The Evolution of Spirituality

The Evolution of Spirituality

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For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.
Now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.
I Corinthians 13

In a letter dated November 24, 1859, Adam Sedgwick, Charles Darwin’s former professor of geology at Cambridge, dismissed his former student’s gracious gift of a first edition of The Origin of the Species with the stinging rebuke that the “gift caused more pain than pleasure…Tis the crown and glory of organic science that it does thro’ final cause link material to moral. You have ignored this link. If I do not mistake your meaning in one or two pregnant cases, you do break it.” Born a hundred years too soon to benefit from the new mid twentieth century sciences Professor Sedgwick, like the American religious right, could not comprehend how really very moral, dare I say how very spiritual, human evolution has been. Neither a “final cause” nor an “intelligent design” is needed to appreciate how very “moral” are the positive emotions and their evolution.

Darwin’s geology teacher might have been gratified that the new disciplines of neuroscience, cultural anthropology and ethology create a unifying and scientific vision of the evolution of spirituality (a.k.a. positive emotions)—a vision that Professor Sedgwick could not comprehend.Darwin’s outspoken intellectual descendant, Richard Dawkins could not quite understand it either when he wrote, “I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” Rather, not only do the newer scientific findings suggest that spirituality can be equated with the positive emotions, but they suggest that the evolution of our capacity to deploy them deserves the admiration of Darwinians, not their contempt. ToAfricacolonialism, disguised by the sheep’s clothing of Christianity, was indeed a scourge. ToAfricacompassion administered by Samaritan missionary doctors like Albert Schweitzer and Medicins Sans Frontiers has been a blessing.

Religions, like fashions and prejudice, can arise suddenly and then spread from person to person like the flu. In the nineteenth century, abruptly, Japanese aristocrats began to dress like the most orthodox Western diplomats. Today, African Catholic bishops are more orthodox than most European Catholic bishops. The rapid spread of the Falun Gong movement, only created by Li Hongzhin in 1991, to an estimated 70 million practitioners by 1999 has terrified the Chinese leadership. In other words, Richard Dawkins has a point. Religious culture is much more contagious and less dependent on evolution and maturation than biology. Like the developmental emergence of our interest in the opposite sex and our decision to have children, the development of our spirituality is more gradual, more universal and more inexorable than our choice of dress code. Usually a deep and abiding faith does not develop overnight.

Let me offer Ambassador Bill Forsythe [a pseudonym] as an example of the development of a concrete, parentally derived religion into a more mature individual spirituality. Ambassador Forsythe was a member of The Study of Adult Development. He illustrated that mature faith is rooted not in self-absorption and certainty; but it is rooted in tolerance, in self-examination, in community building and, like science, in acknowledged uncertainty.

Until he was fourteen, Forsythe had been ritualistically religious. He had perceived religion as composed of rules, and he had followed them. Then, he began to doubt. In adolescence he gave up regular prayer; in college he gave up going to church altogether. Gradually, he shifted like many adolescents from a belief in God to a belief in science. Then, at thirty-seven like many parents, he tentatively returned to church, allegedly to give his children a sense of their heritage.

Ambassador Forsythe’s return to church had occurred the year after his father’s death and during a year that was characterized by intense doubts about his own efficacy as a state department troubleshooter. In recollecting his father, the 47 year-old Forsythe began by telling me, “We were never terribly close.” Then, almost in spite of himself, he proceeded to reverse field. “I guess,” he added, “I should mention my father as someone who did influence me.” True, in adolescence and young adulthood, they had grown apart; but in his thirties, “We began to grow close together, and I would look forward to serious discussions with Dad on world problems. I guess there was an attachment deeper than I was really aware of.” And so, at midlife, religious faith, trust in his own professional competence, and his conscious knowledge of an internalized father became one. While quite literally trying to hold the world together and working fourteen-hour days, the generative Bill Forsythe also found time to become an elder in his inner-city church inWashington,D.C.“We decided that we had been looking for this all of our lives.” Out of midlife uncertainty a need for faith had returned.

At forty-nine, Forsythe wrote, “I really found a home. I’ve never been able to accept the divinity of Christ, but I think there is a need to reach out for some explanation for the universe and at least the possibility of a Creator.” At fifty-one, he described his religious faith as deepening further. He could now admit that beginning in his early forties, religion had fulfilled a real need. Despite enormous international responsibilities, Forsythe attended religious services every weekend and served as director of Christian education. But equally important Ambassador Forsythe spent his weekdays trying to bring peace between those of Islamic and Jewish faith.

Moreover, the mature Ambassador Forsythe, unlike many adults, understood paradox. In 1970 as a leader within our State Department, he was asked at a public lecture to give his opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Ahh” he replied, “When in a conflict both sides have the moral right on their side, that is the definition of tragedy.” In adolescence the moral right is usually only on one’s own side. With deepening maturity we are all one planet.

A Study questionnaire asked a seventy-five-year-old Presbyterian minister the provocative question: “Taboos on obscenity, nudity, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, pornography seem to be dead or dying. Do you believe this is good or bad?” He wrote: “NEITHER. What human beings need are limits to their behavior and freedom to realize their true selves—we really need a societal consensus on limits balanced with freedoms. I think these limits and freedoms and the balance between them change with the culture.”

In short, with maturity this minister had developed the skill to imagine the world from eyes other than his own. He appreciated that emotionally laden issues could not be solved by dogmatic personal beliefs of right and wrong. Like Ambassador Forsythe the minister had replaced belief with trust in the value of a group conscience, and he understood that not all groups would share the same group conscience. But the minister wrote his reply when he was 80 years old. Deepening understanding of the relativity and complexity of life transforms immature belief into mature trust, and transforms rigid religious dogma into spiritual empathy.

