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Justin Barrett | A Psychology of Human Thriving

A discussion of what it means to be human in light of the truths of Christian faith and evolutionary psychology.

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A discussion of what it means to be human in light of the truths of Christian faith and evolutionary psychology.

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Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on July 01, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Throughout his journey as a Christian and a psychologist, Justin Barrett has often lamented the widespread separation between his faith and his work. As a result, much of his recent work is aimed at bringing the two together so that each can enrich the other. He is now founder and president of Blueprint 1543, a new organization aimed at integrating faith with the human sciences. Justin joins Jim to discuss Blueprint 1543 and what it means to be human in light of the truths of Christian faith and evolutionary psychology.

Check out Justin’s new book, Thriving With Stone Age Minds: Evolutionary Psychology, Christian Faith, and the Quest for Human Flourishing, here.

Find out more about Justin’s new organization, Blueprint 1543, on their website. New free resources and opportunities for learning will be coming soon to their website and email newsletter. 

 


Transcript

Justin:  

I’m not optimistic that any of us fully become in this life what God’s intended us to be, but we can be moving in that direction on that trajectory, better or worse, and sort of, you know, a good, thriving life in this world is moving nicely along that path. And helping others do it with us right now. Part of that social communal kind of thing, contributing to others thriving is one of the ways in which we would thrive in this life. And, you know, we can boil it all the way down, if you like, to loving God and loving others. 

I’m Justin Barrett. I’m president of Blueprint 1543.

Jim:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend some time at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California as a part of the first cohort of the Theo/Psych project. The project is designed to teach pastors, theologians, and philosophers about findings in psychology which might be relevant to their work. The Theo/Psych project is now hosted by Blueprint 1543, a relatively new science and faith organization 

Our guest on the podcast today is Justin Barrett, founder and president of Blueprint 1543, and the director of the Theo/Psych project. He joined us once before on the podcast, back in episode 30, where we talked about the Theo/Psych project and his specialty in the cognitive science of religion. In this episode, we talk about his new book called Thriving with Stone Age Minds: Evolutionary Psychology, Christian Faith, and the Quest for Human Flourishing. Central to this is a discussion of just what it means to be human. You can find a link to the book in our show notes. We’re particularly excited about this one, as it is the latest book on the BioLogos Books on Science and Christianity series at InterVarsity Press.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Jim:

Justin Barrett, welcome back to the podcast. 

Justin:

Thanks. It’s great to be back. 

Jim:

So during this pandemic, lots of us just hunkered down in our professional lives and did what we could to survive and keep things going as well as we could. You, on the other hand, moved across the country and started a new organization. Why have you done that?

Justin:

Well, you know, I didn’t plan to do this in the middle of a pandemic, it just sort of worked out that way. Yeah, I’ve started a new organization called Blueprint 1543.

Jim:

The title of that perhaps needs a little explaining.

Justin:

I suppose it does. It sounds awfully nerdy, doesn’t it? Well, the 1543 is sort of a nod at, well, the sciences, because it’s kind of a year that’s often marked as the rough start of the scientific revolution. 1543. So that’s what that’s coming from. And then the blueprint part has a couple of kind of meanings. One is exploring the natural world, from the perspective of, you know, sort of science helps unravel God’s blueprint for the natural world, you might think. So it’s sort of hinting at a theological integration with doing science, but it also is suggesting something else. And that’s that our organization is about trying to help, especially Christians, but also other people of faith, sort of re-examine or develop a new blueprint for their engagement with the sciences. And to approach these in a positive way. It’s good tools that we have for exploring and caring for the world that God has made us stewards of.

Jim: 

And you bring a slightly different angle to the science and faith discussions, then, historically, the sciences of evolution and physics have been prominent, you’re you’re trained in psychology, how does that affect the sort of angle that your organization is taking in these conversations? 

