Sunday, February 11, 2007

Pg. 69: "Evolving God"

Barbara J. King is Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary and author of, most recently, Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion.

I asked Barbara to apply the "page 69 test" to Evolving God. Here is what she reported:
On p. 69 of Evolving God, I'm taking readers through a discussion of how closely chimpanzees and gorillas are related to modern humans, and what that fact might mean for using apes to model the behavior of very early human ancestors: "To grasp that humans and apes shared a single origin point and then split into two lineages, one leading to modern apes and the other to modern humans, is a prerequisite for a full understanding of the evolutionary perspective."

My goal in Evolving God is to explore the deepest roots of human religious behavior through an understanding of what I call belongingness. Belongingness is mattering to other people, and making emotional connections with them. What can we see in the prehistory of our species that tells us about our earliest religious-spiritual selves from the point of view of belongingness? I write about grieving Neandertals gathered around a grave, where they mourn the death of a companion through symbol-laden ritual; about early Homo sapiens clustered in a dim cave passage, dancing and chanting together as they confront the mysteries of life and death that still cause us to wonder today. And I explain, too, the empathy and compassion sometimes expressed by modern chimpanzees and gorillas to their groupmates, as they confront issues of life and death in their own ways.

In one sense, then, p. 69 is somewhat representative: it's important for the rest of the book that present-day ape behavior be woven into the Evolving God story in a scientific and coherent way: Apes are not religious, but ape behavior can give us clues to the earliest types of human religious behavior.

But in truth, my instant and intense reaction when I opened to p. 69 was this: No!, this page is far from representative, because it's written in a detached voice. That's fine in context, of course, because I'm explaining a scientific fact on that page. But more commonly throughout the book, I think, I engage with readers using a different type of language, a wondering-seeking type of language that tells stories about apes and human ancestors in order to explore age-old questions with a somewhat new approach. As an anthropologist, I want readers to become immersed in a compelling story about how belongingness, so much more than genes or dedicated brain modules, helps to explain the origins of the human religions imagination.
Many thanks to Barbara for the input.

Read an excerpt from Evolving God.

Salon published an interview with the author about the central ideas in Evolving God, followed by an audio link to an NPR interview at the end.

Among the early reviews:
"In this sure-to-be-controversial treatment of the origins of religion, King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, posits that 'an earthly need for belongingness led to the human religious imagination and thus to the other-worldly realm of relating with God, gods, and spirits.' For evidence, King draws upon cutting-edge research in primatology to demonstrate that once animals are capable of emotional attachments and cognitive empathy, they are ready for — and even appear to require — certain intangibles like a belief in something greater than themselves. While many theologically minded readers are likely to caricature King's arguments as a cool scientific dismissal of religion, her interpretation is actually far more nuanced and subtle than that. It's true that the book requires some enormous argumentative leaps; it's a long stretch from demonstrating that contemporary primates have emotional attachments to claiming that they are then capable of creating religions, as King maintains human beings once did. But even readers who close the book unconvinced will be impressed by King's fresh insights and her lucid writing, which is a jargon-free, story-filled model for all academics who wish to write for a general audience."
--Publishers Weekly

"Biological anthropologist King contends that religion, conceived as a system not of beliefs but of actions, not as theology but as worship, is a consequence of primate evolution. It proceeds, she posits, from the sense of group membership that highly developed mammals, especially the great apes, demonstrate in many ways but most saliently for religion when they show concern for a group member that has died. Signs of such concern appear in the fossil record of human ancestors first at burial sites. Certain arrangements of the bodies of the dead, funerary articles, and choices of particular colors and designs indicate an expanding consciousness of the universe-in-time and speculation about creatures' places within it. Even before the famous cave paintings of early Homo sapiens, which increasingly are seen to express religious feeling, large Neanderthal ceremonial sites indicate worshipful attitudes--indicate, King insists, the emotions of religion. In conclusion, she weighs the popular debate over evolution, noting high skepticism about human evolution and high belief in God, and questions the compulsion to choose either evolution or belief. Anyone who recognizes that compulsion, internal or external, may profit from reading this brilliant book."
--Booklist (starred review)

"Barbara J. King firmly hooks readers who were enticed by her book's title, Evolving God. Once engaged, few will set the book aside. Even when exploring topics primarily of interest to academics, its prose remains accessible to a broad audience."
--physicist Fred Bortz, forthcoming review in the Dallas Morning News,
Barbara writes a monthly book column for Bookslut that very often includes topics in biological anthropology.

A note on her website reads:
Working with undergraduate students on research projects-both inside and outside of the classroom-is a strong interest of mine. My students in Primate Behavior and senior seminar often choose to study monkey or ape behavior at the National Zoo in Washington, the Metro Richmond Zoo, the Norfolk Zoo, or another scientific institution. In class we discuss in some depth the ethics of zoos. Without the dedication and skill of my students over the years, my work on gestural communication among the National Zoological Park gorillas would not have succeeded.
There is more about this personal scientific journey in her book, The Dynamic Dance: Nonvocal Communication in African Great Apes.

Barbara edits a new journal, The Journal of Developmental Processes; read her inaugural editorial.

Previous "page 69 tests:"
Patrick Anderson, The Triumph of the Thriller
Linda R. Hirshman, Get to Work
Lynne Tillman, American Genius, A Comedy
Patrick Radden Keefe, Chatter
Dana Stabenow, A Deeper Sleep
Siobhan Roberts, King of Infinite Space
Erin McKean, That's Amore!
Michael Lowenthal, Charity Girl
Niraj Kapur, Heaven's Delight
Keith Dixon, The Art of Losing
David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old
Mary Sharratt, The Vanishing Point
David Fulmer, The Dying Crapshooter's Blues
Anya Ulinich, Petropolis
Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization
Olen Steinhauer, Liberation Movements
Andrei Markovits, Uncouth Nation
Julie Kistler, Scandal
Robert Ward, Four Kinds of Rain
Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist
William Landay, The Strangler
Kate Holden, In My Skin
Brian Wansick, Mindless Eating
Noria Jablonski, Human Oddities
Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity
Neal Pollack, Alternadad
Bella DePaulo, Singled Out
Steve Hamilton, A Stolen Season
Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air
Donna Moore, ...Go to Helena Handbasket
Louis Bayard, The Pale Blue Eye
Neal Thompson, Riding with the Devil
Sherry Argov, Why Men Marry Bitches
P.J. Parrish, An Unquiet Grave
Tyler Knox, Kockroach
Andrew Rehfeld, The Concept of Constituency
Laura Wiess, Such a Pretty Girl
Jeremy Blachman, Anonymous Lawyer
Andrew Pyper, The Wildfire Season
Wendy Werris, An Alphabetical Life
Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know
Meghan Daum, The Quality of Life Report
Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin' Man
Richard Aleas, Little Girl Lost
Paul Collins, The Trouble With Tom
John McFetridge, Dirty Sweet
Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero
Bill Crider, Murder Among the OWLS
Zachary Shore, Breeding Bin Ladens
Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club
Lawrence Light, Fear & Greed
Simon Read, In The Dark
Sandra Ruttan, Suspicious Circumstances
Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography
Alison Gaylin, You Kill Me
Gayle Lynds, The Last Spymaster
Jim Lehrer, The Phony Marine
Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.
Debra Ginsberg, Blind Submission
Sarah Katherine Lewis, Indecent
Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
William Easterly, The White Man's Burden
Danielle Trussoni, Falling Through the Earth
Andrew Blechman, Pigeons
Anne Perry, A Christmas Secret
Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers
Kat Richardson, Greywalker
Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire
Masha Hamilton, The Camel Bookmobile
Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue