J. Wentzel van Huyssteen

Rethinking Darwin on Human Evolution

Today, and not surprisingly, scholars from numerous and highly diverse fields are not only addressing the question of what makes us human, but are also seeking input from other disciplines to inform and enhance their answers to this fundamental issue. According to anthropologists James Calcagno and Agustín Fuentes, evolutionary anthropologists are not always very prominent in this discussion.[1] To that I would add that theologians are strangely, if not almost completely, absent from this interdisciplinary discussion. What these scientists, and the odd theologian venturing into this interdisciplinary conversation, are striving for is a more or less coherent answer to the question “what makes us human?” What certainly is exciting and encouraging for interdisciplinary theologians is exactly the fact that those evolutionary anthropologists who are interested in this discussion are willingly stepping outside their normative practices to take on broad and relevant questions concerning human distinctiveness.

These questions do not only pertain to empirical questions about what distinguishes humans from their hominid ancestors; they often also refer to a very different kind of question, namely, which of our specific peculiarities give us humans our distinctive “species specificity” and significance? The meaning, markers, and justification of human identity and status have fluctuated throughout western history. Generally, of course, language has been viewed as a crucial marker.[2] In addition, conceptions of defining humanness have lately shifted toward our “prosociality,” which we share with primates, as well as our unique propensity for imitation.[3] Music,[4] sexuality,[5] and empathy[6] are also in the process of being thoroughly researched and hailed as the foundation of not only language, social norms, and morality, but of symbolic and even religious behavior. The other genuinely pan-human trait is the human capacity for seeing things from someone else’s perspective, generally known as the theory of mind. Humans are indeed strongly disposed to understand the motivations of others—so much so that we often see motivations where they do not exist.[7] This unique ability does, however, give us adaptively valuable insight into the intentions of our friends, enemies, predators, and prey.

For scholars like Fuentes[8] and Richard Potts[9] the success of humans as a species can be attributed largely to our tendency towards extreme alteration of the world around us. We not only construct material items, we engage in the creation and navigation of social and symbolic structures, space and place, in a manner unequalled by other organisms. Most anthropologists would agree that human identity can be seen as interactively constructed by, and involved in the construction of, a conflux of biological, behavioral, and social contexts.[10] For this reason, and importantly, some evolutionary anthropologists actually now find the distinction “Darwinian” and “neo-Darwinian” unhelpful for many of the current evolutionary theories of interest, and argue that we should recognize that there is an expansive body of research and theory that is not captured by these headings anymore.[11] Basic Darwinian theory prioritizes natural selection and sexual selection as the prime factors in evolutionary change and the emergence of adaptations. Natural selection is generally seen as the process by which certain phenotypes (morphology and behavior) that are most effective at reproducing themselves (and thus their genetic basis or genotype) in a given environment become more frequent in a population across generations. Sexual selection is the over-representation of specific phenotypes across generations as a result of mate choice and or intrasexual competition. Those traits that lead to the success of particular phenotypes and become the predominant traits in subsequent generations are termed adaptations. These traits, and the individual possessing them, are then said to be more “fit.” And it is these “fit” phenotypes that will strive for optimality and will rise to a majority status within the population over evolutionary time.[12]

Without discounting the important role of natural and sexual selection in biological systems, some anthropologists want to emphasize that scientists are now expanding on Darwin’s contributions, and invite us to focus on emerging trends in evolutionary theory. Notably, Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb’s important work Evolution in Four Dimensions calls for the renewal of evolutionary theory by arguing for “evolution in four dimensions” rather than for a focus on just one, namely the genetic.[13] Alongside this important inheritance system, Jablonka and Lamb now argue for three other inheritance systems that may also have causal roles in evolutionary change. These other systems are the epigenetic, the behavioral, and symbolic inheritance systems. Epigenetic inheritance is found in all organisms, behavioral in most, and symbolic inheritance occurs only in human.[14] This constructivist view moves beyond standard neo-Darwinian options and approaches and acknowledges that many organisms transmit information via behavior. Thus, the acquisition of evolutionary relevant behavioral patterns can occur through socially mediated learning. Symbolic inheritance comes with language and the ability to engage in complex information transfer containing a high density of information. What makes the human species so different and so special, and what makes us human, lies in the way we can organize, transfer, and acquire information. It is, therefore, our ability to think and communicate through words and other types of symbols that makes us different.[15]

