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Authors Examine Religious Thinking in Human Evolution Through Science

Authors Examine Religious Thinking in Human Evolution Through Science

Christopher J. Corbally, Ph.D., SJ, and Margaret Boone Rappaport, Ph.D. (Photo by Hope Daluisio)by Kathleen Dolan

The story begins 900,000 years ago. Bo is hungry. He decides to set out on his own, away from his group, as he is young and eager to see if he can find a piglet or a pig carcass somewhere in the brush of East Africa. He finds a rock, which he poorly attempts to sharpen into a tool. “It’ll do,” he thinks. After waiting patiently, he pounces on a piglet, who, too, has strayed from the group of pigs. Satisfied and excited to share his score, Bo returns to the group, hoping the fire has been kept alive from last year’s lightning strike so he can roast the pig. He is surprised to find his group members are upset with him.

This was the first part of a story told by Margaret Boone Rappaport, Ph.D., and Christopher J. Corbally, Ph.D., SJ, on Oct. 8 at the Commonwealth Chateau at Chestnut Hill College. At the event, “Emergence of Religion in Human Evolution: Lessons from Neuroscience; Lessons from the Hearth,” Rappaport and Corbally delivered an insightful and provocative lecture about the scientific research that illuminate our spiritual lives. The event was presented by the College’s Institute for Religion and Science and hosted by Kathy Duffy, Ph.D., SSJ, the director of the institute.

“We want to tell you a story, about science but it is also about religion,” Boone said. “It is about the evolution of human religious capacity, and it draws on scientific findings that shore up our conclusion that religion is a non-obligatory, neurocognitive trait of our species, Homo sapiens. The book takes readers on a fascinating 65 million-year story, a journey back through the evidence that human religious thinking has a natural, organic foundation.”

Rappaport and Corbally are co-authors of a forthcoming book, “Emergence of Religion in Human Evolution,” on which the lecture was based. Their research began by asking a few questions: How did humans come to think religiously? Why is our species different in this way?

“Here we are today,” continued Rappaport, “with this unique tendency to think about the imaginary and label it supernatural, to find sustenance and peace in mild to radical altered states of consciousness.”

Rappaport and Corbally approach these questions from quite different backgrounds. Rapport is an anthropologist, a biologist, a poet, and a Presbyterian. Corbally is an astronomer for the Vatican Observatory, an author, and an ordained Catholic priest. Rappaport was born in D.C.; Corbally in London. The two of them work in Tucson, Arizona, where they have co-founded the Human Sentience Project.

Corbally delved into the findings, comparing the species Homo erectus and the subsequent Homo sapiens to look at the evolving physical and social factors and “how we know from good and bad and put it into practice.”

“Homo erectus was able to get control of fire. They were able to husband and keep the fire that lightning struck,” Corbally said, explaining the community would gather around this fire. “A circle of light and safety, in that circle we are beginning to get the gems or the seeds of morality.”

Corbally discussed cranial capacity becoming larger in Homo sapiens while sex differences narrowed, allowing females to take on “more complimentary roles.” The “Grandmother Theory” also suggests that with the existence of elders, beyond the parents who had to ensure their kids survived, there was someone to impart values to young ones.

Language is a big factor in the development of moral thinking, and Corbally cited the discovery of a stirrup bone at the back of the throat that supports the voice box in Homo erectus. He demonstrated the research’s fidelity to science, what Rappaport describes as “baseline knowledge — that is archaeology.”

“We must adhere to evidence that comes out of the ground, its analysis and reanalysis because methods get better,” he said. “Human evolution is documented not only in our own genome and every cell of our body, but in the painstaking work of field researchers bent over archaeological digs.”

With frequent humor and lightheartedness, the lecture focused on religious thinking through the fields of science and reflected the Institute of Science and Religion’s commitment to holding events that embrace new developments in the academic world while preserving its tradition of religious exploration.

As for Bo, when he returned with his kill after being gone a while, he is met with frustration. His elders and peers keep repeating to him, “You hunted alone?” His nana watches on with disappointment. “We will need you in the future,” his elders tell him. “You should not take a risk like that.” Bo begins to understand, and it weighs on him greatly as he now has to endure the consequences of his actions. “You will forfeit the piglet,” they say. “We cannot lose you.”

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