Evolutionary Mechanisms: Etiology
In this chapter I will recount explanations of how humans evolved to anthropomorphize the natural world and how this tendency ultimately resulted in man-based gods. For this the basics of evolutionary science is required. I will also elaborate on evolved sex differences in reproductive strategy. This understanding is crucial because mate competition is the ultimate driving force behind male violence. The broader point of this chapter, however, is that in order to understand a man-based god, we must first deconstruct its model. This will properly place God's despotism into the primate context from which it descended.
We begin with the epoch-making contributions of Charles Darwin. From the decline of the Roman Empire up until the Renaissance, Europe was marred by cultural, economic, and intellectual deterioration. These Dark Ages were a time of wide superstition and ignorance, thanks in great part to religious authorities who worked vigorously to control the minds of the people. Fast-forward a thousand years to the Enlightenment, when a growing momentum began to free the world's base of knowledge from the dark sepulchers of religious belief where it had been stagnating for centuries. Teachings by scholars such as William Paley began pulling away from scripture through fields like natural theology. In natural theology, knowledge was acquired through common, everyday observations of the world, in contrast with the prevailing dogma of revealed religion—knowledge disclosed only through divine revelation. But the process of establishing scholarly independence from religion was tentative, while the distance put between church and intellectual freedom was politically cautious. Even in natural theology, all the flora and fauna of the natural world ultimately owed their existence to a creator god.
In 1859, after much deliberation, Charles Darwin unveiled his book, On the Origin of Species. It was here that he argued that life on earth was the result of natural laws. Most important, he revealed his discovery that life's diversity was a product of natural selection. Natural selection is the theory that differences in traits lead to differences in the ability to survive; in turn, traits better suited for survival are passed on to subsequent generations.
Here I wish to highlight two things. The first is that the scope of Darwin's contribution was profound. This book, along with numerous scientific fields, would be impossible without On the Origin of Species. The second is that Darwin's discoveries had momentous implications for human identity. His theory of natural selection paved the way for a godless evolutionism in which individual species were not placed here separately, but in which all life's vast diversity has a common origin. Moreover, it forced people to contemplate their place in the universe, which has since generated both great existential anxiety and great intellectual liberation.
Natural selection is an algorithmic process by which nature impels genetic design across generations. Genes are swirling strands of protein chains floating around the nuclei of cells that themselves do not think or choose but blindly operate by the algorithm. The two necessary components for natural selection are individual differences and differential reproduction. In short, each one of us houses different arrangements of genes, and, across generations, these differences are what allow our species to adapt to a changing environment. The genes that produce traits suited for survival on average confer a reproductive advantage (fitness) and therefore get expressed more often than other genes. Nature doesn't really care which genes are reproduced, and the natural traits we possess aren't necessarily nice, moral, fair, or kind. Sometimes they are, but that is because those particular expressions of genes produce an algorithmic advantage. It all boils down to individual differences and differential reproduction.
In addition to natural selection, Darwin pointed out that sexual selection also drives evolution. There are largely two forms of sexual selection; one is mate competition. In species that compete for the right to mate, individual differences conferring a competitive advantage are selected for and therefore shape the course of evolution. Bull elk, for example, have giant antlers—and hulking neck and back muscles, among other features—which they use to compete for mates during the rutting season. These traits were inherited from their ancestors; those among them that possessed larger racks on average won more antler-wrestling competitions, gained more access to females, and were more successful at reproduction. Contrarily, scrawny elk with smaller antlers were less equipped for competition, reproduced less, and ultimately possessed traits that became evolutionary dead ends. Boar tusks, curled ram horns, and flowing lion manes (which make them look bigger), are all products of mate competition.