On this view, there is much more to evolution that simply the inheritance of genes. Also, the variation on which natural selection acts is not always random in origin or blind to function: a new heritable variation can arise as a response to the conditions of life.[16] What is exciting is that, specifically in terms of anthropology, this perspective imposes an evolutionary concern with the way in which bodies and behavioral and symbolic systems construct and interact with social and ecological niches and how, in turn, these systems interact with epigenetic and genetic systems.[17] Importantly, this interactionist perspective blurs any clear prioritization in inheritance systems and thus requires movement away from approaches limited to either social or biological focuses. In this view, “evolution as construction” is the idea that evolution is never only a matter of developing organisms, but of organism-environment systems changing over time in a dynamic interactive process of niche construction as a significant evolutionary force alongside natural selection.[18] For an understanding of human evolution this is obviously extremely important: most anthropologists would agree that humans are constructed by, and involved in the construction of, contexts that are simultaneously physiological, behavioral, historical, social, and symbolic. In this sense, human behavioral evolution must be seen primarily as a system evolving, rather than a set of independent or moderately connected traits evolving.[19] As such, niche construction is a core factor in human behavioral evolution. The startling conclusion, however, is that we should consider the potential impacts of a diverse array of processes that affect inheritance and evolutionary change, and the possibility that natural selection can occur at multiple levels and may not always be the only, or the main, driver of change.[20]

In addition, anthropologists have largely rejected the antiquated dichotomy of nature versus nurture in favor of dynamic understandings of social, biological, and historical complexities. In fact, anthropologists can show that the line dividing the social and the physiological is fairly arbitrary, that no human action or morphological trait exists in a vacuum, and that human history is the conjunctural and emergent product of social, physiological, morphological, symbolic, and historical interactivities.[21] Evolution is indeed the interactive production of difference and novelty, and we are indeed not our ancestors anymore. What we need is an understanding of evolutionary anthropology that helps us understand what it means to be a cultural, as well as a natural, being with remarkable symbolic propensities.[22]

Crucial to our ability for symbolic behavior is our equally remarkable ability for imagination. From a philosophical and theological perspective, it is exactly at this point where the evolution of the moral sense and of morality become crucially important. To approach and understand these defining traits, especially the propensity for religious imagination, Fuentes has suggested an important distinction: the quest for understanding the human propensity for religious imagination can be aided and enriched by investigating more fully the core role of the evolutionary transition between becoming human and being human.[23] A distinctively human imagination is, of course, part of the explanation for evolutionary success. For Fuentes, this means that significant patterns can be found in the evolutionary patterns and processes in the genus Homo during the Pleistocene. This is a niche wherein experiences in and perceptions of the world exist in a semiotic context: social relationships, landscapes, and biotic and abiotic elements are embedded in an experiential reality that is infused with a potential for meaning derived from more than the material substance and milieu at hand.[24]

We have always known that humans across the globe act religiously even as they do not agree about doctrine, deities, religious practice, or experience. In many ways, then, religion is still centrally important to being human today. What we do not know, and have no robust evidence for, is in what sense this might have been true for earlier members of the genus Homo. I do believe, however, that in order to begin to understand the emergence of religion, it would be important to find interdisciplinary points of connection across explanatory frameworks whose foci lie outside the limits of one specific set of explanations of religion and of any one specific religious tradition.[25] In my book Alone in the World: Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology, I argued from an evolutionary point of view for the naturalness of religious imagination.[26] If there is an evolutionary naturalness to religious imagination, or to the propensity of religious belief, then it would be a valid question to ask how such an imagination, as a system, emerged over the course of human evolution. Against the background of a broader, more robust view of the many dimensions of evolution that included extensive, interactive niche construction, we can indeed say that Homo sapiens sapiens is a species that had a hand in making itself. From this follows the central theses of anthropologist Fuentes’s work: he first argues that an evolutionary assessment of a distinctively human way of being in the world includes the capacity and capabilities for the possibility of metaphysical thought as a precursor to religion; secondly, that this can be facilitated by recognizing the increasingly central role of niche construction,[27] systemic complexity, semiotics, and an integration of the cognitive, social, and ecological in human communities during the Pleistocene era (i.e., roughly two and a half million years to twelve thousand years ago).[28]

