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From Instinct to Gods to Humanity

From Instinct to Gods to Humanity


Everything in the universe takes in energy and uses it to stay viable. Stars form from hydrogen which becomes their energy source for the millions or billions of years they exist. On Earth, the first single-celled living things learned around three billion years ago that a convenient way to get energy was to engulf another living thing and make use of its energy. This system led to the evolution of the kill or be killed ‘law of the jungle’ that influences the lives of many animals. Unfortunately, the system has flowed through human evolution and created the competitive nature of relationships between groups of people that we see today.

From the eat-or-be eaten system we evolved with we learned the emotion of fear, our first and still our strongest emotion. If an animal could hear or see a predator coming, it could run and hide. Without the emotion of fear and the ability to respond to threats, a species could not survive. Animals were compelled to learn to flee or fight.

Over the years as evolution progressed, some species developed a new emotion which also helped in the quest for survival. Parents of some species of birds and mammals learned that nurturing their young offspring increased their chances of surviving and carrying on the species. Animals developed a type of primitive love, or at least an instinctual response to protect their offspring from danger. These two emotions, fear and a sense of caring and protection, became strong instincts in the evolution of mammals and was passed on in the evolution of humans.

Six million years ago the lineage that became humans began to branch out from our tree dwelling primates.  As many of the forests of Africa gradually began to turn to savannah, our ancestors climbed down for the trees and began to walk upright. But we were still animals and brought all of the animal instincts along with us such as fear, caring for our young, and by this time, protection of our territory and hunting grounds.

For thousands of years, proto humans had to survive in a hostile environment. Predators with long claws, sharp teeth, and who could run fast surrounded them. Many of our early ancestors died before a few among them came up with the idea of tying a pointed rock to the end of a stick and using it as a weapon to either keep a lion from attacking or to bring down a gazelle for food. Soon, at least evolutionarily speaking, we began walking, running, and making tools out of stones, bones, and wood.

Along the way, when we were still young in our evolution from primate to human, we began to realize there were things we had not thought much about before as animals, such as the rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, or the idea of death. As our social and technological evolution progressed, so did the depth of our questions. We were infantile in our comprehension about who we were. Yet, as our brains expanded, we began to be aware that there was a lot we did not know about our environment and ourselves. Gradually, human curiosity began to manifest itself.

The changes in us were so gradual we did not notice them. Then as we began to come together in groups to cooperate in feeding and clothing each other, we began to be curious about what motivated our behaviors, especially how we turned the sights and sounds of things perceived by our senses into the emotions of joy, fear, affection, or loathing that controlled how we felt about ourselves and how we interacted with others in our group as well as those we encountered who were outside our group.

Parents loved and cared for their babies while males fought their enemies, sometimes to the death of one or the other. In that passion-driven world of our past, we hunted, we fought, we copulated and raised our young as our mammal ancestors had done for millions of years.

But unlike our mammal ancestors, we began to wonder why we behaved as we did. We began to see ourselves as individuals and at the same time members of a community. Why did each of us have affection for some in our group and not for others? We were becoming introspective about ourselves, and our introspection led to questions. Questions about how and why things happened gradually came into our thinking.

But our lack of understanding about ourselves and everything in our environment from stones to stars, and why we experienced so many emotions was puzzling and frustrating. And it would be thousands of years before we would be able to look to science to provide the answers we sought. We felt the need to alleviate our frustrations and come up with answers.

In time, we managed to come up with an answer to assuage our ignorance, but it was not one that boded well for our future. We turned outward. Our new anxiety and our ever-expanding need for explanations created opportunities for the rise of self-appointed shamans and prophets who claimed to have mystical connections to a spirit world beyond mere human reason and understanding.

When entered into the proper trance, often brought on by a hallucinogenic plant or self-hypnosis, spiritualists assured us they could fill the void between our existential questions and our inability to formulate rational answers. When they came up with explanations for the many mysteries we faced, in our desperation, we were ready to believe them.

