The evolution of religious behavior

The excellent book The biology of Religious Behavior edited by Jay R Feierman provides an excellent framework on how to understand the biology and evolution of religion.

Viewed from a neurodiversity-perspective, there are certain troublesome aspects of religious behaviors:

  1. Shamanism and delusions seems to be related to neurodiversity
  2. Prosocial behaviors, submission and cooperative behaviors seems to be neurotypical

The Neanderthal Theory proposes that neurodiversity-traits are of neanderthal origin. So how could the current religious behaviors have evolved? Since major components seems to be recent, but of different origin, it is probably necesary to analyze African/Asian modern humans separately from Neanderthals, and try to figure out what was common before the split of humans into Eurasian Neanderthals and African/South Asian Homo, what evolved later in African/South Asian Homo, what was introgressed from Neanderthal, and how this admixture contributed to today’s religious behaviors.

We today know from many finds in Africa that symbolism, ornamentation and similar behaviors evolved there at the time of the emergence of modern humans. These behaviors group with neurotypical compulsion in Aspie-quiz, and also contain status, reputation and  gossip. These are clearly the prosocial dimension of religious behavior described in the book. It works just as well to differentiate an ingroup based on cloth or ornamentation as on supernatural beliefs. In fact, cloth and music taste  are the behaviors that often define groups in secular societies. So, it is logical to propose that pre-hybrid modern humans evolved the prosocial dimension of religious behaviors, but probably not in the context of supernatural beliefs, but more likely based on possessings and ornamentation.

When it comes to supernatural beliefs and music, the evidence is in favor of a Neanderthal origin. All the questions in Aspie-quiz about supernatural beliefs cluster together, and when the groups in Aspie-quiz were reduced to six neurotypical and six Aspie groups (with the same names), the supernatural group was merged into Aspie perception. These traits have no relation at all to the prosocial behaviors in neurotypical compulsion.

Aspie perception contains a wide range of more sensitive senses and reduced pain sensitivity. This increased sensitivity developed as a natural adaptation to Neanderthal passive hunting (Aspie hunting). Aspie hunting is closely related to Aspie perception, and contains traits like mimicking animal sounds, making traps and alike. Neanderthal hunting, unlike the group hunting of modern humans, would be conductive to developing a very fine-tuned psychology of the prey animals, including mimicking their sounds and understanding their behaviors. This is called animanism in the book, and it is clearly a neurodiversity trait. It is also the case that stims (called self-stimulatory or repetitive behaviors by psychiatry, but related to Aspie communication in Aspie-quiz) are strongly related to Aspie hunting. Mimicking animal sounds fits both as a stim and as an passive hunting trait. Thus, we might presume that the nonverbal communication behaviors of Neanderthals evolved to be useful for passive hunting and to trick prey animals. This has some interesting predictions regarding mirror neurons that are also described in the book. More likely, the relevance of mirror neurons is not for neurotypicals, but for the Aspie variant of mirror neurons, as it was Neanderthals that adapted their mirror neurons to be extra sensitive to their prey animals, and not modern humans.

When it comes to music, the first musical instruments are found in Europe, not in Africa. These are flutes. Flutes and musical instruments fits well with tricking animals. They still functioned in this way in pastoral settings in Sweden only a century ago.  They have no obvious function in relation to the prosocial behaviors of modern humans.

So, it makes sense that highly sensitive senses, musical ability and superior understanding of animal behavior and communication were Neanderthal traits that introgressed into modern humans. These abilities proved useful in their new context, and as a consequence some of the bearers were recruited as shamans, witch-doctors and healers. Later, these “mystical” traits were exaptated into the prosocial behaviors as belief in supernatural things, as people could not understand the extra-sensitive abilities of these people.

Adding to the evidence is that fasting and enduring pain are also neurodiversity-traits. These were traits associated with the shamanistic phenotype.

16 Responses to “The evolution of religious behavior

  • Jay R. Feierman
    December 25th, 2009 14:33

    Thanks for the kind comments about The Biology of Religious Behavior. I’d be very interested in comments from anyone else that reads the book.

    Jay R. Feierman, Editor (
    The Biology of Religious Behavior: The Evolutionary Origins of Faith and Religion. Praeger, 2009.

  • Mattias Almlöf
    January 8th, 2010 04:41

    I see the evolution of religious behaviour a bit differently. I see religion as an example of a hive mind mentality. This was the cromagnon way of thinking. The religions of today I believe to be created by Neanderthals though and served to the cromagnon. This is why this religous strife in the middle east has no end. It is planned from the top and run as a controlled dialectic process. Religion contains elements of metaphysics, psychology etc whatever you want to call it that are innate in any functioning mind. It contains the allegories of life etc. Only a mind that defines itself through the group would be susceptable to this type of mind control. A mind that is unable to master his own mind. Unable to see that religion is part of the story of the mind and life itself.

