Connecting Religion and Intelligence over 230,000 years

An archaeological discovery was announced from South Africa this week of new skeletal remains of Homo Naledi. Multiple age-dating techniques indicate that these early hominids lived an estimated 230,000 years ago. It was expected that they would have used their arms and legs much like humans do today, except that these beings would have had a brain only one-third that of modern humans. We refer to the blog from last week to learn how astronomy plays a role in such age measurements.

Even so, there is new evidence that these hominids buried their dead deliberately in cave structures. From this behavior, archaeologists infer some level of religious ritual to have been present in their community. One wonders if this might be the first example of religious rituals.

Expanding on this idea, one can wonder also by which process did these beings decide to build religious rituals into their lives? Finally one can take a step back and ask if religious rituals require higher levels of thought, or the other way around. Put another way, which came first: intelligence or religion?

To look at this big question, one can make a list of the most difficult questions we face today that may have been in common with those of ancient peoples. Among them are questions such as: why do we have to die, does someone/thing decide when we die, and what happens to loved ones after they die? This “death” problem may have been as important 230,000 years ago as it is today.

In fact, what if such questions such as the death of a loved one were so intense, so poignant, so as to press early hominids into thinking about their potential answers? What if these questions provided sufficient motivation for the hominids to struggle to make the thoughts, to invent ways to express them, and to stretch their brains just enough to accommodate setting up the building blocks of the first religion? In other words, might intelligence itself be related to our insatiable curiosity to address the big questions of religion?

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if it turns out that religion is the reason why we are intelligent? In the meanwhile, perhaps we should also be thankful to live on a planet with such low levels or geological activity, and such high levels of stability of our own nearby Sun, to be able to use our intelligent brains to study these beings over a 230,000 years baseline.

Dr. Brenda Frye

About Dr. Brenda Frye

Brenda L. Frye is an observational cosmologist at the Department of Astronomy/Steward Observatory, University of Arizona. She earned her Ph. D. in Astrophysics from the University of California at Berkeley, assisted by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Her thesis work involved measuring the concentration of the total mass of visible plus dark matter in the fields of massive galaxy clusters, a program requiring the use of some of the largest telescopes in the world.

Moving a mile from her Ph. D. institution, she assumed a postdoctoral position with the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory under the direction of Professor Saul Permutter.

She then treked across the country to take a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Princeton Council on Sciences and Technology Fellowship both at Princeton University.

Moving further east, she became a Lecturer in Physics at Dublin City University in Dublin, Ireland, where a number of European collaborations were formed.

From there she crossed back across the pond to the west coast of the U. S. to become a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of San Francisco.

Her travels have now landed her at her Alma Mater in Tucson, where she teaches and does research. The aims of her research continue to be to use gravitational telescopes in space as 'lenses' to study the properties of dark matter and those of distant galaxies back to when the universe was <900 million years old.

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Connecting Religion and Intelligence over 230,000 years — 2 Comments

  1. Your post reminds me of some of the best scholarship from the field of liturgical anthropology. One of the core themes of liturgical anthropology (at least in most Christian circles) is a principle called “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.” It’s a Latin axiom that loosely translates, “The rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” The idea is that theology did not develop as an isolated subject in the human intellect, but rather the prayer and worship (or liturgy) of ancient peoples led to a “Creed” or belief that flowed from prayer. Ancient burial customs reflect those actions and practices that led to the ancient’s understanding of the human person, God, and life after death. Did religion lead to intelligence? That’s a great question I can’t answer. However, there is a clear tradition that religious practice made the Church more intelligent as it provided the foundation to reflect on core questions of meaning and purpose. Thanks for the post!

    • How good to hear your comments! It is especially interesting when there are hints found here and there at how we can eventually make progress in discussing together Faith and Science. I will remember that, “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.”

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