The Evolution of Human Wisdom

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Celia Deane-Drummond, Agustín Fuentes
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , October
     236 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The conventional evolutionary paradigm of natural selection acting on reproductively beneficial mutations has long struggled to explain why we have such astonishing thinking machines in our heads—machines capable of doing many things unrelated to reproduction. Studies of ancestral cranial capacity show our brains growing in size but we don’t know why our brains were growing or what they were doing with the presumably increasing thinking power. At some point in our history language emerged, presumably related to our growing brains, but we don’t know how or why it did. And then there are the really big questions: When did we become human? What does it mean to be human? And why, indeed, are we so wise?

The Evolution of Human Wisdom engages these questions, seeking points of contact and even resonances between theological and anthropological understandings. The volume has eleven contributors—six theologians and five anthropologists—but the well-documented essays are more heavily weighted towards anthropology than this disciplinary breakdown would suggest.

The book opens with an essay suggesting we became human by “stepping outside the entire cosmos.” We transcended our embedding in nature; we learned to wonder why there was something rather than nothing; we came to understand that our existence was contingent and needed to be explained. This awakening to the world—the birth of our distinctive humanness—was also the beginning of religion. 

But what is involved in being “awakened”? What kinds of transitions preceded, accompanied, and flowed from this awakening? Subsequent essays call attention to our ability to work with symbols. As the basis of language, symbol manipulation has long been viewed as one indicator of human uniqueness. But recent discoveries that this skill was apparently shared by our Neandertal cousins have shown that it is not unique to modern humans. We need a richer notion of symbols that explains how the meaning attached to them arose in the social contexts where they were first used.

The question of social context runs throughout the volume. We are a deeply social species, with powerful tools that enable connection to others. So when in our history did we learn that there are other minds like ours? When did we discover that our experience of the world is a shared experience—that other heads have invisible minds in them? And why, asks one author, do humans so readily ascribe minds—or intentionality—to clearly mindless objects? In one engaging study subjects watched triangles moving about on a screen and described them as “aggressive, warlike, belligerent, pugnacious,” as though they possessed the intentionality associated with having a mind. What is going on here?

The social context so critical to understanding our species requires that we empathetically grasp the way that others behave and communicate, as we form community by seeing ourselves in others. But how do we, as children, learn to do this? Do we have an innate “theory of mind” that kicks in as we learn to navigate the social worlds of our early childhood? What are we doing as we copy behaviors we observe? Craig Iffland presents some fascinating work on how children learn the norms of their expanding new worlds, concluding that they must possess an “inchoate form of practical wisdom.”

In understanding ourselves as naturally and religiously communal, and good at community-making, Julia Feder argues that we have overlooked the companion role of “place-making.” Using Jesus’s engagement with those around him and his creation of memorable “places,” she suggests that Christian wisdom is “placial.” This is a provocative argument, but felt like a stretch to me, given the selective and piecemeal nature of our knowledge of Jesus.

Celia Deane-Drummond, one of the architects of this project and a leading voice in the field of science and religion, provides the most fully integrative essay in the volume, raising key questions about the gradual evolutionary emergence of human wisdom. She concludes—in beautiful prose—that “it is possible to interpret the yearnings of the very earliest humans theologically as a slow reaching out toward the transcendent, the inklings of which were in place long before our own identified species … first walked on the savannah hundreds of thousands of years ago” (182). I am not sure this is consistent with claims made by other authors in the volume, but that is to be expected when engaging such a complex question. 

Although the essays are consistently strong and each had something to offer, I was disappointed in the occasional—and to my mind unnecessary—theological parochialism. The nature of angelic wisdom was discussed, for example, with no acknowledgment that the mere existence of angels is problematic and not universally accepted even by Christian thinkers. Likewise, an extended discussion of the “soul” states with little justification that it must be understood as immaterial—humans are “matter plus soul.” This view is not shared by many science and religion scholars wrestling with the implications of evolution. John Polkinghorne, for example, is a “dual-aspect monist.” He suggests that we do not have a dual nature—matter plus soul—but rather have two ways (aspects) to understand ourselves. This unaddressed question is quite central to understanding human wisdom.

It also struck me that Thomas Aquinas looms rather large in these discussions. I think it is better to appreciate Aquinas on his own terms, as he responds to the complexities of his world, rather than asking him to comment on questions that did not exist before Darwin. But perhaps the need to consult a thinker who lived eight centuries ago is itself an indicator of the complexity of the question of human wisdom, and our failure to truly make progress in understanding ourselves. 

The Evolution of Human Wisdom is an informed engagement with one of the great questions of our time—a question I doubt will ever be answered, in part because we don’t know how to ask it. The contributors, fortunately, seem to recognize this and, for the most part, maintain a consistently open, exploratory, tentative, and even humble tone. The invitation to the conversation is wide open.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Karl Giberson is Professor of Science & Religion at Stonehill College.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Celia Deane-Drummond is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Agustín Fuentes is professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.


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