Since humans everywhere are basically the same, the idea of shamanism caught on, and in time, nearly every primitive community developed its own spiritual leader. In some communities, shamans professed to have the ability to cross over into a spiritual world where humans, animals, and even non-living things from mountains to stars shared a mystical kinship. These men and women claimed to be able to communicate with the various spirits in order to cure disease or bring good luck.

Prophets, on the other hand, claimed to have a direct line of communication with spiritual deities living in the sky beyond the confines of Earth. They too claimed to be able to heal diseases and bring well-being to specific individuals or to the entire community, especially, if the person or the community demonstrated the proper level of supplication by prayer or sacrifice of some kind.

Both shamans and prophets offered solace that convinced our ancestors to channel their most perplexing questions about themselves and their environment outward to them and the spiritual beings they professed to serve. Instead, could we not have not turned inward and sought human solutions to our problems and answers to our question?

We acted hastily because we had no idea that we would eventually evolve into beings capable of answering our questions through evidence-based science. We gave in to people with easy answers, and oddly enough, even after all these thousands of years of gaining insight into our conscious decisions and motivations, there are many of us who still opt for easy answers over ones requiring a modicum of thought. Having someone else do our hard thinking for us brings comfort to lazy minds.

Thus, those whose blood is as red and human as ours today, began to find gods in everything from rocks, and animals, to the sun and stars. And when these natural things were not enough to assuage our fears of the unknown, we created a plethora of supernatural gods with specific powers to rule over the complicated aspects of our lives.

But, in some cultures, when the number of gods became too cumbersome, the idea of just one or two gods or, or even just one god with a prophet or two came into vogue. From hunter-gatherer tribes to Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, Hebrews, and all over the world, different cultures developed religious systems that fit their particular tribal circumstances.

What they all had in common was the worship of deities beyond the scope of humanity. Led by priests, shamans, and prophets who came up with a variety of elaborate rituals to assure their followers that they would live happily as long as they obeyed the leaders and attended to the required rituals, the people submitted. We blithely put our trust in these religious leaders and their gods and did not know enough to ask for proof of what we were being told.

One of the great comforts in the early rituals and even up to today is that we felt as it we were obeying the moral commandments of a super-human being who understood our thoughts and motivations much better than we understood ourselves. It was comforting to feel that even though we are weak, something stronger than us was in control of our destiny.

Yet, we understand now that we had it backwards. We should not have given ourselves over so easily. At the time, we just did not know any better. We did not know that we were able to look inward and develop our cognitive abilities to the point where we did not need to create supernatural beings to answer our questions about our environment and ourselves. We should not have given up on ourselves. But as philosopher A. C. Grayling put it: “Science and religion have a common ancestor: ignorance.” We were ignorant and we had not developed scientific knowledge to the point to be much to help us.

It is not just our plethora of religions which have caused us so much suffering since the days of our Australopithecus ancestors. We inherited fear and aggression from fang and claw animals whose life was little more than to hunt and be hunted. It was the backdrop for the way we evolved, and we have not grown out of it yet. Living through numerous disagreements has been our way of life throughout our history, and it continues to be the way of life for many millions of us today. In far too many places, from war torn battlefields to dark city streets at midnight, parts of the world are dangerous and unwelcoming.

Once our science started, in spite of years of religious censure, it progressed rapidly. We humans deserve a pat on the back for our technological achievements. In transportation, medicine, space exploration, communications and many other important fields we have excelled. And so far, we seem to know how to handle these technological innovations, even our artificial intelligence. But there is one area where our technology has outstripped our ability to control it, and unfortunately, it has become a major industry in the world economy.

Our weapons rule us, instead of us ruling our weapons. Our billion-year-old innate fear and aggression have rendered us incapable of coping with the destructive power of everything from daggers to hand guns, to nuclear bombs. As writer Robert Graves so aptly put it: “Our predicament is technological maturity linked with emotional immaturity.” Based on our current level of emotional maturity, we should still be fighting with rocks and sticks instead of missiles and bombs.

But weapons are only a symptom of the much more serious and older problem of human relations. Instead of harboring fear of each other, we should have long ago developed the idea of a common humanity based on mutual trust instead of suspicion.

