Table of contents + Prologue

A Brief History of Man

When and why we cre­at­ed God, and how belief trans­forms our evolution. 

Table of contents:

Part 1.

Belief – 2 ½ mil­lion to 25,000 years ago


Chap­ter 1. Where do we come from?

Chap­ter 2. Induc­tion: our first evo­lu­tion­ary milestone.

Chap­ter 3. David Hume, and the so say prob­lem of induc­tion.

Chap­ter 4. Homo habilis to Homo sapi­ens.

Stone tools – Fire – Emi­gra­tion – Dissatisfaction

Chap­ter 5. Cave paintings.

Chap­ter 6. How we date the past.

Chap­ter 7. Language.


Chap­ter 8. Reli­gious rituals.

Bur­ial of the dead – cave paint­ing – “Venus” fig­urines – our pop­u­la­tion explodes –the extinc­tion of the Neanderthals

Chap­ter 9. Belief: our sec­ond evo­lu­tion­ary milestone.

Part 2. 

God– 25,000 to 5,000 years ago.


Chap­ter 10. The first vil­lages and agri­cul­ture: our third evo­lu­tion­ary milestone.

The end­ing of the Ice Age — agriculture

Chap­ter 11. The law.

The ear­li­est legal codes – a moral uni­verse – an oral legal code

Part 3. 

Man– 5,000 years ago to the present.


Chap­ter 12. Athens: the sec­u­lar state.

Chap­ter 13. The sun, the moon and the stars: What goes on in the heavens?

Chap­ter 14. Knowl­edge, and the sci­en­tif­ic revolution.

Dem­ocri­tus and the atom - Coper­ni­cus – Johannes Kepler – Galileo and the sci­en­tif­ic method

Chap­ter 15. Aris­to­tle, Anselm and the onto­log­i­cal argument.

the three Laws of thought ‑Anselm of Canterbury

Chap­ter 16. Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty: Plato’s legacy.

Pythago­ras and Par­menides — Plato’s forms

Chap­ter 17. Free will: Epi­cu­rus’ sleight of hand.

Dem­ocri­tus’ atomism

Chap­ter 18. From the super­nat­ur­al to the scientific.

Orga­nized reli­gion – the Milankovitch cycles

Chap­ter 19. Beyond God: Niet­zsche and Socrates.

Socrates’ akra­sia


Select bib­li­og­ra­phy.

Appen­dix 1.


When we look at the chaos across the globe, and back through the his­to­ry of man, an unavoid­able ques­tion leaps out; is there some­thing inher­ent­ly malev­o­lent about reli­gion? Has not every war that has ever been fought been waged in the name of God? Far from pro­vid­ing us with the answer to any of our prayers, is reli­gion not in fact the cause of many, if not most, of our prob­lems? Sure­ly all of thisis God’s fault? Nietzsche’s response to all which, and his favourite joke, was to quote Voltaire, who said,

God’s only excuse is that He doesn’t exist.

Which is all well and good and seems to be self-explana­to­ry. But the prob­lem with this line of thought is that as soon as you have allowed these ques­tions to form, you instinc­tive­ly fol­low them up with anoth­er. If reli­gion isso obvi­ous­ly harm­ful, how is it that so many soci­eties have always orga­nized them­selves around it? And you nat­u­ral­ly fol­low that up with, haveall soci­eties all been cen­tred around a set of reli­gious beliefs? And as soon as you begin to look into that, you quick­ly real­ize that the answer is yes. And you do not have to have a PhD in Biol­o­gy to see how fatal­ly under­mined your orig­i­nal line of ques­tion­ing has been rendered.

Evo­lu­tion by nat­ur­al selec­tion works through a series of tiny, ran­dom changes that even­tu­al­ly pro­duce char­ac­ter traits. If a trait is use­ful, then the indi­vid­u­als that have them will be bet­ter equipped to sur­vive, so they will be more suc­cess­ful at the all impor­tant repro­duc­ing that every species relies on for its sur­vival. And those traits that made them stronger will become increas­ing­ly com­mon. So, as all human soci­eties haveorga­nized them­selves around their reli­gious beliefs, then not only must reli­gious belief be advan­ta­geous, it must, nec­es­sar­i­ly, be one of the main rea­sons we have been so suc­cess­ful as a species.

So how do we explain this conun­drum? After all, an unimag­in­able amount of harm real­ly has been done in the name of reli­gion. And yet, demon­stra­bly, it must be fun­da­men­tal­ly use­fulto us. How do we square this circle?


(In this con­text, Reli­gionand beliefare effec­tive­ly syn­ony­mous. In the­o­ry, you can have your own, per­son­al set of reli­gious beliefs that you prac­tice inde­pen­dent­ly of any orga­nized reli­gion. But in real­i­ty, we only ever prac­tice our beliefs in the com­pa­ny of oth­ers. So, if only for con­sis­ten­cy, I shall be stick­ing to the less loaded term of belief.)

