Angela Carpenter

As someone who has been doing interdisciplinary work in theology for several years, I am repeatedly surprised by my own difficulty in precisely articulating why I find this approach so fruitful and even necessary for theology. How should one talk about interdisciplinary methodology and, perhaps an even thornier question, articulate an approach to interdisciplinary work that suggests mutuality with contributions from each discipline? Often, it seems that articulating the possibilities is easiest on the tail end—by pursuing a conversation, seeing where it takes us, then reflecting on how we got there, and why the endeavor was worthwhile. This is what I would like to do in this essay on the subject of human wisdom. I will not attempt a meta-statement on the benefit of theology to evolutionary theory or vice versa. Rather, I will engage one specific conversation about human wisdom that has the potential for a mutually beneficial exchange of insight.

I begin with the definition of wisdom that has formed the jumping-off point for this broader project. According to the Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing, we are together investigating “the pattern [and ability] of successful complex decision-making in navigating social networks and dynamic niches in human communities.”[1] While the search for wisdom is indebted to disciplines such as theology and philosophy, the explicit formulation that serves as our starting point is thoroughly rooted in evolutionary theory and categories.[2] As such, it offers a helpful test case. Can an evolutionary starting point help a theologian reflect on what human wisdom actually is? Can a conversation with theology in turn inform, and perhaps, revise an evolutionary definition, opening up new questions for evolution to explore? We should also consider whether there is perhaps unresolvable tension—aspects of human wisdom as described by theology that are not open to scientific exploration. Such a discovery would not be surprising, given the different metaphysical presuppositions, but is nevertheless important to acknowledge, as it speaks to the expectations and limits of interdisciplinary inquiry. My argument will track each of these questions. First, this starting point, grounded in the evolutionary terminology of success and the human social niche, actually ends up having greater overlap with a theological account of wisdom than one might anticipate at first glance. Exploring wisdom along these lines provides both a helpful confirmation and a reminder to the theologian. Second, I wish to suggest that theology can question the completeness of this definition. Is it a full account of human wisdom, or can a theological analysis enable a definition that is more complete? Does a theological analysis present new questions for evolutionary theorists to explore? These are, of course, enormous topics and a fair amount of delimitation is in order for a short chapter. I will restrict myself to one evolutionary theory regarding human knowing developed by Joseph Henrich and distilled for a popular audience in his recent book The Secret of Our Success.[3] I will compare the approach to human wisdom in Henrich’s theory of the collective brain with that articulated by John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio.[4]

Henrich’s approach to human evolution is in keeping with that of a wide array of theorists, including Michael Tomasello and Kim Sterelny, who have devoted considerable attention to the social and cultural context of human cognition.[5] In broad strokes, these scholars present variations of an approach to human evolution that focuses on the need to cooperate and the distinctive cognitive competencies that humans have evolved as a result of inhabiting a social and ultimately cultural niche. Tomasello’s work in Cultural Origins of Human Cognition combines his expertise in psychology and primatology to show how distinctive human social cognition—things like attention sharing and a tendency to copy others—enabled a “ratchet effect” that through cultural transmission exponentially changed the knowledge and expertise available to Homo sapiens with each new generation.[6] A decade later, Sterelny’s Evolved Apprentice drew on the paleoanthropological record and his training in the philosophy of science to provide a plausible explanation of how these highly cooperative, information-sharing, teaching-and-learning apes might have evolved. Henrich’s contribution to this trajectory lies in his consistent emphasis on the reservoir of cultural knowledge necessary for human survival that vastly exceeds the capacity of any single human brain to develop. For Henrich, the distinctive feature of human thought and knowledge is not what we might think of as the raw intelligence of the individual brain, something we try to measure through IQ tests. Rather, what is unique to humans is the knowledge that is available to us culturally and our ability to rely on, transmit, and gradually improve that knowledge. Crucially, for Henrich, we do not always know why or how our wise cultural practices are successful. In many cases, it is only the advent of modern science that has provided the tools for us to understand why some of these longstanding cultural practices work. Yet ancient cultures managed to gradually evolve these practices and members of these groups faithfully adopted them, despite the limitations of their knowledge.

A few examples from Henrich’s ethnographic work are particularly helpful in illustrating this distinctive take on human wisdom. One of his favorite examples concerns various Inuit communities in the Arctic. Humans have inhabited the harsh regions of the Arctic for thousands of years and managed to thrive, yet, as Henrich and his collaborators engagingly narrate, numerous Western explorers, with the same big brains and abundance of human intellect, have found themselves stranded in these regions, unable to develop the necessary technologies for survival.[7] What is the secret of the indigenous groups who live in these harsh northern climates? Their success, according to the authors, is due to vast stores of cultural information that far exceed the inventive capacity of a single generation. From elaborately tailored clothing that preserves warmth and remains functional for hunting, to snow houses with internal temperatures reaching 20 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), to detailed climate-appropriate hunting methods and tools, Inuit peoples developed and preserved survival information over thousands of years. They have evolved both the cultural information and the cognitive skills to successfully preserve and use that information for survival in their own social niche.[8] Their success is not due to raw intelligence and rationality, but to what we might call traditions of wisdom.

