Where all religious studies must begin

Several generations ago, toward the end of his long career, German philologist, orientalist, and lifelong student of world religion Max Mueller (1823-1900) dared to proclaim, “There never was a false religion, unless you consider a child a false person.”

With that bold statement in mind—indeed for more than a few, perhaps demanding some reasonable explanation—we shall begin our endorsement of it by pointing out that the African male mountain gorilla, at some four hundred fifty pounds in the wild, is now so heavy that ape or not, it can no longer live in the trees but long ago was forced to move to the ground, save only that its lighter females and their young may still climb about the stouter, lower branches.

And now we might note that in the modern laboratory, the gorilla’s genes and ours turn out to be 97.1 percent the same.

Which would be most impressive were it not for the fact that the genes of the African chimpanzee and ours are known to be 98.4 percent the same—making it our closest living relative.

Not that we descended from either, of course; but only that we three, along with a few other relatively heavy primates—all of whom can stand upright down here and will readily do so, such as when they might need to peer over tall vegetation, and may even walk that way, if only for a short distance, should they need to carry something—are believed to have descended from the same genetic stock.

Which brings us to something significant about a long-extinct primate that was first discovered back in 1924 during mining operations in South Africa. Promptly given the scientific name, Australopithecus africanus—Latin for ‘Africa’s southern ape’—the name has since turned out to be rather unfortunate; for hundreds of other Australopithecene remains found to date reveal that this creature, about the size of a modern chimpanzee, actually inhabited many parts of Africa.

1. Australopithecus africanus

A. africanus, which appears to have lived from some four million years ago to about a million, is the earliest known upright-walking primate for which science has yet turned up any complete skulls; and their cranial portion indicate an average brain size of some four hundred cubic centimeters—about the modern chimp’s max—while their overall contour points to an expansion of the cerebrum or ‘forebrain’: in all creatures, the area devoted to reasoning.

Which in turn, brings us to our own genus of primate, Homo—already common enough in Africa, say, two and a half million years ago. Homo may or may not have descended from Australopithecus; but in any case, the two are found to have initially been about the same size, to have ranged over the same territory, and to have competed for the same food, water and so forth—right up to the ultimate disappearance of the Australopithecenes from the fossil record a million years ago.

2. Homo rudolphensis, one of the earliest species of Homo, whose cranial capacity exceeded five hundred c.c.’s—again, with a noticeable increase in the area of the forebrain.
3. H. habilis, a somewhat smaller, pygmy like species, is known to have reached seven hundred fifty.
4. H. ergaster, a five foot tall, hundred forty pound species whose remains indicate that it evolved in Africa soon afterward with an early cranial capacity of eight hundred fifty, appears to have been the first primate to consider making its home in caves, to conceive of fashioning stone tools and weapons, and perhaps of greatest importance to a refugee from the trees who hoped to spend not only its days, but its nights safely on the ground, to think of using fire for protection; while it must have developed into a formidable species indeed, since some of its 1.8-million year old remains, with a cranial capacity exceeding a full thousand c.c.’s, have been found as far away as Southeast Asia.
5. H. heidelbergensis attained twelve hundred, as typified by this three hundred thousand year old specimen from Greece.
6: H. neanderthalensis, which left behind many skulls in the sixteen hundred range, appears to have developed the biggest primate brain of all before its ultimate extinction some thirty-five thousand years ago. This specmen from Israel, with a cranial capacity of 1740 c.c., has the largest Neanderthal cranium yet to be found.

So now on to the species that followed the Neanderthals: our own H. sapiens, with an average cranial capacity of only thirteen fifty or so—granted that we’ve occasionally been known to exceed two thousand!

7. H. sapiens

Our brain might not seem very big compared to the Neanderthals; but then, consider that ours has to wait until it has left the relative security of the womb just to finish growing—if all goes well, a full year later—lest our steadily expanding cranium reach a point where we might no longer make it through the mother’s birth canal!

And after all, our brain still turns out to be plenty big where it counts: in that area specially given over to reasoning—with no other creature even approaching ours in that regard.

So what has all this got to do with the study of religion?

Well, it’s obvious that our brain was once much smaller and less complex than it is now; that, say, forty thousand years ago during Paleolithic times—perhaps better known as the Old Stone Age—our brain was still a long way from developing the kind of neurological complexity that would eventually make it possible for our mind to turn inward upon itself, so to speak, and perform self-criticism; that back then, we were aware of things only in a cursory way—much like an animal, or a human infant—rather than yet being able to reason about them very much; and finally, that all of our current beliefs about the world—including those to which we might now adhere religiously—have evolved or developed in a perfectly logical manner from that earlier state.

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