Watson’s Darwinism & Spirituality Blog: First Entries

I do a lot of informal writing, often in response to student questions and observations or in online commentaries on book and articles. Beginning 6 March 2016, I’m going to start posting some of it here when time allows. I may post thoughtful responses, if you email them to me at pwatson@unm.edu. Eventually I may try to create a subject index.

If you are exploring Evolutionary Psychology and, especially, how it might potentiate a self-observation / self-knowledge centered understanding of both personal and pan-human spirituality and religiosity, maybe you’ll like some of it.  

See also my web site at:


Cheers – PJW

(1) Spiritually-minded folk virtually always start talking about what is beyond corporeal existence well before they know, much less understand, the fantastic nature and scope of the corporeal. This problem arises due to our deep ignorance of biological diversity in general, and modern Darwinism as applied to human psychology specifically. Most of what we believe about our spiritual selves, therefore, actually are about fragmentary, poorly interpreted observations we have made of the evolved, material, sociobiological self, or, worse, pure imaginings with no basis in reality whatsoever, not even sincere albeit subjective observation and analysis.

Ignorance of the corporeal level guarantees a spiritually paralyzing or even destructive level of non-discernment when it comes to separating our modal mechanical actions and reactions from any kind of extraordinary movements or moments of freedom and energy. In the absence of an extraordinary spiritual guide, or some other objectifying influence worthy of the term to correct such constant errors, like modern evolutionary psychology, this basic ignorance of nature, within and without, is the primary reason our spiritual efforts lead to nothing. – Dr. Paul J. Watson, 6 March 2016.

(2) Sent: Tuesday, March 1, 2016 11:57 AM

To: Paul Joseph Watson

From: C.

Subject: Ritual behavior in chimps?

I’m sure you’ve seen this study, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.


Dear C.,

Thank you for sending me this link. A discussion of the story will definitely be a part of my Evolution of Religiosity course next fall.

From my perspective it is not a stretch to call this ritual behavior. All kinds of animals engage in rituals for the purpose of efficiently communicating status, quality, etc., as you well know. Sierra dome spiders have fighting rituals that are more complicated, and that even our engaged in much more cooperatively (e.g., pedipalp wrestling between rival males and copulatory courtship between the sexes) than what these chimps seem to be doing.

A lot depends on what is implied when we use the term ritual. We would need to know what is on the chimps’ minds when they are performing this behavior and whether the different chimps that engage in the behavior mostly have a similar thing in mind. I think when these authors use the term ritual they are imagining that the chimps have in mind some abstract idea as to the purpose of their behavior that is much more esoteric and symbolic than the usual things that are communicated during animal rituals. I really doubt that the chimps have the level of abstract reasoning ability required to be thinking, for example, that their actions serve the purpose of impressing a supernatural being that might reciprocate in mysterious ways to help them thrive and survive. Some form of supernatural ideation, even if it has to do with something like ancestor worship or honoring the ancestors would have to be shared by the chimps engaged in this behavior to validly consider it a “sacred ritual.” Don’t you think? The closest the comes to considering anything sacred would be power. Natural selection can support some sense of the sacred associated with manifestations of power. In Matt Rossano’s book on the evolution of religion called, “Supernatural Selection,” he writes of observations of chimps watching pythons pass through their territory. The chimps gather together in a stealthy, quiet, respectful way, perhaps holding one another, not being aggressive toward the snake, but just observing it intently, often for long periods. Arguably they are experiencing something like awe and this could be the evolutionary foundation for something like python worship. Most likely some chimps have observed close friends or family members being killed by pythons. What a strange, slow and helpless death, which must be very hard for them to understand. Even the most powerful lead chimp can do nothing once in the grasp of a large python. The death agony is so observable. A punishing God? Anyway, I think these rock throwing and noisemaking behaviors are probably demonstrations of power, which understandably may evoke great interest and perhaps even an emotion appropriately labeled awe.