Justin: 

You’re right, I’m a sort of a cognitive and developmental psychologist by training. And I think what that means is, we have a stronger emphasis on what you might call the human sciences or human behavioral sciences than what’s traditionally been the case. And part of the reason for that is, we think that a huge number of the problems that the world is facing, are the kinds of problems that the human sciences in particular, but especially as informed by Christian theology, well, it’s that fusion that’s going to help us make good progress on these these great big questions. So we’re not primarily focused on things like ‘well, how do we make sense of say, Big Bang cosmology in terms of creation theology’, that’s great and interesting stuff. But we’re more interested in is how do we take theological insights and couple that with scientific insights to make progress on things like what does it mean for humans to flourish and thrive? What does it mean to do effective ministry in this world?

Even you know, the recent pandemic shows that there’s this distinctively human side of things. You know, I would consider epidemiology a human science in so far as it’s concerned with human health. So that’s kind of our focus is on the human sciences engaging with theology, the church, ministry, and so forth. And we’re, but we are more broadly interested in just Christians just getting in and doing darn good science, you know, really encouraging that as integrated people.

Jim:

As you look down the road here as Blueprint 1543 does its strategic planning 5, 10 years from now, what do you hope to have accomplished? We’re all used to grant proposals, what are the what are the outcomes? Looking down the road, that if your organization is successful, how is the world going to be different?

Justin:

Yeah, well, I don’t know if I’m as ambitious as making huge, huge progress in the next five years, maybe even 10 years. But we’ve, we’ve put in our strategy documents, and for the sake of poetry, I guess our our target year is actually 2043. So…

Jim:

500 years after Copernicus.

Justin:

Exactly. 500 years after Copernicus, what would the world be like? And at least some of our goals are things like, well, when it comes to doing theology, it’s going to be perfectly natural for theologians to draw upon the sciences in doing theology. And that’s not to say that the sciences will be absorbed by theology or the other way around, but just that it will be a normal thing for, just like theologians commonly draw upon philosophy to do theology and they commonly draw upon linguistics or textual studies, they will also commonly draw on the sciences when that is a relevant and appropriate tool for what they’re doing. And then we also want to see by the year 2043, that Christians, you know, confessional Christians of a fairly orthodox variety, are at least proportionally represented in the science and science-related fields. Right now, at least as the survey data seemed to suggest that Christians, particularly those of the more traditional orthodox sort, evangelicals and others, are woefully underrepresented in these areas, especially at the higher echelons.

So I think it’s complex. But those are some of the problems that actually we want to spend more time looking into trying to get a better handle on what does lead to these conditions? And then what can we do about it? And who are the organizations we can work with hint, hint, maybe BioLogos, to start addressing some of these challenges, so that by 2043, it’s a different picture. Christians are fully engaged with the sciences, as integrated people and theologians are regularly drawing upon the sciences just to do better theology.

Jim:

Well, that picture of the world you paint in 2043 is one that’s pretty attractive to me. I hope I’m still around to experience it. It’s getting pretty close to life expectancy numbers for me, so we’re gonna have to see

Justin:  

I look forward to seeing you then.

Jim:  

Alright. You are here primarily so we can talk about the new book that’s coming out that you wrote with Pamela Epstein King who is a professor with you at Fuller in the School of Theology. And we at BioLogos are very excited about it, because it’s the most recent book to come out on our series with Intervarsity Press called BioLogos Books on Science and Christianity. If I’m not mistaken, this book was a long time coming from the original idea to the copies of the book being delivered on your doorstep, right?

Justin: 

Oh, that’s the truth, embarrassingly. Yes.

Jim:

How did it get started? And how did it develop then?

