3500 BCE: The Wheel

Although we think of the wheel as a transportation device, it was originally used by ancient Mesopotamian potters as far back as 3500 BCE, and possible earlier.  It took another 300 or so years for the idea to be extended to transportation in Mesopotamian chariots.

The wheel has played a significant part in shaping history and had a variety of early uses and forms including the potters wheel, being used in watermill turbines, transportation, plowing for agriculture, and function as a cogwheel for gears.

The wheel has evolved over time becoming thinner and stronger, developing into different types such as crossbar and spoked wheels, while adding features such as hardened rims and pivoting axles.

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5500 BCE – 5000 BCE: Metallurgy

The importance of metallurgy on human culture is so important that scholars typically divide ancient by metalworking ages such as the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age.  Metallurgy provided usages and advancements in the production of weapons and armor, tools, utensils, and pottery.

Originally metals were valued for their natural beauty, but eventually it was found that they could be molded into different forms for a variety of uses.  The earliest evidence for smelting, which is the process of extracting an metal by heating an ore, is found in the Balkans and Western Asia around 7500 years ago.

Eventually metals were mixed together to create alloys which provided for strengthened materials.

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1.5 Million – 400,000 Years Ago: Fire Power

At some point in history there had to be one initial crucial step that separated humans from the other animals in our journey to becoming the dominant species on this planet.  I will call that point the beginning of science and label it by humans ability to control fire.

Sometime in our ancestor’s very ancient past, and certainly by 400,000 years ago, fire came under human control.  Fire was beneficial for a variety of novel reasons including providing protection from predators, warmth allowing for people to live in colder regions, tool making, ceremonial usage, the ability to see at night time, and the ability to cook food.

Cooking food may have been a significant step in leading humans to the top of the food chain and even to increasing brain size, although hominid brain size was increasing before cooked food became common in early humans.  In any case, what is indisputable is that cooking food killed the parasites that infested food, allowing for easier digestion.  This enabled humans to make due with smaller teeth and shorter intestines.  It is hypothesized that a smaller intestine was the factor in allowing for a larger, jumbo brain of sapiens and Neanderthals, since both the brain and the digestive tract are two are the largest energy consuming organ systems in the body.  By shortening the digestive tract it enabled the energy economy of the body to devote more resources to a jumbo human brain.

The campsite is also believed to have functioned as a “nest” for our ancestors and therefore played a pivotal role in the evolution of our sociability.  All animals that exhibit sociability have a nest, which allow for a common place for the species to gather and stay at.

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1610: The Starry Messenger

The invention of the telescope by Dutch spectacle makers in 1608, and vastly improved upon by Galileo two years later, provided the tool for some of the most revolutionary and groundbreaking discoveries in the history of science.

Published by Galileo Galilei on March 13, 1610, Sidereus Nuncius (or Starry Messenger) revealed to the world Galileo’s observations as he view the night sky through his improved telescope.  These new revelations changed how we viewed the composition of the universe and our place among the cosmos and heavens.  Among these observations included: craters and mountains on the moon, additional stars in the night sky, and the discovery of four of Jupiter’s moons.

The publication of this book began the process of upending the long held ideas of Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy by providing evidence for heliocentrocism, which was at the time in direct conflict with Christian theology.

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A Spirited Attack on the Holy Spirit

holy-spirit-unterlinden-14thThe Holy Spirit is an elusive enigma. The Holy Spirit – one of three different yet same incarnations of the one true God (dwell on that paradoxical nonsense for a moment) – is a central figure in the Christian Holy Trinity; it is an entity which all Christians are said to possess.  Yet, it’s presence and physical properties conveniently and mysteriously escape the detection of modern scientific methods and instruments.  It reminds me of the dragon story in Carl Sagan’s classic, The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark.  To paraphrase the story:

Imagine I say to you that I have a real live dragon in my garage – surely you’d want to see it for yourself. What an opportunity, you think, to see a dragon, of which have been the stories of legends over the centuries, but has left no evidence.

“Show me,” you say, and I lead you to my garage.  You look inside and see some bags of sand, cans of spray paint, some interesting goggles, and other items in my garage, but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Right here.” I reply, waving vaguely.  “I neglected to mention the dragon is invisible.”

Hmm, you think.  You propose spreading some sand on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea.” I say, “but this is also a floating dragon.”