When I was a kid I did all kinds of behaviors, certainly including the throwing of rocks, especially at certain favored targets, like city buses and the brick wall graffiti of certain local gangs. These were fun habits. Very fun. One could call them rather informal casual “rituals,” but even that would be artificially inflating them, because it was certainly no form of sophisticated or esoteric symbolic thought going on while I did these behaviors. It was all about fun and ego and social bonding with my fellow rock throwers. There was nothing in it beyond what I would expect chimps to be vaguely thinking about when they engage in communicative status rituals or even just play.

Just to throw out another thought: the authors of this article don’t seem to understand that humans engage in complex symbolic rituals for the purpose of gaining status via demonstrations of bravery or strength, but also as honest signals of group commitment or signals of need. It’s a real blind spot they seem to have that ritual behavior is somehow not about maintaining or gaining status. In-group status competition happens during sacred rituals of the most complex type in the most beautiful cathedrals and so-called “sacred sites” on earth. We are genetically programmed and taught to think that this is not the main point of these rituals, but of course that is in the realm of adaptive self-deception serving adaptive deception and “impression management” vis-à-vis our observing social partners.

I rather like the authors’ first hypothesis, which seems testable, that these chimps have kind of a cultural tradition of throwing the rocks and trees that make a nice loud deep resonant sound upon impact, the more powerful the impact the better. It’s a signal of strength and ferocity. It could be aimed at both in-group members and outgroup members including encroaching humans. The most abstract thought that I would be comfortable attributing to these chimps when they perform this behavior would be about thinking that making these sounds as loudly as possible are the best way within my power to scare away those awful humans.

If it were me I’d hire a big undergraduate first string football player, a defensive linesman, go out with a good digital sound recorder and one large rock, and go round recording the sound made by him throwing the rock at randomly chosen trees (maybe not completely random, but matched for size in some way) as well as the chimps favorite trees. Replicate throws at each tree would be in order. We then go back and analyze the sounds and make various predictions about how far they would carry through the forest, how loud a sound you get for a given level of throwing power or impact intensity. An instrument embedded in the rock might be able to measure impact intensity. You get the idea.

I think when animals pick special spots for things like this it may be because they remember having an emotionally impressive experience there in the past, perhaps as a young animal observing a powerful adult show his stuff. It helps them remember the qualities of this perhaps long dead individual, their teachings and their wisdom, etc. This might be happening when an elephant visits an elephant boneyard and delicately fondles the bones of a long dead matriarch. It helps the living remember, for instance, the various watering holes that this wise dead leader brought them to when the usual ones were dry. This is the functionalist explanation. I’m not saying they don’t also experience something like love during such a “ritual,” an explanation of their behavior on the mechanistic, cognitive processes level of analysis, but that experience is a vestige of former attachment, which may make the bone-fondling experience more emotional and therefore makes the activity more likely to rekindle such important functional memories, as well as making the lessons less likely that to be forgotten again.

My last thought for now. I watch my dogs practice Rhodesian Ridgeback Kung Fu in the backyard all the time. One of my great joys, especially right now when I have a young male and female who are so deeply in love. Anyway, I could not help thinking that some of the rock throwing moves were actual fighting behaviors, quite clever ones. There is one clip in the compiled video where the chimp runs at the tree carrying a big rock, slams it into part of the trunk while still running, and just keeps on going. I’m going to remember that move. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought of running at an adversary with a big rock and then at the last second shifting my trajectory slightly left or right while slamming the rock into my opponent’s solar plexus as hard as I could. I think the fight would be over. I’d be willing to bet that observing chimps might think about the same thing when they see this move carried out on one of these trees. Again, certain chimps in the audience could be reminded of the time they saw Uncle George do this to a member of a rival band and how devastatingly effective it was. It may look like they’re pondering something deep and wonderful and abstract and symbolic. But, they’re really thinking of Uncle George rupturing the gut of that dangerous creep from the rival band next-door. Ritual? Sacred? Hey, these trees may be like little prototype Al Qaeda terrorist training camps.

Well, I think that’s all I’ve got for right now. I get anymore big ideas, I’ll let you know.