Justin:

Right, right. Well, for a long time now, I’ve thought that the world needs an introduction to evolutionary psychology, partly because it took me so long in my professional career getting comfortable with evolutionary psychology. So I carry the sensitivities of other Christ followers, that there’s something a little bit uncomfortable about this area of contemporary science, evolutionary psychology. And, but wouldn’t it be nice if somebody out there would write a book that then would be at least a, you know, a sympathetic introduction, sympathetic in both directions, that there’s something valuable about evolutionary psychology, but also sympathetic to the fact that, at least for those of us who are Christians, there might be something uncomfortable there at various points. And so I tried to encourage a number of people to write this book, and they all told me nah. And then BioLogos ran the Evolution and Christian Faith program that funded a number of projects. And I thought this was an opportunity to then collaborate with some of my colleagues at Fuller, like Pam King, among others, and we wrote a little grant that then was selected. Thank you BioLogos.

Jim:

That predated me. I’m afraid I can’t take any credit, so.

Justin: 

Yeah, and so we did a, you know, series of activities that led to the drafting of the manuscript. And so instead of a straightforward, okay, here’s evolutionary psychology. Because of our context and because of the particulars of that program, we thought, well, instead of just telling people about evolutionary psychology, what if we tried to put evolutionary psychology into action around a problem that Christians care about? And then and that question, then, is what does it mean to thrive? What’s a thriving human life from the perspective of Christian theology? And so I thought, well, that’s kind of an interesting way to approach this instead of just yet another introductory text. What if we do the introductory stuff, but do it through wrestling with a particularly sort of challenging and interesting problem?

Jim:

So let me see if I can give a quick description of this, of the central point that you would accept as a fair and accurate description of what you’re doing here. So you’re not really giving evidence for the truth of evolution in the book, but simply saying, if we humans, if we homo sapiens evolved, then that helps to explain certain aspects of our existence today. And more specifically, our brains and minds evolved and adapted in quite different circumstances. And because we’ve pretty radically altered the environments we live in, there’s a kind of disconnect between that biology and psychology that underlies our existence, and our ability to thrive as individuals and communities, and evolutionary psychology can help to explain this disconnect and provide tools for addressing it. Is that all correct? Or would you amend anything in that as much as we’ve gone there so far?

Justin:

You nailed it. That was really great. I need to take you with me to do these book talks and stuff. That was fantastic.

Jim:

So the title of the book, we haven’t even said this yet. We’ll start with the subtitle, as you’ve already talked about Evolutionary Psychology, Christian Faith, and the Quest for Human Flourishing. But I really like the title of this. Thriving with Stone Age Minds. So this thing in between our ears here is really a relic from a former era. Is that the idea?

Justin:

And that’s the idea. Well, if you think about it, you don’t even have to have a real deep view of time. You know, two to 200 years ago, huge, sort of a huge portion of the world was actually living in stone age conditions. It’s hard for us to realize that, but that’s just the fact of the matter. And so this Stone Age was not that long ago for at least a lot of people around the globe. And in terms of evolutionary timescale, then it was yesterday. And so from an evolutionary perspective, you might think, yeah, we’ve got kind of equipment that was tuned up during a long period of time known as the Stone Age. And that’s what we’re dealing with and contemporaries are using in contemporary societies to try to navigate life. And so it seems like that creates some tension points or a gap we have sometimes talked about between our nature and then our niche over our environment.

Jim: 

So when you say in the subtitle here, Evolutionary Psychology, Christian Faith and the Quest for Human Flourishing, what’s kind of the methodological approach for you incorporating and integrating insights from evolutionary psychology with Christian faith in this particular book?

Justin:

Assume for the sake of argument that humans have evolved through some natural selection process. And in our case, we say, and that this is the way that God did it, right? God chose to use an evolutionary process to bring us about. And then we’re going to examine, well, what are the particular kind of pieces of evidence we have from the psychological sciences, especially—and neighboring areas of evolutionary studies—to build a story about what makes humans maybe stand out amongst other animals? And how do we use that to think about what it means to thrive and flourish?

Jim:

Yeah, let’s get to that term now. Because obviously, we need to understand what it means to thrive if we’re going to try to investigate the conditions for that. So what do you mean by thriving?

Justin:

Well, the disclaimer work in progress, right? In some ways, what we’re trying to do here is encourage a new, fresh way of approaching this question of what is thriving, that’s integrative. That brings insights from theology to the human sciences and makes progress through that integration. But you have to start somewhere. And where we start in thinking about thriving is with this idea that human thriving, well, first of all thriving there is meant to capture a condition of both individuals and the communities they live in. Okay, so thriving is not just about me as an individual in isolation, but it recognizes that. Again, due to the kind of animal we are, but also due to what we read about what kind of animal we are, in Scripture, what a theology teaches us about the kind of animal we are, is that we’re immensely social relational kinds of creatures. Evolutionary psychology and Christian theology, we think converge on that point. And so for us to thrive as individuals, the communities we are in need to be thriving as well. And if we as individuals are detracting from the thriving of, say, our family, that actually weakens our own thriving. So we all thrive, well, we each thrive when we all thrive. So that’s a starting kind of commitment. 

Jim:

I want to push you a little further here to explain what we mean by that. Is this just kind of a subjective feeling of things are going well for me? Or do you point to some more objective measures that you can determine if a person is thriving or not, if a community is thriving or not?

Justin: 

Yeah. This is, there are some more objective types of things. But we have to sort of unpack these gradually. So thriving is about me, it’s about my community, if I’m detracting from my community, and that means my community members’ thriving as well, then that weakens mine, and there should be empirical kinds of consequences of that. For instance, some of those are, yeah, things are going well. So we might expect measures of well-being of various sorts psychological well-being, emotional well-being, happiness, even counts, joy. There will be these kinds of indicators, health, longevity, we’ll all be at least partial indicators that we’re on the right track on the population level. And I put that qualification on the population level because we also recognize that from a theological perspective, the person who thrived best from a Christian perspective is Jesus. He did the thing right. That’s the life we want to imitate. That’s the life we’re called to imitate. 

Jim:

But he only lived 33 years and had a pretty violent death before rising again. But we must not just be talking about you lived a good long life, that’s what thriving means.

Justin:

Exactly, exactly. It doesn’t matter. It is a, we like to think about it as approaching the kind of person the kind of life that God created you to become. And so it’s a dynamic, it’s a, it’s an always progressing, and someone who’s thriving more, the more they’re sort of approaching their, their well tell us they’re that, that that aim of what they’re supposed to become, and they may not reach it in this life. It may be, you know, after the resurrection, that, that we start fully actualizing the kind of person that God wants us to be that full, abundant life that we’re called to.

Jim:  

Yeah, so you use this, this intentionally theological language that’s often used for eschatology, “the already but not yet”, as applied to thriving so we, in this life did do any people fully thrive in this life, or are we as Christians dependent on what is to come in order to become what God intended for us to be?

Justin:

I don’t know that… Well, I’m not optimistic that any of us fully become in this life what God’s intended us to be, but we can be moving in that direction on that trajectory, better or worse, and sort of, you know, a good, thriving life in this world is moving nicely along that path. And helping others do it with us right now. Part of that social communal kind of thing, contributing to others thriving is one of the ways in which we would thrive in this life. And, you know, we can boil it all the way down, if you like, to loving God and loving others. But we know that, ‘yes, but how?’ comes up very quickly. And that’s kind of why we start bringing in some of the evolutionary perspectives is they help us see, well, what’s the equipment we’re working with? How can we use that equipment effectively? And what are the obstacles to using that equipment? By that equipment I mean, our humaneness.

[musical interlude]

Colin:

Hey listeners. I’m just here with a quick plug for the BioLogos forum, a place filled with active discussions about many of the topics covered in this podcast. In fact, each episode of the podcast has a specific thread where you can discuss what you’ve heard. The forum is a place where questions are welcome and where conversation is civil and gracious, even when topics are controversial. Bring your questions or share your story with a community filled with experts and other curious learners from a variety of viewpoints. You can find a link to the forum at the top of any page on the BioLogos website, biologos.org.

Interview Part Two: Human Identity

Jim:

So evolution often emphasizes the continuities that we have with other animals. And I think it’s fair to say a lot of the work that BioLogos and others do on this is trying to show people evidences for that continuity. But the other side of that is that there are also some pretty remarkable discontinuities in terms of abilities and we’ll talk about some of those and how you’ve grouped them together in just a bit. But before that, I’m curious what you think about the question of whether homo sapiens differ only in degree from other animals or whether we differ in kind? Is this even an interesting question? Or does the answer to it matter in any way?

Justin:

Yeah, great, great question. You’re absolutely right that from, you know, when we think about human evolution, there is a strong tendency to emphasize the continuity of humans with at least ancestral species, but often this extends to others. And even for ethical reasons, we hear a lot of folks in the sciences wanting to emphasize our continuity with other species. So that we don’t think that we are so different and special that then somehow that gives us the right to abuse other animals. I actually think that that ladder motivation, the ethical one, is a good motivation, but it sort of pushes the science in the opposite direction. And so what I mean by that is sometimes we’re seeing now an over emphasis in our, our commonalities. But you asked about, you know…

Jim: 

The degree difference in degree versus difference in kind?

Justin:

Yeah, and I think it’s a helpful question to wrestle with, because it pushes us in, you know, to look at the evidence, but I think ultimately, that distinction starts falling apart. And let me just give a quick illustration of why I think that is. So you might think that in any, suppose you’ve got two groups of people, and or any other kind of organism, but let’s call them people for now. Two groups of people, they have similar attributes, except that one group may be slightly better at long jumping, jumping over gaps than the other. And clearly this is a difference in degree not in kind. Until you face an honest to goodness gap or hole, that then you need to get across. And suppose the gap is 15 feet across, or three meters, whatever you like, something like that. And if members of one group Group A can get across the gap, if only one member of Group A can get across the gap, then you know, using tools and strings and things could, you know, maybe help construct a bridge, can you get everybody across the gap. But if in Group B, nobody can get over, you know, the three meter gap, then they’re stuck on that side of the gap. And now there is a difference in kind—one has crossed the gap that one hasn’t. And that’s because of the difference in degree interacting with the challenges of a local ecology. And I’ve only focused on one attribute that differs in degree, the ability to jump a long way. You follow me? But there are, of course, lots and lots of these potential traits that then interact with each other.

Jim:

So I guess then the question becomes, are all current species in some sense, that, because they’re here, have all species become different in kind from each other? Does that, is that just what it means to be a species is to be a different kind of thing than others because of that evolutionary history and what challenges they were able to, to master better than others?

Justin:

I mean, in a certain respect. That’s right. We’ve species or our populations that have a cluster of traits that kind of sets them apart as kind of a statistical island, if you will. And you’ll sometimes hear the language that every species is unique. So talking about human uniqueness is an interesting thing. Again, we can push this too far, because there are respects in which humans are not just different from any other species, because of this particular clustering of traits they have that would be true of, you know, a particular species of praying mantis more, or a sea squirts, or whatever you like. But humans are different than any other species, in many respects that are very obvious.

Jim:

So let’s get to those particularly as it relates more back to your book here. And the challenges as well as the opportunities we have for thriving. So you’ve put those different capacities that really set us apart into three different groups that maybe we can talk through those. So the first one is sociality—we exist and live with others of our same species. And obviously, other species do this, too. So what is it that’s different about human sociality?

Justin:

Good, yeah. What makes human sociality different, it appears, is both the… You might think of both scope and depth. So you’re right, lots there, lots of what you might put in scare quotes and call social animals. Ants, bees are, you know, sort of textbook examples of colony animals. I guess naked mole rat is one of these kinds of things, too. There are lots of them, right? What’s kind of interesting about many of those is their high degree of genetic relatedness, like your typical beehive, it’s mostly populated by clones of each other. So there’s an extremely high degree of genetic relatedness. Humans aren’t like that. They’re actually living with animals that they’re not so closely related to, in a close kind of interactive way. So that’s one respect. But I think a more interesting and important one is the way that we individualize each other. So it’s not just that we live in big groups, we do that. But we live in big groups that are, from our perspective, each of our perspectives, constituted by unique individuals that we interact with in unique individual kinds of ways.

