Table of contents + Prologue

A Brief History of the Last 2 1/2 Million Years

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

Table of contents:

Part 1.

Reli­gious Belief – 2 ½ mil­lion to 25,000 years ago


Chap­ter 1. Where do we come from?

Chap­ter 2. Induc­tive Rea­son: our first evo­lu­tion­ary milestone.

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

Chap­ter 4. Homo habilis to Homo sapi­ens.

Chap­ter 5. Cave paintings.

Chap­ter 6. How we date the past.

Chap­ter 7. Language.

Chap­ter 8. Reli­gious rituals.

Chap­ter 9. Reli­gious Belief: our sec­ond evo­lu­tion­ary milestone.

Part 2. 

God– 25,000 to 5,000 years ago.

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

Chap­ter 11. The law.

Part 3. 

Us – 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.

Chap­ter 15. Aris­to­tle, Anselm and the onto­log­i­cal argument.

Chap­ter 16. Pla­to 1: His two wrong turns, Pythago­ras and Parmenides.

Chap­ter 17. Pla­to 2: His per­ni­cious lega­cy: spirituality.

Chap­ter 18. Free Will: Epi­cu­rus’ sleight of hand.

Chap­ter 19. From the super­nat­ur­al to the scientific.

Chap­ter 20. Beyond God: Niet­zsche and Socrates.


Select bib­li­og­ra­phy.

Appen­dix 1.


When they pared down the ques­tion as to what it means to be human, reduc­ing it to its very essence, Ibn Sina and then René Descartes arrived at remark­ably sim­i­lar ideas. The for­mer, one of the key fig­ures from the Gold­en Age of Islam, pro­posed his ‘falling man’ thought exper­i­ment in the tenth cen­tu­ry. While the lat­ter ush­ered in the Euro­pean Enlight­en­ment when he pub­lished A Dis­course on the Method in 1637, in which he puts for­ward his famous cog­i­to, ergo sumargu­ment, I think, there­fore I am.

What they were both deter­mined to do was to strip away any­thing extra­ne­ous and to bore down into our very core. What they con­clud­ed was, that the fun­da­men­tal ele­ment that makes us human is our aware­ness of our­selves as think­ing beings. Not mere­ly our abil­i­ty to think or rea­son per se, but our under­stand­ing that we have this fac­ul­ty. It is this com­bi­na­tion, of being able to rea­son, and of being con­scious of our­selves as think­ing beings, that ele­vates us and marks us out as unique.

Ever since we have been capa­ble of that process, and have had that under­stand­ing, we have been ask­ing our­selves a series of fun­da­men­tal ques­tions: where do we come from, how did we get here, and what is it that makes us who and what we are? And for thou­sands of years, a myr­i­ad of thinkers have put for­ward their own set of com­pet­ing explanations.

But over the last three or four hun­dred years, the world has gone through a series of aston­ish­ing tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tions, each of which has proved to be even more world-chang­ing than the one that pre­ced­ed it. Which togeth­er have been pro­pelling changes that are not mere­ly accel­er­at­ing, but are accel­er­at­ing at an expo­nen­tial rate. Begin­ning with the sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion in the 17th cen­tu­ry and cul­mi­nat­ing, for the moment, with the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion that we are cur­rent­ly in the midst of.

So that it is often said that if you took some­one from 16th cen­tu­ry Europe, and, at the click of your fin­gers, trans­port­ed them back a thou­sand years to the 6th cen­tu­ry, there is lit­tle that they would be con­front­ed with there that they would find either strange or star­tling. Not one of the priv­i­leged few at the cen­tre of court­ly pow­er, but a nor­mal work­ing man or woman liv­ing an unre­mark­able, aver­age life in rur­al France, Italy or Germany.

But that if you took that same, aver­age per­son from 16th cen­tu­ry Europe and trans­port­ed them five hun­dred years into the future to deposit them in the 21st. cen­tu­ry, they would lit­er­al­ly be inca­pable of com­pre­hend­ing the world that they found them­selves in. Such have been the changes in those inter­ven­ing years.

Trains, cars, planes and rock­ets, build­ings made of steel and glass ris­ing up hun­dreds of metres into the clouds above. Radio car­bon dat­ing, mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gy and genet­ics, satel­lite tech­nol­o­gy, mass spec­trom­e­try, DNA, radar, lidar, X rays, com­put­ers and, of course, the stor­ing and exchang­ing of lim­it­less amounts of infor­ma­tion, instan­ta­neous­ly, to and from any­where in the world, and beyond, via the Inter­net, cour­tesy of a device that sits in your pocket.

All of which has meant that we sud­den­ly have the where­with­al to look at one of those fun­da­men­tal ques­tions in a com­plete­ly new light. Or at least, at one ele­ment of it. For the ques­tion as to where do we come from and how did we get here has always car­ried with it a sense of imply­ing two, dis­tinct elements.

On the one hand, it looks back, phys­i­cal­ly, at our mate­r­i­al past, and asks, lit­er­al­ly, where did we start out from, and in what form? How did we evolve, by what stages, and how did we come to move from there to here?

But on the oth­er, it sug­gests a deep­er and more enig­mat­ic ques­tion; who or what put us here to begin to make that jour­ney? And to what end? What is our purpose?

Because a great deal of the ener­gy we have invest­ed into explor­ing ques­tions around who we are, and what our rela­tion­ship is to the world we live in, has been spent in try­ing to unrav­el our rela­tion­ship to the spir­i­tu­al realm that we are both con­nect­ed to, and are liv­ing sep­a­rate­ly from.

In oth­er words, that ques­tion around where do we come from and how did we get here, heads off in two, par­al­lel direc­tions. The one phys­i­cal, the oth­er metaphysical.