Following up on my own quest for understanding the naturalness of the propensity for religious imagination, Fuentes believes this idea can be aided significantly, as mentioned earlier, by investigating more fully the core role of the evolutionary transition between becoming human and being human.[29] This transition itself can be understood better by a broad assessment of hominin[30] evolution over the last six million years. And here the focus should be on the terminal portion of that epoch, meaning the final transition from the archaic form of our genus Homo sapiens into the current form of Homo sapiens sapiens. The focus on this transition, which is a shift to a wholly human way of being in our current socio-cognitive niche, will add to our insight into how we, as humans, experience the world in the here and now. Fuentes now suggests that we can connect this emergence of a distinctly human socio-cognitive and ecological niche to existing in a meaning-laden world, and to the emergence of an imagination that facilitates the capacity and capabilities for the possibility of metaphysical thought. Moreover, this process is intricately connected to our success as a species.[31]

While many scholars have proposed that the origin of religion and of religious belief is either an adaptation/exaptation, or a by-product of our cognitive complexity, others suggest that it is more complicated than that.[32] Fuentes argues that evolutionary answers to the question of the origin of such systems might not lie wholly in the content of religious beliefs or neurological structures themselves, but rather (at least partially) emerge out of the way humans successfully negotiated the world during the terminal stages of the Pleistocene.[33] Already evolutionary epistemologist Franz Wuketits could argue that metaphysical belief is the result of particular interactions between early humans and their external world and thus results from specific life conditions in prehistoric times.[34] More importantly, within this evolutionary context one can now envision a distinctive imagination as a core part of the human niche that ultimately enabled the possibility of metaphysical thought. It is ultimately this component of our human niche as our way of being in the world that is the central aspect of our explanation for why Homo sapiens has flourished while all other hominins, even members of our own genus, have all gone extinct.

On this view, then, looking at human origins and the archeology of personhood, and thus at the evolution of our lineage across the Pleistocene, it is evident that there is significant increasing complexity in the way we interface with the world.[35] Increases in the complexity of culture and social traditions, tool use and manufacture, trade and the use of fire, as well as enhanced infant survival and predator avoidance, increased habitat exploitation and information transfer via material technologies that have increased in intensity rather dramatically in the last 400,000 years. All of these increasing complexities are tied directly to a rapidly evolving human cognition and social structure that require greater cooperative capabilities and coordination within human communities. Thinking of these developments as specific outcomes of a niche construction actually provides a mechanism, as well as a context, for the evolution of multifaceted response capabilities and coordination within communities.[36] And as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has argued, looking at the patterns in the various subdivisions of the Pleistocene and the current capabilities of human beings, it is obvious that this process was in large part accomplished by our ancestors because of their increasing capacity for hyper-cooperative behavior.[37]