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During adult maturation cognitive religious belief tends to evolve toward emotional spiritual trust. But the issue is not religion versus spirituality, but immature faith versus mature faith. Immature faith draws a circle that pencils some people out. Mature faith draws a circle that pencils all people in. It was the certainty of belief in that ole time religion, in a child’s religion, that allowed Cotton Mather to crush imaginary witches atSalem , Torquemanda to burn imaginary heretics inSpain and a recent Attorney General to trumpet that “theUnited States has only one King and his name is Jesus.” It is almost always immature to maintain, “It is my way, or the highway.”

I am reminded of a recently widowed English friend who sought comfort from her Anglican priest. She told him that in her bereavement she was surprised to find herself experiencing increasing empathy for the suffering of AIDS patients and for the pain they had experienced due to widespread intolerance for their homosexuality. No, she was wrong, insisted her priest; he knew that homosexuality was a sin against God, and the Bible’s condemnation proved it. In her grief she was stung by his criticism. She tried to argue. Finally, the priest could bear her openness no longer and exploded, “Clearly, you are too liberal to be a Christian!” The rigid certainty of her minister’s belief repudiated in a most anti-Samaritan fashion the loving trust in which my widowed friend was trying to find comfort. Spirituality, like humor, allows us to contemplate suffering without despair and without the emotional dishonesty of “God works in mysterious ways.”

In the words of a sensitive observer, social psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, p. 21), religious “practices get overgrown by brambles of meaningless mumbo jumbo. Ritual form wins over substance and the seeker is back where he started.” In contrast, mature faith always understands that all spirituality is a journey; and, thus, life remains inherently developmental. One thing becomes another; one never arrives. Developmentally, organized religion provides faith’s portal; deep spirituality remains the prize. Like good science, mature faith can distinguish the forest from the trees. Jesus Christ, after all, was also too liberal to be a “Christian”.

However, a note of caution is needed. I suggest that a faith emphasizing trust and positive emotion is better than a faith made up of words, prohibitions and belief. Am I not asserting that one is better than the other? In so doing I risk falling prey to my belief system, to my own immature thinking. In so doing I risk inventing a circle that draws me in, and draws others out. Butterflies, however, are not better than caterpillars, nor are grandparents better than the grandchildren they adore. Butterflies are only caterpillars at a different level of maturation, and feelings and passion are not better than prose and belief; they simply arise in different parts of the brain.


In terms both of phylogeny (development of the species) and of ontogeny (development of the individual), the evolution of unselfish loving human connection can be traced. It all began more than one hundred million years ago when faithless, walnut brained, untrusting, humorless, cold-blooded, child-eating reptiles slowly evolved into warm-blooded, child nurturing, faithful, hopeful, large brained mammals capable of play, joy, attachment, and trusting their parents to love them rather than eat them.

Mammalian evolution had begun in the dark to protect little furry insectivores from hungry, sun-loving carnivorous reptiles. At first their sense of smell was as or more important than sight. Thus, these nocturnal insectivores possessed a highly developed limbic olfactory system (the rhinencephalon) or smell brain. In order to find food and to remain connected to each other in the dark, a good sense of smell was a necessity. Some scientists (Panksepp, 1999) have called this smell brain (a.k.a. limbic system) the “seeking system.” The seeking, however, is about connection to one’s fellow insectivores as much as to food or sexual discharge per se. Equally important, the brains of mammals, relative to their body size began to grow. Unlike the case for dinosaurs and fish, increasing brain complexity, instead of traits like size, teeth and bright colors was selected for in mammals.

Sixty million years ago a meteor probably struck the earth and the mighty dinosaurs whose brain had not grown in 100 million years (Gould, 19___?) vanished forever, thereby facilitating further mammalian evolution. In time some of these early mammals evolved into light loving creatures for which a stereoscopic visual system and improved hearing reshaped the responsiveness of their smell brain. Primates, and many other mammals, now use their former smell brain to stay in touch with their mates vocally and visually rather than by odor; but the limbic language of attachment still defies translation into English—or Urdu. Instead, humans become quite inarticulate when they try to describe what they smell or whom and why they love. Attachment depends upon body language, scents, vocal timbre and lullabies, not the language of the neocortex. We confabulate when we try to put the scent of an orchid, the nose of a great burgundy wine, or a life altering spiritual experience into words.

Indeed, language, like too articulate religions, often separates human beings. In contrast, emotions, body language, facial recognition, touch, pheromones, and the spirituality of a limbic smell brain often bind us together. Through discriminating audition the kitten’s mew or the human infant’s separation cry evokes unselfish love in almost all of us. Thus, from the limbic system and the temporal neocortex that it serves, comes the very sort of information provided in hymns, psalms, and love letters—emotional, musical, mystically important information. Such information is very different from that contained in almanacs, science journals, and theological treatises.

For example, the limbic separation cry, mediated by the anterior cingulate gyrus, advertises vulnerability and distinguishes mammals from fish and reptiles. Mammalian evolution has led to an intricate three boned (malleus, incus, stapes) apparatus in the inner ear that permits rodent mothers to hear their infants’ high pitched cries inaudible to predator birds and reptiles. The separation cry presupposes a hard-wired emotional trust in a maternal protector who will find you, feed you and protect you—a maternal guardian who unlike a father reptile or mother fish will not just find you and gobble you up. We are hard wired to declare our vulnerability to the “Great Mother” of our understanding. No patriarchal covenant here, just faith in God’s unconditional love.

My God has promised good to me,
Whose word my hope secures;
God will my shield and portion be;
As long as life endures.
John Newton, 1859

As mammals evolved into primates, another transformative “miracle” took place. The ratio of brain size to body weight—relatively constant throughout the mammalian kingdom—began to increase further. At first, as ancestral chimpanzee brains evolved into Australopithecus, the relative increase was slow. This brain expansion, however, soon led to a magnificent (not vicious) cycle. To pass through the birth canal, animals with relatively large brains needed to be born prematurely. This cycle necessitated an increasing capacity to provide a nurturing community. The evolutionary necessity for the continuing evolution of unselfish love was that the relatively larger the brain, the longer the childhood. However, the longer the childhood, the larger and more unselfish was the brain required not only by the child’s parents, but also by the child’s surrounding clan. Thus, our ancestral primate brains began to expand at an accelerating rate—two tablespoons of gray matter were added every 100,000 years. “By the time the cerebral topping off had finished the human cortex had more than doubled in volume” (Stringer and McKee, p. 200). Arguably, no organ in the history of life has evolved faster.

The higher apes are also set apart from other mammals by a unique and newly evolved neural component called the spindle cell. Humans have twenty times more spindle cells than either chimps or gorillas. (Adult apes average about 7,000 spindle cells, human newborns have four times as many and human adults almost thirty times more spindle cells.) Monkeys and other mammals are without these special cells. These large cigar shaped “spindle” or “Von Economo” neurons appear central to the governance of social emotions and moral judgment (Allman et al., 2001). These cells may help us to feel human connection and indirectly to reflect upon and act on that feeling. Spindle cells may have helped the great apes and humans integrate their mammalian limbic system with their expanding neocortices.

Spindle cells exist in the anterior cingulate cortex, the prefrontal cortex, and the insula, a still somewhat mysterious region of the limbic system that may facilitate empathy. In brain imaging studies the insula lights up “when people look at romantic partners, perceive unfairness . . . experience embarrassment, or if they are mothers, hear infants cry” (Blakeslee, 2003). In short, the limbic anterior cingulate and insula appear active in the positive emotions of humor, trust and empathy.

Recent work has also found further evidence of the evolution of compassion. “Mirror neurons” have been identified in primates that are thought to facilitate the phenomenon of “monkey see, monkey do.” Neuroimaging by fMRI in humans, however, reveals that mirror neurons may serve another purpose than imitation. While witnessing a loved one’s pain, our own limbic emotional centers for pain are aroused, but not our neocortical analytical centers that would effect motor avoidance were the pain our own. Put differently, when witnessing another person burning their hand, the “mirror” neurons in our own limbic insula and anterior cingulate “light up” on the neuroimagist’s screen as if the hand were our own. But the cells in our neocortical analytic and motor centers (e.g. “I feel a burning in my left hand that prompts me to pull it away”) remain quiescent (Singer et al., 2004). Of interest is that such neurological brain activation when witnessing another’s pain correlates significantly with the observer’s scores on pencil and paper tests assessing empathy.

The evolution of the limbic system in the higher primates, then, may be essential to empathy and the Samaritan impulse to relieve the suffering of others. The limbic system modulates our emotions, governs our memory, and thus our trust. The limbic system helps us to appreciate the difference between people and inanimate objects. Think how differently you feel touching an attractive person and touching a cinder block. Destroy the limbic system and you destroy our ability to desire selectively. Destroy the limbic prefrontal lobes as was the case with the tamping rod that removed the frontal lobes of the legendary railroad worker, Phineas Gage; and you destroy our capacity for obedience to social mores. More recently the difference between the right and the left prefrontal areas has been discovered to be more marked in humans than in other mammals. Destroy the right prefrontal area and positive emotions dominate. Destroy the left prefrontal lobe and the negative emotions dominate to create introversion and depression (Davidson, 2004).

For the first million and a half years of their tool making existence, tool making Homo habilis, then Homo erectus, and then Homo sapiens managed to increase the cutting edge of a kilogram of worked stone only from 10 to 40 centimeters. During this time their brains size did not change much. Over the last 600,000 years, perhaps stimulated by much more dramatic fluctuations in global climate, Homo sapiens brain size almost doubled 835 grams to 1,460 grams (Allman, 1998). By the end of the Neolithic era our ancestors could produce 2,000 centimeters of cutting edge out of a kilogram of stone (Coppens, 1995). From the scanty evidence available, however, the evolution of the social organization lagged behind the evolution of tool making.

Why over the last 100,000 years the evolution of Cro-Magnons should have diverged sharply from that of Neanderthals is unknown. A common explanation is that the development of more sophisticated social communication, perhaps due to a fortuitous mutation in the human larynx, perhaps due to language per se or even to the mastery of past and future tenses (Bickerton, 1995) made the difference.

As long as you live from day to day life is pretty mundane (of this world). If you have a past, however, where did you come from? If you have a future, what will happen after you die? Reality becomes replaced by awe. Reflective spiritual life begins. Constrained by only a present tense, it is hard to discuss the benefits of kindness. A past tense helps you appreciate the past kindnesses you have received, and a future tense helps you appreciate that bread cast upon the waters might return with interest. The consequences of limbic gratitude, love and the Samaritan impulse could be brought into conscious awareness by a language that included a past and a future tense.

In any case, language permits cultural evolution to became as important for humanity as brain evolution. Cultural evolution, after all, is faster and more flexible than genetic evolution. With effective cultural communication knowledge, accumulated over a lifetime, no longer had to die with the individual. Knowledge started to compound; and, thus, analogous to compounding interest, the store of knowledge through culture began to increase exponentially. Whatever allowed it to happen, the capacity for cultural development gave Cro-Magnon a tremendous evolutionary advantage. Thus, about sixty thousand years ago the Cro-Magnon tool kit began to become increasingly complex. Instead of just stone axes, spearheads and scrapers, there appeared spear throwers, needles of bone, barbed fishhooks, decorative beads and vastly more efficient ways of manufacturing stone tools. These changes not only facilitated more effective, more cooperative hunting but also as a result facilitated the exponential growth of Cro-Magnon population relative to the Neanderthal. Neanderthal tool kits separated by thousands of years and hundreds of miles remained identical. In contrast, Cro-Magnon was consistently innovating. It took only a few hundred years or a hundred miles of separation to produce distinctive cultural changes in their tools. Better language, better tools, and by inference a better-wired brain led to larger more pro-social communities.

There was now evidence that these new tool-making skills began to be accompanied by more complex social organization. These changes led to increased communal sharing of large animal kills, and an increased willingness to care for the crippled and ill. The creative and more gracile Cro-Magnon people traveled, traded with and learned from their peers hundreds of miles away. The stolid, heavy boned Neanderthals, not built for long distance walking, stayed rooted to their mountain hollows and their old fashioned ways.