A second example from Henrich’s work involves practices of food preparation that have enabled humans throughout the world to make use of food sources that might otherwise prove detrimental to their health. In the Colombian Amazon, indigenous people use a multistep process to prepare and consume manioc, a nutritious tuber that can be cultivated in drought-prone parts of the tropics. Without a lengthy and labor-intensive preparation, manioc causes cyanide poisoning, although symptoms might appear only after years of consumption. As Henrich observes, such a delay disguises the reason why these processing techniques have been effective.[9] One could omit some of them and not observe any immediate consequences. Their success, therefore, depends on group members faithfully continuing the practice on the word of those who have come before, even if they have never themselves observed evidence for the practice. Often, Henrich recounts, practitioners of such food processing techniques or food taboos do not even know the proposed reason for the practice. Rather, he says, “natural selection has favored individuals who often place their faith in cultural inheritance—in the accumulated wisdom implicit in the practices and beliefs derived from their forebears—over their own intuitions and personal experiences.”[10]

When cultural wisdom is such a vital aspect of survival, it establishes its own set of evolutionary pressures on human cognition. What is particularly important for cultural learners, Henrich maintains, are the skills and capacities that facilitate learning—like the propensity to imitate others, even if their actions have no immediate or obvious benefit for reaching a goal. Likewise, such creatures need to know from whom to learn.[11] Innovation must occur for these cultural practices to evolve (though even on this point, Henrich argues that the innovation comes from serendipity or the accumulation of a body of knowledge that makes possible the next big breakthrough, and not so much from individual intelligence).[12] Part of the challenge is recognizing and copying the right innovators—the ones most likely to be successful—and avoiding those who might be trying to manipulate or deceive. A key part of human cultural success has thus been the development of trustworthy relationships and the norms that guide them. As Henrich proceeds to argue, much of our basis for trusting one person over another is intuitive and subconscious, rather than conscious and reflective.[13]

While Henrich at times might overemphasize the primacy of faith in human wisdom (after all, humans do use logic, act creatively, solve problems, and so forth), this emphasis can be forgiven precisely because the point is so counterintuitive for many modern westerners. We tend not to think that intelligence or wisdom comes from our propensity to copy others and our ability to identify trustworthy people. Here, we see one potential benefit of the study of evolution in an interdisciplinary context­. It has the potential to challenge the assumptions we make about ourselves—in this case, assumptions about what humans have held most dear, namely, our capacity for rational thought. In an academic setting, we often emphasize independence and individual achievement. Henrich’s account provides, then, a helpful reminder that dependence and collective reasoning are fundamental to human thought and achievement. Thus, if we wish to understand human nature and capacities from the perspective of theology or philosophy, this evolutionary perspective can be invaluable.

On the other hand, this distinctive form of human wisdom should perhaps not seem all that strange to the theologian. Consider Henrich’s theory in comparison with the following statement from John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio:

There are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.[14]

Henrich and John Paul II share a sense that human wisdom and knowledge far exceed the capacity of individuals. Much of what we know, we must receive from others. Theologically, the structure here is one of gift and gratuity. Woven into the fabric of Inuit ingenuity and amazing feats of survival is the gifted wisdom of the past. As John Henry Newman wrote, this form of human reasoning and knowledge—the faith that accepts knowledge from others—is a form that is immensely practical, suited to action and the masses.[15] Action, says Newman, does not generally lend itself to lengthy investigations that culminate in direct and positive proof. We must act and make the best of the information available. In other words, we take much on faith from others.[16]

John Paul II continues to be in sync with Henrich’s theory as he emphasizes that this ordinary, human pursuit of knowledge is in tension with how we typically understand ourselves as reasoners. Taking something on faith from others, John Paul says, seems imperfect in comparison to knowledge we acquire by and for ourselves, through accumulation of evidence. Yet, he suggests, there is something “humanly richer” about this way of knowing through belief.[17] It is interpersonal and “brings into play not only a person’s capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring.”[18] In other words, as with Henrich, so too here, wisdom is not just about knowledge itself, but also about social context. It is about knowing who to trust, it is about mutual self-giving, and it is about reasoning that takes place not independently but in “trusting dialogue and sincere friendship.”[19] Our distinctly human form of wisdom cannot be separated from our need to entrust ourselves to others. This need, in turn, introduces other aspects to human experience that give it richness and meaning, such as intimacy and companionship.