We needed to develop humanism. We needed to respect each other as one human to another instead of separating ourselves into religious and political factions. We are to this day still a factious species with some of us still believing in superstitions that tend to pull us apart rather than bring us together.

But was it possible that in our early development we could have looked at our fearful nature objectively? Could it have been that as far back as Homo erectus we could have become introspective to the point that we could have made a decision to throw off our animal aggressive tendencies? It seems unlikely, because here we are 2 million years later and we still have those tendencies. We did not outgrow them as primitive humans, and so far, we have not been able to rid ourselves of them even today. These primitive instincts are as strong in us as ever and have created divisions and suspicions that needlessly put us in political, religious, and social boxes with labels.

It seems that everyone these days has a label. We are left, right, communist, capitalist, liberal, conservative, protestant, Hindu, Catholic, Muslim, atheist, etc, etc, etc. The list goes on. Are you in a social, religious, or political box? What is your label and do you live by it? Or have you managed to come this far in life and still be just yourself? If so, keep up the good work.

In spite of our amazing technological accomplishments, it must be obvious that socially, with our unceasing wars and crime, we are still infantile in some aspects of our evolution. Some of us keep praying for help, but can we not finally come to realize that we are alone in the universe, that the only way we are going to change is for us to change ourselves? None of the gods we have created to solve our problems are going to do anything for us. These problems of fear and aggression came with us as we evolved. And now it is up to all of us working together to move our minds beyond them.

After all these many years of being stuck in a particular behavior pattern, is it even possible for us to change? It will take effort, determination, and a strong will. But when we make up our minds to do better, and believe we can do better for each other, we are well on the way to establishing a safer world.

Obviously, we can be very caring and loving at times. The instinct of caring and protection that brought us together into cooperative, symbiotic communities has been around almost as long as fear. Yet are we so deep into our overwhelming fearful mindset that we have no hope of changing? Have some of us evolved to be so depraved and suicidal that we enjoy fighting and take pleasure in killing or sending others off to war to die for us.

There are many psychological obstacles in our way to someday becoming a cooperative global society where such behaviors as war, greed, murder, and lust for power are nothing but bad memories. These are behaviors that our ancestors suffered through and that continue to victimize us. So many generations have grown up with these behaviors that we today consider aggressive behavior the norm. But must it always remain that way?

To start with, we often allow our emotions to get in the way of making reasonable decisions. We latch on to ideas and dogma that make us feel good in the short term rather than looking deeper into the truthfulness of what we are told. We do not always consider the long-term repercussions of an opinion or an allegation. We want to feel safe. We want a quick fix. We want to feel as if we are in control of our circumstances.

But just as our brains matured from the instinct-driven brains of primates, our emotions must evolve to stabilize our reactions to the stimuli that bombards us every waking hour. Sometimes we seem to be grasping at straws. We often react too passionately to situations that should demand reason and rationality. Or we latch on to unproven opinions that seem to offer an easy answer to our concerns. We have been doing this for thousands of years. Believing in unproven opinions did not stop our aggressive tendencies in our past, and so far, it is not stopping them today.

No doubt, emotions were certainly valuable in our early evolution. A rustling sound behind you could be the wind or a predator; you had to react to it. Fear saved many lives. Now fast forward about a million years. A sound bite on radio, TV, or a computer is not threatening except in the way we interpret it. We can react emotionally to someone’s political ranting or we can analyze the situation in light of how it will affect us in the long term after the enticing rhetoric dies down.

We have come far in our medical, scientific, and technological endeavors and new discoveries are made daily. In these fields we are maturing nicely as a species. It is our emotional immaturity that is still an embarrassment, especially when one considers how easily our emotions draw us into biases and flawed points of view before we check the evidence behind them.

A quick fight or flight response to a threat to danger has saved many lives. But a knee-jerk response to someone’s dogmatic sputtering has caused many people to formulate distorted views of reality. These have spawned numerous political and social factions each with its own agenda, some of which are unifying, some of which are divisive.