Simultaneously, along with language and a more sophisticated tool kit, a third evolutionary cultural change took place in places as far apart as the KimberlyRangesin Australiaand the Dordognein France. Homo sapiens sapiens began to decorate caves in ways that still induce a unifying spiritual gasp of awe and recognition of beauty in their 21st century descendants. For reasons we still do not understand, the capacity to create beauty and spiritual awe go hand in hand. In short, in the evolution of Homo sapiens, strength and “survival of the meanest” began to contribute less and less to survival.

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At this point I should note that the evolution of human brain function rests as much in the complexity and specificity of its biochemistry of synaptic transmission between neurons as it does on sheer neuroanatomic size. Human evolution has led to at least to nine different brain adrenergic (norepinepherine) receptors, eight different serotonin receptors and five different dopaminergic receptors. In addition, there are a variety of methods for synaptic signal transduction. Thus, small gene mutations can produce dramatic differences in function (Mandel, 1995). For example, specific gene mutations are known to affect the neuronal migration of brain cells during development – i.e. the wiring schema. Tinkering with a few microchips in two seemingly identical computers, after all, can lead to quintupling of processing speed or to rapid obsolescence

While we usually think of brain gene mutations as producing disease, the process can go the other way. For example, the evolutionary inactivation of a gene affecting Mammalian uric acid degradation has been positively selected for to become universal in humans. This inactivation results in elevated blood uric acid, which protects against free radicals (Mandel, 1995; Ames, 1981). Speculatively, this mutation protects against aging, prolongs longevity and, thus, contributes to the undoubted cultural advantage of increasing the number of grandparents. In any case, it was presumably genetic, not cultural evolution, which extended Homo sapiens sapiens longevity beyond reproductive capacity and thereby permitted Cro-Magnon societies the culturally experienced grandparents and wise elders lacking in Neanderthal societies.

As a corollary of cortical brain expansion in humans came an increasingly focused consciousness. True, an eagle’s sharp eye can instinctively discriminate a distant stone from a distant mouse better than a human eye. But humans can reflect upon the distinction and can bring the question of feelings (Am I hungry?) up into reflective consciousness. Armchair critics can scoff at the follies of modern judicial punishments; but for the last 30 centuries through the conscious reflection upon the long-term consequences of angry retaliation, the deterrence of criminal behavior has become progressively more rational and more loving. We are still learning!

Whether genes as well as culture have played a role in recent human evolution remains speculative; however, examples exist of significant recent human gene mutation (Balter 2002). For example, there is good evidence that by 10,000 B.C. as agriculture (cultural evolution) destroyed forests and increased standing water that malaria became endemic in the presence of concentrated human populations. In response to malaria in the last 5,000 years, widespread protective genetic mutations in red blood cells spread rapidly through vulnerable human populations. With the domestication of cattle (cultural evolution) milk became an abundant source of food. Initially, however, most humans were lactose intolerant. In those areas of the globe where milk is plentiful, a genetic mutation in the enzyme lactase that allows easier metabolism of dairy products has been selected for (Balter, 2002). Today only a minority of people in dairy producing areas of the world are lactose intolerant, while in areas like the far north and the Brazilian jungle where cows are uncommon, lactose intolerance is the rule.

The effect of recent gene mutation on brain development is much more speculative. A regulatory gene affecting the PDYN gene controlling endorphins (opiate like molecules involved in learning and social bonding) has multiple mutations leading to greater production of the PDYN gene in humans but not in chimpanzees (Balter, 2005). More speculative, but of potentially great explanatory power, was the genetic mutation of FOXP2—a gene affecting language development — that was estimated (Balter, 2002) to have occurred 120,000 years ago with the emergence of modern humans. More recent still was the mutation of the gene microcephalin (MCPA1) that regulates brain size and appears to have increased rapidly on human populations roughly 40,000 years ago coincident with the “creative explosion” (Evan et al, 2005; Balter, 2005). Finally, another human gene mutation, ASPM, also thought to regulate brain growth, emerged about 6,000 years ago and since has spread through human populations under strong positive selection. (Mekel-Bobrov, 2005) Only time will reveal whether such alleged mutations have made a meaningful contribution to the moral development of humankind, or whether they are merely part of the wistful vision of poetic paleontologists like Teilhard de Chardin (1959) that wish that humans will continue to evolve genetically as well as culturally in a positive directions.

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The evidence for convincing positive cultural evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens is far more convincing. About 30,000 B.C. the last, physically more powerful Neanderthals expired —not with a bang but a whimper—in remote caves at the tip ofSpain. In the place of robust strength came the evolution of successful social organization that depended upon capacity to plan for the future, shared awe through artistic creativity, and an increasing concern for the sick and the lame. Admittedly, there is also evidence of Good Samaritan behavior among mammals with the largest brains—great apes, whales, dolphins and elephants—but such behavior is more fleeting than in humans.

Over the past 20,000 years, this inexorable march of spiritual development, artistic skill and culturally mandated unselfish care of the weak has continued to evolve. Evidence of organized religion accompanied evidence of stable settlements seven to twelve millennia ago. However, until the transformative millennium, a millennium extending from 600B.C. to 700 A.D., the world’s great cities emerged only to disappear.Ur,Babylon,Mohenjo-Daro,Carthage,Thebes,Machu Picchu, the Mayan metropolis ofTikal, and the early Chinese capitals vanished beneath sand, fields and jungle creepers. Not until Buddhism, Christianity and Islam became established, not until organized religions that emphasized love and compassion rather than fear and dominance, did great cities endure. Yes, I know, the Jewish Law was established well before 600 B.C., but so wasJerusalem—arguably the oldest continuously significant city still extant. To put too much emphasis on “selfish” genes is to miss the influential evolution of a loving culture.

