Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Evolution of Religion, Part 9- What’s Unique about Human Evolution?

Today’s Post

This week we will continue to address religion in the context of evolution as understood by Teilhard, focusing on what’s unique about human evolution.

Modes of Human Evolution

So what happens in humans that constitutes continuing evolution?  As Ian Barber points out in last week’s post, culture, combined with the human activity of choosing begins to effect changes much faster than evolution at the genetic level (natural selection combined with chance).

As we postulated in the March 5 post, Looking at Evolution, Part 4: Evolution Through Human Neurology, it is probably not an oversimplification to trace the evolution of the human person in terms of developing the skill of using the neocortex brain (reason) to modulate the more primitive and instinctual stimuli of the limbic brain (emotions) and the reptilian brain (aggression).

But as we saw in the post of October 29, The Evolution of Religion, Part 5- The Neurological Perspective (which addressed the joining of Greek and Jewish thinking), evolution is also in play in the emergence of another skill, that of ‘left-brained’ thinking to objectively observe our surroundings and make secular sense of them.  As we saw, this was the beginning of the increasing skill of not only using the ‘right and left brain’ modes of thinking, but using them in balance.

For several thousand years, the religions of the world showed a preponderance of domination by right brain thinking.  The skill of using the left brain increased more slowly, bursting into florescence with the flowering of Greek philosophy and science in about 500 BCE.  With the later interconnection between Jewish thinking and Greek thinking in the new Christian religion in the early first century CE, from the standpoint of neurological evolution, the first attempt was made to supplement right brained thinking with that of the left brain.

Human Evolution Differs From Biological Evolution

Teilhard points out a third aspect of human evolution that is suggested in the last two posts: that of recombination of the branches.

As Teilhard notes, the first manifestation of each new wave of evolution is initially camouflaged by the appearances of the previous wave, such as the early cells more closely resembling (and responding to the laws of) the highly complex molecules from which they sprang.  In the same way it was difficult to distinguish early humans from the advanced animals which preceded them.  It was not until early man began to use the unique functions of his neocortex brain, and began to leave traces of his existence for paleontologists to uncover, that we begin to have evidence of humans as distinct from their predecessor.

Teilhard, however, notes a major difference between the process of evolution before and after the appearance of man.

Before:  In biological evolution, the ‘tree of life’ as drawn by biologists, anthropologists and paleontologists clearly shows a trunk with branches leading to a nearly endless array of living things whose ontology can be traced to the fork in the branch that separates them from other forms of life.  ‘Tree’ is a good analogy; as with very rare exceptions each limb ramifies into new limbs which stay separate from the parent, evolves on its own, and doesn’t reconnect with other limbs.

Branches of the tree of life ramify, in which the new limb can either continue to evolve, slow to a stop, or wither and die.  Whichever path is taken, it is done so in isolation.

After: Early in human history, these three options can also be seen to occur, but to a lesser degree.   As humans evolve, new aspects come into play, such as the increase of retention of learned behavior through oral traditions, then written documents, then deliberate education.  With each of these new human skills, communicated and supported through culture, the branches of the human evolution tree acquire more potential to re-engage after separation.

Often this is just the result of one civilization conquering another, in which the characteristics of each society influence another.  It can also be the rediscovery of lost lore at a later date through a third party, such as the West’s rediscovery of the great Greek thinkers through the documents preserved by the Arabs, or the discovery of an ancient civilization’s writings and beliefs through the results of archeology.  Many other methods open this door of confluence after florescence, such as intermarriage, international education, and most recently, the internet.

With the human, this is one of the ‘laws’ of evolution which changes.  Certainly the ‘tree of thought’, or the ‘tree of civilization’ can be mapped from early times to the present.  Most modes of thought, ideas, styles of society, governments and beliefs can be woven into a picture which shows precedents and antecedents, like the tree of life.

However, unlike the biological tree of life, each new branch, new idea, new way of thinking and writing, new social structure and style of government, are seldom completely new.  Ideas are borrowed from other cultures, styles of government.  While perhaps inherited, they still show the impact of separate styles.

