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Thriving with Stone Age Minds: Evolutionary Psychology, Christian Faith, and the Quest for Human Flourishing

Justin Barrett with Pamela Ebstyne King
Published by IVP Academic in 2021

This is a book that demonstrates how evolution can inform and deepen Christian faith. Some books that integrate science and faith are helpful for reimagining long held theological positions in light of evolutionary science (Adam and the Genome by McKnight and Venema, 2017 or When Did Sin Begin by Loren Haarsma, 2021). Others try to explain what scripture was trying to say now that we have a better understanding of human prehistory (The Genealogical Adam and Eve by S. Joshua Swamidass, 2021 or In Quest of the Historical Adam by William Craig, 2021). In Thriving with Stone Age Minds, Justin Barret is not wrestling with evolution, he is offering something much more subtle. He is using it. 

Barrett is answering a question that I have struggled to answer since I first heard it. Nearly five years ago, while enjoying a lovely dinner paid for by John Templeton in the company of theologians, philosophers, and scientists gathered together to think about the doctrine of creation, a church historian asked a pointed question. He asked, “Let’s say I get completely on board with evolution. I stop criticizing those who believe it and I empower it to be taught in Christian schools. Assuming all that, why does it matter? How does it affect my life?”

He should have had to pay for his own dinner. But his point had been made. 

Just this past fall, I heard the same question asked in a different way that raised the stakes even further. During a meeting of Cooperativity, the science and religion club at my institution, we had an outside speaker present on Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory. In the question-and-answer period a student asked the speaker, “How does evolutionary theory help you to better worship Christ?”

Whether that was his goal or not, that is the question Justin Barrett answered for me with this new book. 

Justin Barrett is best known for his work in cognitive science of religion, or how our brains are hardwired toward faith in the divine. His earlier books Why Would Anyone Believe in God (AltaMira, 2004), Cognitive Science, Religion and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds (Templeton Press, 2011), and Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs (Atria, 2012) all explore that area. From his CV it must be acknowledged that Barrett’s other passion seems to be founding institutions. He currently leads one called Blueprint 1543, whose mission says, “We exist to help people do a better job asking and answering life’s big questions. We use the sciences to accelerate excellent contributions from Christians to life’s biggest questions.”

He wrote Stone Age Minds with Pamela Ebstyne King, a former colleague at Fuller Seminary and the Thrive Center for Human Development. She has published broadly on human development and Christian Theology. When reading the introduction to the text I found myself in serious need for footnote 3 of the Introduction, which explains the “with” in the author byline. Throughout the book Barrett uses “I” where I had expected “we.” This is not a co-written book, but Dr. Pamela King was an important influence and conversation partner that helped shape the text sufficiently enough to merit authorship with Barrett. 

The goal of the book is “not to argue for the harmony between evolutionary psychology and biblical Christian faith, but to demonstrate it by showing the utility in bringing the two together around a topic that should concern us all: What does it mean to thrive?” (p 11). A nice summary of the argument of the book comes in the first chapter where he writes,

Evolutionary psychology helps us see what human nature is, which helps us see what distinctively human thriving is. Humans have three interacting clusters of distinctive capacities: being very social in some interesting ways, having an unparalleled capacity to acquire and share information with each other, and possessing an unusual ability to willfully control themselves. These three groups of features make humans the only animals alive today that can image God by exercising His reign over the rest of creation and, most importantly, the only animals that can truly and deeply love God and love each other. (p 8)

In this longer quote, Barrett is carrying out the promise of the goal of the book. He offers insights from his discipline, evolutionary psychology, in order to better understand Christian theology, the image of God, in order to illuminate a more holistic understanding of human flourishing. In the core of the book (chapters 4 – 6) Barrett explores the evidence for the three clusters of distinctive capacities. Then, for each, he explains how our modern, urban, technological world has created what he calls Nature-Niche gaps. 

For example, while evolutionary psychology suggests that our social nature is to carry about 150 personal relationships, wherein we are related to most of these people and understand the social status and obligations of the rest, modern urbanites expect to live their day recognizing virtually none of the people around them. This is a gap between our evolutionarily crafted nature and our current environment, or niche. It is Barrett’s argument that nature-niche gaps impede our thriving as individuals and as a population. His description of nature-niche gaps and how they continue to frustrate us is thought provoking and helped me reconsider some of my own life choices. This is the primary contribution of the book, and it fully justifies the investment of time (the main text is only 160 pages) and money ($20) the book requires. 

Barrett offers an image that I found useful. He writes that the nature-niche gap problem is something like, “having one end of a bungee cord anchored to the ground and the other end tied to us. The nearer we are to the anchor spot, the more freely we can move; the farther away we are, the more tension we will feel.” (158) Coming out of a pandemic (please God), I have spent years avoiding direct human contact. That epidemiologically warranted decision has nonetheless carried me further from the evolutionarily crafted anchor point of 150 close personal contacts which has made it more difficult for me to move and thrive. For another example, my evolutionarily honed stress response, which was ideal for the threat of predation or a raid on the flock, is poorly designed for the stress I expose myself to by refreshing my news app four or five (or nine or ten) times a day. The more I can limit that sort of unresolvable, response-less stress in my life, the more I am free to focus on actual threats in my day-to-day existence. In these cases and more evolutionary psychology offers helpful suggestions of how we can reduce the tension on the bungee cord and move more freely. But it never offers direct suggestions.

Towards the end of the book, Barrett wisely highlights the limits of his approach. He writes, “Evolutionary psychology can give us insights into the specific features of human nature and how they may solve particular problems that face us, but it will not tell us how we should use that nature to address the nature-niche gap problem that hinders thriving. Evolutionary psychology also does not and cannot tell us what our purpose is and what we should do.” (p 132) To learn how we should live we need a normative system that will prescribe a purpose for life. We need theology. 

It is in the final chapter of the text that Barrett does most of his integrating of psychology and theology. In example after example he illustrates how science and faith can inform one another and grant us a clearer view of the truth. (e.g. “Evolutionary psychology provides insight into human relational capacity, which in turn helps us understand the biblical mandate to love one another… God has commanded us to love all people, it seems unlikely that he has commanded us to love all people equally.”) He works through how bridging the nature-niche gap can help us thrive as a species, in communities, and as individuals.  

Thriving with Stone Age Minds is a highly readable book, free from overly technical descriptions when discussing either science or theology. Barrett is both personal and funny and he touches upon more topics than these few pages can support. But, for me, this book offered a beautiful answer to the question, How does evolutionary theory help you to better worship Christ? The answer is, “Knowing our nature better by bringing together theological insights and those from relevant sciences, including evolutionary psychology, will give us new tools for effectively pursuing the telos to which God has called us.” (p 160) Understanding evolution can help me better live into my calling to bear the Image of God.

Clay Carlson

Dr. Clay Carlson is a Professor of Biology and the Director of Interdisciplinary Inquiry courses at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.

One Comment

  • Marie Ippel says:

    Thanks for this review. Ilia Delio says that evolution tells the love story between God and creation. This book seems to tell the same story, and it’s a good story.

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