E. Fuller Torrey


On his book Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion

Cover Interview of October 23, 2017

In a nutshell

Based on an idea originally proposed by Charles Darwin, Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods argues that the emergence of gods was an incidental consequence of several evolutionary factors. Using data ranging from ancient skulls and archeological artifacts to child development, primate studies and brain imaging, the book traces how our evolving brain gave rise to new cognitive abilities that in turn produced new behaviors. Ultimately these new cognitive abilities led to the emergence of gods.

For example, approximately 1.8 million years ago a new hominin, Homo erectus, emerged. This hominin made better stone tools than its predecessors, made spears for hunting animals, controlled fire, and migrated halfway around the world. It is likely that Homo erectus had developed self-awareness. This cognitive ability may be a product of a special neuron that is found predominantly in human brain areas known to be associated with self-awareness. Intriguingly, this special neuron has also been found in smaller numbers in the brains of bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, elephants and dolphins, all of which have demonstrated rudimentary self-awareness using mirrors. It has not been found in animals that have shown no self-awareness.

Similarly, approximately 40,000 years ago modern Homo sapiens began exhibiting an extraordinary range of new behaviors in painted caves, burials with grave goods, musical instruments, improved tools and weapons, memory devices – an outpouring of human creativity without precedent. It is likely that Homo sapiens had developed an autobiographical memory, the ability to relive past events emotionally, and use that information to plan the future. Humans had essentially conquered time, giving them a tremendous advantage over all other hominins. Soon Homo sapiens would stand alone as the last surviving hominin.

However, autobiographical memory was a two-edged sword. Once Homo sapiens could project himself into the future he became aware for the first time that he would die. Overwhelmed by this knowledge, he created an afterlife and peopled it with his ancestors. This ultimately led to ancestor worship. As people came together in towns and cities during the subsequent agricultural revolution, the ancestors were arranged in a hierarchy with the most powerful ultimately becoming the first gods.