Jim:

What do you mean by that? Give me an example. 

Justin:

So, just looking around, you know, my neighborhood or my social networks, I interact with my wife in a very different way than I interact with a son, and which is also very different from how I interact with my neighbor, to the right, which is different than the neighbor to the left of my house, in my neighborhood. These are all different interactions, I think of them in different ways, I represent them in my mind, I go to them for different kinds of things. I don’t treat all of the people in my social network as basically equivalent.

Jim:

And other species don’t do that, or at least to the same degree?

Justin:

Not nearly to the same degree, we don’t see that. We see roles that different kinds of groups play, different kinds of individuals play, sorry, within groups. So you know, there might be the queen bee, there are the drones, and then there are the workers. We’ve got three categories. And maybe there’s some differentiation among you know, the workers, but I as another worker, I’m not necessarily sensitive to those at all, I don’t know. So you know, I have this problem to solve, I know who will help me solve this problem, I’m going to go over to clone number 37, as opposed to clone number 38, who I would turn to for this other thing. But we humans, that’s exactly what we do. We almost like keep a catalog or, for the old people out there, a Rolodex of individuals in our heads, their traits, their desires, their beliefs, who they’re related to, who they like, who they dislike, all of that’s in our head all the time. And so we in groups individually relate to each other. That’s pretty special. We do see that in you know, to a certain degree in, it appears we see that in whales of various sorts, and we see that in some other primates. And also, maybe some domesticated animals like dogs, but again, not to the degree that we see in humans, and certainly not in the size groups that we do that in humans. Human social groups are much bigger, much more complex than what we see in other animals.

Jim:

Okay. So, can you apply this then to the central question? Your book, how has this sociality changed over time? Or is this part of the problem of our difficulty to thrive that we are in different social contexts now than the way our, than we were when our brains evolved and the way we respond to certain situations?

Justin: 

It may be, it may be part of the problem, it looks like our brains are really sort of best adapted for keeping track of something like 150, plus or minus about 50, honest to goodness, personal relationships.

Jim:

That’s Dunbar’s number…

Justin:

It’s known as Dunbar’s number. And, yeah, Dunbar’s number is 150. And that he says, Look there big old fat tails on either end of this 150. Some of us it’s more like 100, others about 200. And then outside of those, say, 150 personal relationships, we have all these acquaintances, and so forth. But that we really only typically have the capacity to treat about 150 people as individuals that I’m sort of tracking in an important sense. So even though that is much greater, we think, than we see in any other species, it’s still a limit, there’s still a sort of an upper limit, at least, you know, probabilistically, in any given human being. So what happens then when we get thrust into communities, and oh, it’s thought that that number probably evolved around that, around that size, because that’s the traditional size of there’s a feedback mechanism here. But that’s the traditional size of, of small, you know, hunter gatherer bands and groups, and even churches for that matter. Throughout history, this 150 seems to be an important number, both for individuals to be able to track all of the other individuals, but also for a group of individuals to kind of socially regulate each other. Beyond about 150, it seems that there’s an additional need for what you might think of is hierarchy and power structures and things like that, governance. So if that’s what we’re sort of good at navigating, then how do we navigate these huge kinds of conglomerations of people that we live in now with urbanization.

Jim:

I’m wondering too, though, whether there’s some difference in the kind of socialization we have, where if our ancient ancestors grew up in these hunter gatherer bands of 150 people that we all lived together. Now those 150 people for me are not the ones that I live closest to. And, you know, I’ve even seen people writing essays about the electric garage door and how this has so radically changed the way we interact with our neighbors. Because I drive into my house, and I pull into the garage, and I put the door down, and I go inside, and I never interact with those people that are closest to me. Are these the kind of questions that would come up in trying to figure out what challenges we’ve created for ourselves in our modern environments compared to the way our brains and minds were originally wired and adapted for thriving? Or am I going down some rabbit trail here, that’s completely off topic? 