It is instructive here that both Henrich and John Paul II explore the unique role of martyrdom in demonstrating that another is trustworthy. Henrich explains that one way human beings have traditionally known that they can trust another person is through “Credibility Enhancing Displays,” actions that only make sense if the person who is sharing information believes that information to be reliable. Martyrs throughout the history of the church have been so confident of the truth they encountered in Jesus that they have been willing to suffer and die for it.[20] Their dramatic actions in turn have inspired profound trust.[21] In both these accounts, the human pursuit of “successful complex decision-making” (to return to our original wisdom language) is about knowledge and trustworthy relationships. As John Paul II summarizes, humans are on “a journey of discovery that is humanly unstoppable—a search for the truth and a search for a person to whom they might entrust themselves.”[22] Noticeably absent, at least at this stage, is the necessity of what we might call understanding—a big picture appreciation for why specific truths proclaimed make sense or are helpful for human flourishing.

We will return to this conspicuous absence in a moment, but first it is worth reflecting on the significance of convergence in these accounts. From the perspective of theology, Henrich’s research helpfully points to the ordinariness of faith. While theology claims that the ultimate source of knowledge is God, the process itself is a thoroughly human one. The act of faith is different in its object, but not in its form, from the way we ordinarily pursue knowledge and make decisions about our actions. In both cases, it is a kind of wisdom to recognize the limitation of one’s own reason and to accept from others that which is far greater than one could attain independently. This is a point that theologians like Newman have been making since Enlightenment debates about faith and reason, but until recently scientific theory has not given much attention to this structure of human knowing. Furthermore, Henrich’s scientific theory, thoroughly free, as one would expect, of any teleology, nevertheless provides, from the perspective of theology, a fascinating account of the faithful person as the telos of evolutionary processes. It describes how we have become creatures capable of receiving a truth beyond our comprehension and entering into a relationship of trust with another who declares that truth.

Given centuries of somewhat tense conversations between science and faith, these points of convergence are worth observing. Does theology have anything to contribute to the interdisciplinary inquiry, or is it simply an aspect of human nature to be explained and understood? Here it is helpful to return to the adequacy of the account of wisdom we have so far—that of learning and copying our best actions from others and the ability to discern which others are the best sources of wisdom. I have argued that much in Henrich’s theory nicely dovetails with John Paul II’s discussion of faith in Fides et Ratio, but the theological account departs from the scientific one in a few respects that are worth attending to. First, for John Paul II, the human pursuit of knowledge begins with faith and entrusting oneself to another, but it does not end there. Building on what is received in faith, the human mind is inspired to reach for greater understanding, not simply of what might prove practically useful for action, but a larger understanding of truth about the world. Henrich seems to deemphasize the extent to which humans have this sort of natural curiosity and pursuit of discovery about the world. For theologians, however, it is the very definition of the discipline: traditionally theology has been described as “faith seeking understanding.”[23] Newman characterizes this human pursuit in terms of the distinct gifts of faith and wisdom. Faith is the first gift in human knowledge of God and wisdom is the last. It is wisdom that seeks out the connections between the things that are known, that systematizes them and in the process enlarges the mind.[24] The wise person, for Newman, is not the one who believes, but the one who believes and then also understands. This transition from faith to wisdom or understanding is a process of maturation that is parsed differently by different theological traditions. What is important for our purposes, however, is that theology, while recognizing the centrality of faith in human knowledge of God, also insists that such a depiction of knowledge is not of an unthinking humanity, nor is it a mere capitulation to authority. A question for Henrich, then, is whether and how wisdom of this variety fits into the particular evolutionary story he tells.

Second, and more significantly, is the kind of knowledge and understanding that human beings seek. According to John Paul II, humans are not just after knowledge that is “partial, empirical, or scientific,” but seek larger truths.[25] Humans ask questions about ultimate meaning and value. Is this kind of pursuit a part of wisdom from an evolutionary perspective? Is it related to “successful complex decision-making in navigating social networks and dynamic niches in human communities”? Here Henrich follows the approach of Ara Norenzayan and others by locating human religious questing in the context of social norms and their enforcement.[26] According to this theory, belief in “big gods” aids successful decision-making because it helps with moral norm-enforcement in large-scale societies that can no longer enforce cooperation and social learning through the same mechanisms used by smaller societies.[27] Such accounts of human religion gain their plausibility from their tendency to flatten human experience, to reduce and simplify complex human behaviors. Religion, in these accounts, is about fear and is narrowly directed towards human sexual, economic, or political behavior. Religion is not about awe, wonder, longing, or discerning one’s place in the cosmos. Here, it seems, lies the potential for interdisciplinary work to feed back into evolutionary theory, even as it comes into tension with it. Can human wisdom be about more than “successful decision-making,” or can “success” be construed in terms that go beyond evolutionary fitness?