The only way to unrav­el this is by doing exact­ly the same thing that we would do with any oth­er kind of ques­tion. We have to sit down and exam­ine what­ev­er evi­dence we have, in an objec­tive and sci­en­tif­ic way, to draw what­ev­er con­clu­sions it pro­duces. And the only way to do that is by untan­gling belieffrom God.

Because we begin to prac­tice belief at a par­tic­u­lar moment in time, and for a very spe­cif­ic rea­son. As soon as we do so, our evo­lu­tion is trans­formed. And almost over night, we evolve into the sorts of ful­ly-fledged human beings that we rec­og­nize today. But it is only much lat­er that we cre­ate God, fash­ion­ing him in our image, and we do so for very dif­fer­ent and spe­cif­ic ends.

By look­ing sep­a­rate­ly at the indi­vid­ual his­to­ries of belief, and then of God, we will come to appre­ci­ate the very dif­fer­ent rea­sons that we brought them each into life. And thus to under­stand the very dif­fer­ent func­tions that they each per­form for us. Because if we want to under­stand what it is that ele­vates us as a species above the rest of the ani­mal king­dom, it is here that we need to focus.

Once we chart that ear­ly his­to­ry of ours, it quick­ly becomes obvi­ous quite how piv­otal­ly impor­tant belief is for that evo­lu­tion. As a mat­ter of fact, it is what our evo­lu­tion cul­mi­nates with, and is the expla­na­tion for that explo­sion in our devel­op­ment, which takes place around six­ty thou­sand years ago.

For some two and a half mil­lion years, we evolve at a steady rate. Which is impres­sive, when com­pared to all of the oth­er crea­tures around us. But in ret­ro­spect, we seem dur­ing that time to have been evolv­ing at a rel­a­tive­ly slow and pon­der­ous pace. Because, around six­ty thou­sand years ago, that evo­lu­tion sud­den­ly explodes into life and every­thing changes. The rea­son that change comes about is because it is then that we begin to prac­tice belief.

Over the past few decades, we have man­aged to unearth an enor­mous amount of evi­dence detail­ing what those changes to our devel­op­ment were. What they mean for our dai­ly lives, and what they tell us about how our evo­lu­tion pro­gress­es. So that today, we are in the unique posi­tion of being able to join up all of those var­i­ous dots.

This puts us in an incred­i­bly priv­i­leged posi­tion. We are the first peo­ple ever to have lived, who can look back in time and describe, in a sci­en­tif­ic and objec­tive way, where we came from, and how we got here. To unpick, in oth­er word, exact­ly what it is that makes us who and what we are. And the only way to ful­ly fath­om what it is that makes us human is by inves­ti­gat­ing why it is we that we have this com­pul­sion to prac­tice our beliefs. This will explain why, once we begin to prac­tice them, we imme­di­ate­ly become so incom­pa­ra­bly stronger. And why it is that, some con­sid­er­able time lat­er, we then fash­ion a God, care­ful­ly shap­ing him in our image. In oth­er words, the only way to prop­er­ly under­stand what makes us human, is by con­duct­ing a sci­en­tif­ic explo­ration of belief, and then of God.

But there has been a huge resis­tance to look­ing at either God, or belief, in a sci­en­tif­ic way. To sub­ject­ing them both to rig­or­ous, sci­en­tif­ic analy­sis, using all of the myr­i­ad tools we today have at our dis­pos­al. And in order to under­stand what lies behind that reluc­tance, we need first to look briefly at the way in which our atti­tude towards sci­ence and reli­gion has changed over that last cen­tu­ry or so.

After the pub­li­ca­tion of Darwin’s On The Ori­gin of Speciesin 1859, there was a pal­pa­ble sense of reli­gion com­ing under attack, and of sci­ence being pit­ted against reli­gion. Either, you accept­ed the mate­r­i­al evi­dence thrown up by sci­ence, which clear­ly con­tra­dict­ed the claims made by any of the reli­gions, and specif­i­cal­ly the idea that God had cre­at­ed an unchang­ing world. Or, you reject­ed the “claims” made by sci­ence, and insist­ed instead on hold­ing on to what­ev­er truths your reli­gious con­vic­tions pro­vid­ed you with. That sense of Us and Them, of sci­ence and reli­gion being two oppos­ing and con­tra­dic­to­ry forces, was one of the prin­ci­ple char­ac­ter­is­tics of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. And it was the prod­uct of two sep­a­rate lega­cies from the cen­tu­ry before.

First, Dar­win was part of a nine­teenth cen­tu­ry quar­tet com­pris­ing of him, Marx, Freud and Niet­zsche, all of whom came to have an enor­mous influ­ence on the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry that fol­lowed. And all of whom, very unusu­al­ly, were athe­ists. This is a com­plete his­tor­i­cal anom­aly. The vast major­i­ty of the world’s most influ­en­tial fig­ures, whether through­out the his­to­ry of cul­ture or the his­to­ry of sci­ence, were moved to do what they did to bet­ter under­stand the glo­ry of God, and to cel­e­brate the won­der of His cre­ation. They were each as pas­sion­ate about their beliefs as every­body else around them was. Indeed, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly large num­ber of them could com­fort­ably be described as mys­tics, from Pythago­ras, Socrates and Pla­to to Kepler, New­ton, Spin­oza and Wittgenstein.

