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Why We Believe: Evolution, Making Meaning, and the Development of Human Natures

University of Edinburgh

Humans can see the world around them, imagine how it might be different, and translate those imaginings into reality ... or at least try to. Humans believe. Meaning, imagination, and hope are as central to the human story as are bones, genes, and ecologies. Neither selfish aggression nor peaceful altruism dominates human behavior as a whole. We are a species distinguished by our extraordinary capacity for creative cooperation, our ability to imagine possibilities and to make them material, and our powerful aptitudes for belief, hope, and cruelty. In the 21st century significant shifts in our understanding of evolutionary biology and theory, radical expansions in the archeological and fossil records, and increasing collaboration across multiple fields of inquiry alter our capacities to investigate the human niche, how humans shape and are shaped by the world. Via exploring our evolution, the emergence of our capacity to create, innovate, and collaborate we develop better understandings of human natures and the answers as to why we believe. And, hopefully, to better contemplate the possibilities of human futures.

1. Who are we? Belief, evolution, and our place in the world

This first lecture sets the stage for understanding the development of human natures and our capacity for belief by introducing the theme and narrative structure of the series. Then, by laying out our evolutionary history, we embark on an answer to ‘who we are’ that is different today than it was even a decade ago. Starting with our shared primate heritage we situate humans among the other primates, uncovering the deep roots of our distinctive sociality and of our considerable creative and imaginative abilities. Then, via a highly condensed multi-million year journey, we survey the hominin lineage, the range of human-like relatives, illustrating a distinctive, and complicated, history of changing physiques and capacities facilitating the emergence of the human lineage.

2. What makes us human? The construction of the human niche and the capacity for belief

The first unequivocal members of the human line emerge from the cluster of human-like lineages about two million years ago. We call them the genus Homo. Rapidly they set off on a course that altered their bodies, minds, and the planet. One that is still underway. Over the past two million years the human lineage developed a suite of distinctive characteristics that are central to contemporary human capacities and lifeways. This lecture, drawing on the evidence from bones, stones, biologies and ecologies, illustrates the emergence of humanity’s niche, our natures, via distinctive patterns of eating, caring, moving and creatively manipulating the world around us.

3. How did we change the world? Being with, and believing in, others instigated the Anthropocene

The genus Homo began manipulating ecologies more than two million years ago. By 400,000 years ago humans had connected with re to alter the world. By at least 120,000 years ago our ancestors were combining materials from plants, animals and minerals in increasingly complex new forms (glues and pigments). More than 20,000 years ago humans partnered with dogs and began the first mutual domestication project. However, in the last 15,000 years the magnitude, rapidity and impact of the humans’ relationships with an increasing array of other species transformed bodies, societies, and the global ecosystem at paces outstripping everything before. This lecture offers a view of the emergence of increasingly complex and multispecies human communities and illustrates how sedentism, domestication, and the rise of particular beliefs and practices of property and identity, in combination with expanding patterns of inequality, created radically novel landscapes of caring and con ict.

4. How do we believe? Developing human culture

In the first three lectures we learn that humans are a particular kind of primate, and hominin, which manipulates animals, plants, ecosystems, and one another, and is capable of intense cruelty and amazing compassion. A major factor in developing this suite of capacities is our ability to create and sustain particular kinds of cultures and to be shaped by them. Human culture is a key to human natures, and core to human belief systems. While other animals have cultures, human cultures include tools, weapons, clothes, buildings, towns, etc... and teaching and learning on scales and with a level of structural complexity, and impact, greater than in any other organisms. Human cultures are rooted in the linguistically mediated beliefs, institutions, histories, and practices of human groups. For humans, culture is a ubiquitous primary component, and potential driver, of our evolution. This lecture lays out just what human culture is, how it emerged, and why it is central to our capacities for, and processes of, belief.

5. Why do we believe? A human imagination and the emergence of belief systems

There are 5.8 billion people who identify as religiously af liated around the globe, about 83 per cent of the world’s population. Religious experience of some sort or another is a daily activity for most human beings and religion is woven into the hearts of the societies and nations in which we all reside. However, all contemporary religions and religious institutions are extremely recent in an evolutionary sense. For about 75 per cent of the evolutionary history of the human line we have very little material evidence that transcendent experiences and a recognition of the supernatural were prominent in the lives of our ancestors. But over the last 25 per cent of our history we see increasing evidence of creative meaning making in the material evidence left by our ancestors, possibly suggesting heightened transcendent experiences in their lives. The capacity to be religious emerged over our evolutionary history and religion eventually became a xture of human identity. This lecture reviews current evolutionary ideas about how and why humans came to have religious belief, and offers an innovative alternative.

6. Does belief matter? Belief, hope, and responsibility

Meaning, imagination, and hope are as central to the human story as are bones, genes, and ecologies. Why, and what, we believe matters. We are a species distinguished by our extraordinary capacity for creative cooperation, our ability to imagine possibilities and to make them material, and our powerful aptitudes for belief, hope, and for cruelty. Across our history the pace, impact and outcomes of the human niche (our way of being) has affected the planet and ourselves. But today we may be on the brink of changes and processes that are distinctive, even novel, with potentially catastrophic repercussions for humanity, other species, and the globe. Humans have become a (possibly, the) dominant force in global ecosystems and with such a role comes ethical and practical responsibilities. This nal lecture connects the key data, themes and conclusions of the previous ve to offer a suite of insights, possibilities, problems, and options for the future. 

  • University of Edinburgh