Could other great apes be spiritual?

09 October 2018

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Question

Could the other great apes become 'spiritual' on their evolutionary trajectory; in other words as they evolve in the same way that humans have evolved - embrace God and that kind of thing and spirituality? Could other great apes doe that or, indeed, have they done that already?

Answer

David commented on our facebook page with this question. It was over to animal behaviour expert, Jacob Dunn, to enlighten us with his answer.

Jacob - This is a really good question. The first thing I would say is that species don’t have an evolutionary trajectory, as such, and I think it’s historically been a very dangerous idea that species evolved towards some kind of direction and some goal. And that really stems out of the Aristotle idea that there’s a great chain of being and that humans are at the top of this very complex ladder and everything’s evolving to become more complex. We now know in evolutionary biology that actually it’s not the case that species are usually evolving to become more complex. Actually, most species are evolving to become more simplistic.

The next question is what we mean by spirituality? And there’s been a lot of research on the evolution of spirituality in humans, and whether it’s been positive for humans. In other animals, the only case that I know of is very well published in the media, a recent paper of chimpanzees.

What these populations of chimpanzees were doing - they’d been studying them for quite a long time when they’d seen that they picked up rocks and threw them into rivers and waterfalls and so on. That had been observed for quite some time and nobody really understood it. And then just in four populations of chimpanzees they observed that they were picking up these stones and either placing them or throwing them at certain trees and filling crevices within the tree. And nobody understands why they were doing it. There doesn’t seem to be any relationship to any kind of foraging. There’s no rationale behind it. And the primatologists that published this paper called it this sort of ritualised behaviour with no real explanation. It’s just kind of culture that’s evolved in these populations of chimps.

The media, particularly some well known newspapers that tend to exaggerate things, called this “Do Chimpanzees Believe in God?” I think it’s a load of nonsense but…

Chris - We had Lee Berger on this programme from South Africa who discovered recently homo naledi, this kind of homo species. It’s a relative of ours but smaller brained, a brain the size of roughly a human fist - adult human fist. These, what would have arguably been quite primitive creatures, which were around until quite recently -  maybe 100, 200 thousand years or so, they were burying their dead it would appear. They were taking, going to extraordinary lengths actually, to take their dead to a cave. So this argues that maybe there is something engrained in how we primates have evolved to want to believe in, I don’t know, maybe afterlives or in the special spiritual treatment of the dead and so on, do you think?

Jacob - Yeah. I mean there’s a big difference between burying your dead, which is a sensible thing to do if you don’t want to get sick, and doing it in a ritualised way.

Chris - They were clearly doing this in a ritualised way.

Jacob - Sure. We know that neanderthals, for example, also marked these graves in special ways that suggest that they weren’t just burying their dead for sanitary reasons. We know that elephants too, when their family members die they go back to the bones and they touch them and they feel them. And other animals carry around their dead chimps and dolphins carry around their dead for a long time before they let them go.

These are advanced ways of thinking, reflecting, but I think there’s a big jump between these kinds of reflections on what’s happened in the past, temporal memory and spirituality and religion.

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