The evolution of religion can be traced in such a way.

The Next Post

Given the perspective offered by Teilhard on the continuation of evolution through the human person and his society, next time we will apply this perspective to the unfolding of religion itself.

The Evolution of Religion, Part 8- A Relook at Human Evolution

Today’s Post

Religion, as a reflection of man’s attempt to make sense of his surroundings and understand his potential, is one manifestation of the way the process of evolution unfolds in the human.  The unfolding of science and philosophy are others.  Today we will begin to take a final look at the evolution of religion in the context of Teilhard’s insights into the continuing evolution of the human person and his society.

The Continuation of Evolution in the Human

The central theme of this blog has been and continues to be the perspective on evolution as developed by Teilhard de Chardin.  This perspective not only connects the three major phases of evolution,

  • physical, as seen in the evolution of matter to complex molecules
  • biological, as seen in the many branches of the tree of life
  • personal, as seen in the appearance of consciousness aware of itself

but, more important to the objectives of this blog, it provides a context for understanding the continuation of evolution as it proceeds through the human person and his society.

As we saw in the February 19 post, “Looking at Evolution, Part 3: Continuation of Evolution Through the Human Person”, there is a tendency to see the process of evolution as coming to a halt in the present day: that humans have “arrived”.  The process of evolution seems to have stopped, or slowed to a snail’s crawl, and it is difficult to detect any further substantial changes.  Indeed, viewing evolution from the perspective of biological “Natural Selection”, shows only the slightest rate of change in our physical make up.

As Teilhard points out, it’s much more probable that the process of evolution which got us here isn’t going to stop, but will instead continue.  This shouldn’t be a surprise: if you plot the continuous rise of complexity in the past, the continuing increase in the future is expected unless something drastically changes in the underlying process.  Therefore, we can expect the process of evolution to continue through the human person and the energies which unite him.

Ian Barber echoes Teilhard’s thinking in his book, “Religion and Science”, in which he recognizes both the continuation of evolution through the human person as well as the “change of state” that was addressed in the above referenced post:

“Today we can see that in the long history of the world, the emergence of humanity marks a genuinely new chapter- not one disconnected from previous chapters and yet one that involves factors not previously present.  Something radically different takes place when culture rather than the genes becomes the principal means by which the past is transmitted to the future and when conscious choice alters that future.”

If we see the evolutionary unfolding of entities and energy through Teilhard’s eyes, leading from more simple things to more complex things which have more capacity for interconnection, then we can extrapolate this continuation of evolution to ever more complex human persons and more conscious and skillful cooperation with the energies of human connection.

This ‘skillful cooperation” is the cornerstone of basic religion, one among the other skills that humans develop to continue to actualize their human potential: the skill of using the human brain to make sense of things and the acquired wisdom of doing so.

The Advent of the Human Person

So, what’s really different about the human person?  Considering the materialistic belief that “we are all molecules”, and the atheistic belief that “there’s nothing special about humans, they’re just a different form of animal”, what really changes (if indeed anything does) in the transition from ‘pre-human’ to ‘human”?  Are not animals conscious?  Are they not aware?  Do they not have feelings?  And if so, how can it be said that humans are different?

Teilhard observes that the single most important characteristic which separates humans from their non-human ancestors is their ‘redundant awareness’, which he refers to as ‘reflexive consciousness’.  In simpler terms, humans ‘know that they know’; they are aware of their awareness.

His use of the word ‘reflexive’ also carries a deeper meaning: the ‘rebounding’ effect that such consciousness has on the human person.  Knowledge of one’s knowledge contributes to personal growth, enhancing capacity for relationship, which enhances knowledge.  “The knowledge of knowledge builds knowledge”.  This iterative process can best be understood as a ‘spiral’ in the maturity of human persons in which each loop leads towards increased consciousness (a measure of increased complexity), and adds to the potential for the next loop of the spiral.

So, given the fact that evolution continues in the human person, how does religion come into play?

The Next Post

Next time we will continue our examination of religion through Teilhard’s perspective of evolution.