently believes that the electrochemical function of the brain is in general adaptive, but that consciousness specifically is not.  Such a view seems to me to resolve the problems in explaining consciousness and such related things as free will and selfhood that have driven some writers to deny their existence altogether.

However, that a particular trait is not adaptive does not mean that it is unimportant, particularly for human beings.  And while adaptiveness may not explain the evolutionary origin of a current function, that does not mean that that function is unimportant.  If Lewis-Williams theory of the origin of religion in entoptic phenomena is correct, and even if as he argues in his sections on atheism the gods are projections from within the human mind, and if we also find that religion came to serve certain human needs, including protoscientific ones, then we can say that this fully human invention is not to be dismissed as delusional, fictitious, or even as necessarily dangerous, despite its many sins, but rather should be seen as an important step in cultural and intellectual development.  From it or through it, early human beings were at least able to generate theories that, however incorrect they may be objectively, nevertheless set them on the path that culminates in the science of today.  We must remember that if we take evolution seriously, then we must also recognize that the earliest homo sapiens evolved our wonderful brains sans content; they had the “computing power” that we do, but not the accumulated store of facts and theories nor the tools to enhance perception, such as the microscope (which was invented only some 400 years ago) that we today benefit from.  They were truly the “blank slates” so often spoken of in more contemporary settings.  Sadly, we tend to date the history of human thought back only to historical (i.e., written) times, to the pre-Socratic Greeks or the Mesopotamian cities, or shortly before, and tend to ignore the millennia it took to get from, say, the Blombos caves to Athens, from 70,000 years ago to a mere 2600 years ago.  Not to mention the antecedents to the Blombos cave dwellers.  The originators of human thought are not to be indicted for their inaccuracies but celebrated for their creativity and genuine originality.

Lewis-Williams states that nothing in the material world suggests supernatural explanations.  “There is no evidence in the material world that there are beings living, for instance, beneath the surface of the land or up beyond the blue of the sky” (p. 126).  And while prehistoric people “may well have grieved, there was no evidence before them to suggest that the deceased lived on in another dimension.  Belief in life after death could not flow simply from awareness of death” (p. 131).  These beliefs arose as interpretations of inner consciousness experience, they were what I will call entogenous inventions rather than exogenous ones.  Exogenous inventions, that is inventions that arose from observation of and experimentation with phenomena of the external material world, would include such things as the harnessing of fire for human purposes, such as cooking and smelting; fire has always existed in the natural material world, it was ready to hand for humans to appropriate.  Entogenous inventions are those which have no precedent or prompt in the external material world; Lewis-Williams identifies religion as one of them.  I would identify language, art, and writing as three others:  1) Many writers, such as Pinker, try to explain the origin of language in adaptive and biological terms, but language may not be as adaptive as they would like to think.  Other social animals communicate quite well without it; that we can identify many practical functions of language in our societies today does not mean that language originated to facilitate those functions.  Indeed, given that many of those functions are inconceivable without language, one wonders how early humans could have “known” that they needed to develop language to facilitate them.  2)  While there are many beautiful things in nature (at least from a human perspective), there is no art “out there.”  No bowerbird, regardless of how elaborate his structure, creates his bower with the same intentions that a human artist creates a painting or sculpts a Willendorf venus, nor does the male bird of paradise create his own spectacular plumage.  Objectively speaking, a rose is not an object of beauty but the sex organs of the rosebush.  Its evolved reproductive strategy is irrelevant to our esthetic appreciation of it.  3)  Of the three, writing is the least likely to be “natural”—it is only through thought that such a thing as writing, so abstract, so flexible, so useful and ambiguous, and so creative, could originate.  It is wholly entogenous, wholly a creation of the mind.  (Expressions such as “destiny is written in our DNA” or “we must look for meaning in the book of nature” are back-projecting metaphors, that is they take something current, such as writing, and project it onto something that predates it, as DNA and nature existed long before there were any human beings.  As Lewis-Williams writes of the all too frequent computer/mind metaphor, “The various components of a computer, for instance, are not paralleled by physical, discrete parts of the brain that can be dissected in the same way that a computer can be dissected; the brain with its intricate neural pathways is more complex than that .  .  .  [with such metaphors] we may feel that we are indeed explaining the phenomenon of mind.  But we are not.  We are merely playing with words that have no correspondence in the material world in which the brain exists” [The Mind in the Cave, p. 106].)

Whether or not Lewis-Williams’ theory of the origin is correct is hard to determine with finality.  After all, the lived interior experiences of prehistoric peoples is not directly accessible to us; everything we conclude about them must be extrapolated from what little of their material culture remains to us, and the further back in time we seek for answers, the less material there is.  But the fact that human beings still experience and believe in neurologically generated visions and, in some cases, even outright hallucinations, as long as we are because we think, Lewis-Williams’ theory, as well as the broader implications I have drawn from them, to me at least make more sense than exclusively adaptationist arguments.


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