Monday, August 25, 2008

Barbara King at Chautauqua

Barbara King is Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. Her specialty is primate behavior, especially gorillas. She spoke about how the non-human apes relate to each other and suggested that these relationships reveal the origins of religion. Here's how she describes it on her website.
My newest project has taken me in exciting new directions. My latest book (Evolving God, Doubleday, January 2007) explores the deepest roots of the human religious imagination. Although I definitely do not think apes are religious, I do think that the empathy and compassion and meaning-making shown by apes in the wild and in captivity points us towards clues for understanding the precursors of religion in our earliest hominid ancestors. I trace the evidence for religious, symbolic ritual throughout human prehistory, culminating in the burial rites and art of Neandertals and Homo sapiens.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that most people found her talk confusing. Her main point wasn't at all clear. Was she really arguing that non-human ape behavior might be a precursor of religion? Was she making a connection between religion and "empathy and compassion"? If so, what is the connection?

I bought her book, Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion but I haven't had a chance to read it. I thought it might be informative to find her definition of religion. Here it is (p. 18); "Almost certainly, the most widely used and cited definition was proposed by Clifford Geertz: religion is 'a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.'"

No wonder most people found her talk confusing. Barbara King specifically notes that her definition of religion does not require "faith, belief, God, gods, spirits, eternal life, souls, or sacred texts."

The main beef I have with Barbara King's presentation comes from her response to a question from the audience. She was asked to describe her religious beliefs and she refused to do so, citing her confidence that her personal beliefs do not influence her science. I don't think that's acceptable in most science that make claims about religion but especially the field of anthropology. I think scientists have an obligation to lay their biases on the table and let outside observers judge whether such beliefs influence the work.


  1. There's an interview with her on that throws a little more light on her religious viewpoint.

  2. I can see how inference of agency, inference of causation, and the social dynamics of a troop of primates could lead to a belief in a god or nature spirit etc.

    But to coyly refuse to hypothesise how these ideas extend into Barbara Kings human experience debases the value of the science and debases the value of the religious views. A bit like running a 20 mile marathon - it doesn't count.

    Perhaps she is driven by intellectual curiosity but afraid of the consequences?