Instead of conceptualizing gods like Cronus and the Aztec deities who like reptiles devoured their young, evolving humanity conceived of the Buddha and the Christ who epitomized unselfish love and inspired cultures and memes that directed us to emulate them. After 500 years the “law” of the vengeful Moses who rejoiced as the Egyptian bullies perished beneathRed Seawaves, gave way to the law of a gentler prophet:

Cease to do evil
Learn to do good
Search for justice
Help the oppressed
Be just to the orphan
Plead for the widow
Isaiah, 1:16-17

The creation of the first Islamic and monastic hospitals 1,500 years ago has proved more useful to human survival than a clever brain per se. The Benedictine Rule states: “The care of the sick is to be placed above and before every other duty.” In contrast, the selfish but very “fit” and scientifically advanced Third Reich took a dim view of the sick and believed a society’s resources should be devoted only to the genetically healthy and to selfish conquest. In order to decide whether the Nazi or Benedictine faith is better suited to a Darwinian perspective, we must depend not upon softhearted “liberals” battling the sharp wits of Charles Krauthammer, Ayn Rand and Ann Coulter, but we must depend upon science—upon empirical long-term follow-up. The Nazi order lasted barely a decade, but after 1500 years the Benedictine Order is still alive and well. The brilliantly rational but spiritually challenged French Revolution lasted no longer than the Third Reich. In short, I would conclude that positive emotions of the loving irrational limbic system are just as important to cultural survival as is the ingenious and rational neocortex.

The genetic evolution of the higher primate’s limbic spindle cells has taken millions of years. The cultural evolution of almost universal admiration for the Good Samaritan over the very fit Attila the Hun has taken 2,000 years. Although it may not always seem that way, in 2005 twice as much of the American G.N.P. is devoted to health care as to defense. The evolution of that very Franciscan “instrument of peace”—the universally prestigious Nobel Peace Prize—has taken place only in the last century. In dramatic contrast, over the last two million years the genetic evolution of the human hypothalamus with its capacity for the 4F’s—fight, flight, feeding and fornication—is only modestly more sophisticated than an alligator’s. Human capacity for time present negative emotions like fear, disgust and attack has probably not evolved much beyond that of a cornered rat. However, our capacity for the future oriented positive emotions like joy, the Samaritan response, hope and forgiveness continues to evolve. Human beings, for better or for worse, remain a work in progress.

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After the cultural memes of compassionate religions spread throughout the globe, the invention of writing made possible the gradual evolution of science at the expense of spirituality. The increasing subordination of limbic spirituality to neocortical left brain religion and science has continued until the last half century. Admittedly, the cultural invention of writing and then the invention of printing 500 years ago were truly giant steps for mankind. The tools for understanding the world were created. No longer would cultural information important to survival need to be suffused with Neolithic awe and emotion in order to be passed on. Important but neutral memories could be encoded and shared. In preliterate cultures all knowledge, as in the case of the Neanderthals’ tool making, tended to be passed down more or less unchanged from generation to generation. Thus, in hunter-gatherer societies technological obsolescence is very gradual, if at all.

Since the invention of means of permanent communication, technological advance has been faster and faster until for humanity to waste hours with Buddhist loving kindness meditations seems a terrible waste of time — another left-brain cognitive concept. Step by step the evolution of first language, then writing, and then printing has led to the ascendancy of left-brain cognition over right brain music and intuition. Until the invention of writing, the Iliad could exist only in the mind’s eye of a few brilliant, dramatically gifted storytellers. Today the Iliad and its lessons can exist in cheap, passionless modern library editions available to all willing high school students fromAlabamatoZanzibar. However, Homer’s “music” is sometimes lost in translation.

The bad news is that over the last three thousand years literate humans “forgot” how to think with the brain with which they were born; and, thus, humankind has become increasing estranged from spirituality. Since the Enlightenment, in the West this divorce has sometimes appeared complete. As I have already noted, until the penetration of cultural anthropology and ethology into the culture over the past fifty years, the positive emotions were virtually abandoned as a focus for respectable academic research.

Nevertheless, psychologically as well as anatomically, humankind does best when the two founts of human culture, science and spirituality, remain integrated. Memory, survival, healing and loving remain closely linked in a brain whose haphazard construction might have seemed ludicrously irrational to the Enlightenment. To survive in times of danger we still need ways of remembering. Neither yelling, nor bland repetition, nor printed pocket catechisms help us to love our neighbor as well as does encoding such lessons with sound, sight and emotion. We now understand (Pfeiffer, 1990) that cave art, in contrast to Egyptian hieroglyphics and Babylonian cuneiform writing, was created deliberately to heighten emotional response. Cave paintings were not there, like scientific journals and Assyrian clay tablets, merely to transmit passionless, left brain information. Cave paintings were to be so magical and evocative, so otherworldly and uroboric, as never to be forgotten. The same is true of primitive Amazonian or modern college fraternity initiation ceremonies. Sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson (1978) has pointed out that “Innate censors and motivators exist in the brain that deeply and unconsciously affect our ethical premises; from these roots morality evolved as an instinct (p. 5)…Commitment is attained by ceremonies, in which the arbitrary rules and sacred objects are consecrated and repetitively defined until they seem as much a part of human nature as love or hunger (p189).” The Nazis and the Jacobins forgot.

At funerals, lest they forget, even atheists in the presence of spiritual leaders gather at gravesites to sprinkle flowers. Even atheists build Pharaonic mausoleums to enshrine the likes of Lenin, lest they forget. Faithfully, we still maintain religious mnemonic rituals and icons from the past—rituals and icons beautifully crafted by human creativity and our mammalian limbic system in order to keep our memory “green.” In the twenty-first century we still perform the rites of Ramadan, Passover, Easter, and Thanksgiving to engender a sense of the sacred lest we forget the loving rules of community, hope and gratitude. Even medical student mnemonic devices work better if they are ribald and in rhyme, in other words if they are linked to the students’ limbic as well as lexical brains.