Finally, the emergence of language and a fully developed theory of mind with high levels of intentionality, empathy, moral awareness, symbolic thought, and social unity would be impossible without an extremely cooperative and mutually integrated social system in combination with enhanced cognitive and communicative capacities as our core adaptive niche. Interestingly, on this point Fuentes himself, drawing on the work of Penny Spikins, wants to incorporate an analysis on compassion.[38] I believe this can be pushed even further back by tracing the deep evolution of empathy and attachment.[39] Our genus thus provides a scenario wherein we can envision a distinctively human imagination as a key part of our niche and as a part of the explanation for why our species succeeded and all other hominins went extinct. Fuentes puts it rather forcefully: the imagination and the infusion of meaning into the world by the genus Homo in the late Pleistocene is what underlies our current ability to form a metaphysics which in turn eventually facilitates religious beliefs. This landscape of meaning and associated imagination is also a system that facilitates an array of other symbolic and meaning-laden aspects of human behavior and experiences that are not at the core of our current niche and lives.[40] Important though, there is no single trait that explains human evolutionary success, nor is there a particular environment that created it. Rather, the system and distinctive niche in which we evolved has been restructured in such a manner that we are among the most successful mammals on the planet: in assessing human origins and the evolution of human beings we need not only explain our bodies and ecologies, but also account for an effective theoretical/intellectual toolkit for an evolving system that comprehends the full scope of human evolution over the Pleistocene. This toolkit includes a robust imagination and a landscape and perceptual reality wherein everything, whether material or not, is infused with multifaceted meaning.

The increasingly rapid and dynamic niche construction by humans, particularly as it relates to aspects of cognitive and symbolic function and social relationships, and the imaginative ability to deploy multiple modes of responding to evolutionary pressures, facilitates the evolution of the aptly named “sapiens” 200,000 to 100,000 years ago.[41] Fuentes is here in agreement with Terrence Deacon, Merlin Donald, Barbara King, Alan Barnard, and Andrew Robinson that it is our place as a semiotic species, and the use of symbol as a core infrastructure in our perceptions of and dealings with the world, that act as major factors in, and thus as a hallmark of, human evolution.[42] Humans have an imagination that is part of our perceptual and interactive reality and is a substantive aspect of our lived experience. It is realistic to accept that at some point in the last 400,000 years, language and hyper-complex intentionality acted to “lock-in” the more-than-material as our permanent state of being, and so laid the groundwork for the evolution of morality, the possibility of metaphysics, religious imagination, and the propensity for religious belief as crucial parts of the uniquely human experience.[43]

Looking to the paleoanthropology and archeology of the genus Homo across the Pleistocene, one thus sees the increasing feedback between ecological, physiological, and behavioral complexity. As communicative and social interaction became increasingly dense, and symbolic and temporally diverse representation emerges with greater frequency, it seems highly likely that such patterns would become a normative aspect of experience and perception for our ancestors.[44] Now existing in a landscape where the material and social elements have semiotic properties, and where communication and action can potentially be influenced by representations of both past and future behavior, implies the possession of an imagination, and even something like hope, i.e., the expectation of future outcomes beyond the predictable.[45] The assertion here is, then, that this interactive process occurs as a component of the human niche as it moves dynamically through the Pleistocene as part of the emerging human toolkit. Imagination, and therefore religion, are not just exaptations, spurious byproducts of evolution, but are crucial to the process of human evolution and incorporate behavioral processes and a sense of imagination and hope that would, and did, increase the likelihood of innovation and successful responses to evolutionary challenge.[46]

This brief review of human origins and human evolution demonstrates the path and substantive impact of changes in behavior, life histories, and bodies in human ancestors and humans themselves. From this it is clear that patterns that in the Upper Paleolithic would lead to the unambiguous appearance of “art” and “symbol” now also combined with the evolution of empathy and compassion and deep caring for others.[47] It should therefore not be surprising that a distinctively human imagination is part of the explanation for human evolutionary success and can be seen as one of the structurally significant aspects of the transition from earlier members of the genus Homo to ourselves.


A better understanding of cooperation, empathy, compassion, the use of and engagement with materials, symbols and ritual, and the notion of a semiotic landscape in which humans and our immediate ancestors exist(ed), do indeed move us along in our analysis of what it meant to become human. And the understanding of all of this is indeed a true interdisciplinary process: the insights we gain via the fossil and archeological record and analysis of behavioral, neurological, and physiological systems provide a more robust understanding of how humans perceive and experience the world. And it is this process that creates the possibility for imaginative, potentially metaphysical, and eventually religious, experiences of the world.[48] This should lead to a better understanding of the ubiquitous importance of the propensity for religious imagination and the reality of religious experiences for Homo sapiens sapiens. Fuentes is here (correctly, I would say) not arguing for any particular adaptive function of religiosity, but rather argues that in an evolutionary context neither religion nor religiosity could suddenly appear full-blown. It is therefore valuable to search for the kinds of structures, behaviors, and cognitive processes that might facilitate the eventual appearance of such patterns in human beings. If having an imagination is a central part of the human niche, and this imagination is a basal element in the development of metaphysics, one could see how both adaptive and imaginative creative perspectives could employ that fact as part of their understanding of the human.

