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2002 - 2004: Stanford University

Becoming Human: The Evolutionary Origins of Spiritual, Religious and Moral Awareness


2003-2004 Lectures and Activities
2002-2003 Lectures and Activities
2001-2002 Lectures and Activities
Project Leaders
Organizing Committee/Working Group
Additional Information



As the modern world converges on a globally standard material culture built on scientific technology, questions of the significance of religious and moral traditions become ever more important. Through much of the 20th century two currents ran at cross-purposes setting the stage for our present dilemma. On the one hand, the recognition of the astonishing variability of human customs and cosmologies reported by anthropological studies challenged us to reappraise the meaning of being human. We began to recognize cherished truths -- religious and moral -- as just another set of tribal traditions. At the same time a revolution in the human sciences was building, based on the unifying principle of evolutionary theory. By the end of the century the idea of biologically fundamental human nature began to reemerge. But now religion came under attack from another direction. Theories of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology challenged the notion that religious and moral ideas were anything but agents of adaptation in the service of genetic self-interest, with no foundation in a transcendent source.

Today new theories and tools of investigation are, for the first time, beginning to make possible a unified approach to the coevolution of genetics and culture and a more integrated understanding of what it means to be human. This allows us to reconsider the origins, development and significance of spiritual and moral beliefs and practices. It also permits us to view these beliefs in a way that can defend human dignity and diversity while preserving global community and cooperation. In a three year project entitled "Becoming Human: The Evolutionary Origins of Spiritual, Religious, and Moral Awareness," we propose to convene a committee of distinguished scholars from diverse disciplines to initiate an ongoing interdisciplinary (and inter-religious) program that will include both academic inquiry and scientific research. Regular monthly meetings, with presentations and open discussions along an ordered schedule of topics, will culminate each Spring Quarter in a series of lectures or a conference open to the entire academic community and general public. Themes for each of the three years can be outlined as follows:

Origins: We will begin with a consideration of the origins and adaptive significance of our capacities for spiritual, religious, and moral thought. Exploring these foundations, through the lens of paleoanthropology, archaeology and comparative ethology, we will seek to redescribe and redefine these capacities in a way that recognizes both their biological utility and their implications of greater ontological significance. Most specifically, we will consider the role of religion in the cultural continuity, transition and transformation that allows on-going progress in the flourishing of human life.

Mechanisms: During our second year, we will discuss the genetic, neural and developmental basis of human spiritual, religious and moral capacities. We will consider the meaning of our particular embodied form and the relational dynamics of human life that make possible consciousness, communication, and moral community. Likewise, we will discuss the significance of our questing nature, the drive to form a comprehensive and coherent understanding of reality (what has been called the "cosmological imperative"). Of greatest significance, we will discuss our capacities for freedom and imagination thatallow us to transcend the forces of physico-chemical determinism with images and aspirations that lift us beyond the imperatives of the "real" to the aspirations of the ideal.

Prospects: In our final year we will return to the fundamental questions of origins, but this time recognizing the "ongoing origins," the ever-emerging creation and extension within the evolutionary process. From this view, issues of direction and purpose may reemerge together with questions concerning a divine source of both the creation and destination of life. Such an approach, that takes seriously the physical world, may recognize within the phenomenon of life (and its extensions in human technology) a rising scale of freedom and peril, and the crucial significance of questions concerning human meaning and purpose.

Through this three-year investigation we hope to approach a richer integration of an evolutionary understanding of the natural world and its relationship to the source and significance of our spiritual, religious and moral capacities. Recognized as both an imperative of adaptation and a beckon to transcendence, our moral and spiritual inclinations toward the good, the beautiful and the tru are appreciated as both in the service of life and life itself.

Goals: It is our hope that this interdisciplinary dialogue will serve as the beginning of a long term initiative in the integration of biology and matters of religious and ethical significance. Our goal is to stimulate academic interest and nourish creative interdisciplinary collaboration in both intellectual inquiry and scientific research. In addition, we will provide a mediation of these important issues for general education, through lectures, conferences, publications, internet, and radio and television programs, and as applicable to political and social policy discussions relevant to our subject. It is our intention that this approach will foster open and creative dialogue and lead to innovative research, significant publication and exciting extensions in both the classroom and long-term student honors projects and dissertations. The main intellectual legacy of the grant, however, will be two things: an edited volume of our second year conference proceedings together with other notable presentations from the lecture series, and most importantly, the ongoing interdisciplinary program in biology, religion and ethics.



