The Roots of Religion: Genevieve Von Petzinger at TEDxVictoria (Transcript)

We live in a world that is absolutely infused with religion and spirituality, sometimes even to the point where maybe we don’t recognize it. It affects everything from something as simple as the holidays we celebrate, to the names that we give our children, to something much more really saddening and sort of disheartening, which is finding a conflict on the other side of the world somewhere.

I mean, any given day, somewhere somebody is fighting about spirituality and religion. So, let’s take a look at how this all plays out then on a global scale. Depending on whom you talk to, there’s about 20 major world religions – so, these are ones that are in more than one country, more than one continent. Add to that hundreds of belief systems, and out of the 7 billion people who live on this planet at this point in time, just under 6 billion profess to follow some sort of faith.

Now, I want you to try and imagine a world with no religion. What would it look like? Because that is the reality, is if we go far enough back into our own deep history, there was a time, maybe not with Homo sapiens, maybe further back, where we didn’t have any religion. So, as you can see in the slide behind me, that’s a very simplified evolutionary chart, but it’s a question that people in my field, palaeoanthropology, have asked: How far back does the religious impulse go? And how would you get at that? It’s incredibly subjective, right? So, obviously Homo sapiens at the top. We know that Homo sapiens have religion, that’s us. But, what about heidelbergensis before us, and erectus, and all the way back to Homo hails. You know, Homo habilis 25 million years ago, they’re considered to be a good candidate for the original toolmakers.

And you might wonder – tools, religion, what do these potentially have in common? But, if you actually think about what a cognitive leap making tools is, there are some things in common. For instance, when you’re actually making a tool – so you’ve got one piece of stone and you’ve got another to shape it – you have to hold a mental template in your head of what that finished product is going to look like. And also what we find with these early toolmakers, is that they actually were exhibiting forethought and pre-planning. They were potentially taking a nice piece of flint with them, along the landscape, so that when their current tool ran out, or got down to kind of a nub, they could make themselves a new one.

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So, there are some researchers in my field, especially a fellow by the name of Thomas Wynn, has teamed up with a neuropsychologist, by the name of Frederick Coolidge, and the two of them have talked about something called working memory. And so, it’s not one spot in the brain so much as sort of several functions that kind of work together, that allow things like mental templates and allow things like pre-planning.

Now, they’ve made the argument that even on a very basic level chimps probably do have some working memory as well. Of course, they can also use tools, they’re just not very good at – Basically, they’ll take their stick, they’ll rip off the leaves, they’ll use it to dip some termites out, but then they tend to dump it. That’s pretty much it, they’re done with that tool.

So, there’s not a lot of examples of chimps reusing tools or sort of behaving in exactly the same way as what we see with Homo habilis. But with that as sort of the base and that idea of working memory, they’ve then sort of extrapolated that and said, let’s talk about something that they call enhanced working memory. And so enhanced working memory – basically there’s several components to it. This is sort of taking that, and then basically putting it on steroids. So, not just that basic mental template and pre-planning, but now let’s add to that the ability to envision and work with abstract concepts.

Let’s talk about mental time travel. Now, what I mean when I say mental time travel, is the ability to think about past and future. These are actually very unusual things. We take them for granted, but they’re not something that necessarily other species can conceive of. I mean obviously your dog seems to remember about going to the vet, which is sort of an interesting thing, but you know he doesn’t have a strong sense of clear episodic memories of having been to the vet so much as this is a bad thing when I go into this building, it smells a certain way – and, you know, this is danger basically flashing.

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So, the clear ability to also say, with mental time travel, “When I tried making a tool using this material before, this didn’t work very well, so, I’m going to do it differently this time.” Or, “I saw this person in the next hunter-gatherer group over do something. That worked really nicely, I want to do that.” All those kinds of things, as well as being able to think forwards: so, pre-planning, but even at a greater degree. Imagination, because again the ability to sort of conceive of something, like a mental template when you’re making a tool, relies on us being able to visualize something that doesn’t actually exist at that moment in time – it’s more, again, that we’re looking forward.

And then, of course, the capacity to understand and manipulate symbols. And, so, this is where we get to things like language and to art. So, you probably saw I said the “God spot,” what we’re talking about there is that, certainly starting in probably about, I think, in the 1990’s, once we, especially neuropsychologists, once they had their fancy MRI’s and other brain scans, they really started looking to see if there was one spot in the brain that could be associated with God. And they even actually did some study where they actually had the people in the MRI, and they were like, okay, we want you to think about your vision of God or faith or spirituality while you’re in here, while we see if we can map the areas of the brain that light up while we’re doing that. And they kept getting one spot that was lighting up, and so it was this huge, like, we did it, aha, we found the God spot.

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