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date: 24 September 2017

Niche Construction and Religious Evolution

Summary and Keywords

In an evolutionary context neither religion nor religiosity can appear full-blown, and thus it is valuable to search for the kinds of structures, behaviors, and cognitive processes that might facilitate the appearance of such patterns in human beings. The quest for understanding the human propensity for religious behavior is aided by investigating the core role of the evolutionary processes related to the emergence of humanity. However, the majority of approaches in the field of the evolution of religious behavior, and religions themselves, rely heavily on overly reductionistic neo-Darwinian models. They seek to explain faith, religious institutions, and ritual practice primarily in terms of their relation to natural selection and their potential roles as adaptations. The niche construction approach to religious evolution provides an alternative to the primarily functionalist and reductive approach. This way of approaching the human niche, and human evolution, lays a groundwork for modeling the development of the structures (cognitive and behavioral) that can facilitate a more comprehensive, and less reductive, understanding of the human propensity for imagination, faith, and ritual. This approach suggests that a distinctively human imagination, and a uniquely human metaphysics, is a core part of being human and thus part of the explanation for human evolutionary success.

Keywords: niche construction, evolution, religion, imagination, symbol, semiosis

The Evolution of Religion?

There are a suite of approaches that seek to explain the presence and patterns of religious actions, beliefs, and institutions via evolutionary processes. Some biologist and psychologists1 have proposed that religion and religious belief originated as adaptations generated via natural (or cultural) selection to help humans organize large groups and facilitate cooperation. Others, primarily coming from a perspective labeled “cognitive science of religion” (CSR) or “evolutionary cognitive science of religion” (ECSR), whose practitioners are primarily in cognitive psychology and religious studies, philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and social and cognitive anthropology, posit that the patterns and structures of religious belief are constrained by the normal functioning of the cognitive system. They argue that the evolved human cognitive complex (e.g., being self-aware, having theory of mind) produces mechanisms/processes that promote supernatural agency detection—the creation of mental impressions that there are supernatural agents at play underlying many observed or perceived phenomena (well summarized in a 2014 volume by edited Fraser Watts and Leon Turner). However, there are also those who suggest that the emergence and evolution of religious belief and institutions are more complicated than that and not necessarily best explained as an adaptation produced via natural selection.2 There are multiple sources for reviews of these arguments,3 so I will not summarize them here. The niche construction approach to the evolution of religion falls into this final cluster and does not seek to explain religion per se as an adaptive unit or the result of a specific targeted history of selection; rather, it sees religion as one component of the human niche.

The niche construction view of the evolution of religion begins with the possibility that answers to the question of the origin of and capability of having religious belief do not lie wholly in the religious beliefs or structures themselves. Rather, in order to understand the appearance of religion in human evolutionary history we should look for the antecedents to the capacity for fully formed religious behavior that, at least partially, manifest themselves in the way in which humans successfully constructed and were shaped by various niches during the terminal portion of the Pleistocene epoch (the last 300,000–400,000 years).4 In this perspective it is assumed that a necessary prelude to having religion is the emergence of a human imagination and the embodiment of a quest for meaning as part and parcel of the distinctive human niche that has facilitated our flourishing as a species.

The human niche is the spatial and social sphere that includes the social partners, perceptual contexts, and ecologies for human individuals and communities and the many other species sympatric with humans. The human niche is the context for the lived experience of humans today as it was for earlier humans and their communities, where they shared kinship (biological and social) and social and ecological histories, and where they created and participated in shared knowledge, social and structural security, and development across the lifespan.5

By the last few hundred thousand years of the Pleistocene the human niche came to involve a range of material items that reflect both aesthetic and symbolic actions/perceptions by early humans (Homo sapiens). This reflects a capacity for symbol creation and use that underlies/precedes/forms a basis for our current ability to develop a metaphysical orientation to the world, which in turn facilitated the emergence of structured religious beliefs. The anthropologist Maurice Bloch has argued that we can see this transformation in our lineage as the move from a group of beings who engage in transactional sociality (as do most animals), even if in a very complex manner (as do many primates), to the kind of beings that add a suite of transcendental relationships to their mode of social interactions.6 In other words, we are simultaneously transactional and transcendental beings. This human reality results in a landscape of meaning and an associated imagination that acts as a system that facilitates an array of other symbolic and meaning-laden aspects of human behavior and experience that are core components of our current ways of being in the world.7

In approaching the emergence of religious capacities in a niche construction context, we need to go beyond explaining human bodies and ecologies and develop an approach that facilitates modeling an evolving system that moves human ancestors from beings who are characterized exclusively by transactional interactions to ones that are typified by transaction and transcendent ones. An explanation of this process must include the capacity for imagination and a landscape of perceptual reality wherein everything, material or not, is infused with multifaceted meaning. It is the human ability to deploy multiple and distinctive modes of responses (both transactional and transcendent) to evolutionary pressures and their concomitant influence on evolutionary landscapes that facilitates the emergence of the aptly named “sapiens” by c. 200,000–100,000 years ago and lays the basis for the development of the structured religious beliefs and institutions we have today.