Best wishes,


Dr. Paul J. Watson, 7 March 2016

(3) Colleagues:

I highly recommend reading a recent Perspectives article in Science, “Evolution in the Anthropocene” (François Sarrazin & Jane Lecomte. Science, 26 Feb 2016: Vol. 351, Issue 6276, pp. 922-923. DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6756).

Science has just ePublished an eLetter comment by me relating to the topic of this discussion (scroll down). See also related materials at my Academia.edu web site.

– Dr. Paul J. Watson


Dear Paul J. Watson,

Your eLetter has been published on Science’s web site. To view it, navigate to the article to which you referred in your eLetter and click on “eLetter” tab or click the link below.

Your eLetter: “RE: An Intentional “Evolutionary Transition” Is Called For…”

eLetter URL:


Your eLetter has provided a forum for readers and authors to have an ongoing dialogue about the ultimate impact of this information. The Journal is most appreciative of your contribution.


The Editorial Staff of Science


Thank you for your submission. Below is a copy of your eLetter as we received it. Your eLetter, if accepted, should be viewable within a few days.


The Editorial staff of Science

Article (citation):

Evolution in the Anthropocene

François Sarrazin, Jane Lecomte

Science Feb 2016, 351 (6276) 922-923; DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6756


The eLetter was submitted on 05 03 2016:

“I am happy beyond words to have this fantastic article published in Science, broaching the critical and revolutionary subject of our species’ need to implement a radically less selfish (i.e., a fundamentally more prosocial and biophilic) EvoCentric attitude toward conservation. Natural selection has been able to produce a number of fantastic evolutionary transitions (e.g., see Andrew F.G. Bourke’s splendid, “Principles of Social Evolution,” ISBN-13: 978-0199231164), but all of them involved the arising of new forms of organisms that, in the end, always were better at maximizing individual lifetime inclusive fitness, no holds barred. The current article suggests the need for, and the possibility of, a level of unselfishness qualitatively different than anything natural selection has or could possibly produce on its own. But, the article implies that humans may attain the requisite qualities of mind through cultural evolution alone. I think that together we must face up to the very high likelihood, given the incredible power and “purpose” of natural selection, that this is highly doubtful.

The evolution of all our cultures, both past and present, are highly constrained by foundational genetic designs currently under the control of good old-fashioned natural selection. Thus, the only way humans will attain an truly novel evolutionary transition, one based on human intrapsychic designs that could seriously be interested in Evocentric Conservation is if we take the biologically unprecedented step of wrenching the evolution of our minds out of the tightly clenched hands of natural selection by implementing a thoroughly researched and supervised program of intentional cognitive-emotional evolution.

I suggest that in the midst of the urgent worldwide debate about how we should use emerging genetic engineering technologies, such as CRISPR/CAS9 and gene drive, that we not ignore the amazing just-in-the-nick-of-time opportunity on offer, through such techniques, to do just this. The human race needs to implement! An emergency program focused with laser beam clarity on learning how to edit our own species-typical and pan-cultural genome in such a way that we evolve minds that are actually capable of carrying out Evocentric conservation strategies, on a sustained, widespread, and minimally contingent basis.” – Dr. Paul J. Watson, Depart. Biology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA.

(4) Hey P.,

Maybe of interest. I just added this to a thread on Amazon associated with a book I reviewed some time ago…

This link might take you to my entire 3-star review:


Your post, in reply to an earlier post on Mar 12, 2016 3:40:31 PM PST

Paul J. Watson says:


It’s ridiculous to suggest that evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists do not support (believe in?) human creativity. The evolved genetic basis for human brain design has obviously endowed us with an incredible ability not only to be lifelong learners but to make novel associations and hold enough facts and memories together in working memory simultaneously to allow us to formulate great new ideas.