  • admin
    January 8th, 2010 05:21

    The interesting thing about relgious beliefs and morality, is that these behaviors seems to be unusual in sense that they are not related to neurodiversity. This would mean that they evolved early in Homo-evolution. At least before the split of Hs and Hn. Though both branches did add some specific adaptation to these common religious beliefs, the basics seems to be present in both.

  • wreaver
    January 8th, 2010 17:54

    @Mattias Almlöf said,
    “I see religion as an example of a hive mind mentality. This was the cromagnon way of thinking.”

    How do you know how cromagnons thought? (Do you have evidence to back up your claim?)

  • Pedro Giffuni
    February 5th, 2010 18:29

    The reasoning conducting to this book is that religion was basically made up by primitive beings.

    There is an interesting book from Cardinal Ratzinger, “An Introduction to Christianism where he points out that neither the believer or the non-believer can prove wrong with absolute certainty each others’ points: miracles apart, the believer cannot prove without doubt the existance of God, but the non-believer has no way of discarding his existance or assessing what happens after death.
    As some thinker put it once: science has no explanation for the *really* important things and loses all validity when we change to extreme scales (nano-particles or cosmic interactions).

  • rodiel
    March 22nd, 2010 15:47

    Delusion as a neurodiverse trait? As an aspie rationalist who hangs out with people of similar neurological and philosophical orientation, I’m a bit surprised at that. Though it may only mean that my sample size is smaller than yours.

    Sapolsky has an interesting lecture all over the internet about this. He links religion to schizophrenia, OCD and temporal lobe epilepsy. (Yes, I realize that neurodiversity can include those, especially OCD, but still, I think AD(H)D and ASD are a different category. I might be wrong though.)

    Still, if there is a link, how do we account for faith-free autistic people like me?

  • admin
    March 22nd, 2010 23:26

    I think it is pretty easy to explain “faith-free” autistic people. This is because the way organized religion is practised, with human-like character worship, which is just an extension to the neurotypical authoritarian model. Autistic people that dislike religion, probably primarily dislike it because of this part of religious practise. It is in paranormal experiences that ASD people primarily set themselves apart from neurotypical people, and these traits are related to acute perception.

  • randomroyalty
    April 12th, 2010 14:59

    Religious behaviour is not just a group activity but it can also be said that virtually all known societies practiced (or practice) some form of religious activity.

    There are two viable explanations. One is that human consciousness includes awareness of self-knowledge (we know that we know). This comes with knowing about what we don’t know, hence religious practice (dealing with the metaphysical in order to explain).

    The second has to do with the mystical experience, which is what usually occurs individually and internally, not necessarily as a group.

    The main thing is whether or not any lived experience can have a “scientific” or “metaphysical” explanation. What is important to remember is we do not have privileged access to the truth about these things due to our human sensory constraints (we cannot get outside our bodies to know if our reality really is real). This places science squarely in the realm of other metaphysical activities such as religion.

  • Kerecsen
    April 30th, 2010 02:23

    I haven’t read the book (maybe my comment is covered there, but I couldn’t find it in this revision), but I’d like to add one thing.

    People with shamanic traditions often choosed their shamans with obvious deformities or differencies – like those with 6 or more fingers on one hand, born with the caul around him, born with teeth etc. They are often beleived to have epilepsy or some form “mental disorder”.

    Those traits, especially the mental ones may have no direct or obvious link to Aspies, but finding corellation between neanderthal traits, and the “disorders” of shamans could support the theory of evolution of religions.


    (and forgive my straight use of “disorder” or “deformity”, I’m quite new to this field, and no harm ment using this possibly non-PC expression)

  • elloydaz
    June 26th, 2010 17:14

    To Web Master:
    I understand your position concerning Aspie equates “nerd” mentality; that’s a true argument, however, the evolutional advantage was not realized until Europe’s middle age. Proto-Europeans did not enter Europe with argiculture and animal domestication in hand (Neaderthals did not possess this cultural trait either), but would not be developed until ~7000-5000 B.C.(on cue with every one else on the planet).
    The Iron Age (2500B.C., where it was exported to the middle east), guitar (in Mali), wind instruments (can be found through out Africa), and yes the drum were developed in Africa.
    If you want to divide the world into H.Sapien (species) and H.Sapien Neaderthalesis (sub species), thats find, but do not forget that if it wasn’t for a handful of African males “hooking” up with Neaderthal women 50,000 years ago their would be no Neaderthal genetics alive on the face of the deep. Why? They were going extinct, due to being specialist and that they did not possess”‘modernality”, in the H.Sapien since (think about it, H.Sapiens male mating with Neaderthal women; who had the upper hand in the battle field, and in hunting). So, take it easy, having a greater capacity to feel is not all bad (H.Sapien) and having a higher freq. of Aspie is not all bad, more nerds mean more occupational specialist (H. Sapien Neaderthalesis); the world needs balance (you do not have to revise history, to possess personal grounding).