Niche Construction

Evolution is a synergy of multiple processes and the current understanding of evolutionary processes is best encapsulated in the extended evolutionary synthesis outlined by the biologist Kevin Laland and colleagues.8 This contemporary understanding of how evolution works can be summarized as follows: Mutation introduces genetic variation, which in interaction with epigenetic and developmental processes produces biological variation in organisms, which may be passed from generation to generation. Natural selection shapes biological variation in response to specific constraints and pressures in the environment (sensu lato), but dynamic organism-environment interaction can result in niche construction, which changes the patterns, foci, and intensity of natural selection and creates ecological inheritance. But there is more to evolutionary processes than just the transmission and shaping of biology.9

In the context of contemporary evolutionary approaches, a niche is the structural, temporal, and social context in which a species exists. It includes space, structure, climate, nutrients, and other physical and social factors as they are experienced and restructured by organisms and via the presence of competitors, collaborators, and other agents in a shared environment.

Niche construction, the process by which organisms simultaneously shape and are shaped by their ecologies, plays a key role in human evolutionary processes via our ability to substantially modify our surroundings through behavioral means.10 Niche construction results in the shaping of niches and the organisms within them by those organisms via interactions between them and their environments. Niche construction creates feedback, with organisms engaged in niche construction modifying the evolutionary pressures acting on them, their descendants, and unrelated populations sharing the same landscape. Niche construction also creates an ecological inheritance that contributes to changes over time in the relationship between organisms and their environments. Niche construction perspectives force an integration of ecological, biological, and social processes when attempting to understand evolutionary processes, particularly with humans.11

Kevin Laland and colleagues suggest that “niche construction theory may be particularly relevant to the dynamics of cultural traits as the theory can incorporate the effects of the cultural background as a form of constructed niche.”12 Laland and colleagues note that constructing and inheriting socio-ecological contexts via human material culture (tools, symbols, institutions, etc.) is a key process in human niche construction. Strong examples of this are provided by Michael O’Brien and Kevin Laland in their reviews of the evolution of dairying by Neolithic groups in Europe and Africa and the rise of the sickle-cell allele among certain agricultural groups in West Africa.13 O’Brien and Laland illustrate niche construction by describing the shifting behavioral actions, cultural perceptions, and ecological conditions that mutually interacted to produce genetic and physiological changes, which themselves resulted in further modification to behavior, physiology, and ecologies of particular human populations. Cultural patterns and behavioral actions and perceptions can impact genetic and other biological patterns and the process of natural selection, which in turn can affect developmental outcomes, which can then feed back into the cultural patterns and behavioral actions. In human evolution biological, cultural, and ecological systems are entangled and not separate processes—thus perception and ideas, and the actions emerging from them, can be evolutionarily relevant.

Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb demonstrate that evolutionarily relevant information is transferred from one generation to the next by many interacting inheritance systems—genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic.14 Genetic inheritance takes place in the passing of gametes (primarily DNA). Epigenetic inheritance, the inheritance of molecular or structural elements outside of the DNA, is found in all organisms. This gives rise to phenotypic variations that do not stem from variations in DNA but are transmitted to subsequent generations of cells or organisms. Behavioral inheritance is the transmission across generations of behavioral patterns and/or specific behavioral actions, and is found in many organisms, and symbolic inheritance, the cross-generational acquisition of symbolic concepts and ideologies, is found only in humans and can have pronounced effects on behavioral patterns.

Combinations of behavioral and symbolic patterns, for example, rituals and social institutions, are very common in human societies and can have significant impacts at both the individual and group levels. As such much evolutionarily relevant variation in humans (and in some other animals) can be seen as constructed, in the sense that what is inherited and what final forms that inheritance takes depend on various filtering and editing processes (at biological and social levels) that occur before and during transmission. Humans play a particularly active role in their own evolutionary processes.