What has hap­pened over the last few hun­dred years is that mod­ern sci­ence has sud­den­ly pro­vid­ed us with the means to sub­stan­tial­ly answer the phys­i­cal side of that ques­tion. And, if to not yet ful­ly answer it, to be able to fill in a huge num­ber of what had pre­vi­ous­ly been large gaps. That knowl­edge that we now have about our phys­i­cal his­to­ry and our mate­r­i­al past enables us to reassess our under­stand­ing of our rela­tion­ship to that spir­i­tu­al realm. Indeed, it demands that we now com­plete­ly re-eval­u­ate it.

This then is what this book will be explor­ing. How do the dis­cov­er­ies of mod­ern sci­ence and the knowl­edge that we now have of human his­to­ry affect our under­stand­ing of our place in the world? It is then a his­to­ry of human cul­ture and an explo­ration of the light that mod­ern sci­ence shines on some of our most impor­tant and foun­da­tion­al philo­soph­i­cal ideas.

What do all these recent dis­cov­er­ies reveal about some of the prin­ci­pal ideas that have helped mould the human psy­che, many of which have demand­ed of us that we focus on the meta­phys­i­cal at the expense of the phys­i­cal? How can mod­ern sci­ence help us bridge that gap, between what we know about the phys­i­cal, and what we believe about the metaphysical?

The only way to answer any of which is to do exact­ly the same thing that we would when try­ing to answer any oth­er set of ques­tions. Name­ly, to exam­ine the evi­dence and draw what­ev­er con­clu­sions it sug­gests. The only way to do that is by untan­gling reli­gious belief from God, so that we can piece togeth­er an inde­pen­dent his­to­ry for them both.

Because we begin prac­tic­ing 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 overnight, we evolve into the sorts of ful­ly-fledged human beings we rec­og­nize today. But it is only much lat­er that we then cre­ate God, and we bring Him into being for very dif­fer­ent and very spe­cif­ic ends.

This book then presents a his­to­ry of reli­gious belief, fol­lowed by a sep­a­rate his­to­ry of God. Because once we begin to chart that ear­ly his­to­ry of ours, it quick­ly becomes obvi­ous quite how piv­otal­ly impor­tant reli­gious belief is for that evo­lu­tion. As a mat­ter of fact, it is what our evo­lu­tion cul­mi­nates with, and is the expla­na­tion for the explo­sion in our devel­op­ment which takes place from around six­ty thou­sand years ago on.

For some two and a half mil­lion years, we evolve at a steady pace. Until sud­den­ly, around six­ty and fifty thou­sand years ago, that evo­lu­tion bursts into life and every­thing changes. The rea­son that change comes about is because it is at this point 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 meant 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 to have ever 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 be able, in oth­er words, to answer that first half of that ques­tion, around our phys­i­cal his­to­ry and our mate­r­i­al past.

Which is not to say that we have now answered all of those ques­tions. On the con­trary, because the biggest change of all is our new appre­ci­a­tion of what knowl­edge is and how it works, which I shall be dis­cussing in more detail in the course of the book. What we now appre­ci­ate is that knowl­edge is nei­ther absolute nor rel­a­tive, it is pro­gres­sive. We know more today than we did yes­ter­day, and will know more again tomorrow.

This new under­stand­ing of how knowl­edge func­tions, and the rev­e­la­tions that have result­ed from those explo­sive rev­o­lu­tions in tech­nol­o­gy, mean that we real­ly do have a unique under­stand­ing of where human beings come from and how we got here. Which means we can now explore that sec­ond side to that ques­tion from a com­plete­ly new perspective.

Because all those dis­cov­er­ies that mod­ern sci­ence is mak­ing pos­si­ble allow us to con­duct this inves­ti­ga­tion into why it is we that we have this com­pul­sion to prac­tice reli­gious belief. Which will help explain why we imme­di­ate­ly become so incom­pa­ra­bly stronger as soon as we begin to do so. And why we now need to re-exam­ine what we believe and why we do so.

But there has been a huge resis­tance to look­ing at either reli­gious belief, or God, in a sci­en­tif­ic way, sub­ject­ing them both to sci­en­tif­ic analy­sis using the tools we have today to pro­duce sep­a­rate his­to­ries for them both. 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.

Sci­ence Vs Religion

After the pub­li­ca­tion of Darwin’s On The Ori­gin of Species in 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 faiths, 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 prin­ci­pal 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. 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, Pla­to and Plot­i­nus 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. And there was a pal­pa­ble sense that sci­ence was on the verge of answer­ing all our ques­tions and of solv­ing all our problems.

These two cur­rents 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 a defin­i­tive expla­na­tion for everything.

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 seemed 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 more confusing.

Not only that, but peo­ple began to notice that that trans­for­ma­tion into the 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 mod­ern world, in the mass media and down cer­tain cor­ri­dors of acad­e­mia, that peo­ple had become pre­dom­i­nant­ly secular.

Which then result­ed in a reac­tion against the idea of see­ing sci­ence and reli­gion as being inher­ent­ly oppo­si­tion­al. It waspos­si­ble to prac­tice sci­ence ratio­nal­ly and reli­ably, and to hold and prac­tise 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 so say 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 1997; NOMA, or Non-over­lap­ping Mag­is­te­ria.1

All of which sounds like a ter­ri­bly 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 if we want to find out what it is that is so use­ful about belief. And why it was that, much lat­er, we then came to cre­ate God. Which proved to be every bit as use­ful, albeit for a very dif­fer­ent end. 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? 

  1. It first appeared in an essay pub­lished in Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, in 1997, and was then elab­o­rat­ed on in Rock of Ages: Sci­ence and Reli­gion in the Full­ness of Life, by Stephen Jay Gould (Bal­lan­tine Books, 1999).

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and get the first 9 chap­ters FREE!

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