Male aggression (including in humans) is another trait shaped by mate competition.1 This connection is supported by a large body of evidence from diverse scientific fields, including anthropology, which shows differential reproduction in action. For example, Yąnomamö tribesmen of the Amazon who have killed men in battle have more wives and more children than those who have not killed.2 Evolutionary psychologist David Buss explains the many fitness benefits of aggression, which “include expropriating resources, defending against incursions, establishing encroachment-deterring reputations, inflicting costs on rivals, ascending dominance hierarchies, dissuading partner defection, eliminating fitness draining offspring, and obtaining new mates.”3 This list does much to illuminate the aggressive behaviors of mortal men who must compete for resources with other men if they wish to survive. However, we will see in later chapters how God applies aggression to the same survival tasks as men, violating the central notion of omnipotence.
Mate selection is the other main force in sexual selection. Generally, males and females are programmed for selecting successful traits in their partners. In other words, they are genetically predisposed to look for qualities in their prospective mates that are likely to maintain or improve the survival of their offspring. Some traits were developed for courtship displays; male peacocks, for example, bear giant, shimmering, and iridescently colored tail plumes. On the surface, such ostentation may seem like evolutionary fat strangely uncut by the economizing dictates of natural selection. However, the ability to maintain costly displays like a peacock tail is a sign of health and success, implying not only that the cock was successful at acquiring the necessary resources to grow it but also that he has managed to escape predators even while pulling his weighty, flamboyant plume.4 Further, if peahens choose cocks with the most impressive tail fans, then they are likely to produce impressive male offspring that appeal to the lady-peacocks—this is known as the sexy son hypothesis.5 In turn, sexy sons produce more copies of their mother's genes.
Similarly, elk cows, like females of other species, are not passively waiting for a victor whom they receive with no say. Females typically prefer the victors of rigorous competition because the victors often bear traits of strength, courage, and determination, which benefit their offspring. Females preferring weak and demure males would produce weak and demure male offspring, which would not win mate competitions or survive other challenges of the natural world—meaning weak-male preference would quickly disappear from the gene pool. This is one reason why females of many species, including women, are hostile toward the advances of lesser males but attracted to dominant males.
Another appeal of dominant males is that they protect females from other males, as is evident among other primates. Primatologist Frans de Waal notes of chimpanzees that “a female who is being threatened may run to the most dominant male and sit down beside or behind him, whereupon the attacker will not dare to proceed.”6 American primatologist Barbara Smuts found that among savanna baboons, females befriend males who protect them (and their offspring) from other males, often in exchange for sex.7 Smuts and David Buss both argue that men protecting women from other men has been a critical facet of humankind's evolutionary past. Buss even says that given the high incidence of rape in many cultures, the ability to provide protection remains important to female mate selection in the modern day.8 This may explain why women worldwide tend to prefer taller men—because in this world, bigger generally means stronger. This preference is borne out fairly conclusively across studies.
For example, researchers in one study took height information of 720 couples and found that only one couple was a pair in which the woman was taller than the man, a ratio far rarer than the chance probability of the woman being taller, which was 2:100.9 Another study found that height is related to evolutionary success, with taller men being more likely to have children than shorter men.10 More directly testifying to female attraction, research has also found that women tend to prefer taller men when they are at the most fertile phase of their menstrual cycle.11 In short, in a world of often-brutal physicality, size usually confers dominance, which women (on average) prefer. The relevance of male dominance to female reproductive success offers great insight into the relationships women have with dominant, male, protective gods—a topic to which we shall return.
Mate selection also applies to male preference. One example is men's fascination with women's physical features. In a world where childbirth is medically risky (and child rearing is physically demanding), physical health equates to reproductive viability. Long before medical technology provided insight to a female's reproductive capacity, physical appearance was the best cue. Another example is men's attraction to youth, a preference that has also been shaped by health, as well as by the comparatively narrow span of female fertility. First, women's reproductive capacity is limited to their youth, a relatively brief period spanning from adolescence to menopause. Second, the younger a woman is within that span, the more children she potentially can birth and raise over time. And third, on average, younger women are physically healthier than older women and thus are more suited for the high physical demands of reproduction. In sum, youthful, healthful-looking women are seen as attractive because genes in men coding for attraction to these traits had a survival advantage over time.