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As suggested in the Preface, even since the Enlightenment, underneath our rational postmodern sophisticated radar screen, human cultural spirituality has continued to evolve. The descendants of Alfred Nobel who grew rich selling the world explosives are today as invisible as the first Troy. Only Nobel’s spiritual legacy of prizes for beauty, truth and peace live on. In the last 50 years ever larger groups of nations peacefully cooperate with each other, until in the last decade even American medical schools and the life sciences in general have made an increasing effort to rescue the baby of spirituality from being thrown out with the religious bathwater (Miller and Thorsen, 2003).

For the last 100 years the Olympic games have provided an inspiring example of cultural evolution and of how mammalian play can trump the efforts of political science to render “religious” reverence for national identities benign. The glory of the Olympics, like the glory of mature spirituality, is that deep reverence for national flags and pride in sacred national anthems is preserved without danger to others. Through empirical experimentation over a century, not by scientists but by people who like games, a cultural formula has evolved in which spiritual agape can coexist with “religious” identity. Even in the 1956MelbourneOlympic water polo finals betweenHungaryand theSoviet Unionwhere the negative emotions could not have been more intense, nobody was really hurt, let alone killed.

On the first day of the Olympic Games, in a reptilian zero-sum battle for a very limited number of medals, nationalistic tribes march into the stadium in military formation, each nation clad in distinctive uniforms and proudly holding their sacred totemic flags high. For days on end they battle. But, as with mammalian play, such battle is nontoxic. Through a miracle of positive emotion, to a watching world, Olympic athletes are just playing games—something reptiles are unable to do.

Then, at the end of the games, at the grand closing, the center of the stadium is no longer filled with competing regiments, but instead with a polyglot congregation of milling humanity hugging each other, sharing each other’s uniforms and exchanging addresses. Winners cannot be distinguished from losers. When nobody takes themselves too damned seriously, everybody is winner.

Social Darwinists take notice. At least in the Olympics, Franciscan “peace” is a survival strategy superior to war. Conceivably, those who finish first might have more progeny than those who finish last. But just to have marched into that stadium at all provides self-esteem for a lifetime. Everyone in the Olympic village is an alpha male or female. With similar safe guards of dialogue and play, religion may also learn how not be a danger to humanity.

Another clear example of the survival value of spirituality in the modern world was the decade of 1975 to 1985 inCambodia. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge gained absolute control of the country and systematically and for most idealistic “Marxist” reasons in the world tried to abolish Buddhism and familial love. Sentimental attachment to a family member or to a temple was believed to impede rational rapid social progress and was punishable by death. Pol Pot’s idealistic regime hoped to instill in young children, separated from their families, an attachment to agrarian simplicity and to create a society without memory of urban decadence, monastic indolence, or money. Thoreau, Jefferson and Gandhi might have possibly admired Pol Pot’s ends—but not his means.

Four years later when the Khmer Rouge regime fell, the Cambodian children, now orphans, remained passionately attached to what remained of their extended families; and Buddhism rapidly asserted itself as ahigh pointof village life. It was not from do-gooder central planning; it is how human children are made. Sure, children do terrible things. The Lord of the Flies is metaphorically true and child murderers exist, but not in the numbers of the Cambodian children who valued love and spirituality over a rationally, but heartlessly, planned society.

Is this miracle of phylogenetic evolution, as the Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) hinted, due to a lonely, loving God patiently waiting until an evolving universe can provide Him/Her companions? I, personally, rather doubt it. In time science may reveal such touching faith to be no more than metaphor but a metaphor underscoring a powerful truth. Just as sometimes through the exercise of free will, we can substitute wonderfully tasty Twinkies and ice cold Coca Cola for our biologic need for fiber, boring broccoli and the four basic food groups; just so for a while we can substitute dispassionate science for the positive emotions of the mammalian human heart. Over the long haul, however, our survival depends not just on “good ideas” and clever marketing, but also on following the laws of biological and spiritual nutrition. Religions and science, too, help us to survive, but not for long if they lack compassion.


Phylogeny charts the development of the race. Ontogeny charts the development of the individual. Most of our organs decline after puberty; only the human brain -and thus our capacity for integrated prose and passion — continues biologically as well as experientially to develop until age 60 (Benes, 19___). Therefore, with this phylogenetic introduction, I shall now review the ontogeny of positive emotions and individual faith development in greater detail.

In a masterful study psychoanalyst Ana Maria Rizzuto studied how children develop their private image of God. In so doing she charted the development of preverbal spiritual ideation. “Around the age of three the child matures cognitively to the point of being concerned with animistic notions of causality…Through questioning he tries to arrive at a final answer and is not satisfied with scientific explanations. The child wants to know who moves the clouds and why. If told the wind, he wants to know who moves the wind, and so on…This ceaseless chaining of causes inevitably ends in a ‘superior being.’” (Rizzuto, 1979, p. 44).

Rizzuto, then, goes on to caution, “The fictive creations of our minds—those of creative artists for example—have as much regulatory potential in our psychic function as people around us in the flesh…Human life is impoverished when these innumerable experiences vanish under the repression of a psychic realism that does violence to the ceaseless creativity of the human mind.” (Rizzuto, p. 47) As we mature, we forget that we once held in our mind’s eye the vivid image of the God of our understanding. With gentle urging Rizzuto was able to get adults to draw what most children and many preliterate people can draw without urging—their image of God. Of course, none of them looked quite the same, and a lot of the drawings resembled family members.

Increasingly, literacy exerts the same effect on children’s faith development as the invention of the alphabet and printing exerted on the development of mankind. After first grade, children learn to abandon animism. No longer is the child’s mind filled with the “right brain” elemental, supernatural, uncanny, and sacred imagery that fills both the minds of illiterate hunter-gatherers and of postmodern three to four-year-olds with omen, portent and awestruck wonder. During grammar school the once marvelous reality of Santa Claus vanishes as progressively and as inexorably as the Cheshire cat inAlicein Wonderland. Sometimes the poet, the dreamer, the shaman, and the religious mystic retain the capacity to regress to the mind of the three-year-old to and, thus, retrieve early nonverbal creative powers from domination by the “left brain” rational prose. For many such literally visionary individuals help us to understand more fully our tenuous place in the universe.

