A Figment of Human Imagination
Coghlan - NewScientist.com news service
Humans alone practice religion because they're the
only creatures to have evolved imagination.
That's the argument of anthropologist Maurice Bloch
of the London School of Economics. Bloch challenges
the popular notion that religion evolved and spread
because it promoted social bonding, as has been argued
by some anthropologists.
Instead, he argues that first, we had to evolve the
necessary brain architecture to imagine things and
beings that don't physically exist, and the possibility
that people somehow live on after they've died.
Once we'd done that, we had access to a form of social
interaction unavailable to any other creatures on
the planet. Uniquely, humans could use what Bloch
calls the "transcendental social" to unify
with groups, such as nations and clans, or even with
imaginary groups such as the dead. The transcendental
social also allows humans to follow the idealised
codes of conduct associated with religion.
What the transcendental social requires is the ability
to live very largely in the imagination," Bloch
One can be a member of a transcendental group, or
a nation, even though one never comes in contact
with the other members of it," says Bloch. Moreover,
the composition of such groups, "whether they
are clans or nations, may equally include the living
and the dead."
Modern-day religions still embrace this idea of communities
bound with the living and the dead, such as the Christian
notion of followers being "one body with Christ",
or the Islamic "Ummah" uniting Muslims.
Stuck in the here and now
No animals, not even our nearest relatives the chimpanzees,
can do this, argues Bloch. Instead, he says, they're
restricted to the mundane and Machiavellian social
interactions of everyday life, of sparring every
day with contemporaries for status and resources.
And the reason is that they can't imagine beyond
this immediate social circle, or backwards and forwards
in time, in the same way that humans can.
Bloch believes our ancestors developed the necessary
neural architecture to imagine before or around 40-50,000
years ago, at a time called the Upper Palaeological
Revolution, the final sub-division of the Stone Age.
At around the same time, tools that had been monotonously
primitive since the earliest examples appeared 100,000
years earlier suddenly exploded in sophistication,
art began appearing on cave walls, and burials began
to include artefacts, suggesting belief in an afterlife,
and by implication the "transcendental social".
Once humans had crossed this divide, there was no
The transcendental network can, with no problem,
include the dead, ancestors and gods, as well as
living role holders and members of essentialised
groups," writes Bloch. "Ancestors and gods
are compatible with living elders or members of nations
because all are equally mysterious invisible, in
other words transcendental."
But Bloch argues that religion is only one manifestation
of this unique ability to form bonds with non-existent
or distant people or value-systems.
Religious-like phenomena in general are an inseparable
part of a key adaptation unique to modern humans,
and this is the capacity to imagine other worlds,
an adaptation that I argue is the very foundation
of the sociality of modern human society."
Once we realise this omnipresence of the imaginary
in the everyday, nothing special is left to explain
concerning religion," he says.
Chris Frith of University College London, a co-organiser
of a "Sapient Mind" meeting in Cambridge
last September, thinks Bloch is right, but that "theory
of mind" – the ability to recognise that
other people or creatures exist, and think for themselves – might
be as important as evolution of imagination.
As soon as you have theory of mind, you have the
possibility of deceiving others, or being deceived," he
says. This, in turn, generates a sense of fairness
and unfairness, which could lead to moral codes and
the possibility of an unseen "enforcer" -
God – who can see and punish all wrong-doers.
Once you have these additions of the imagination,
maybe theories of God are inevitable," he says.