Male apes, men, and man-based gods show a tendency to monopolize females. It is therefore important to understand where man-based gods acquired this habit. Like many animals, men and women generally employ different mating strategies. In using the term strategy I am not saying that men and women have sex with the literal intention of winning child-birthing contests; they don't. As psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, men and women have sex because it feels good, and it is the “strategy” of our genes to make it feel good as a means to replicate themselves into future generations.12
The strategic differences roughly boil down to quantity versus quality. For women, the overarching strategy is quality. Ova are costly to produce and are limited; a woman's fertility—the availability of an ovum—is limited to monthly ovulation and is often diminished by breast-feeding. Further, women have the lifetime capacity to produce about five hundred ova total. In short, it pays for women to be selective about with whom they choose to share this precious resource.
By contrast, in men, the overarching strategy is quantity. Sperm are cheap, produced by the millions, and available between the vast span of adolescence and old age. Theoretically, this means that the most productive male strategy is to reproduce with as many females as possible. In practice, this means that men who like novelty in sexual partners and who are driven by their lust to seek out variety (e.g., through casual affairs, numerous sexual partners across the lifespan, etc.) are going to pass on their genes in higher numbers; genes coding for sexual acquisitiveness have an algorithmic advantage over those genes, say, coding for sexual contentment. This trait does not particularly favor notions of gender equality, but it's simple, efficient, and incredibly easy to see in men around the world.
Research uncovers this male strategy from many angles. The sexual refractory period, normally referring to males, is a period of recovery after intercourse—after ejaculation when the male is unable to achieve an erection. Research shows that this period quickly ends with the presence of a novel female.13 Once a novel female is introduced, the male gets an erection and copulation is on—and on and on, continuing with each novel female. One study of rhesus monkeys found that male arousal continued to decline with familiar females even when the females were made constantly aroused by hormone injections.14 The decline quickly reversed when novel females were introduced, suggesting that male arousal is less tied to female arousal than it is to being an evolutionary “quantity” strategy employed by males.
This is certainly not the strategy that is always employed. Buss reminds us that casual sex, multiple partners, or extramarital affairs can be risky; they can expose a male to venereal diseases or a husband's shotgun, or they can cost a great deal of time and energy.15 But compared to women, casual sex for men is relatively cost-free. A man theoretically can walk away from casual sex with scarcely an ounce more investment than a deposit of cheap sperm. For a woman it's different. You never hear women brag, “I don't have any children…that I know of.” They always know because they have borne the burden.
David Buss's lab has produced a wealth of information about human mating strategies In one study, men were found to prefer more sexual partners than women, to need significantly less time than women to consent to sex, and to have lower standards than women on the characteristics of the partners of a casual affair. Further, out of sixty-seven characteristics of potentially desirable traits in the mate of a casual affair, men had lower standards than women for forty-one of them. In The Evolution of Desire, Buss's seminal work on the evolutionary strategies of human mating, he points out that
men require lower levels of such assets as charm, athleticism, education, generosity, honesty, independence, kindness, intellectuality, loyalty, sense of humor, sociability, wealth, responsibility, spontaneity, cooperativeness, and emotional stability.16
The depths to which men's standards will sink are pretty staggering, but they are not surprising when viewed through an evolutionary lens. When subjects were asked about undesirable characteristics, men had fewer qualms about traits such as “mental abuse, violence, bisexuality, dislike by others, excessive drinking, ignorance, lack of education, possessiveness, promiscuity, selfishness, lack of humor, and lack of sensuality.” In contrast, men in this sample rated only four traits as significantly less desirable than did women: “low sex drive, physical unattractiveness, need for commitment, and hairiness,”17 all of which speak to problems in fertility, or, as in the case of commitment, a relational impediment to the numbers strategy.
