Getting the Conversation Started

The 2018 Edinburgh Gifford Lectures are finally here. Professor Agustin Fuentes is set to give the first of his six Gifford Lectures tomorrow evening. In anticipation of the lectures, and to get the conversation started, here Professor J. Wentzel van Huyssteen engages some of Fuentes’ previous work,  focusing on the significance of imagination as it concerns human origins and the emergence of morality and religion. Professor van Huyssteen is the James I. McCord Professor of Theology and Science Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary. He himself is also a former Gifford Lecturer, having given the lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 2004, which were published as Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). As always, anyone who is interested in joining the discussion is warmly encouraged and welcome to do so by adding questions and comments below.



– J. Wentzel van Huyssteen

One of the most remarkable traits of our species is the defining ability of humans for symbolic behavior. At the heart of this ability lies our equally remarkable ability for imagination. To approach and understand defining traits like these, especially if we add our enduring but controversial propensity for religious imagination, Agustin 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 (Fuentes 2014: 1; cf. also Mithen 1996).

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 (cf. van Huyssteen 2006:93ff.). If indeed there is an evolutionary naturalness to religious imagination, or to the propensity for 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 Águstin Fuentes’ work: Fuentes 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, this can be facilitated by recognizing the increasingly central role of niche construction [1], 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 (cf. Fuentes 2014).

Following up on my own quest for understanding the naturalness of the propensity for religious imagination, Fuentes believes this idea can be indeed be aided significantly by investigating more fully the core role of the evolutionary transition between becoming human and being human (cf. Fuentes 2014) [2]. Already evolutionary epistemologist Franz Wuketits argued that metaphysical belief is the result of particular interactions between early humans and their external world and thus results from specific life conditions in prehistorical times (cf. Wuketits 1990: 118). 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 deep 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: 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, 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 increased cooperative capabilities and coordination within human communities. Thinking of this as specific outcomes of niche construction actually provides a mechanism, as well as a context, for the evolution of this multifaceted response capabilities and coordination within communities (cf. Fuentes 2014: 9).

Finally, the emergence of language and a fully developed theory of mind with high levels of intentionality, empathy, compassion, 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. I believe this can be pushed even further back by tracing the deep evolution of empathy and attachment (cf. van Huyssteen 2014; Hrdy 2009:82ff.; Kirkpatrick 2004; Sheets-Johnstone 2008). 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, and preceded our current ability to form a metaphysics which in turn eventually facilitates religious beliefs.

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 (cf. Fuentes 2014: 12). Humans have an imagination that is part of our perceptual and interactive reality and is a substantive aspect of lived experience. Thus 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 (cf. van Huyssteen 2006), as crucial parts of the uniquely human experience.

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 (cf. Fuentes 2014). 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 (cf. Fuentes 2014: 13).  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, on this view is not just an exaptation, a spurious byproduct of evolution, but crucial to the process of human evolution and incorporates behavioral processes and a sense of imagination and hope that would, and did, increase the likelihood of innovation and successful responses to evolutionary challenge (cf. Fuentes 2014: 14). 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 today.

To better understand human 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 it is this process that creates the possibility for an imaginative, potentially metaphysical, and eventually religious, experiences of the world (cf. Fuentes 2014: 17). 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, arguing that in an evolutionary context neither religion nor religiosity could suddenly appear fully blown, and 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.

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, Terrence Deacon, and most recently Agustin Fuentes, should be of primary interest to theologians working on anthropology: human mental life does indeed include biologically unprecedented ways of experiencing and understanding the world, from aesthetic experiences to spiritual contemplation – exactly the point now being made by Águstin Fuentes about niche construction. Also Terrence Deacon has 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. 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 (cf. Deacon 1997:436), 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 of the paleolithic imagery (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002; Clottes and Lewis-Williams 1996). There is in fact no 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 [3].

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/supernatural, and material/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 where 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, and also 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 own final position on the role and significance of religion in evolution. This fact was very successfully highlighted in J. David Pleins’ fascinating book, The Evolving God: Charles Darwin and the Naturalness of Religion (2013). I am definitely not the first one to suggest that the real title of this work actually lies in its sub-title and the 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 the story about a lifelong ‘seeker’ who never lost interest in the religious issues that engaged his fellow Victorians (cf. Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay, Victorian Studies, 58:1). 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 (Pleins 2013:1).


[1] Regarding the concept niche: a niche is the structural and temporal context in which a species exist. 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 (cf. Fuentes 2010). 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 (cf. Deacon 1997, Fuentes 2014).

[2] 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 (cf. Fuentes 2014).

[3] 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 (cf. Shantz, Paul in Ecstasy, 2009) 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. Her argument for the universal significance of religious experience, also alternate states of consciousness, is first of all 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 (cf. Shantz, 2009:9f.). 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 (cf. Shantz, 2009:15).


Clottes, Jean and David Lewis-Williams. The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

Deacon, Terrance W. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Fuentes, Agustin. “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination” in Time and Mind 7, no. 3 (2014): 241-257.

Fuentes, A., Wyczalkowski, M. and Mackinnon, K.C. “Niche Construction through Cooperation: A Nonlinear Dynamics contribution to Modeling Facets of the Evolutionary History in the Genus Homo” in Current Anthropology 51, no. 3 (2010): 435-444.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009.

Kirkpatrick, Lee A.  Attachment, Evolution and the Psychology of Religion. New York: Guilford Press, 2005.

Lewis-Williams, David. “Three-Dimensional Puzzles: Southern African and Upper Palaeolithic Rock Art” in Ethnos 67, no. 2 (2002): 245–264.

Mithen, Steven. The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science.  London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Pleins, J. David. The Evolving God: Charles Darwin and the Naturalness of Religion.
New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Shantz, Colleen. 2009 Paul in Ecstasy: The Neurobiology of the Apostle’s Life and Thought.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. The Roots of Morality. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008.

van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel. Alone in the World? Human Uniequeness in Science and Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

__________. “Postfoundationalism in Theology: The Structure of Theological Solutions” in Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 90, no. 2 (2014): 209-229.

Wheeler-Barclay, Marjorie. The Evolving God: Charles Darwin on the Naturalness of Religion by J. David Pleins (Book Review). Victorian Studies 58, no. 1 (2015), 155-158.

Wuketits, Franz M. Evolutionary Epistemology and Its Implications for Humankind. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

3 thoughts on “Getting the Conversation Started

  1. Masterfully intricate exposition. Intrigued to find out more how religious imagination has contributed to humans differentiating ourselves from the rest of the animal population in our dominant “success” story and how morality evolved and continues to evolve in meeting our humanities many problems

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Though it came out more in the questions, I think that Prof. Fuentes’ choice of “believe/belief” (over, e.g., “imagine/imagination”) involved the emphasis on a *commitment* to something. Perhaps “faith/trust” would more readily convey this connotation (if I have it right). Humans not only can imagine something, we can commit to something that is not, or not yet, and nevertheless seek it, and thereby make a difference. That, at any rate, is what I took from his discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

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