Toolmaking as the basis for religion

May 14, 2007 | By | 18 Replies More

Those who have followed discussions concerning religious belief & non-belief know that it’s never safe to say you’ve seen it all.  Surprising and worthwhile new positions come along at predictably unpredictable intervals. Biologist Lewis Wolpert has now entered the fray with a new book, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, reviewed by Steve Paulson of

[Lewis] Wolpert is an eminent developmental biologist at University College London. Like fellow British scientist Richard Dawkins, he’s an outspoken atheist with a knack for saying outrageous things. Unlike Dawkins, Wolpert has no desire to abolish religion. In fact, he thinks religious belief can provide great comfort and points to medical studies showing that the faithful tend to suffer less stress and anxiety than nonbelievers. In Wolpert’s view, religion has given believers an evolutionary advantage, even though it’s based on a grand illusion.

He has a theory for why religion first took root. He thinks human brains evolved to become “belief engines.” Once our ancient ancestors understood cause and effect, they figured out how to manipulate the natural world. In essence, toolmaking made us human. Similarly, early hominids felt compelled to find causes for life’s great mysteries, including illness and death. They came to believe in unseen gods and spirits.

The Salon article continues with an interview of Wolpert, where he makes it clear that toolmaking is the key to understanding religion:

My argument is that causal understanding gave rise to toolmaking; that was the evolutionary advantage. It’s toolmaking that’s really driven human evolution. This is not widely accepted, I’m afraid, but there’s no question about it. It’s tools that really made us human. They may even have given rise to language.

[You can’t make tools] without having a concept of cause and effect. And once you had that concept, you wanted to understand the causes of other things that mattered in your life, like illness. That’s the origin of religion. The most obvious causes were those things caused by humans, so people imagined there was some sort of god with human characteristics. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different gods in different societies.


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Category: Cultural Evolution, Evolution, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (18)

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  1. Ben says:

    Came across this (11-page) NYT article about brain "architecture" and the evolution of belief. Just a few excerpts here, it seems to get better and better…

    "Lost in the hullabaloo over the neo-atheists is a quieter and potentially more illuminating debate. It is taking place not between science and religion but within science itself, specifically among the scientists studying the evolution of religion. These scholars tend to agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain."

    "In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?"

    "Some cognitive scientists think of brain functioning in terms of modules, a series of interconnected machines, each one responsible for a particular mental trick. They do not tend to talk about a God module per se; they usually consider belief in God a consequence of other mental modules."

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    If toolmaking is the basis for religion, then why don't we see other tool-using animals…for example:

    — birds:
    — chimps:
    — dolphins:
    — hermit crabs:

    …also building altars to their gods?

  3. Ian says:

    Stephen Baxter used this idea in his book Evolution to good effect, where an outcast woman comes to understand causal effect and consequentially creates a god to explain the unknown 'cause' of bad weather. She becomes a witch doctor figure who controls her tribe through fear and a magic understanding of these gods.

    I don't think it is right to say we're hard-wired to believe in God, rather in the absence of explanation we tend to provide our own reasoning. Unfortunately one of the easiest explanations early humans found was a more powerful who was sentient like them, but that they could not see. While the incarnation of a god may have been a side-effect of causal understanding, religious belief strikes me more as an extension of the naivety of childhood and a desire to believe in the fantastic and reassuring. Also, just because this delusion carries some potential health benefits does not mean that religion has a place in a rational thinking society; smoking reduces stress for some people but its detrimental side-effects are well known. Religion's side-effects are tribalism, bigotry, war and detaching people from reality and science, but we ignore this for the sake of not offending someone’s imaginary friend.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Here's Douglas Adams' (Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe) saying the same thing back when he was alive:

    as I reported on this blog in April

    These points are also all made in the book I'm always bringing up: Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer (2001).

  5. Ben says:

    Grumpy, in all fairness, maybe that's what they ARE building. Some hermit crabs are very faithful, and build large mounds for their deities, while others cavort freely in the sand, as if nature and the tides (and seagulls!) are their only worries.

  6. Vicki Baker says:

    I'd like to caution against equating religious explanations with scientific explanations. They don't scratch the same itch at all.

    Throughout most of human history, there wasn't science, relgion, or philosphy, but simply stories. All that humans asked of a story was that it resolve some central concern of the human condition with a strong narrative. The idea of an accurate historical record, logical consistency, reproducible results – all modern inventions. When the collectors of the Bible put 2 different versions of the creation myth in Genesis I and II, and a totally different version in the book of Job, they weren't too stupid to recognize the differences, it's just that they valued conservation of Story above logical consistency.

    And speaking of narratives, let's remember that psychology, even evolutionary psychology, is still mostly a "narrative discipline" or soft science. It's impossible to talk of memes and "mental modules" with the same certainty that we talk of atoms and molecules.

  7. It is true that a lot of animals use tools. When it comes to man I somehow associate the use of tools only with advanced thinking though, the kind of thinking that according to Wolpert leads to thinking about the meaning of life and God. Is there a difference between "using tools" and "using tools"?