Man-based gods show great sexual jealousy, which I will expose later. For now, it is important to understand where male gods acquired this emotion. One might think that the worst evolutionary outcome in the grand competition to survive and reproduce is not reproducing. However, there is something far worse—investing precious time and resources in an unrelated individual's offspring, or what is known as cuckoldry (named after the cuckoo bird that suckers other birds into tending its eggs and raising its young). Rearing young requires the provision of vital resources—resources that were especially risky to obtain in the harsh landscapes of our ancestors. It also requires protection from predators and the violence of other males. Notably, caring for offspring is more costly the longer offspring stay dependent. While most primates pay high costs for rearing offspring, humans bankroll the most. And even though women have historically been the biggest providers of childcare, and men have a long history of walking away from offspring, men have also provided for women and children. Given the evolutionary stakes, it makes sense that male sexual jealousy would have arisen through natural selection. Jealous males, on average, would have avoided cuckoldry, thus passing on genes coding for jealousy. Non-jealous males would have weeded themselves out of the gene pool by unknowingly caring for another male's offspring, a behavior that can involve decades of provisioning.
This is not to say that women don't also experience jealousy—but there are important sex differences in the manner in which the lurid green monster surfaces. While men tend to be more jealous of women's sexual infidelity, women tend to be more jealous of men giving resources, love, and affection to other women. Experimentally, this has been an intensely robust finding across cultures,18 and is rooted in reproduction; women require that love and resources stay with them and their children and do not get shared with their competitors, while men require the certainty that the children they are supporting are not their competitors’.
Male gods often require chastity, and the threat of cuckoldry explains where they acquired this concern—men. Sex differences in the value of chastity are borne out empirically as Buss and his colleagues discovered in a study on mate preferences of an enormous and highly diverse international sample of 10,047 individuals.19 Men in the study consistently placed higher value on spousal chastity than did women. Further, women tend to go out of their way to market themselves to the evolutionary imperative of men by signaling chastity. Some women, for example, will even undergo painful and expensive surgery to repair their ruptured hymens—the thin vaginal membrane that signals, albeit somewhat unreliably, that a women is a virgin. Men rarely concern themselves with proving their virginity or even their sexual modesty. However, men have shown themselves to be immensely concerned with those traits in females and have created numerous customs—from virgin brides to chastity belts to burkas—in order to ensure success in their evolutionary strategies.
Male gods have also been known to cloister women, yet another behavior they inherited from primates (more on this in later chapters). Male primates of many species will guard fertile females. Generally, the more dominant the male, the more successful he is at this enterprise. Men do this as well. Moreover, research finds that men can sense, largely unconsciously, when their partner is fertile. One study had women wear T-shirts at different phases of their menstrual cycle and asked men to rate the smell of those T-shirts on “pleasantness” and “sexiness.”20 Men consistently rated T-shirts worn by women during the follicular phase (when the female egg is ready for fertilization) higher on sexiness. Other studies show that men guard their mates more when they're in the fertile phase, for example, by monopolizing their time, calling them unexpectedly, or getting angry when they talk to other men.21 With the help of male-dominated cultures (and religions based on dominant male gods), some men have been able to keep harems, thus combining mate guarding with the quantity strategy.
In sum, males are prone to aggressive mate competition, to experiencing powerful jealousy, to enforcing female chastity, to mate-guarding (sometimes behind cloistered walls), and to employing a quantity, or, numbers reproductive strategy. Later I show how God is described as employing all of these hallmark evolutionary strategies of men.
In discussing the role of dominant male gods in our lives, female strategy must also be understood. Across the enormous population of monotheists in the world, billions are women. And while women have often been coerced into following restrictive religious dictates, many follow dominant male gods with genuine enthusiasm. Much of this concerns the evolutionary relationships women have had with dominant male humans. Women are primed to be far more particular in the quality of their mates, and dominance can be a strong indicator of mate quality among men.
The quality strategy can best be understood by examining differences in reproductive investment across the sexes. Women devote great resources and take high risks in producing offspring. Pregnancy and childbirth is medically risky; women to this day die in childbirth, while men, obviously, never do. Also, across cultures, women are usually burdened with the preponderance of childcare. In addition, as we have discussed, ova are scarce commodities. In the aggregate, these factors strongly tip the scale of resource investment on the side of females. With all that is at stake, it pays for women to be far more selective than men when it comes to choosing a mate.