And sec­ond, the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry had wit­nessed the cul­mi­na­tion of the Roman­tic move­ment, and one of the cen­tral ideas at the core of that had been the con­vic­tion that nine­teenth cen­tu­ry man was the cul­mi­na­tion of our species, and rep­re­sent­ed the very apex of civ­i­liza­tion. Proof of which, it was con­tend­ed, were all of the dis­cov­er­ies that sci­ence had made over the pre­vi­ous cou­ple of hun­dred years. There was a pal­pa­ble sense that sci­ence was on the verge of answer­ing all of our ques­tions and of solv­ing all our problems.

These two ele­ments came to coa­lesce, so that one of the “prob­lems” that sci­ence seemed to have now solved was reli­gion. Hence, for many peo­ple at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, one of the tri­umphs of mod­ern man was that, thanks to sci­ence, he could now free him­self from the shack­les of orga­nized reli­gion. As, any moment now, sci­ence would pro­vide us with the defin­i­tive expla­na­tion for every­thing in the uni­verse, and how each of its com­po­nents fit­ted together.

But as the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry unfold­ed, that sense of tri­umphal­ism was com­plete­ly upend­ed. On the one hand, the unpar­al­leled chaos and vio­lence unleashed in the new cen­tu­ry seem to sug­gest that, if any­thing, mod­ern man had tak­en a giant leap back­wards rather than for­wards. And on the oth­er, the two great dis­cov­er­ies of twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry sci­ence, Rel­a­tiv­i­ty and quan­tum physics, not only failed to answer any of those last, few remain­ing ques­tions. They seemed, as far as any­body could make out, to throw up a pletho­ra of unfath­omable new ones. Far from clear­ing any­thing up, the pic­ture of the world that mod­ern sci­ence was pro­duc­ing seemed to be incom­pre­hen­si­bly murky and sig­nif­i­cant­ly morecon­fus­ing.

Not only that, but peo­ple began to notice that the trans­for­ma­tion into a large­ly sec­u­lar world that so many peo­ple had pre­dict­ed for the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry had failed to take place. And, look­ing at the world that they lived in, they saw that the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple were every bit as pas­sion­ate about their beliefs as peo­ple had always been. It was only in a tiny cor­ner of the globe, in the mass media and down cer­tain cor­ri­dors of acad­e­mia, that peo­ple had become pre­dom­i­nant­ly secular.

Which then result­ed in a reac­tion againstthe idea of see­ing sci­ence and reli­gion as being inher­ent­ly oppo­si­tion­al. It waspos­si­ble to prac­tice sci­ence ratio­nal­ly and reli­ably, and to hold and prac­tice your reli­gious beliefs in pri­vate. What you thought, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, and what you believed in, spir­i­tu­al­ly, were two entire­ly sep­a­rate enti­ties. Not only that, but so they must remain. It was just as impor­tant, it was now thought, to keep your beliefs out of your sci­en­tif­ic enquiries, as it was to avoid mak­ing the mis­take of allow­ing your reli­gious cer­tain­ties to be point­less­ly sub­ject­ed to the rigours of sci­en­tif­ic analysis.

So that, instead of being seen as oppo­si­tion­al, sci­ence and belief were now viewed as occu­py­ing two com­plete­ly dis­tinct spheres, that did not, and must not, inter­sect. There was even a name for this, which Stephen Jay Gould came up with in an essay he wrote in 1997; NOMA, or Non-over­lap­ping Mag­is­te­ria.

All of which sounds like a sen­si­ble and even a gen­er­ous atti­tude to have adopt­ed. But as an emi­nent evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist, Gould of all peo­ple real­ly ought to have known bet­ter. Because what this did was to pre­vent us from con­duct­ing pre­cise­ly the kind of sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion that we need to do if we want to find out what it is that is so use­fulabout belief. And why it was that, much lat­er, we then came to cre­ate God. In effect, it delayed us from more speed­i­ly piec­ing togeth­er all of the evi­dence that has start­ed to sur­face over the last cen­tu­ry or so.

Because all the evi­dence that we have now amassed real­ly does place us in this remark­able and gen­uine­ly unique posi­tion. On the one hand, there are areas of enquiry, and tools to delve into them, that were unavail­able to us in any oth­er epoch. From radio­met­ric dat­ing and DNA analy­sis, to satel­lite imag­ing and com­put­er map­ping. And on the oth­er, any­one with access to a com­put­er and the Inter­net can have instan­ta­neous and unlim­it­ed access to pret­ty much any of that moun­tain­ous data.

All of which means, that for the first time in our his­to­ry, we are now in the extra­or­di­nar­i­ly excit­ing posi­tion of being able to answer what is prob­a­bly the old­est ques­tions that has ever occurred to us; where do we come from? 

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(NB. if you get sent to a link for an ear­li­er ver­sion of the book, also called A Brief His­to­ry of Man, send me a mes­sage on the con­tact me page, and I’ll for­ward you the cor­rect pdf.)