Let me take this opportunity to use a bit of evolutionary psychology to send you and your like-minded brethren a little message in a bottle that might help you enhance your own creativity. First let’s remember the obvious point that humans are hyper-social creatures. Our status within a reasonably high functioning group is the foundation for our individual lifetime reproductive success, more precisely, our individual lifetime inclusive fitness. Second, a huge factor determining our status within a group is how trustworthy and predictable our social partners perceive us to be. Therefore, our mental models of self and reality in general have to conform pretty tightly to group expectations. How do we convincingly demonstrate our commitment to our support group in order to earn trust? One very important way is to adopt and emotionally defend in public various beliefs that are counterintuitive and even counterfactual, but that nevertheless represent group norms. Hence the remarkable human ability to believe in all kinds of adaptive fictions. To honestly signal our commitment to the group we utterly depend on for individual fitness it often doesn’t matter whether we believe in things based on an evaluation of evidence. No, instead what matters is that our beliefs are socially efficacious, that is, that they demonstrate in a hard to fake manner that are morals and ethics and worldview reliably conform to group norms and personal expectations of our social partners.

So the first lesson for all of us, and I do mean all of us, including myself, is that we are designed to feel really great about believing in adaptive fictions that help gain us acceptance and status within our support group. What we don’t notice is that when we are in a frame of mind designed by natural selection to help us believe in such things our creativity often is really curtailed. We may feel open-minded and creative as we ponder and relish and behaviorally demonstrate support for our group’s norms, but actually when we are in this state our analytical ability is minimized. Our ability to question is severely crippled. We really become hemmed in when it comes to our real potential for creativity. We really need to watch out for that.

You don’t have to know anything about evolutionary psychology to appreciate this point, but it sure helps.

Let me go on to be a little bit more speculative about how dire the situation portrayed above really is. On unconscious level our minds are always working on solving a diversity of problems somehow relevant to fitness. We are being creative behind the scenes without even knowing it. We have all experienced it. For example, I was just driving along with my son in our little ZENN electric car. For several months now we’ve had the intermittent problem of high-voltage current not making it to the motor when you turn on the ignition key. Sometimes the current flows the first time you turn the key. Other times you might have to turn the key on an off 15 or 20 times before you get current. There’s no problem with the ignition switch itself, because low-voltage current always flows immediately to the dashboard instrumentation lights, etc., the first time you turn the key. Well, the point is we were driving along and suddenly out of nowhere a particular electrical connector out of many that reside under the hood popped into my consciousness. I had never thought before about this particular connection being responsible for the above-mentioned problem. When we got home I immediately looked at that connector and cleaned it. That did not solve the problem but while examining the connector I noticed that somehow one of the little wires leading out of it had gotten crimped. A tiny little crimp. Fix that in the problem is solved.

So what’s the point? The cross-cultural social demand to be conformist, especially in certain contexts that demand a high degree of coordinated group action, conceivably could keep all kinds of creative ideas being formulated unconsciously from ever rising to consciousness. It could very well be that all your best ideas are, in a sense, stillborn, because the bring them out into the open would rock the boat, but you in competition with vital social partners, somehow undermine important group norms. We know this can even happen in science, all of its branches, but science is designed to be self-correcting and scientists generally are quite conscious that their status eventually will suffer if they cling to beliefs in fictions, ideas that are not supported by the weight of a variety of evidence and/or that contradict well-established theory. The worst-case scenario for full-bodied human creativity is being a member of a group in which you earn trust specifically by clinging to beliefs in group norms even in the face of zero evidence or contradictory evidence. Just think of all those wonderful creative ideas that might be knocking around in your unconscious mind, but that never rise to consciousness because evolved unconscious mental mechanisms evaluate that bringing them out could have high social costs for you and yours that outweigh the potential benefits.

A little thought will bring anyone to the realization that the situation outlined above might not just reduce one’s creativity. It could also affect, and almost certainly does, one’s capacity for compassion. Expressing compassion, even feeling compassion, in a context that contradicts group norms might be so costly that this emotion becomes unavailable. You will of noticed that humans have a tremendous capacity for compassion and altruism, but that this capacity is expressed with exactly the degree of ruthless contingency that you would expect from a body/brain/mind, an “embodied self” to use the term and concept that this book’s author is famous for, and embodied self that is 100% designed by natural selection.

Again, I would say that you don’t absolutely have to know any evolutionary psychology to see that we humans face this rather terrifying dilemma, but it sure helps.

Thank you two most recent contributors, G. Nixon and F. Webster, for the inspiration to attempt to add something to this thread. — PJW

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