Because raising human offspring requires so much time, energy, and resources, selective pressures drive female preferences toward men who have resources and are committed to investing them in both the females and their children. When science is put to the task, female mating strategies emerge conclusively around the globe. Here Buss reports on findings from his international study: “Women across all continents, all political systems (including socialism and communism), all racial groups, all religious groups, and all systems of mating (from intense polygyny to presumptive monogamy) place more value than men on good financial prospects. Overall women value financial resources about 100 percent more than men do.”22
Now, here might be a good place to insert an indignant argument about this being a function of unequal pay scales in the workplace. However, recall that 99 percent of our development as a species occurred outside the modern hyperindustrialized world in environments drastically different than those in which we now find ourselves—notably without the modern-day workplace. One might also argue that the disparity in earning potential between men and women impels women to value male investment. However, the questionnaire that Buss and his colleagues used was from a study of Americans conducted in 1939, then replicated in 1956, again in 1967, and again in the mid-1980s. Across decades in which there was enormous upheaval in gender norms in the workplace in America, the results were robust—women valued financial prospects about twice as much as did men. Similarly, across the world, where we would expect to find a great deal of cultural difference, women consistently preferred good financial prospects in a mate about twice as much.
Not surprisingly women tend to like older, higher-status men because these qualities often mean more resources. Again, in Buss's international studies, these preferences were consistent in women worldwide, across religions, political ideologies, and geography. While women are attracted to prestige, power, status, and high rank, Buss writes that they are cool to men who are weaker, lower in station, or likely to be dominated by other men. In short, power comes with resources, which matters greatly in a world where resources are needed to survive. This means that women in our evolutionary history who were attracted to men with power on average reproduced more successfully than women less interested in power.
KIN SELECTION AND KIN ALTRUISM
I will later show how, like humans and other animals, the Abrahamic god favors his offspring. For now we must understand kin selection, an evolutionary force that explains family favoritism. Kin selection theory, first developed in 1964 by British evolutionary biologist William D. Hamilton,23 is the idea that biological relatives can influence each other's evolutionary fitness. This process is fairly clear when considering a parent-child relationship; parents nurture their children, and each parent shares 50 percent of his or her genes—and so parental investment ensures that his or her genetic legacy proceeds down the evolutionary stream.
Individuals who tended to recognize genetic relatives (kin recognition) and behave differently toward relatives versus nonrelatives (kin discrimination) tended on average to pass on more copies of the genes underlying these behaviors. This has never been a perfect science. Rather, in general, organisms look for heuristics to discern relatives such as similar visual appearance and smells.24 Curtly put, “if they look like me, they are probably a relative; therefore, I should help them.”
These concepts are vastly important to our understanding of evolution because they point to the gene, rather than to the individual, as being the unit of selection. Genes tend to influence behaviors that result in more copies of themselves, even when those copies will exist in other organisms. British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene,25 goes so far to say that organisms can be seen as the “survival machines” of genes. In other words, genes produce traits in organisms that best suit the propagation of themselves.
This also explains altruistic behaviors, seeming evolutionary quandaries that come at a cost to individual fitness. Consider saving from a burning building: your child, your nephew, your fourth cousin, your goldfish, and your houseplant. Chances are you would save them in that order and your willingness to risk your life would decline as you went down the list. Understanding kin altruism, then, it is not surprising that your willingness has a strong positive correlation to the amount of shared genetic material with the ones waiting behind the flames. If you happen to perish as a result of your altruistic act, by saving your child at least you pass on 50 percent of your genes, your nephew 25 percent, and so on. As British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane famously said, “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins.”26 In sum, kin altruism is another way to pass on genetic material—by helping genetically related individuals survive and reproduce. While the idea of god operating by the rules of kin discrimination and kin altruism violates the notion of an everlasting god (who has no need for biological reproduction), such notions form central tenets of the Abrahamic religions, as I will later explain.
EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY AND THE SCIENCE OF GOD
Understanding a god that behaves as if his mind is programmed by evolution requires that we understand the evolved human mind. Evolutionary psychology—deriving from evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience—is an approach to psychology that endeavors to understand the influence of ancient selection pressures on the nature and development of the human brain. Given that we spent over 99 percent of our history as hunter-gatherers, many of the mental capacities we now possess were specialized to handle problems of survival in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
In their primer to evolutionary psychology, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby recall a noted passage by American psychologist William James in which he rightly notes the need to “make the natural seem strange” in order for the evolutionary adaptations of human psychology to be recognized, individually examined, and placed within the context of natural selection:
It takes…a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange, so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act. To the metaphysician alone can such questions occur as: Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, Of course we smile, of course our heart palpitates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved!
And so, probably, does each animal feel about the particular things it tends to do in the presence of particular objects…. To the lion it is the lioness which is made to be loved; to the bear, the she-bear. To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nestful of eggs was not the utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object which it is to her. Thus we may be sure that, however mysterious some animals’ instincts may appear to us, our instincts will appear no less mysterious to them. 27
To say “of course” in this context is to use sloppy, species-centric reasoning and to bypass explanatory information. Thus, “making the natural seem strange” is an excellent means to achieve the reflective distance required to examine unconscious psychological phenomena as they occur in the observer. This will be required throughout this book, particularly for the religious reader for whom worshipping a dominant male god feels perfectly intuitive.
Cosmides and Tooby argue that “the brain is a physical system. It functions as a computer with circuits that have evolved to generate behavior that is appropriate to environmental circumstances.”28 The point of the analogy is that the brain is an immensely complex array of interconnected neural circuitry designed to perform certain functions. The output of this is the mind. All our thoughts, hopes, dreams, intentions, fears, emotions, sense of others, sense of self—everything comprising our experiential universe—are functions of the electro-chemical functioning of the brain.
Such is also true for religious experience. One piece of evidence for the neurological basis of religious experience comes from research on temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). During seizures in the medial temporal area of the brain, the afflicted report profoundly religious experiences in which they sense complete unity with God and the universe.29 There are corrective surgical procedures for TLE, but few sufferers consent to them. And who would want to? Religious ecstasy feels wonderful. And this fact, perhaps better than many, points to religiosity as having benefitted the survival of our ancestors. As a general rule, what feels good to us (e.g., sex, eating) has been good for our survival, just as what feels bad to us (e.g., extreme heat or cold) has probably been bad for our survival.
It was once believed that the brain was an all-purpose problem-solving mechanism that was a blank slate from birth and that all of our mental capacities were entirely learned. This notion of a blank slate, or tabula rasa, was passed down into Western and Middle Eastern thought by Greek philosophers and was made popular by English philosopher John Locke in his seminal work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. What we have since learned about the mind lends insight into why we see our gods as alpha males.
The evolutionary sciences have begun to reveal that rather than blank slates, we are actually possessed of an enormous array of specialized neural circuits to solve specific problems—known as modularity. Often “mental modules” show themselves when they get differentially impaired. One good example occurs in autism. Autistic children have an impaired ability to impute mental states to others—to mind read, as the skill is known, that is, to understand that others have thoughts, emotions, beliefs, intentions, false intentions, or everyday feats of mental acrobatics (which most people take for granted) such as, “I know that you know that I know that you know something,” and so on.30 However, research finds that mind reading does not hinge on general intelligence, indicating that it is a separate specialty. For instance, when compared to children with Down syndrome (who are mentally retarded but able to “mind read”), matched on IQs, autistic children do far worse at mind reading.31 Mind reading, and offshoots thereof, end up being crucial functions for humans, with implications for our god projections, as scholars in the rapidly emerging science of religion, including the evolutionary psychology of religion, have begun to explain. Of note, some theorists in these disciplines describe religion as an adaptation that facilitated cooperation among early humans.32 Some describe it as a by-product of existing, evolved cognitive capacities.33 And still others describe it as both.34
In order to understand the projection of god as a dominant male primate, it is useful to ask how we have come to project at all, and why our projections tend to look human. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie makes a good case for our tendency to attribute human characteristics to God having arisen from cognitive adaptations designed to detect human presence in our environment, or what he describes as “systematic anthropomorphism.”35 He starts by introducing a concept known as animism, or the tendency to attribute life to inanimate things. In nature, it pays to have false-positive-leaning life-detection systems (versus false-negative) because animate beings can impact survival. Per Guthrie's analogy, if I am a hiker and I see a large brown object in the distance, I might be inclined to think “bear” or “boulder.” However, it pays to favor bear, even if I am wrong. If I think “bear,” and take precautions, but it ends up being a boulder, then I keep hiking along and no harm is done. However, if I think, “just a boulder” and it turns out to be a grizzly, the bear could end up shredding me to pieces. This concept squares well with what we know of natural selection; those with false-negative-leaning detection systems would be food for bears more often, would reproduce less often, and therefore the genes coding for such systems would fall from the gene pool.