Think before you join a group. Is your long-term goal to bring all people together in harmonious cooperation, or are you a disrupter who brings on sadness and destruction? Has your emotional stability evolved to the point where you can work with a diverse group of people to help foster world peace, cooperation, and productivity. Or are you still so emotionally unstable that you would become a sycophant of someone who would lead you to cause harm to others or to yourself or needlessly destroy property?

Always remember that your mind belongs to no one but you. If you give it over to someone else, real or imagined, other than a loving spouse, you have lessened your humanity. Your conscious awareness of who you are is too precious to put it under the control of someone or something outside yourself.

Our human consciousness is still evolving and moving us away from dependence on entities outside of ourselves. We are beginning to develop a more comprehensive understanding of who we are as individual human beings capable of making important decisions concerning our relationships with others of our kind. Our minds do not need outside intervention in order to function properly. We did not evolve to be controlled by supernatural beings outside of humanity nor charismatic leaders who would usurp our humanity for their own benefit.

Animal instinct brought us through millions of years of the perils of natural selection. It is obvious that without figuring out how to cope with such things as predators, disease, food shortages, and environmental challenges we would have wound up being another extinct species. We struggled for a long time.

And looking back in our past, it is the time element that we modern people sometimes lose site of. The Earth is 4.54 billion years old. It is believed that the earliest primitive life forms emerged perhaps 4 billion years ago. A lot can happen in 4 billion years. It is not easy to process that length of time in terms of the human lifespan or even the amount of time we have considered ourselves human. Species came and species went. And all the while what started out as behaviors to find food and to reproduce developed into human consciousness.

Even squirrels, rabbits, and butterflies are conscious of themselves. Primates took consciousness a few steps further than other animals, and Homo sapiens are carrying it even further. At the same time that our amygdala was helping us respond to fearful events and our hippocampus was helping us form memories of the things that happened to us, the frontal cortex was growing and helping us organize our thoughts, emotions and responses to the stimuli taken in by our senses. The human brain was developing into a complicated receptor, storer, and organizer of information, and in time, a creator of new information.

For millions of years, we absorbed information and our brains grew and became more complex. When our curiosity about everything around us became greater than our ability to answer all our questions, we created gods which we imagined had the answers we needed. Now we understand it is time in our evolution of consciousness to move beyond the gods that we created to get us through our times of questioning and uncertainty. Some of our gods served us well as we attributed to them the best of our morality and we held them up as our standards of virtue. But the morality that we attributed to our gods was inside us all of the time.

To our gods we gave the high ideals that we felt we were too weak to achieve as mere humans. The clerics convinced us that we humans were much lower in intelligence than the deities our imagination came up with. They convinced us that we needed religion and gods to guide our lives.

A religion also provided the opportunity to join in with others who worshipped the same gods as ourselves, a practice which enhanced our sense of community. Each person could take on a label that religiously affiliated her or him with others with the same label.

But being part of a community also had its dark side. Often a community of worshippers would take the attitude that their gods and prophets were superior in some way to the gods and prophets of other communities of worshippers. This egocentric and narrow-minded attitude that ‘my imagined god is better than your imagined god’ caused conflicts in our past and certainly continues to do so today.

In fact, some religious leaders have taken the idea of religious supremacy to the extreme that they refuse to tolerate any criticism of their religion whether it is from those with other beliefs or people in their own worshipping community who might have questions or concerns about certain points of dogma. One is reminded of the Christian Inquisitions of the 15th through the 17th centuries and the Fatwa rulings of today’s Islam.

It seems as if going through these religious gyrations is an unfortunate expression of the growing pains we are experiencing as we further develop our humanity. Just as a toddler falls a few times before it learns to walk, we have had to through our religious foibles before we are finally learning to rid ourselves of them. It is unfortunate that people suffered and died because of the immoral, narrow-minded attitude of some religions, and still do today.