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    Indeed, good point, Ben. Who knows what those pagan hermit crabs are really up to? Or, for all we know, the Jesus of hermit crabs might have appeared to them…born of a virgin hermit crab and ultimately sacrificed to a seagull to die for the sins of all hermit crabs, only to be resurrected three days later to give hope to all hermit crabs of the promise of eternal life. Perhaps there are now vast religious organizations of hermit crabs arguing over whether or not they can eat fish on Friday. I guess it's too bad for them that our Bible says they are all unclean…though, for all we know, theirs is the One True Faith and ours are all the work of the devil.

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    "It’s impossible to talk of memes and “mental modules” with the same certainty that we talk of atoms and molecules."

    Vicki's statement is correct, though I want to point out that our theories about atoms and molecules are also just simple-minded human constructs about things that are far more complex and mysterious than our theories can encompass. Yes, we might be able to experiment on atoms in ways we cannot do on memes or mental modules (smash them together in a cyclotron, for example), but we still don't really know what atoms are made of or even why they are stable forms of matter. Oh, sure, we have theories about electrons spinning in orbitals, but these are just stories that have survived rigorous experimental validation. For all we really know, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is responsible for atomic behavior, and all of the other bizarre phenomena we see in our universe. In some sense, there could be an infinite number of theories to explain atomic behavior and we've merely picked the one that is simple enough for us to comprehend.

  10. Ben says:

    "It’s impossible to talk of memes and “mental modules” with the same certainty that we talk of atoms and molecules."

    I Respectfully Disagree. (Although if somebody else had written it I might not be so critical, Sorry Vicki, I love to disagree with you!)

    Physicists are no surer that atoms exist than psychiatrists and neurosurgeons are certain brain structures like the amygdala exist.

  11. Vicki Baker says:

    Ben, a mental module is not the same as a brain structure. A surgeon could show me a tumor on my amygdala and explain to me how it is influencing my behavior. If the symptoms improve when he removes the tumor, I'll be pretty convinced he's right. A mental module is just a story about how the brain works, at this point.

  12. Ben says:

    Oh I thought you said mental nodule! Har!

    Hey ever seen that movie where Hannibal Lechter makes Ray Liotta eat his Own Brain? It is such a strange psychological situation to be in, but Ray Liotta seemed to play the part so well, just a bit puzzled. A Must see, if only for that scene…

  13. grumpypilgrim says:

    I'm with Vicki on this one. Brain structure and brain function are two *very* different things. Structure can be mapped with MRI scans; function can be only roughly mapped with an electroencephalograph, and it is still only a very crude approximation of what actually happens inside the brain. A neural network the size of the human brain is incomprehensibly complex; thus, things such as memes and mental modules are about as meaningful (scientifically) as Father, Son and Holy Ghost — they enable discussion and qualitative descriptions, but they do not provide any testable hypotheses. By contrast, theories about atoms and molecules *do* provide testable hypotheses, even though ultimate questions (such as the ones I mentioned above) are still beyond the scope of the model.

  14. Ben says:

    Have you heard about the guy who inspired Rainman with Dustin Hoffman? He remembers Everything. But he is missing his corpus callosum. An amazing story…

  15. Dan Klarmann says:

    Grumpy: Read about iMRI scans, wherein highly localized brain activity is directly mapped during cognitive testing. Much more is known now than was a few years ago about what parts of the brain do what when particular thoughts are happening.

    I bet that memes will never be precisely mapped to particular brain cells, but the parts of the brain called to action by (or give rise to) given categories of memes are getting mapped. Thoughts are more likely stored in waveforms (patterns of neural pulses), not in particular cells.

    Review the earlier post "The Brain is not a Computer" and references I cite about 12 transistor "brains" designed by Mark Tilden that exhibit very complex behaviors.

  16. grumpypilgrim says:

    "It is a toolmaker mentality to assume that anything that exists must have been created by some agent."

    Dan wrote the above observation in a comment to another post, and I thought it would be highly applicable here.

  17. grumpypilgrim says:

    Dan asks me if I have read about iMRI, however, he is actually referring to fMRI. iMRI refers to interventional or intra-operative MRI, which is entirely different. Functional MRI involves the cognitive testing Dan mentions.

    In a past life, I worked for a company that was a major global producer of medical devices for diagnosing brain function, including for intra-operative neurosurgical applications, so I am already very familiar with the technology Dan mentions. I am also familiar with some of the topics Dan speculates about with regard to brain function, and can say that his speculations are not supported by clinical findings. In fact, electrical stimulation of a single brain neuron can sometimes elicit a vivid memory, suggesting that memories are, in some way, stored in brain cells, though they must be distributed across networks of cells to contain the large amount of information involved in a complex memory.

    In any case, it will still be a very long time before brain function can be understood, much less mapped, to any significant degree. Each person's brain is both structurally and functionally unique; thus, efforts to create global, universal maps can never hope to achieve the sort of fine granularity needed to make concepts such as memes and memory modules scientifically meaningful*. They might be useful at a clinical level — to aid neurosurgeons in removing brain tumors without destroying healthy, important brain tissue, for example — but this can already be done, to a great extent, using EEG and EP (evoked potential) technology.

    (* This is why Vicki was correct in noting that, “It’s impossible to talk of memes and “mental modules” with the same certainty that we talk of atoms and molecules.” Atoms and molecules (of the same material) are all functionally identical, whereas human brains are all functionally unique; thus, greater certainty will always be possible with the former than with the latter.)

  18. Dan Klarmann says:

    Grumpy's right. I meant fMRI.

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