Niche Construction and the Human Symbolic Reality

There is increasing evidence that from at least 200,000 to 300,000 years prior to the first appearance of modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) c. 200,000 years ago substantial cognitive flexibility in response to ecological and social challenges became common in the human lineage. It is argued that it is this behavioral and cognitive plasticity combined with increasingly essential modes of social cooperation and coordination that enabled humans to develop our modern capacity for extensive shared intentionality, meta-coordination, and language.15

In light of contemporary understandings of evolutionary processes and the advances in human evolutionary studies over the past decade, we can make a few basic assertions about evolutionary approaches to understanding humans: (a) niche construction is important, and thus ecological and social inheritance are significant (b) substantial cooperation and coordination of action are central; and (c) perception of social and material contexts and the behavior associated with those perceptions can have evolutionarily relevant impacts.16

While for most animals, and maybe many of our earlier proto-human relatives, indexical signs (correlated with or otherwise affected by what they represent) and iconic signs (sharing a likeness with what they represent) permeate the world and are components of the transactional patterns of social relationships, at some point in our lineage humans added a symbolic component to the semiotic landscape. For humans today the emergent properties of symbolic representation enable a system wherein imagination and hope, and the symbols associated with them, can maintain stability and meaning even in the absence of their objects of reference.17 A key to understanding human consciousness and our capacity for metaphysical and eventually religious thought is to recognize that while our symbolic mode of existence is emergent: our way of being arises from the interactions of many elements (bodies, brains, senses, perceptions, experiences, other beings, etc.), none of these have in themselves the specific property of symbolic experience. Rather, this experience emerges from the interrelationships of the various components of the human niche (as outlined above). Humans, both as individuals and as communities, are embedded in a niche wherein navigation and creation of symbolic landscapes is a permanent context of our cognitive ecology.18

Human evolution, development, and inheritance patterns are not purely physical, and the boundaries between genes, epigenetic systems, bodies, ecologies, psychologies, societies, and histories can be fluid and dynamic. Perception, meaning, and experience are as central in human history (at least over the last 200,000+ years) as are muscles, bones, and hormones. How humans see the world—or, better put, how humans perceive the world to be—can play a significant role in evolutionary processes.

Scholarship from across diverse disciplines (anthropology, psychology, philosophy, theology) argues that a substantive component of human evolutionary success might be due to our distinctive reliance on the creation and use of symbols and the impact of this reliance on the development of an imagination.19 They argue that our perceptions of the world influence the way we act and that this constitutes a major factor in human evolutionary histories. The manner in which symbols are generated, perceived, and utilized by humans structures perceptions and behavior and creates a dynamic wherein the material world (the physical environment) is never without semiotic (including symbolic) markings. This influences the ways in which humans perceive the challenges and opportunities in their local environments. The human perception of the world structures how they interact with it—belief matters in an evolutionary sense.

The human imagination—the capacity to develop ideas, concepts, and sensations that are not materially, temporally, or explicitly present in the immediate surroundings—is part of human perceptual and interactive reality, and it is a substantive aspect of lived experience; thus it is evolutionarily relevant. With the emergence and increasing use of symbolic representation (as part of our developing niche) over the last 200,000–400,000 years the human niche and the landscape in which humans existed becomes contingent on socio-cognitive interpretation and the experiences of a particular human community. In this context evolutionary relevant actions are likely to be influenced by variable symbolic representations: perceptions deriving from the range of experiential and perceptual possibilities influenced, and created, by our imagination.

Niche Construction and the Evolution of Religion

Humans developed a niche where the imagination and symbol are central facets of their ecosystem. In niche construction it is the interaction and mutual malleability between organisms and their environment that acts as a core process that affects the evolutionary pressures in shaping bodies and landscapes. In this context the ability to imagine responses to both material and perceived symbolic pressures and to convert those imaginings into material items or actions can become a major tool in evolutionary relevant patterns of action. This evolutionary benefit to having and deploying an imagination results in increasing use of the imaginative reaction to a diverse set of challenges, social and ecological. One way in which the imagination is deployed in human systems is that of religious rituals, structures, and institutions.