Take, for example, the question of human longevity and reverence for elders. In traditional cultures, Henrich observes, such reverence made evolutionary sense because elders provided a wealth of information. In a modern western context, however, culture changes too rapidly for the elderly to have the same evolutionary value.[28] Does this change in human evolutionary circumstances, then, necessarily change whether it is considered wise to care for the elderly? The question is particularly pressing in an American context as we debate healthcare policies that disproportionately affect those who are older, sicker, and perhaps less socially useful. Here is one instance where a theological or philosophical response might differ or be in tension with a “cultural evolution” viewpoint. What do we mean when we think of wisdom as success in making decisions? In this case, an evolutionary process has produced a species for which interpersonal relationships have become a source of meaning and joy. As John Paul II argues, the intimacy and companionship that are so essential to human knowledge have assumed significance beyond the instrumental. Human relationships are experienced as a good in a way that transcends their evolutionary value. Given this divergence in success, we might also speak of a divergence of wisdom. The neglect of elders in much of western culture makes sense evolutionarily, but not theologically or philosophically. What, then, are we to call wise?

If our grasp of human wisdom is subject to such disciplinary divergences, what are we to make of the ultimate fruitfulness of this sort of interdisciplinary dialogue? A natural temptation might be to retreat to a triumphalist account about our own disciplines and methodologies. I am convinced that such a retreat would be a mistake for theology. As these brief reflections have indicated, theologians need not take the natural or human sciences as a normative starting point to benefit from their insights. In this case, an evolutionary account of human wisdom provides a helpful corrective to a western tendency to view wisdom as an individual cognitive accomplishment. Although I do not here pursue the question of the wise treatment of the elderly, one could imagine how a theological conversation on the subject might benefit from an awareness of the evolutionary pressures involved, even if the truly wise conclusion entails resisting such pressures. If a retreat to triumphalism is ill-advised for theology, would it be a mistake for evolutionary theorists as well? Here, as a theologian, I am on shakier ground. I can only suggest that if evolutionary processes themselves have produced a species for whom the meaning of interpersonal relationships transcends their evolutionary usefulness, it might make sense to ask if “successful decision-making” has a referent beyond evolutionary success. If this is the case, the study of human evolution might investigate the capacity for wisdom without claiming that the content of successful decision-making can be fully grasped through an understanding of the evolutionary processes and pressures involved.

ANGELA CARPENTER is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Her dissertation developed a constructive theological account of moral formation, indebted to the theology of John Calvin and in conversation with recent work on children’s moral formation in developmental psychology. She is currently revising this project for a book, tentatively titled Responsive Becoming: Moral Formation in Theological, Evolutionary, and Developmental Perspective. In addition to the conversation between theology and psychology, the book will incorporate insights from evolutionary anthropology into her theological account of moral formation. She was also a Postdoctoral Research Associate on the Evolution of Wisdom and Human Distinctiveness projects at the University of Notre Dame.


[1] Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing, Evolution of Wisdom project.
[2] Such a starting point is certainly understandable for interdisciplinary work, where the parameters of inquiry must function as a tool for both anthropological and theological research. See Celia Deane-Drummond and Agustín Fuentes, The Evolution of Human Wisdom (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017).
[3] Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).
[4] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, encyclical letter, September 14, 1998.
[5] Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Kim Sterelny, The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Humans Unique (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).
[6] Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, 37.
[7] Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richerson, and Joseph Henrich, “The Cultural Niche: Why Social Learning is Essential for Human Adaptation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108 (June 28, 2011): 10919–21.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Henrich, The Secret of Our Success, 98–99.
[10] Ibid., 100.
[11] Ibid., 119.
[12] Ibid., 325­–26.
[13] Ibid., 117–39.
[14] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, §31.
[15] John Henry Newman, University Sermons (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 187–88.
[16] Ibid.
[17] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, §32.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid., §33.
[20] Henrich, The Secret of Our Success, 258.
[21] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, §32.
[22] Ibid., §33.
[23] As John Paul II puts it, the truth “conferred by Revelation is a truth to be understood in the light of reason” (Fides et Ratio, §35).
[24] Newman, University Sermons, 287–94.
[25] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, §33.
[26] Henrich, The Secret of Our Success, 324.
[27] Ara Norenzayan, Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).
[28] Henrich, The Secret of Our Success, 131–33.



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Evolution of Wisdom: Major and Minor Keys Copyright © by Angela Carpenter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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