One of the drawbacks of human faith development, however, is that what was once vibrant in our hearts becomes ever more rigidly petrified to fit into the culturally formatted “floppy discs” in our brains. Remember how the Victorians immobilized their bodies into tightly laced corsets and draped the legs of pianos last they arouse desire. Planning can be as dangerous to emotion as emotion is to planning.

Obviously, there is also an upside to adult development. With maturity our positive emotions become increasingly linked to community welfare, not individual salvation. In one study of the “wishes” of adults, at age twenty-five 92% of all wishes were directed toward the individual himself; but by age sixty only 29% of wishes were directed towards the self; 32% of wishes were directed toward the family and 21% toward mankind in general (Frenkel-Brunswik, 1936). These Depression era 25 year-olds, of course, matured to become the parents that were so horrified by what they saw as the self-centered Flower Children of the 1960’s. Like adolescents from the beginning of time these Flower Children talked the talk but did not always walk the walk. Since the beginning of history fifty year-olds have regarded twenty year-olds as selfish. The fifty year-olds forget that being selfish is part of a young adult’s development job in developing a self worth sharing.

This study of wishes was conducted by an influential Berkeleyprofessor, Else Frankel-Brunswik who also influenced a Berkeleycolleague, Erik Erikson. Erikson titled this midlife transition of youth into middle age, Generativity and saw the virtue of midlife as developing Care toward the next generation. Put differently, as we abandon our own wishes for Barbie-dolls and the beat of reindeer’s hooves upon our roofs, we replace these dreams with the heartwarming task of filling the Christmas stockings of our children. That is how the developing brains of human adults are programmed. Our sexual prowess declines after sixteen; our muscular power declines steadily after twenty-five. The capacity of our brains to care for people outside of our kinship pattern develops all of our lives.

With maturity comes an increasing ability to not only modulate but to also differentiate our negative emotions. For example, when are our tears from anger and we should push people away and when are our tears from grief and we should hold people tight? This is a distinction that most grandparents can make and many ten-year-olds cannot.

Jean Piaget, the great Swiss child psychologist, pointed out that children’s morality—quite independently of religious instruction—matured from primitive selfish belief into rule bound piety into adult altruism (Piaget, 1932). This ontogenetic maturational process is strikingly similar to the phylogenetic maturation of the nomadic into the urban faith traditions already outlined. Piaget used a child’s rules for playing marbles to illustrate how children’s rules of morality evolved beyond the three-year-olds’ self-centered amorality (e.g. might makes right, God is on the side of the big battalions, and almighty Zeus can sleep with anyone he chooses). Between ages 6-10, rules for marbles, like The Ten Commandments, become engraved in metaphorical stone. Piaget called this developmental stage of thinking concrete operations. There is only one way to play marbles, and all other ways are wrong. The concrete retaliatory rights of others become paramount. The black-white Old Testament Talion laws of early urban development (e.g., an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth) take over. Justice trumps care.Vietnamvillages, like Torquemanda’s heretics, had to be destroyed in order to “save” them.

In adolescence both limbic passion and neocortical intellectual intolerance become tamed by that facet of cognitive development that the French developmentalist, Jean Piaget, termed “formal operations.” Adolescents discover that here are many ways to play marbles; and losers, too, deserve mercy and applause. Motivation and cause became important. Breaking one cup on purpose deserves more severe punishment than breaking ten cups by mistake. What is more, Piaget noted that such moral maturation takes place as a result of nonverbal schoolyard and biological development and not from lexical “Sunday school” instruction.

When it comes to the maturation of an individual’s morality, the universal rules of Homo sapiens embryology trump culture. Through formal operations the communist inLaos can become as much my neighbor as the Republican Baptist next door. Through formal operations Nannerl Keohane, the very mature former president of Duke, and unlike the other presidents of her regional athletic conference, could declare that the needs of American college athletics trumped what would be profitable for Duke’s athletic programs.

Formal operations permit us to shift from the specific to the abstract. The Golden Rule provides one such example. Like the Golden Rule the capacity for formal operations occurred late in the phylogeny of our species, as it occurs late in the evolution of the individual. Formal operations allow us to class both members of Hamas and the Boston Tea Party as freedom fighters and as terrorists. Or in the immortal words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo formal operations allow us to discover, “We have met the enemy and they are us.

Just as Galileo’s telescope and Francis Bacon’s experimental method forced devout Christians to abandon some beliefs and gave birth to the Enlightenment, just so Piaget observed that by the time children are in their teens they develop the capacity to place general principles over concrete thinking. This may mean understanding that God, Allah, Jaweh, and Higher Power all mean the same thing.

Our capacity to plan and act maturely are powerfully affected by our frontal lobes. Although the frontal lobes are often identified as the most recently evolved part of the human neocortex, recent studies of neural brain structure (Nauta 197?) suggest that the frontal brain gyri especially the prefrontal gyri most relevant to emotion are actually as much part of the limbic system as they are part of the neocortex. Until we are 60 years old our frontal lobes become ever more securely wired to the rest of our limbic system. In more scientific language the myelinization (insulation) of the connecting neural tracts increases with age (Benes, 2001). Thus, with adult maturation, planning becomes ever more smoothly linked with passion; we become more like “grown-ups” and less like adolescents. Elopement is so romantic and exciting, but if the marriage is going to last for more than a few weeks, relatives with lingering gratitude are so much more fun than relatives with lingering resentments and wedding presents do facilitate setting up a home.

Maturation, however, does not take place overnight. Adolescents, like religions, strive for identity and unity. Adolescents need dogma. “If you do not believe your identity is your only identity, you have no identity.” “Three cheers for Harvard; to Hell with Yale” goes one adolescent fight song. Religious communities, like adolescent cliques, are deliberately homogenous. Such communities tend to exclude or even attack other communities. Thus, the very Darwinian British anthropologist Richard Dawkins (1997, p. 26) was not entirely wrong that cultural memes of intolerant religions, like warring adolescent “patriots’ of all ages are analogous to a dangerous virus. Both adolescence and identity formation, however, reflect important developmental stages.