This is not to argue that the origin of religion fulfilled a specific trajectory of the human lineage or for any particular adaptive function of religiosity. It is not an argument that “religion” is what enabled humans to become fully human or allowed us to survive when all other human-like lineages went extinct. This argument assumes that in an evolutionary context neither religion nor religiosity can appear full-blown, just as we assume that any other core facet of the human body and niche cannot appear in its modern form without having a series of precursors. Therefore religious belief and practice and the deep history of the religious experience are not only explained via current practices of religion. In an evolutionary sense we do not seek the process of religious faith and practice itself (the current product), but rather we have to identify the kinds of structures, behaviors, cognitive processes, and even revelatory experiences (however a given discipline may define this term) that might enhance our understandings of the role that human symbol creation, use and the human imagination can have in the initial appearances of religious experience, belief, ritual, and their associated institutions, in our archaeological past.

This approach seeks to provide a more open landscape to diverse points of inquiry about human religious experience. If having an imagination is a central part of the human niche, and this imagination is a basal element necessary for the development of a metaphysical perception of the world, one could construct both adaptive and revelatory perspectives as part of the explanations for how or why humans engage in religious practice and belief. In the adaptive explanations this way of viewing human niche construction and the emergence of religion provides space for arguments for the development of the functional structures (cognitive and behavioral) that those arguing for religion as a functional adaptation propose. However, there is also resonance between an approach that engages with both niche construction and religion for the possibility of the notion of an “ensoulment” or some form of revelatory experience that coincides with the kind of perspectives proposed by theologians and scientists seeking to connect faith and the divine with the patterns in human evolution.

For example, the emergence and increasing use of symbolic representation in the human lineage over the last 200,000 to 400,000 years represent a significant expansion and reworking of the human niche. Scientists (including myself) have argued that this reflects the full-blown development of the distinctive human socio-cognitive niche (sensu Whiten and Erdal) and is thus a critical moment in the appearance of what we would call the “modern” human (Homo sapiens sapiens) in a cognitive sense as well as a morphological one.20 While the scientists invoke a particular suite of evolutionary processes, plus a form of cognitive ratcheting (increases in complexity), to explain this process theologians could develop this in their own context. It is equally possible to conceptualize the transition to the human socio-cognitive niche as part of the process of revelation (such as in some Christian traditions), wherein revelation from God enables humans develop a form of reflection and a metaphysical orientation, eventually leading to religious belief. The niche construction model can establish a baseline process wherein both of these interpretations can coreside.21

It is highly likely that, as the theologian Wentzel van Huyssteen suggests, there is a naturalness to the human religious imagination, and it is part of a niche-constructive process that has facilitated, at least in part, human evolutionary success over the past 200,000–400,000 years. If this is indeed the case, the perspective of a niche construction view of the evolution of the capacities that enable the development of religious belief and practice provides an addition to the toolkit of inquiry for diverse scholars interested in reconstructing the path to humanity and the possible roles that imagination, belief, and religion have played and continue to play.


The approach connecting niche construction to the evolution of religion is very recent. Publications emerging specifically from this approach began appearing in 2014,22 but have a deeper history rooted in particular anthropological works on religion23 and are influenced by the work in theology and evolutionary science by specific theologians such as Celia Deane-Drummond and Wentzel van Huyssteen (particularly van Huyssteen’s 2006 Alone in the World?). Niche construction theory has roots in the 1970s biology of Richard Lewontin, but has only become formalized as an approach in the 2000s and in 2014 was just becoming a central component of the extended evolutionary synthesis.24 The application of niche construction theory to thinking about the human religious imagination and religious belief emerged from the dialogues between evolutionary anthropologists and theologians and the Center of Theological Inquiry’s Inquiry on Evolution and Human Nature (2012–2013). Projects stemming from this approach are still in their infancy as of the end of 2014, so it is likely that significant results and their potential contributions to the field of the evolution of religion may not be felt for some time.

Further Reading

Deane-Drummond, Celia. The Wisdom of the Liminal: Evolution and Other Animals in Human Becoming. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.Find this resource:

Deane-Drummond, Celia, and Agustín Fuentes. “Human Being and Becoming: Situating Theological Anthropology in Interspecies Relationships in an Evolutionary Context.” Philosophy, Theology and the Sciences 1.3 (2014): 251–275.Find this resource:

Fuentes, Agustín. “Hyper-cooperation Is Deep in Our Evolutionary History and Individual Perception of Belief Matters.” Religion, Brain and Behavior 4.3 (2014): 19–25.Find this resource:

Fuentes, Agustín. “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination.” Time and Mind 7.3 (2014): 241–257.Find this resource:

Mühling, Markus. Resonances: Neurobiology, Evolution and Theology Evolutionary Niche Construction, the Ecological Brain and Relational-Narrative Theology. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014.Find this resource:

van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel. Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.Find this resource:

van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel. “When Were We Persons? Why Hominid Evolution Holds the Key to Embodied Personhood.” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 52 (2010): 329–349.Find this resource:

van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel. “From Empathy to Embodied Faith: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Evolution of Religion.” In Evolution, Religion, and Cognitive Science: Critical and Constructive Essays, edited by Fraser Watts and Léon Turner, 132–151. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:


(1.) Dominic P. Johnson and Jesse M. Bering, “Hand of God, Mind of Man: Punishment and Cognition in the Evolution of Cooperation,” Evolutionary Psychology 4 (2006): 219–233; Ara Norenzayan, Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

(2.) R. A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press 1999); J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006).

(3.) E.g., Aku Visala, Naturalism, Theism, and the Cognitive Study of Religion. Religion Explained? (Guilford, UK: Ashgate, 2011), Richard Sosis, “The Adaptationist-Byproduct Debate on the Evolution of Religion: Five Misunderstandings of the Adaptationist Program,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 9 (2009): 315–332; Fraser Watts and Leon Turner, Evolution, Religion and Cognitive Science: Critical and Constructive Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(4.) Agustín Fuentes, “Human Evolution, Niche Complexity, and the Emergence of a Distinctively Human Imagination,” Time and Mind 7.3 (2014): 241–257.

(5.) Fuentes, “Human Evolution.”

(6.) Maurice Bloch, “Why Religion Is Nothing Special but Is Central,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 363.1499 (2008): 2055–2061.

(7.) Fuentes, “Human Evolution.”

(8.) K. N. Laland, T. Uller, M. W. Feldman, K. Sterelny, G. B. Muller, A. Moczek, E. Jablonka, J. Odling-Smee, “The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis: Its Structure, Assumptions and Predictions,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282 (2015): 20151019. See also Fuentes, “Human Evolution.”

(9.) Agustín Fuentes, “Blurring the Biological and Social in Human Becomings,” in Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology, ed. T. Ingold and G. Paalson, 42–58 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2013); Kevin Laland, et al., “Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink? Yes, Urgently,” Nature 514 (2014): 161–164.

(10.) F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland, and Marcus Feldman, Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution, Monographs in Population Biology 37 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 2003.

(11.) Jeremy Kendal, “Cultural Niche Construction and Human Learning Environments: Investigating Sociocultural Perspectives,” Biological Theory 6.3 (2012): 241–250.

(12.) K. N. Laland, T. Uller, M. W. Feldman, K. Sterelny, G. B. Muller, A. Moczek, E. Jablonka, J. Odling-Smee, “The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis: Its Structure, Assumptions and Predictions,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282 (2015): 20151019.

(13.) Michael O’Brien and Kevin Laland, “Genes, Culture and Agriculture: An Example of Human Niche Construction,” Current Anthropology 53.4 (2012): 434–470.

(14.) Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).

(15.) Kim Sterelny, The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Humans Unique (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2012); Michael Tomasello, The Natural History of Human Thinking (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

(16.) Agustín Fuentes, Evolution of Human Behavior (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

(17.) Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species (London: Penguin, 1997); Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: Norton, 2012); Merlin Donald, “Précis of the Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages of the Evolution of Culture and Cognition,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16.4 (1993): 737–791.

(18.) Deacon, Symbolic Species.

(19.) E.g., van Huyssteen, Alone in the World?; Deacon, Symbolic Species; Deacon, Incomplete Nature; Donald, “Précis”; Barbara King, Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 2007); Alan Barnard, Genesis of Symbolic Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

(20.) A. Whiten and D. Erdal, “The Human Socio-Cognitive Niche and Its Evolutionary Origins.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 367 (2012): 2119–2129.

(21.) See Fuentes, “Human Evolution.”

(22.) See, for example, Fuentes, “Human Evolution”; Markus Mühling, Resonances: Neurobiology, Evolution and Theology Evolutionary Niche Construction, the Ecological Brain and Relational-Narrative Theology (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014); Celia Deane-Drummond, The Wisdom of the Liminal: Evolution and Other Animals in Human Becoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).

(23.) See, for example, Rappaport, Ritual and Religion; Sosis, “Adaptationist-Byproduct Debate.”

(24.) K. N. Laland, T. Uller, M. W. Feldman, K. Sterelny, G. B. Muller, A. Moczek, E. Jablonka, J. Odling-Smee, “The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis: Its Structure, Assumptions and Predictions,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282 (2015).