Well then you’ll use those infrared sensor googles over there to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

Ok, so you’ll spray paint the dragon to make it visible.

“Good idea, but it’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.  And so on.  And so on. And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now let me ask you this.  What is the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my dragon proposition, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?

Maybe, the only thing that you have really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that there is something funny going on inside my head. Maybe you’d also wonder, if there are no physical tests that apply – nothing to show its mass, nothing to show its heat, nothing to show its chemistry – then what convinced me of the dragon’s existence in the first place?

The analogy between my dragon and the Holy Spirit should be clear at this point.  If the Holy Spirit resides within us, then we should be able to test for it.  We should, for example, be able to turn to the index of any biology textbook and reference the Holy Spirit just like we can for proteins, enzymes, neurotransmitters, DNA, ATP, lipids, the biochemistry of muscle fibers, the chemistry and structure of cells, the mechanisms of the nervous system, and on and on and on.

Until we can have any verifiable evidence of its existence it is safe to say that the Holy Spirit is imaginary.


Further reading: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

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The Origins of Religion Part 5: The Benefits of Early Religion

We’ve seen that religion provided many beneficial functions for prescientific peoples such as providing a completed – even if inaccurate – a sense of cause and effect for phenomena they did not and at the time could not understand, and by providing moral and social order and stability at the dawn of human civilization. These functions were enabled and reinforced by performing rituals that supposedly evoked the powers of the supernatural.

Aside from those main functions religion also provided other supplemental benefits to our ancestors. In hunter-gatherer bands religion provided a rudimentary form of medicine, group identity, and prestige to the shamans and warriors who labored in the name of their gods. Many times religion provided legitimacy to these shamans and warrior rulers, increasing confidence from the group in their abilities and reducing strife within the group. As humans made the transition from hunter-gatherer bands to sedentary tribes, chiefdoms, and eventually city-states, religion provided an increasing role as a source of national identity for the group. The writings of the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, the Hebrew Bible, and many other early religious sources clearly illustrate this point.

On the level of the individual, religion allowed people to have the perception of a greater sense of control over of their lives. An adequate amount of rainfall is necessary for crops to grow, but the amount of rain in a certain area during a given time is out of people’s control. By performing rituals to their gods, people at least felt like they had a sense of control over the weather, even if they didn’t. The same was true for warfare, diseases, and other things that may have been out of people’s control. In an uncertain and incomprehensible world, this added sense of control provided comfort, hope, and reassurance in many of its beliefs, for instance the comfort gained by the belief in the afterlife.

Religion appears to have been a cultural evolutionary necessity in allowing the transition from hunter-gatherer bands to modern nation states. Unfortunately it is a persistent vestige of the dawn of civilization that now creates more problems in the modern world than the superficial benefits that it currently provides.


Further reading: The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond; The Evolution of God by Robert Wright

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The Origins of Religion Part 4: Social Order and Stability

The need for social order and stability became an urgent and novel problem for large groups of people after the invention of agriculture. Prior to the invention of agriculture, people lived in bands numbering a few dozen up to no more than a few hundred people, where everybody knew everybody else and decisions could be made collectively as a group. Once agriculture provided for surplus food production bands could increase in size from dozens of people to tens or hundreds of thousands of people. This was the most critical move that humanity has ever undertaken – removing us from our hunter-gather environment which human and prehuman ancestors evolved in for hundreds of thousands of years to placing us in large city-state environments with larger populations, divisions of labor, and everything else that came along with an agricultural society. Once of the most pressing problems then, was how to get people to cooperate with each other; in other words how not to steal possessions and women from people you didn’t know and were never going to see again and not to fight and kill those same people. Religion appears to have provided the earliest solution to this problem by coding for behaviors that their gods either pTen Commandmentspunished or rewarded.

The patterns of ancient religions are illuminating. While the god and mythologies are largely random and a product of cultural drift, the practical themes to the functioning of society are more consistent – themes such as obeying the religion, not stealing, and not killing member of one’s own religion. Nearly all ancient religions codified these teachings in one way or another as most are familiar with the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity.