I believe that my original intuition that there is a naturalness to human imagination and even to religious imagination[49] that facilitates engagement with the world in some ways that are truly distinct from those in other animals—even closely related hominins—thus becomes even more plausible. In Fuentes’s words, “if this is indeed the case, it provides a small, and hopefully fruitful, addition to the toolkit of inquiry for both evolutionary scientists and interdisciplinary theologians interested in reconstructing the long, winding path to humanity.”[50] In the interdisciplinary conversation between theology and the sciences the boundaries between our disciplines and reasoning strategies are indeed shifting and porous, and deep theological convictions cannot be easily transferred to philosophy, or to science, to function as “data” in foreign disciplinary systems. In the same manner, transversal reasoning does not imply that scientific data, paradigms, or worldviews can be transported into theology to set the agenda for theological reasoning. Transversal reasoning does mean that theology and science can share concerns and converge on commonly identified conceptual problems such as the problem of human uniqueness. These mutually critical tasks presuppose, however, the richness of the transversal moment in which theology and paleoanthropology may indeed find amazing connections and overlapping intersections on issues of human origins and uniqueness. Furthermore, I believe that the most responsible Christian theological way to look at human uniqueness requires, first of all, a move away from esoteric, abstract notions of human uniqueness, and second, a return to radically embodied notions of humanness, where our sexuality and embodied moral awareness are tied directly to our embodied self-transcendence as creatures who are predisposed to religious belief. I would further argue that, also from a paleoanthropological point of view, human distinctiveness has emerged as a highly contextualized, embodied notion that is directly tied to the embodied, symbolizing minds of our prehistoric ancestors as physically manifested in the spectacularly painted cave walls and portable art of the Upper Paleolithic. This not only opens up the possibility for converging arguments from both theology and paleoanthropology for the presence of imagination and religious awareness in our earliest Cro-Magon ancestors, but also for the plausibility of the larger argument: since the very beginning of the emergence of Homo sapiens, the evolution of those characteristics that made humans uniquely different from even their closest sister species (i.e., characteristics like consciousness, language, imagination, moral awareness, symbolic minds, and symbolic behavior) have always included religious awareness and religious behavior.

Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall has argued exactly this point: because every human society, at one stage or another, possessed religion of some sort, complete with origin myths that purportedly explain the relationship of humans to the world around them, religion cannot be discounted from any discussion of typically human behaviors.[51] There is indeed a naturalness to religious imagination that challenges any viewpoint that would want to see religion or religious imagination as an arbitrary or esoteric faculty of the human mind. What has emerged from the work of scientists like Steven Mithen, William Noble and Iain Davidson, Merlin Donald, Ian Tattersall, and Terrence Deacon, and should be of primary interest to theologians working on anthropology, is that human mental life includes biologically unprecedented ways of experiencing and understanding the world, from aesthetic experiences to spiritual contemplation—exactly the point now being made by Fuentes about niche construction. Deacon has also made the important point that the spectacular Upper Paleolithic imagery and the burial of the dead, though not final guarantees of shamanistic or religious activities, do suggest strongly the existence of sophisticated symbolic reasoning, imagination, and a religious disposition of the human mind.[52] The symbolic nature of Homo sapiens also explains why mystical or religious inclinations can even be regarded as an essentially universal attribute of human culture,[53] and opens up an interesting space for Jean Clottes and David Lewis-William’s argument for a shamanistic interpretation of some of the most famous Paleolithic imagery.[54] There is in fact no human culture that lacks a rich mythical, mystical, and religious tradition. The co-evolution of language and brain not only implies, however, that human brains could have been reorganized in response to language and the environment in a dynamic process of niche construction, but also alerts us to the fact that the consequences of this unprecedented evolutionary transition from becoming human to being human must be understood on many levels as well.