Guthrie describes how humans are strongly inclined to anthropomorphize because the most important animate being to human survival has historically been other humans. From a cognitive-design perspective, Guthrie is right on. That we possess distinctive neural machinery specifically for “mind reading” is only one of many pieces of evidence. In fact, we possess an enormous amount of neural architecture dedicated to detect, understand, communicate with, learn from, cooperate with, fight with, and mate with other humans. From a safety perspective, this is also clear; we don't install locks on our doors to keep out the wolves or the rattlesnakes—we do it to keep out other humans. Philosopher and religious scholar John Teehan points out that detecting other humans is not an easy task because humans can hide, use camouflage, and act from a distance using weapons and traps, and that, for these reasons, a detection system that only saw humans when they were clearly present would be a dangerous strategy.36 Human deceptions such as these would make seeking human presence even when it is not there an important adaptation, one that likely pushed the development of an exquisitely powerful human-agency-detection capacity.
Building on Guthrie's work, psychologist Justin Barrett has referred to cognitive strategies designed to overdetect agency as Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices (HADD).37 HADD appears to be particularly adapted to imputing agency to ambiguous stimuli. Research has demonstrated the brain's eagerness in action—for instance, in the research lab, people quickly attribute agency to simple geometric shapes moving on a screen that bear no resemblance whatsoever to humans or animals.38
The natural extension is that we project supernatural agency to natural phenomena and that those agents behave like humans. This is incredibly easy to observe: natural disasters are the will of God; disease is the possession of an evil spirit; good fortune is the beneficence of a generous deity; and stars are the embodiments of humanlike gods. The fact that these projections are arrived at biologically does much to explain the tendency for invisible spirits, ghosts, gods, angels, and demons to surround every human culture on earth, in one form or another. Aspects of humanity that are universally shared often reflect our shared biology.
French anthropologist Pascal Boyer39 also describes religion as having arrived by way of ancient cognitive machinery that was already designed to make inferences about the world—such as those related to social exchanges, moral infractions, animate beings, and the like. Per Boyer, certain doctrines happen to mesh well with these existing machineries and therefore produce emotionally powerful and memorable experiences (whereas the underlying reasons for these experiences are unconscious).
While theoretical formulations about religion have been made for millennia, the empirical study of religion is in its infancy and much more research is needed. However, in terms of its origin, the alpha-god paradigm fits well with Boyer's description—we have in place cognitive capacities designed to detect social (perhaps even male) dominance. Research has found that we possess certain brain structures that specialize in processing rank information,40 and as a result we process such information automatically and at great speed.41 This is not surprising in a species that spent so many millions of years evolving in rank-structured groups, where understanding dominance hierarchies was critical for survival. In sum, this means that humans have mental machinery designed to light up in the presence of dominant males, that imputing dominance is largely unconscious, and that religious belief has evolved to mesh with those machineries, thus they produce powerfully intuitive experiences that reflect our evolved genetic makeup.
With this base of knowledge in evolutionary science, we now turn to how the existence and personalities of male gods betray our evolutionary projections and reference a world in which the presence of dominant males ultimately shaped the evolutionary landscapes of religion. We start with the idea of a protector god.