Ecce Pan

Primate Theory of Mind and the Notion of Awe

Authored by: David Harnden-Warwick , Jesse M. Bering

The Routledge Companion to Religion and Science

Print publication date:  October  2011
Online publication date:  March  2012

Print ISBN: 9780415492447
eBook ISBN: 9780203803516
Adobe ISBN: 9781136634178


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How a species interprets the world around it will always rely upon the unique nexus of selective pressures encountered during its evolution. For the evolutionary scholar working from an adaptationist perspective, it makes little sense to ask whether one species is “smarter” or “more intelligent” than another. Natural selection optimizes every species for one thing: to capitalize on biological and psychological traits in a way that leads, over time, to genetically profitable outcomes. The brain of each individual must therefore function over time to maximize reproductive fitness in response to specific ecological challenges. In the case of human ancestors, one very real challenge was other people. In the present chapter, we present the case that the unique social selective pressures encountered by our ancestors may have led to the evolution of our species’ religious sentiments. More specifically, we show how one particular cognitive capacity – the capacity to attribute mental states to other natural agents – was co-opted by natural selection when it was extended to reasoning about the minds of supernatural agents.

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