Religious sects are fluid and ever-changing. Groups of worshippers within a religious community often disagree on points of doctrine and split into different sects or congregations. There are very few religious communities throughout the world which have not split at one time or another over doctrine or liturgy.  It has been said that these various groups often have trouble agreeing on ways to worship because their religions are based on false premises to start with. It is hard to figure out the right way to worship a god that does not exist. 

It is time to move on from our thousands of years of superstition and putting our faith in entities other than ourselves. But this great improvement in our thinking requires a two-pronged process. To begin with, merely ridding ourselves of religion is not enough. We must look deeper into ourselves and seek a moral core that takes us beyond our need to feel animosity toward others. We would like to think that inside each of us is the core of our human essence that unites us regardless of who we are or where we are. But would some say believing in a human moral core is still a belief, just human based instead of supernatural?

We know that there are emotions that bind us together. For example, a parent’s affection for its offspring is a strong emotion, whether it is in a human or a primate. Most mammal parents will fight to the death to save their babies. Perhaps in some animals it is little more than an innate attempt to preserve the species. In humans, however, we call it parental love. This emotion is considered the manifestation of a moral core that developed early in our evolution, and today it is strong in most people. In spite of the fact that the most selfish of us have no trouble putting parental love aside in order to fulfill personal ambitions, most parents will go to great extremes to keep their children healthy and happy. This same emotion of caring and protection is strong in humans beyond kinship. It is the tie that binds us as humans everywhere. Because it is inside us, it influences our behavior more than any external religion or set of gods.


We all started in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago. As we spread throughout Africa and into the rest of the world and adapted to different circumstances, environmental differences over time brought about some outward physical changes. Today many people mistakenly label these physical differences as racial differences. Whether we are black, white, red, yellow, or some shade in between, we stem from primate ancestors who branched off some 6 million years ago and who evolved into Homo sapiens about 300,000 years ago. If you claim that you are a different race from someone else, you have not looked back in your genealogy far enough.

As we migrated across thousands of miles of plains and mountains, we began to establish nations with flags and armies and ethnic points of view. Yet, through it all, we were still one humanity, just as we are today, with one moral core that defines the essence of who we are as a species. Our cultural, political, religious, and social barriers are artificial constructs that at the core of our humanity have little meaning beyond the labels we put on them.

Although the human moral core we all share is the thing that will turn our global society toward peace and cooperation rather than the suspicious factions we are currently having to cope with, it is not yet something that everyone seeks. Powerful despots and the sycophantic followers of some charismatic leaders or charlatans do not feel as if they need a moral core. As they bounce around inside their echo chamber boxes, they feel as if they are doing fine without having to be concerned with morality or be concerned about the well-being of others, especially those who do not see the world as they do politically or socially.

But these people who still live by the laws of brute force or antagonistic attitudes are not the people who run the world in the long run. These autocrats raise their heads and raise their voices for a while then pass on as troublemakers who caused the rest of us harm and set our evolution of human consciousness back several years. Unfortunately, even as useless and troublesome as they are, they are recurring characters in our history, and for now we continue to live with them.

One way to begin to change our perspective on our relations with each other is to replace churches, mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship with People Centers where, instead of muttering prayers to the sky, down to Earth human issues are discussed. These centers are also meant for atheistic countries that do not have houses of worship. The centers are for all people everywhere. Political affiliations in People Centers are not important.

The Centers are places where human morality is paramount, not the worship of external deities nor places to extol the glory of a particular nation or political leader, historic or current. Human morality is deeper and more permanent than the rising and falling of despots or even nations.

Human morality is something all of us have in common. But it needs to be brought out much more than it has been in our past. This can be accomplished by discussion groups, articles, essays, and other media. The word needs to be spread around the world that we are ready to turn the corner on human relations. Antagonistic factions, dictatorial rulers, religious controversies, and animosities created by greed and egotistic behavior are aspects of our behavior that in time shall be replaced by symbiotic cooperation and social harmony. 

In spite of our occasional irrational lapses into animal behavior, let us keep in mind that we are humans and we have evolved far beyond our nearest primate ancestor. Our level of consciousness and level of moral understanding are the highest they have ever been and they are increasing daily. We are constantly changing. Thoughtful people working together will make sure our changes are bringing us together in global unity.