Identity formation, however, is the task of youth not maturity. A study of 700 religious conversion experiences revealed that 36% occurred before 15 years and another 48% occurred between 15 and 21. Only 16% such conversion experiences took place after the age of 21! (Brandon, E., 1960) Religion, nationalism, and identity all provide secure beliefs on which to build; but with maturity it is well that nationalism give way to internationalism. As both George W. Bush and the Taliban have learned to their sorrow, maintaining too secure a religious identity diminishes one’s ability to be trusted by elders from contrasting faith traditions

Jane Loevinger (1976), a developmental psychologist at WashingtonUniversityo St. Louis, and James Fowler (1981), a developmental psychologist and theologian at EmoryUniversity, both devoted their lives to carrying Piaget’s ideas further into adult development. In Loevinger’s model, belief evolves into trust, and piety evolves into tolerance. Loevinger asks us to focus on three stages: the Conformist, the Conscientious, and the Autonomous. In Loevinger’s Conformist Stages: behavior is evaluated in terms of concrete externals rather than in terms of emotions. You love a woman if you give her an engagement ring. You can be trusted to have a child when you have a valid marriage license. You are admirable if you enlist in the United States Marines in January 1942.Russia was the Evil Empire andIran was part of The Axis of Evil. The American flag is emblazoned with colors that don’t run, andAmerica will prevail—even over the United Nations. Most laws and most religious dogma work at this level. So do the minds of a lot of adolescents—and devout patriots in all of the world’s nations. If you are not with us, you are against us.

As individuals mature, they reach Loevinger’s Conscientious Stage. Love means you put your mate’s needs above your own lust. You can be trusted to have children when you are able to care for them properly. You learn to entertain the possibility that a man might still be admirable if in 1942 he preferred jail as a conscientious objector to killing other human beings. You value ecumenical religious services and sometimes support the United Nations over your own country’s interests.

Loevinger believed that some, but not most, adults evolve further into what she calls the Autonomous Stage. By autonomous she meant trusting others to be autonomous. Rather than giving the hungry a fish, you teach them how to catch fish themselves. Defining love becomes more difficult than just the Golden Rule and involves the paradox of two people with different needs having to achieve solutions that satisfy both even if that means separation. You can be trusted to have children when you can trust your adolescent children to make their own mistakes. As a former unarmed Catholic chaplain atGuadalcanal, you can still believe that the Buddhist chaplain on the Japanese side has spirituality as deep as yours; and as a conscientious objector in World War II you can respect your granddaughter who with patriotic conviction volunteered for combat duty in the “liberation” ofIraq . In other words, the autonomous stage involves a profound and empathic level of moral reasoning. Prose and passion, obedience and desire are seamlessly integrated. True, we are programmed to love our neighbor; sometimes, however, we need both biologic maturation and cultural maturation to remind us to do so. Thus, both psychobiological and cultural formatting can catalyze spiritual development.

Let me illustrate such development with the life of John Newton. Over his early adulthood John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, evolved from being an adolescent seaman who used to revel in antichristian blasphemy and verse to become the very “Christian” captain of a slave ship who flogged his seamen for blaspheming. As a young man John Newton himself had suffered the humiliation and iron shackles of slavery, yet once “over thirty” he perceived no conflict in becoming a captain who transported to the colonies, and then marketed shackled slaves. Like the “Christian” authors of the Declaration of Independence, John Newton penned his hymn, of gratitude to the “God who saved a wretch like me” without empathy for the “wretches” it excluded. To John Newton, as to Thomas Jefferson, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness need not apply if you were the wrong color or valuable merchandise.

In short, human brains and human culture take time to mature. It took both the historical unfolding ofEngland’s Enlightenment and the maturation of his own central nervous system for the obediently Christian ex-slave captain John Newton to become in late adulthood a passionate and dedicated abolitionist. For him the developmental process took forty years! Maturation and spirituality unfold together but not very fast.

In a careful study of twins, noted psychiatrist Kenneth Kendler (1997) observed that high levels of “personal devotion” (i.e., frequent church attendance, prayer and seeking spiritual comfort) were strongly and positively correlated with increasing age. In the same study, however, the older adults became, the weaker their religious “conservatism” (i.e., their literal belief in the Bible and in a belief that God rewards and punishes) and the greater became their spiritual inclusiveness. In other words, with maturity, the patriarchal model of you please God only if you meet His expectations gave way to a more maternal spirituality of forgiveness and of unconditional love. Mature wisdom understands that you can have care without justice, but not justice without care.

In late adulthood cognitive development continues beyond Piaget’s formal operations into “post-formal operations” (Commons, 19___?). As I suggested with the example of Ambassador Forsythe, such post-formal operations involve the appreciation of irony and of paradox. By paradox I mean learning to trust a universe in which the uncertainty principle is a basic axiom of quantum physics, in which good and evil exist side by side, in which innocent children die from bubonic plague and in which to keep it you have to give it away. As in quantum mechanics, certainty is an impossibility. Only faith and trust remain. It took the Catholic Church two millennia of cultural evolution and John Paul II eighty years of personal maturation, for aVaticanPope finally to refer to Jews and Muslims as “brothers.” If the bad news is that maturation takes a long time, the good news is that once you learn to ride a bicycle or fully understand that all women and men are created equal, it is hard to forget.

With maturation, then, our communal image of God must become increasingly intangible, universal, and beyond either my or your ready comprehension. Over time, just as evolving humanity is better shielded by science from capricious famine and infant deaths, just so its faith traditions– once dependent on the protective but negative emotions of abject fear and righteous anger—can give way to the positive emotions of faith, hope, love, joy, forgiveness and compassion —the six positive emotions whose sociobiologic underpinnings will serve as foci for the last six chapters of this book.



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