  • admin
    June 27th, 2010 00:31

    Being a “nerd” is not the primary Aspie characteristic, and certainly not the reason why Aspies have survived natural selection. I believe the reason why Aspies have survived natural selection can primarily be found in the hunting differences (as I also elaborated in another post). The hunting preference of Hn led to the development of special interests, creative talents, and detail perception, because these traits are favored by evolution when a species practises close combat hunting. The Hn hunting technique is also what made later domestication of animals possible. The usual group hunting technique of modern humans is fundamentally incompatible with domesticating animals as it is a scare-and-wound technique.

    When it comes to musical instruments, your time-frame is clearly wrong. The first flute was found long before agriculture (it was the Divje Babe flute associated with Hn). There are also possible phalange whistles in Crimea. That we can find wind-instruments in Africa today means close to nothing.

    And you are totally wrong in your assertion that Hs males had any success with Hn women. As a group-bonded, female centered species, Hn would not allow any stranger male to reproduce in their group, let alone somebody that looked disordered as I’m sure Hn would view Hs as. Instead introgression happened as single Hn males by chance happened to encounter female Hs out gathering. It is part of Hs reproductive behavior to seek extra-pair mating when this is possible, and this is exactly what made introgression possible. It is also the case that hybrid vigor eventually outcompeted both of the pure species, so that today it is only africans that are not hybrids, and they have the lowest standard of living of any population. So, in essence, it was inevitable that the receiver of introgression would survive, while the other population would become extinct. Therefore, Hn did not become extinct because of some huge advantage of Hs, but simply because Hs social model allowed introgression while Hn’s did not.

  • elloydaz
    June 27th, 2010 10:23

    Did you read the paper published by by Max Plank Institute, their was no male neaderthal genetic contribution to modern H Sapien Neaderthalesis; thats from Richard Greene own month, based on Y-chromosome analysis.

    The lute, sanza, ivory horn, balafon, banjo, various harp like instrument develop by/ for Africans; besides whats wrong with string instruments. The flute you speak of isn’t settled science.

    I have Aspie, and know what makes me tick, I also have a BS in Chemistry and Microbiology; so, I’m not entirely talking out of school; you do not possess a broad and deep understanding of field you speak of; in a collective the Aspies would have dependent on the “nerotypicals” to bring home the kill; Aspies arn’t the athletic sorts (conjecture), though they may have provided good Ideas concerning the hunt.

    Up close combat is not ideal combat; thats why H. Sapiens prior to leaving Africa developed tools such as fishing and throwing spears; sneaking up on a Mammoth with the intent of stabbing it to death is stupid. Please read learn and grow your argument in total smells of dis-information.

    But, what do it matter, if they told you, you would not listen; racialist rarely do, they have a political agenda (axe) to grind. As you know science is not conjecture, its what you can prove and have that proof survive peer review.

    P.s. Hmmm, why do Africans and people of African descent have the lowest living standard; maybe if Western Europe and to a lesser degree the US take their foot out of their a@# maybe they can reestablish their social/cultural institutions. What does it matter, we’ll all be speaking Chinese soon enough, then H. Sapiens can ask the question as to why Neaderthals can not get their sh$% together. Whats going on across the Alantic pond due effect you?

  • admin
    June 27th, 2010 12:01

    The lack of Hn Y chromosomes in modern humans is not evidence of anything. There is no mtDNA either (which is transmitted from the mother). Do you propose that we should believe that Hn did not contribute anything (even if Pääbo and his team clearly say they did)?

    And you need to read up on Valerius Geist “Neanderthal paradigm” before you make unfounded conclusions about Hn’s inability to hunt megafauna with close combat hunting (you also need to read up on the fossil record, and Hn diet).

    You may very well be an expert in Microbiology and Chemistry, but that does not make you an expert in paleoanthropology or autism.

    I will not answer to your accusations about racism, and if you make any more of these I’ll be forced to censur you.

    If you want to discuss the origin of music and musical instruments, please provide the relevant evidences instead of providing conjecture that everything is of african origin. I’m pretty well acquanted with folk music and dancing, both in Europe, Asia and Middle East. I might sumarize this in a blog entry eventually.

  • elloydaz
    June 27th, 2010 13:14

    Admin, I have academia and time on my side, live in peace, can’t argue with the wind.

  • admin
    June 28th, 2010 01:40

    I wouldn’t trust academia and time as your friends if you want to debunk the Neanderthal theory. The fact is that when the Neanderthal theory were constructed back in 2001, it was believed that ASD was well-defined, not related to other “disorders”, not related to physical traits. It was also believed that Hn died out without leaving any traces. Today we know that Hn lives in non-africans, that ASD are caused by many genes (no gene can explain more than 1% of ASDs), that CNVs are important. There would need to be some kind of break in the trend of more and more confirmatory evidence for the validity of the Neanderthal theory if your hopes are to come true. And not even academia will be stuck in old thinking forever.

  • RV
    August 25th, 2011 23:27

    Good job Admin. Afrocentrist fools abound, and likely feelings of inadequacy spurred his comments. Remember – Political correctness is a doctrine, fostered by a delusional, illogical minority, and rabidly promoted by an unscrupulous mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a piece of shit by the clean end. Your blog is most awesome, factual and insightful. Keep up the good work!

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