Another way that religion provided social stability is that it worked to reduce anxiety and provided people with comfort in the face of uncertainty. For instance, starvation was serious concern at the dawn of agriculture when crop yields depended on the weather. A hurricane could wipe out most of the crops or a drought could kill most of the crops. When people have done everything in their control, the next step is to turn to religion – to resort to rituals, prayers, sacrifices to the gods, reading and interpreting omens, and so on. Although these actions are scientifically worthless, they at least gave people who knew nothing about science the feeling that they were in charge, in control, and made them feel less anxious and more comfortable about their futures. This function of providing comfort also applied to death, in providing an explanation for death, hope in the form of a pleasant afterlife, or a sense of justice that people who have wronged you in this life will be punished in their afterlife.

The origins of religion are quite different from the modern, institutionalized religion of today.  Putting all of these components and functions together in order to understand the benefits of religion will be the subject of the last part of this series.


Further reading: The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond; The Evolution of God by Robert Wright


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The Origins of Religion Part 3: Rituals

It seems evident through the discoveries of anthropologists that early human hunter-gather societies used primitive religion as a means of explaining and understanding phenomenon in the natural world.  They did this by invoking supernatural beings and spirits and attributing human personality characteristics to them.  If these supernatural beings had the power to alter and influence worldly events and behaved similarly to humans, it’s logic to assume that they could be influenced by human actions as well.  Actions performed in order to appease these supernatural beings became ritualized.

Rituals were used extensively as Rites of Passage that mark a persons passage through certain cycles of life – birth, manhood, marriage, and death.  Rituals are not a unique human trait and it is very likely that ancient rituals came about as an outgrowth of animal rituals fAncient ritualor mating, dominance, and the like – much like a bee’s intricate dance or a birds song.  In any case, death may have been the most influential rite of passage to early humans and ancestor worship was particularly common among early humans.  Rituals involving the death of a person have been observed even among the Neanderthals dating as far back as 40,000 years ago.  These rituals were used as a form of communication with the spirits of the dead and the afterlife.

That rituals – patterns of behavior – are used as communication devices provided the means to communicate with spirits in all sorts of realms in addition to the realm of the afterlife.  The spirits of the wind, the forest, the sea, and so on could be influenced by and communicated to through ritualized behavior.  Ritual also worked to bring cohesion, trust, and order to the social group.  Following the agricultural revolution, as human societies began to grow in size and complexity, exiting the hunter-gather state and forming chiefdom’s and eventually city-states, religion served the function of maintaining order, establishing social norms, and providing social control and divine legitimacy to the ruling elite.  It is these functions to which we turn our attention to next.


Further reading: Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett; The Evolution of God by Robert Wright


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The Origins of Religion Part 2: Superstition and Spirituality

Having a complete sense of cause and effect helps people navigate through the world by being able to make accurate predictions as to the effects of actions and events.  In some cases, such as explaining cycling of the heavenly bodies, the changing seasons, harmful diseases, and even the movements and actions of living beings, early humans living in a prescientific world couldn’t complete their sense of cause and effect through natural processes; instead they overcame that deficiency by evoking superstitions – a belief in supernatural causality.

Early religions personified these supernatural agents as souls, spirits, and eventually gods and these agents caused, intervened, and acted on worldly events.  In order to make these supernatural agents more meaningful and memorable a multitude of stories were built up around them.  Before the invention of writing, the stories of souls, spirits, gods and their deeds were passed down from generation to generation orally.  Eventually some of those stories were written down.  It is anHorus exercise in futility to go through all of the gods that humanity has created since there have been tens of thousands of them.  We know today, of course, that all of them are imaginary.  As Richard Dawkins points out: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in.  Some of us just go one god further.”

Superstition was supplemented by spirituality – a connection with the divine.  A connection with the divine was doubtless perceived through altered states of consciousness in states of dreams, hallucinations, and trances.  These altered states of consciousness helped lead to the widespread belief in the duel nature of beings – that the mind was separate from and could exist independently of the body.  This further implied the existence of a soul or spirit as an animating force that could be applied to people, and by logic also extended to other animals and plants, and even objects such as rocks, rivers, clouds and stars.

Sir Edward Tylor, the father of modern social anthropology, called this belief that nature had an animating soul or spirit animism, vaulting the hitherto obscure term to prominence in his 1871 book Primitive Culture.  He believed that animism was the first phase in the evolution of religions and argued that people originally used religion to explain phenomena in the natural world.  According to Tylor, animism easily answers many questions early humans had such as what happens when we dream.  Souls wandering out of the body in some cases, or neighboring souls visiting the body in other cases provided a plausible answer.

