Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Evolving God A Provocative View of the Origins of Religion

by Barbara J. King

(Doubleday, 272 pages, $24.95, January, 2007)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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"We humans crave emotional connection with others. This deep desire... can be explained by the long evolutionary history we shared with other primates.... At the same time, it explains why humans evolved to become the spiritual ape--the ape that grew a large brain, the ape that stood up, the ape that first created art, but, above all, the ape that evolved God."

With that opening paragraph, William and Mary anthropology professor Barbara J. King firmly hooks readers who were enticed by her book's title, Evolving God. Once engaged, few will set the book aside. Even when exploring topics primarily of interest to academics, its prose remains accessible to a broad audience.

Dr. King studies apes and monkeys for insights into how human behavior evolved. In some ways, her work is similar to that of molecular geneticists who study DNA to deduce the evolution of species. Those scientists look for sequences in the genetic code that have remained unchanged as well as variants that have led to species-specific traits. Dr. King looks for elements of primate behavior that reveal both our common ancestry and our different evolutionary paths.

In this book, Dr. King departs from her usual line of research. She juxtaposes observations of living species with artifacts from human and primate prehistory. Her interpretations result in a provocative hypothesis about the evolution of spirituality.

Always the scientist, Dr. King is precise in her terminology and her reliance on observational data. She allows for speculation, which is often at the root of the most interesting conjectures, but only when it meets the test of plausibility. She carries readers along a path that begins with belongingness, which is common to all primates, and ends with the uniquely human religious practice and "emotional engagement with the sacred."

The evolutionary arc, as she sees it, includes empathy, meaning-making through interaction, the development and following of social rules, consciousness, and imagination, all of which exist in various degrees among our nearest relatives, the apes (and less so among our more distant cousins, the monkeys).

The term "religious imagination," which pervades the book, does not necessarily involve a deity. It is, the author asserts, a phenomenon accessible to scientific study. But to do so requires a greater appreciation of the role of emotion, not merely perception, in human interactions with the world.

It also requires a departure from the evolutionary theories that rely on genetics alone. Emotion and the social milieu are an essential part of the human environment and thus co-evolve with the gene pool.

Dr. King recognizes that her hypothesis falls short of "the gold standard in science." When evidence is sketchy and difficult to find, however, "prediction testing should not be weaponized by skeptics. Any new set of ideas about our past that involves untestable speculation should not be dismissed automatically" because it may lead in productive directions.

That is certainly the case for the "provocative view" presented in Evolving God. Dr. King does not ask readers for their automatic concurrence, but rather for their thoughtful consideration of her ideas and their own imaginations, religious or otherwise.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous books for young readers and reviews of current science books for adults.