The idea that religious imagination might not be an isolated faculty of human rationality, and that mystical or religious inclinations can indeed be regarded as an essentially universal attribute of the human mind, has recently also been taken up in interdisciplinary discussion by some theologians. Colleen Shantz has offered a fascinating and entirely plausible account of religious experience and of religious ecstasy, as not only a significant feature of the apostle Paul’s life, but beyond that, as part of a strong argument for the epistemological relevance of religious experience.[55] Her argument for the universal significance of religious experience, and also for alternate states of consciousness, is first of all an argument against a completely disembodied exegesis that is restricted, and epistemically limited, to the analysis and comparison of biblical texts. It is also, however, an argument for forms of cognition that go beyond linguistic dominance: the human self and its embodied experience includes elements that are known apart from language, elements that are still essentially human.[56] In this exciting interdisciplinary project her discussion partners in the end are cognitive neuroscientists, textual exegetes, and social anthropologists, and the point is not to argue that God is “generated” by the brain, but rather that God cannot be known apart from the brain, the embodied person.[57]

Niels Henrik Gregersen, meanwhile, has argued that imagination, and therefore also religious imagination, is not an isolated faculty of human rationality, but can be found at the very heart of human rationality. On this view, then, the same “naturalness” of imagination also applies to religious imagination, and religious imagination should not be seen as something extra or esoteric that can be added, or subtracted, from other mental states.[58] More importantly, though, a theory about the emergence of religious imagination and of religious concepts does not at all, of course, answer the philosophical question about the validity of religion, or the even more complex theological question about whether, and in what form, religious imagination might refer to some form of reality or not. As an interdisciplinary problem, however, the reasons that may undergird the unreasonable effectiveness of religious belief and thought may transcend the scope of any one discipline when it comes to evaluating the integrity of religious belief. In this specific conversation, we can hopefully reach an interdisciplinary agreement that religious imagination and religious concepts should be treated equally with all other sorts of human reflection. Religious imagination should, therefore, be treated as an integral part of human cognition, not separable from our other cognitive endeavors. Clearly early human behavior is not understood if we do not take this religious dimension into account. In our thinking about the emergence of religion or of spirituality in prehistory, and in our considering the historical human self as Homo religiosus, we should not expect to discover some clearly demarcated, separate domain that we could identify as “religion” as such. What this means is that we should avoid making easy and uncomplicated distinctions between natural and supernatural, material and spiritual, when trying to understand the long history of the prehistorical self as it hovers between becoming human and being human. The history and archeology of the human self demand a more interactive, holistic approach, since not just special artistic objects and artifacts, but daily material life itself, must have been deeply infused with imagination and spirituality. This implies that theologians, along with evolutionary anthropologists and archeologists, can indeed recognize the spiritual or religious in early time periods only through the material legacy of the people of that time. Imagery, sculptures, paintings, other artifacts, along with mortuary practices, may not always be exclusively religious, but may certainly point to normal living spaces and practices as possible symbolic, religious realms.

Significantly, I believe, this position on the naturalness of religious imagination is very close indeed to Darwin’s final position on the role and significance of religion in evolution. This fact was very successfully highlighted in J. David Pleins’s fascinating book The Evolving God: Charles Darwin and the Naturalness of Religion.[59] I am definitely not the first to suggest that the real title of this work actually lies in its sub-title’s reference to the “naturalness of religion.” Pleins admirably unpacks his argument by focusing on Darwin’s lifelong engagement and fascination with religious belief. As one reviewer put it, what we encounter when we turn to Darwin and religion is not the stereotypical “losing of faith” story, but rather a story about a lifelong “seeker” who never lost interest in the religious issues that engaged his fellow Victorians.[60] In this sense, Darwin models for us the progress to be made by reading deeply in theology and yet remaining committed to the scientific enterprise.[61]

J. WENTZEL VAN HUYSSTEEN was the James I. McCord Professor of Theology and Science at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1992–2014. He received his M.A. in philosophy from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and his Ph.D. in philosophical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. His areas of expertise are  theology and science as well as religion and scientific epistemology. He is currently on the editorial board for the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, the Nederduits Gereformeerde Teologiese Tydskrif, and the Journal of Theology and Science, and he is coeditor of the Science and Religion Series.