Invoking souls, spirits, and eventually gods allowed early humans to complete their sense of cause and effect about how the world worked.  This is not to say their sense of cause and effect was correct, but it was now at least complete.  With a complete set of beliefs about how the world supposedly worked, the next step was to try to begin to cooperate with and influence the world in order to achieve desired goals.  The methods thought to accomplish this task include rituals, prayer, and other means which we will look at next.


Further reading:  The Dominate Animal by Paul and Anne Ehrlich; Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett; The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; The Evolution of God by Robert Wright

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The Origins of Religion Part 1: Cause and Effect

Religion is one of the most prevalent and influential aspects of human civilization and culture.  Nearly all societies across the globe in every recorded era have some sort of religion, worship a god (or gods), or possess a set of religious beliefs.  People pour a great deal of time and energy into their religion with some willingly giving their life in the name of their sacred religion.  However, while nearly all groups of people have invented gods and the religious stories revolving around their gods, perhaps the most striking feature of religion is that these stories are wildly different.  Consider the differing religious gods, stories, and teachings of the Norse, Greek, Roman, Persians, Hindus, Egyptians, Aztecs, Babylonians, Chinese, Indians, Christians, and Jews – to name a few of the thousands of religions and gods known through history.  These religions and gods have a few similarities, such as creation stories and stories about what happens after death, but their particulars are all very different.  So which religion is right, if any?  And how did these stories and gods come into existence?  A systematic inquiry into the evolutionary origins of religion can elucidate some understanding to those questions – and many others – regarding religion.Ancient Religion

Religion is a worldview and can be described as a set of beliefs about the causes, nature, and purpose of the universe.  Since human beings, and to a lesser extent all other animals, navigate the world by developing a set of cause and effect it would have been important for our ancestors to develop a sense of understanding about how our world worked.  Animals develop their sense of cause and effect in order to carry out tasks essential to their lives, such as where to find food, how to get mates, and how to avoid danger.  With the evolution of human intellect – the ability to have abstract ideas, to communicate those ideas through language, and to remember things from the past – people are able to perceive more about the world than other animals and therefore have a greater sense of cause and effect. This also meant we could ask more questions and attempt to answer them the best that we could given our knowledge and understanding of the world.

The primitive world of our ancestors was filled with dangers and its workings would have seemed confusing.  Cooperating with nature by knowing how certain things worked would have seemed vital to our survival.  For instance, understanding why the Sun moved and how and why the seasons changed would have been important; understanding the weather would have been important; understanding why people got sick and diseased would have been important; understanding what caused the plants to grow and the animals to move would have been important, but how do you explain all of that?  Before the laws of motion and gravity were established; before plate tectonics and atmospheric and oceanic physics were explained; before microscopic germs, viruses, and bacteria were discovered; before the laws of thermodynamics, the process of photosynthesis and metabolic pathways were described; people had no clue as to the correct answers.  But people still needed answers to complete their sense of cause and effect so they could begin to understand how the world worked in an attempt to cooperate with it.Ancient Religion1

To take one example: noticing that the seasons change is important because when that happens we notice that some animals migrate at certain times of the year, plants grow and die at certain times of the year, and the temperature changes at certain times of the year.  When we draw connections between one thing and a second thing in the world – such as animals migrating when winter comes – we are creating relationships that complete our sense of cause and effect.  We can now better predict the effects of our actions on the world.  With human intellect, however, humans differ from other animals in that we not only notice that the seasons change, we can ask *why* the season changes.  Due to the relationship nature of causes and effects, it’s possible that knowing more about the first thing might help us understand more about the second thing.  So understanding why the seasons change might keep us from staving or freezing by helping us to better predict when the seasons will change.  People all over the world noticed these things and tried to answer the questions the best they could and they did it in the same basic manner – by invoking gods and spirits as causes to these unexplainable actions and events.  Thus in a prescientific world, the invention of religion with an accompanying set of beliefs about how the world works helped to complete a cause and effect understanding of the world for early human societies. Next, we’ll incorporate the role of the supernatural and spirituality into the origin of religion.


Further reading:  The Dominate Animal by Paul and Anne Ehrlich; The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan; The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins; Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett

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