2003-2004 Lectures and Activities

May 21st-22nd, 2004
Conference: Becoming Human - Future Prospects

The Evolution of Humans:  Are We Thinking Too Narrowly?
Simon Conway Morris, Ph.D.
Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology, University of Cambridge

Ecology and Religion: The Big Step From Function to Meaning
William Durham, Ph.D.
Bing Professor of Human Biology, Stanford University

Society, the Individual and Mass Killing: Reflections on a Century of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing
Norman M. Naimark, Ph.D.
Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of East European Studies, Stanford University

Moderated by William B. Hurlbut, M.D.
Consulting Professor in the Program in Human Biology, Stanford University

Is There Purpose in the Universe? Questions to Cosmology, Biology and Theology
John F. Haught, Ph.D.
Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology, Georgetown University

Evolution and the Future of Humanity
Simon Conway Morris, Ph.D.
Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology, University of Cambridge

Panel Discussion
Moderated by William B. Hurlbut, M.D.
Consulting Professor in the Program in Human Biology, Stanford University



2002-2003 Lectures and Activities

May 24, 2003
Conference: From Biology to Biography - The Science of the Human Person

Session I Biology: Chemicals to Consciousness (i.e. the phylogeny of personhood)

The Evolutionary Foundations of Freedom, Mind and Moral Awareness
William B. Hurlbut, M.D.
Consulting Professor in the Program in Human Biology, Stanford University

Why and When are We Emotional
Paul Ekman, PhD
Professor of Psychology, University of California, San Francisco

The Embodied Mind: The Ground of Concepts
George Lakoff, PhD
Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley

Evolution, Empathy and Human Intersubjectivity
William B. Hurlburt, M.D.
Consulting Professor in the Program in Human Biology, Stanford University

Session II: Biography: Personal Identity, Social Community and Spiritual Cosmology (i.e. the ontogeny of the human person)

The Development of Moral Understanding, Emotion, and Identity through Life
Anne Colby, PhD
Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

I Lost my Head: Awareness, Emotion and Choice
Paul Ekman, PhD
Professor of Psychology, University of California, San Francisco

The Embodied Mind: Central Metaphors of Moral and Spiritual Life
George Lakoff, PhD
Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley

Faculty Seminar
  • Discussion of Hans Jonas' essay, Philosophical Aspects of Darwinism. This philosophically rich article initiated a discussion of the nature of description of the organic in biology with its view from the outside and its treatment of the organism as machine.
  • Discussion of Leon Kass’ The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature.
  • Wide-ranging discussion on the moral community and the criteria for inclusion. Readings included: a paper co-written by animal rights activists and British research scientists exploring concept of mind and its applicability to non-human species as well as the ethical implications of any conclusions drawn; a selection from Alasdair Macintyre’s Dependent Rational Animal; a selection from Descartes’ Discourse on Method; several short aphorisms from Wittgenstein; and an article by Daniel Dennett on Conditions of Personhood.
  • Discussion of Antonio Damasio’s book Looking for Spinoza, focused primarily on exploring the distinction Damasio draws between “feeling” and “emotion.”
  • Discussion of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh, concerning their theory of metaphor and the potential epistemological limits it places on human knowledge.

Becoming Human: The upper division undergraduate course at Stanford

The seminar course, co-designed and co-taught by William Durham and William Hurlbut, attempted to introduce undergraduates to some of the scientific questions and ongoing investigations in this important area. Many of the texts that had been discussed in the faculty seminar were included in the undergraduate course. The course as originally conceived was to be a ten to twelve student seminar. We had, however, such an overwhelming interest (over sixty students signed up for the course), that we expanded it as much as possible, and allowed thirty-five students to enroll.



2001-2002 Lectures and Activities

May 17th-18th, 2002
Conference: Becoming Human - The Evolutionary Origins of Spiritual, Religious, and Moral Awareness

Making Meaning: Ice Age Art, Spirituality and Religion
Margaret Conkey, PhD
Class of 1960 Professor of Anthropology, UC-Berkeley
Director, Archaeological Research Facility

Human, All Too Human
Robert Hamerton-Kelly, ThD
Former Dean of the Chapel, Stanford University

The Evolutionary Emergence of Moral Cognition
Terrence Deacon, PhD
Professor of Biological Anthropology, Boston University

Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society
David Sloan Wilson, PhD
Professor of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University

Human Relations and Religious Faith
René Girard, PhD
Andrew B Hammond Professor (Emeritus) of French and Comparative Literature, Stanford University

Faculty Seminar
  • Discussion of Walter Burkert's Creation of the Sacred, on the the interrelations of biology and religion.
  • Talk by Professor Wentzel van Huyssteen (Princeton Theological Seminary) on the productive relationship between the anthropological sciences and religious studies.
  • Discussion of articles by the paleontologist Ian Tattersal. One was a short article, published in Zygon, in which he presents a critique of the evolutionary psychology; the other was a chapter on the question of human uniqueness from his book Monkey in the Mirror.
  • Discussion of the cultural vs. biological explanations for the incest taboo, led by William Durham (co-director of the Becoming Human project) and Stanford Cultural Anthropology professor Arthur Wolff.
  • Discussion of Terrence Deacon’s book, The Symbolic Species, concerning complex language as the clearest and most immediate example of a uniquely human behavior.
  • Discussion, led by Professor René Girard, of his book Sacred Violence, concerning his theory of mimetic rivalry and violence.