[1] J.M. Calcagno and Agustín Fuentes, “What Makes Us Human? Answers from Evolutionary Anthropology,” Evolutionary Anthropology 21 (2012): 182–94.
[2] See Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997); Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996); Paul Mellars, “Major Issues in the Emergence of Modern Human,” Current Anthropology 30.3 (1989): 349–85; Paul Mellars, “Cognitive Changes and the Emergence of Modern Humans in Europe,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1.1 (1991): 63–76; William Noble and Iain Davidson, Human Evolution, Language and Mind: A Psychological and Archaeological Inquiry (Cambridge University Press, 1996); Ian Tattersall, Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998); Ian Tattersall, The Monkey in the Mirror: Essays on the Science of What Makes Us Human (New York: Harcourt Brace, 2002).
[3] Matt Cartmill and Kaye Brown, “Being Human Means that ‘Being Human’ Means Whatever We Say it Means,” cited in Calcagno and Fuentes, “What Makes Us Human?,” 183.
[4] Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
[5] Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Roots of Thinking (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990).
[6] Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013); Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Roots of Morality (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008); L.A. Kirkpatrick, Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion (New York: Guilford Press, 2005).
[7] Cartmill and Brown, cited in Calcagno and Fuentes, “What Makes Us Human?,” 182.
[8] Agustín Fuentes, “A New Synthesis: Resituating Approaches to the Evolution of Human Behavior,” Anthropology Today 25.3 (2009): 12–17.
[9] Richard Potts, Humanity’s Descent (New York: Morrow, 1996); Richard Potts, “Sociality and the Concept of Culture in Human Origins,” in The Origins and Nature of Sociality, edited by Robert W. Sussman and Audrey R. Chapman (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 249–69.
[10] Fuentes, “A New Synthesis,” 12.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).
[14] Jablonka and Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions, 1–8; Fuentes, “A New Synthesis,” 13.
[15] Jablonka and Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions, 193­–231.
[16] Oren Harman, “The Evolution of Evolution,” The New Republic (September 4, 2006): 31f.
[17] Fuentes, “A New Synthesis,” 13.
[18] In this synergistic interaction between organisms and their environment niche construction emerges as inherently a constructivist process in which biological, ecological, and social/cultural spheres not only interact, but also provides a model for human genetic and cultural evolution by incorporating three levels or dimensions: genetic processes, ontogenetic processes, and cultural processes. See Fuentes, “A New Synthesis,” 14; Michael Ruse, The Philosophy of Human Evolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 125.
[19] Fuentes, “A New Synthesis,” 15.
[20] Ibid., 16.
[21] Agustín Fuentes, “On Nature and the Human: Introduction” and “More Than a Human Nature,” American Anthropologist 112.4 (2010): 512, 519.
[22] See Jonathan Marks, “Off Human Nature,” American Anthropologist 112.4 (2010): 513. Nowadays, of course, scientists assign all extant human beings not just to one species but to one subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens. All other subspecies have become extinct. The accompanying scientific rhetoric, however, reveals this to be no ordinary subspecies. As Tim Ingold puts it, as “doubly sapient,” the first attribution of wisdom, the outcome of a process of encephalization, marks it out within the world of living things. But the second, far from marking a further subdivision, is said to register a decisive break from that world. In what many scientists have called the “human revolution,” the earliest representatives of the new subspecies were alleged to have achieved a breakthrough without parallel in the history of life, setting them on the path of discovery and self-knowledge otherwise known as culture or civilization (“What is a Human Being?,” American Anthropologist 112.4 (2010): 514.
[23] Agustín Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination,” The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture 7.3 (2014): 1; Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind.
[24] Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination.”
[25] See Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination;” J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Alone in the World: Human Uniqueness in Science and Technology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006); As Richard Stosis puts it, “The religious system is an exquisite, complex adaptation that serves to support extensive human cooperation and coordination, and social life as we know it.” Richard Stosis, “The Adaptationist-Byproduct Debate on the Evolution of Religion: Five Misunderstandings of the Adaptationist Program,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 9 (2009): 315–32 (315–17).
