Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods

Early Humans and the Origins of Religion

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E. Fuller Torrey
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , September
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


E. Fuller Torry’s Evolving Brains Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion argues that the idea of gods arrived after five specific leaps in human evolutionary cognitive development. The book is less a history of religion—indeed, it barely discusses the origin of religion proper—than it is an evolutionary history of the origin of gods. The five evolutionary steps include a significant increase in brain size and intelligence, an awareness of self, an awareness of other’s thoughts, an ability to reflect on their own thoughts, and the ability to look forward or backward in time (3).

This process, which began over 200,000 years ago and was completed only 40,000 years ago, ended with humans possessing sufficient cognitive ability to imagine a far-away being who could access their own thoughts, influence our world, and provide a postmortem destination.

Torry understands the belief in gods as an extension of our own social selves. He argues the cognitive ability to build meaningful connections with gods could only have occurred once early humans had gained the ability to build meaningful connections among themselves. In that way, Torry positions the gods as extensions of the human tendency towards cooperation and need for sociality.

In this vein, Torry provides the reader with a skillful analysis of ancestor veneration. Aside from describing the ancient practices, he also cites one study from as late as 2009 that discovered “30 percent of Americans said they had been in touch with someone who has already died” (139). This reaching out for our ancestral dead, in Torry’s view, has been a long and forceful stimulus in our reaching out for the gods. Indeed, as the author cites often, our ancestors become our gods, as memory fades into legend, and that sociality is extended in memory.

Torry also connects ancestral veneration and the agricultural revolution. Prior to humanity’s dependence on agriculture, humans had no sense of their ancestor’s divinity. Hunter-gatherer tribes would simply move from one local to another; the places of their ancestral dead were forgotten. Agriculture brought with it the death of migration and the beginnings of burial for the dead. As the dead were buried, their tombs could become alters and their memories venerated.

Implied in Torry’s argument is a very specific view of what religion actually is. For Torry, it seems, religion is a matter of believing in god(s). There is little in the book about social structure, organization, the composition of scripture, or other traditional markers of religion. I will not fully grapple with this here, as the question of how to define religion is a question bigger than this review; however, I would have liked to see Torry discuss human’s evolutionary journey to organizational structures that could have supported a religious social structure.

It is always easier to critique the book the author did not write. As for the book that he did write, it is a wonderful addition to the current corpus sitting at the intersection of religion and evolution. It will be helpful for the scholar and layperson alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Kerby is an alumnus of Claremont Graduate University and holds master’s degrees in religion and education.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

E. Fuller Torrey is associate director for research at the Stanley Medical Research Institute and the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center. His books include The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeths (1984); The Insanity Offense: How America's Failure to Treat the Seriously Mentally Ill Endangers Its Citizens (2008); Surviving Schizophrenia: A Family Manual, 6th ed. (2013); and American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System (2013).


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