It has been pointed out that human evolution is not linear. There are setbacks at times that seem to wipe out years of reasonable progress. For example, only a few years after Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers encouraged us to expand our moral awareness, Napoleon Bonaparte caused the deaths of thousands of people as he rose to become emperor of France. Kant, through his work in science and philosophy, tried to make us more cooperative and caring human beings. Napoleon merely took advantage of the political and social confusion brought about by the French Revolution to promote his egotistic agenda of conquest and power.

The idea is to keep our evolution moving along as smoothy as possible. History points out that we will occasionally have renegades who will put their egos ahead of human progress. Informed people, however, will know not to follow someone whose rhetoric is divisive and not conducive to global unity and peace. We must educate ourselves enough to understand the messages we are hearing and be able to evaluate their veracity.

A goal for all of us is to be aware that it is time for us to begin to experience a serious change in our thinking about our relations with each other. There are many millions of us on our Earth who interact well with each other and understand that the world does not need armies bristling with deadly weapons. We do not want thieves lurking in the shadows any more than we want scammers or conspiracy theorists taking advantage of naïve internet users.

We do not want rulers from one country threatening to take over another country. Citizens of a nation should be allowed to live in peace and not worry about military incursions from neighbor countries. It is a telling fact that the history of humanity is little more than the recounting of one nation or cultural group in conflict with another. Is this the best we can do as an intelligent and supposedly reasonable species? After all, we have named ourselves Homo sapiens, not Homo ignoramus, or Homo violentus. We would like to think that we are a reasonable, rational, and peaceful species who thinks in the long term before acting in the short term.

Thoughtful people have pointed out that the key to making us a more peaceful, more productive, and more cooperative humanity is education. We need to go beyond just the traditional subjects such as reading, math, science, and history, and include empathy and human caring in our curriculum. We need to take a broader view and become citizens of the world not bound in by the national and cultural barriers we have set up to separate us.

It is time children and adults everywhere were given the opportunity to think in global terms, not just as citizens of China or Russia, India, or the United States, or any of the nearly 200 political entities on Earth. At over eight billion, there are simply too many of us now to divide ourselves up into political, religious, or social factions. We have been through that with the result that nearly every acre of land and ocean has been a deadly battleground at some time in our history. This is the civilization we developed with our thousands of gods. Now it is time to put the gods aside and rebuild ourselves with just ourselves.

It took billions of years for animals to develop consciousness. From the earliest single celled microbes which were aware of little more than hunger, to the human brain which scientists agree is the most complex thing in the known universe, we are continuing to better understand our environment and ourselves. Human life is a fascinating journey and we need to do everything we can to see that it not only continues but that we leave to our descendants a better and safer world than our ancestors left us.

There is enough moral core inside us to build on. Like a flower growing in rocky soil, it is weak and needs a lot of nourishment and encouragement. But if enough of us care and put our minds to it, there is no reason to deny our ability to seek the good and honorable in each other the same as we have been seeking it beyond ourselves for so many years. All of us, the weak, the strong, the shy, the adventurous, the quiet, the gregarious, the followers, the leaders, and every citizen of Earth must realize that the good, the reasonable, and the rational, as well as a strong moral core are traits in us that we can develop.

Key conditions for the growth of our moral core are trust and integrity. Be honest and truthful and spread the idea that if we could all trust each other, all of us would be much better off. Of course, that seems to be hard to do in our scam-ridden, hate-ridden world. But we are not going to turn the situation around just by bemoaning and complaining.

As part of humanity, we have all been through the long process of going from animal instinct, to turning ourselves over to a plethora of gods, to now beginning to understand that we ourselves are the ones who will solve our problems. The task seems overwhelming. How do we cope with everything from bully autocrats to sleezy scammers?

If you are like most of us and feel inadequate to change all of humanity, at least change yourself and be a little kinder to everyone you meet. If all eight billion of us did that we would have this conflict and crime problem solved. It all starts with you!

Ted McCormack

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