[26] Van Huyssteen, Alone in the World, 93ff.
[27] Regarding the concept niche: a niche is the structural and temporal context in which a species exists. As such it includes space, nutrients, and other physical factors as they are experienced, and restructured and altered by the organism and also shaped by the presence of competitors, collaborators, and other agents in a shared environment (see Fuentes, “On Nature and the Human: Introduction” and “More Than a Human Nature.”) The human socio-cognitive niche is a cognitive and behavioral configuration that is derived relative to the socio-behavioral contexts of previous hominins. In modern humans it includes cooperation, egalitarianism, theory of mind (mindreading), cultural transmission and innovation, and language. This is a complex and composite niche unique to the human species and is likely a system whose various components emerged during the Pleistocene to reach its current form (see Deacon, The Symbolic Species; Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination.”)
[28] Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination.”
[29] By “becoming human” Fuentes refers to aspects of human evolution from the appearance of our genus to the emergence of undisputable Homo sapiens (150–200,000 years ago); by “being human” he refers to evolution in our species since that time (ibid.)
[30] The term hominin includes humans and all of those genera and species derived from the lineage that split with the chimpanzee lineage (roughly 7–8 million years ago).
[31] Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination,” 2.
[32] Wesley Wildman, Science and Religious Anthropology (Farnham: Ashgate Press, 2009); Alan Barnard, Genesis of Symbolic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Merlin Donald, A Mind so Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (New York: Norton, 2001); Stosis, “The Adaptationist-Byproduct Debate on the Evolution of Religion;” J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, “From Empathy to Embodied Faith: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Evolution of Religion,” in Evolution, Religion, and Cognitive Science: Critical and Constructive Essays, edited by Fraser Watts and Leon Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 132–51.
[33] Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination,” 3.
[34] Franz Wuketits, Evolutionary Epistemology and its Implications for Humankind (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1990), 118.
[35] Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination,” 9.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 65ff.
[38] Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination,” 10.
[39] Van Huyssteen, “From Empathy to Embodied Faith;” Hrdy, Mothers and Others, 82ff; Sheets-Johnstone, The Roots of Morality; Kirkpatrick, Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion.
[40] Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination,” 11.
[41] Ibid., 12.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Van Huyssteen, Alone in the World.
[44] Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination.”
[45] Ibid., 13.
[46] Ibid., 14.
[47] Van Huyssteen, “From Empathy to Embodied Faith”; Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination,” 14 ff.
[48] Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination,” 17.
[49] Van Huyssteen, Alone in the World.
[50] Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination,” 18.
[51] Tattersall, Becoming Human, 201.
[52] Terrence Deacon, “Language,” in Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, vol. 2, edited by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen (New York: MacMillan Reference USA, 2003), 504.
[53] Deacon, The Symbolic Species, 436.
[54] David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002); Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998).
[55] Colleen Shantz, Paul in Ecstasy: The Neurobiology of the Apostle’s Life and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
[56] Ibid., 9f.
[57] Ibid., 15.
[58] Niels Henrik Gregersen, “The Naturalness of Religious Imagination and the Idea of Revelation,” Ars Disputandi: The Online Journal for Philosophy of Religion 2.1 (2002): 1, 23.
[59] J. David Pleins, The Evolving God: Charles Darwin and the Naturalness of Religion (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
[60] Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay, review of Pleins, The Evolving God, Victorian Studies 58.1 (Autumn 2015): 155–58.
[61] Pleins, The Evolving God, 1.



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