As our brains developed we developed pattern-recognition, maybe firstly for facial recognition, which led us later to develop reading and writing skills, amongst other things. Early on however, it helped us to track animals by recognising the footprints of the different prey and predator species. We are probably the only species which can look at a set of footprints and ‘read’ the information in them. We can tell the species, or at least the family – big cat, dog, antelope, ostrich, etc - and we can tell where it came from, where it was going and, with a little learning, how long ago it passed by.
All this is invaluable information for both catching lunch and avoiding becoming something else’s lunch. Inheritors of these skills, in the presence of a powerful brain, would have had enormous advantage, so the genetic variations which facilitated them would have spread rapidly through the gene-pool.
Our brain allowed us to learn these skills and to pass them on to the next generation, and the ability to teach and to learn also allowed us to develop cultures by establishing group norms and ethics, and to pass these on to the next generation. Group cohesion and, especially, group identity would have been enhanced by these cultural norms, inculcated from birth and accepted as ‘right’ by the whole group. Failure to comply would have meant exclusion from the group – not a very attractive prospect for a species which is relatively weak as an individual but immensely strong when part of a coordinated group.
Incidentally, Man is not alone in developing cultures which are passed from one generation to the next. The other African apes all have observable cultural differences between groups, as do some more distantly related simian species such as macaques, and baboons. Dolphins and killer whales also have distinct cultural groups and even some species of bird have local (i.e., cultural) calls and songs.
But I digress.
Early humans were now inheriting two different sorts of replicators. They were inheriting biological genes which determined their physical form and they were inheriting cultural or 'memory genes', more correctly now known as memes, which determined their culture, group norms and ethics.
Just as with the other African ape species, we would probably have lived in small groups of related individuals, each group dominated by an alpha male. This alpha male would have won his ‘right’ to be leader and the size of the group would have been related to how many individuals this alpha male (and maybe his alpha female mate) could exert control over. The alpha male would have had first pick of the females and would have enforced this right, maybe through a group of loyal supporters, by the sanction of physical punishment against those who infringed his right or who threatened his dominance. The idea that the alpha male had this right would have been passed on from one generation to the next as a group norm or ethic.
In evolutionary terms, there would be an advantage in the alpha male passing on the genes which enabled him to dominate and the group would have benefited by being more likely to be led by a strong male able to dominate and lead. However, there would have been an evolutionary arms race between these ‘alpha male’ genes and genes which predisposed to illicit sexual activity, since these genes would have enjoyed the protection of the alpha male. Whether these ‘genes’ were actual DNA genes or memes, inherited as part of group culture, is immaterial. The fact is that human groups would have been evolving by gene-meme co-evolution. Replicators have no concern for the nature of the other replicators with which they form alliances.
Now, place yourself in such a group in the plains of East Africa. The plains of East Africa have very many rocky out-crops which offer shelter and which are good vantage points from which to survey the surrounding plain. These outcrops also give the alpha male good vantage points from which to survey the group and keep an eye on what’s going on: who’s doing what and with whom, with particular regard to illicit sexual activity. Alternatively, other males and females will be trying to evade his watchful eye, and those of his supporters.
It is easy to see how this idea of a dominant alpha male, who is at the same time, the strong leader on whom the group depends, and the vengeful deliverer of pain and suffering for any transgression of the group norms, came to evolve in human culture. It is also easy to see why this alpha male takes a special interest in the sexual activities of his 'subjects', and is especially concerned that females remain inactive until he's had his turn, or at least sanctioned their mating.
Domination of his group through controlling their sexual activity ensures his genes get priority and he can also use this control as a reward system to ensure obedience. Meanwhile other selection forces are ensuring continued 'illicit' sexual activity, even making this thrilling and exciting.
Now, move on two or three hundred thousand years and remove man from the East African plains. Place him now in larger nomadic tribes or into settled farming communities and towns across Africa, Europe, Asia and into the Americas. Now there is no place for a single alpha male to sit and watch the whole group and the group is too large or diverse for him to dominate it, yet he still exists in the culture. The memes which arose on the plains of East Africa are still being replicated down through the generations. So many of our cultural ideas have been conditioned by the alpha male's presence and have evolved in an environment in which he exists, but the physical reality of the alpha male has now been replaced by the cultural idea of one.
The alpha male now sits on some imaginary vantage point overlooking the tribe, still the benevolent protector and leader, the guardian of the law, and the vengeful enforcer of his right to grant permission for sexual activity and for whose permission all, but especially the females, must wait until he grants it through the symbolic ceremony of marriage.
His loyal supporters who act as his enforcers, still exist though. They have become a self-selecting band who act as though the alpha male still exists and whose claim to power and authority is that they represent him and are doing his bidding. They have become his priesthood.
Welcome to the god hypothesis: the imaginary benevolent leader who is also the object of fear; the loving protector who punishes transgression and who takes a special interest in our sexual activities. The man whose authority to rule is now so deeply embedded in human culture that many regard it as a sin punishable by unimaginable pain and suffering and withdrawal of the alpha male's 'love' even to question it. And the leader who may just take it into his head to show us his power by some random act of indiscriminate violence if we're not very careful.
God: a cultural idea which is a fossil relic of our evolution as an ape on the plains of East Africa.
Cultural evolution explains both the origin of the idea of a god and its fallacy. The cultural idea of a god is evidence of human evolution as an ape on the plains of East Africa.