Project Leaders

William B. Hurlbut, M.D.
Physician and Consulting Professor in the Program in Human Biology, Stanford University

Born in St. Helena, California, he grew up in Bronxville, New York. After receiving his undergraduate and medical training at Stanford University, he completed postdoctoral studies in theology and medical ethics, studying with Robert Hamerton-Kelly, the Dean of the Chapel of Stanford, and subsequently with the Rev. Louis Bouyer of the Institut Catholique de Paris. His primary areas of interest involve the ethical issues associated with advancing biomedical technology, the biological basis of moral awareness, and studies in the integration of theology and philosophy of biology. His courses in biomedical ethics in the Program in Human Biology include: “Adam 2000: Images of Human Life in the Age of Biomedical Technology” and “Ethical Issues in the Neurosciences.” He has also taught a course on genetics and human origins with Dr. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Director of the Human Genome Diversity Project and a course on epidemics, evolution and ethics with Dr. Baruch Blumberg who received the Nobel Prize for discovery of the Hepatitis B Virus. Since 1998, he has been a member of the Chemical and Biological Warfare working group at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and has worked with NASA on projects in astrobiology. In 2001 he was appointed by President George W. Bush to the President’s Council on Bioethics.

William Durham, Ph.D.
Bing Professor of Human Biology, Department of Anthropological Sciences, Stanford University

William Durham joined the Stanford faculty in 1977 and has just completed a term as Chair of the Department of Anthropological Sciences. Professor Durham’s main research interests are in ecology and evolution, the interaction of genetic and cultural change in human populations, and the challenges to conservation and community development in the Third World. His field studies among the San Blas Kuna of Panama have involved investigation of demography, genetics, and resource management. He has also researched the causes of land scarcity and environmental degradation in rural El Salvador and Honduras and the social forces behind deforestation in Mexico and Central and South America. Professor Durham’s publications include Scarcity and Survival in Centeral America (Stanford Press, 1979); Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity (1991); and The Social Causes of Environmental Destruction in Latin America (with M. Painter, Michigan, 1995). During his tenure at Stanford, Dr. Durham has received the Gores, Dinkelspeil, ASSU, Rhodes, and Bing Fellow Awards for his teaching. His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, H. F. Guggenheim Foundation, Danforth Foundation, and MacArthur Foundation. Dr. Durham was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences from 1989 to 1990. He served as the Director of the Human Biology Program at Stanford from 1992 through 1995, and he is currently editor of the Annual Review of Anthropology. Professor Durham earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.



Organizing Committee/WorkingGroup

Click on the name of a conference member for biographical information.
  • Baruch Blumberg, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute
  • Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Professor of Genetics Emeritus, Stanford University
  • William Damon, Professor of Education and Director of the Center on Adolescence, Stanford University
  • William Durham (co-Principal Investigator), Bing Professor of Human Biology, Stanford University
  • Arnold Eisen, Professor of Religious Studies, Stanford University
  • Paul Ekman, Professor of Psychology, University of California, San Francisco
  • Marcus Feldman, Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University
  • John Gabrieli, Associate Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
  • René Girard, Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization Emeritus, Stanford University
  • Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Pastor, Woodside Village Church
  • John F. Haught, Thomas Healey Distinguished Professor, Georgetown University
  • William Hurlbut (Committee Chair and co-Principal Investigator), Physician and Consulting Professor in the Program in Human Biology, Stanford University
  • William L. McLennan, Dean of Religious Life, Stanford University
  • William C. Mobley, Chair, Department of Neurology, Stanford University
  • Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology, University of Cambridge
  • Norman M. Naimark, Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of East European Studies, Stanford University
  • Bill Newsome, Professor of Neurobiology, Stanford University
  • Andrea Nightingale, Associate Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at Stanford University
  • V.S. Ramachandran, Professor of Neuroscience, University of California, San Diego
  • Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University
  • Jeffrey Schloss, Professor of Biology, Westmont College
  • David Spiegel, Professor and Associate Chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Director of the Psychosocial Treatment Laboratory, and Medical Director of the Complementary Medicine Clinic, Stanford University School of Medicine
  • Lee Yearly, Chairman, Department of Religious Studies, Stanford University



Additional Information

Becoming Human Project Website



William B. Hurlbut, M.D.
Stanford University
Program in Human Biology
Bldg 80, Room 110
Mail Code 2160
Stanford, CA 94305-2160

Work: 650.725.2610
Fax: 650.725.5451

William Durham, Ph.D.
Stanford University
Anthropology Department
Building 360
Mail Code: 2117
Stanford, CA 94305-2117

Work: 650.723.0867
Fax: 650.725.9996



1616 Walnut Street, Suite 1112, Philadelphia, PA 19103 USA
Voice: + 1 484.592.0304 Fax: +1 484.592.0313