Justin:

You know, I like rabbits. So that’s fine. No, I think you’ve, you’ve given a really nice example of some of the challenges. It’s not just density or size of social networks, which is what this research is called, it’s called social networks. This predates what we now think of as social networks and you know, digitally.

Jim:

Yeah, what my friends are, there is something very different again, right, and social network friends.

Justin: 

But that, too, is a good example of where in some ways we’re trying to maintain personal relationships facilitated by an electronic information medium that then cuts out the in-person interaction. And you might think, well, that’s alright, I can still see and hear, but Dunbar in his, you know, we mentioned Robin Dunbar for Dunbar’s number, he and his colleagues working on some of these problems. They’ve also noted that part of our human sociality, part of what binds us together is what you know, he called social grooming. And he is borrowing this from you know, studies of other primates who you know, pick bugs off of each other. And that kind of social activity seems to release endorphins of various sorts and socially bond individuals to each other; it builds trust, it builds community. Well, it’s hard to socially groom over the internet. Yeah, it’s hard to socially groom via mail.

Jim:

Social media like isn’t the same as picking a bug off somebody?

Justin:

You know, it gives a tiny little boost. A little happy drug gets released, apparently when we get a like, but it’s not the same as spending time having physical contact with each other through hugs or handshakes, which is more of a human kind of social grooming. Though we do, you know, watch school girls, they do brush each other’s hair and things like that they really do socially groom. boys do it a little bit more typically, through sports, contact sports, that’s social grooming too. Laughing together, singing together, other kinds of coordinated social in-person activities seem to be the natural ways in which we form trust and cooperation with each other in our social groups. And all of this distant stuff that we’re doing, even pre-pandemic, distancing ourselves through social media through being more transient societies is stretching that and maybe then we have this impression that we have, well, a whole lot more relationships. But are they as deep? Are they as trusting? Are they you know, really as bonded without all of that in person social grooming and interaction? Probably not. So that’s part of that, how our nature and our current niche or environment, maybe have a misfit in terms of our sociality.

Jim: 

Well, let’s go through a couple of these other areas, then, that sets us apart from creatures and again, talking about how this affects your overall thesis here about thriving in our Stone Age minds. So the second category of things you said is communication or our ability to acquire and transmit information. What do we mean here?

Justin:

Yeah, so one of the things that our tight knit sociality enables, but also the kind of special minds we have enables is the acquisition of expertise, or information from each other. We socially learn, lots of species socially learn, but we socially learn in a kind of super amped up kind of way. Often through teaching, right? We are very unusual animals, some recent writers have suggested this is maybe one of the important traits that sets off humans from others is that we deliberately teach others we instruct, and not just in a behavioral way, like don’t do that, do that, climb up into the trees, get out of the trees, eat this, get out of my face or I’ll beat you.

Jim: 

Are other species, when they do that, is it more that they’re just imitating what they see as, is that the distinction you’re making that we intentionally teach and instruct?

Justin:

It is. So other species imitate. I keep chickens in my backyard. And as dumb as a chicken is, they obviously socially learn from each other. So, you know, the cicadas are sweeping through. And initially, they didn’t know that this was good food for them. But once one figured it out, all of them went, ‘Oh, okay, I’m in.’ But they learned from each other, from the first one who tried it. So even dumb chickens can socially learn. But what the chickens don’t do, I’ve never seen a chicken do and apparently even is pretty rare and only slight in even chimpanzees is the ‘Let me show you how to do a particular thing.’ And I break down a process into its steps. And I illustrate for you, I demonstrate for you step by step how to do it, oh, and you start to do it. And I go, oh, not like that, like this. So even if it’s behavioral, there’s this level of care of breaking it down for the other. Why would we do that? Well, in part, it’s because we are these social animals and we’re dependent on learning from each other. We’ve become dependent in learning from each other, because of our vast sort of range, our living in lots of different ecologies and being omnivorous. It’s also because of being really slow developing. Right? So we, other animals that get born and sort of develop very quickly. And so they, because of that speed of development, they need lots of sort of built in instincts and sort of shortcuts to get to the information they need to survive. We’re slow, right? Human children, they’re irritating, irritatingly slow for the parents, right? Sometimes we go goodness, you’re almost 30 get out of the house. Like, when are you going to develop joking kids. pandemic helped that happen, to get out of the house. But really, parents invest in their kids so much longer. And partly that is so we can fill their brains with information that’s relevant to this particular context, this particular niche, because humans have such diversity issues. Unlike other species that have invaded the whole globe, which have done it through genetic variations, right, they’ve diversified their sort of gene pool in order to invade all the different ecologies humans have managed to do, basically keeping the same genetic package. But instead, we solve the problem by learning locally relevant information and teaching it to each other.

Jim:

Okay, are there any areas to apply the thriving thesis here to this aspect of what humans are and what we do? Are there, Is there a gap between the environment in which our brains and minds adapted originally versus what we find ourselves in now, that our particular challenges for thriving?

Justin:

Sure. So there are a number of ways in which not just that we are so dependent on learning from each other, but how we go about learning from each other, that can create some friction points. So Joe Henrik, for instance, and some of his colleagues, Pete Richardson and Robert Boyd, have done a lot of work looking at what are the what you might think of as social learning biases that we carry with us, that have helped us learn from each other, who we pay attention to, who we imitate, and so forth. That then helps us get generally good information that’s relevant to our, at least fitness. And we might think, in some cases, to our thriving. And what they’ve, they’ve given pretty strong evidence for, I think, is that we’re, for instance, attracted to people who show competence, they show skill in an area, they’re socially prestigious. So who’s everybody else paying attention to? That’s who I need to pay attention to. We selectively attend to people who are like us, in relevant ways. Now, that’s an interesting, you know, category that needs unpacking, but let’s leave it there for just a moment. It appears that children are attracted to learning from other children who are just a little older than they are, at least in a lot of domains, which that’s kind of interesting. Why are these, you know, subtleties of value in this context? Well, maybe actually, the kind of age segregation we do in our schools is not optimizing children’s learning, that there’s something especially valuable about kids learning from slightly older kids. Because maybe the gap between what they can do, the slightly older kids and the younger kids is narrower, and it helps reinforce, in those older kids, care for the younger kids and investment in them. And maybe we’re missing that out as we’ve sort of gone away from those kinds of activities. The prestige one is really worrisome to me. So we seem to have a natural draw toward imitating listening to and paying attention to people who are prestigious…

Jim:

Celebrities.

Justin:

Celebrities. And now we have all of these mass media kinds of, well, devices and technologies that help drive who counts as a celebrity. You might think in an ancestral Stone Age condition, who’s a celebrity, well, probably the most skilled person at a particular thing, or the best leader or that’s their celebrity was kind of earned in a relevant domain, the guy who…

Jim:  

The guy who could take down the mastodon and bring home meat right?

Justin:

Or, you know, showed great courage in battle, or was a great home builder, or, you know, isn’t the best, you know, teacher of kids or whatever it is, right? That it’s like, oh, wow, okay, we respect and admire that person. And we learn from them, particularly in the domain that it matters. But now we look up to, you know, professional sports figures. But we don’t just wonder, Well, you know, I’m going to imitate them as I learn how to play basketball or baseball or whatever. We wonder what they think about what underwear we should wear, and, or how we should vote politically? Why? How does dunking a basketball qualify you to comment on any of these things? And why are we so seduced by that? Well, it turns out our Stone Age minds do that to us.

Jim:

But somehow the utility of what they’re good at has been separated off for what’s good for the community, right? If that’s what the Stone Age celebrities were, what they were good at really helped our community work better and thrive. Now, it’s just, we’re interested in it somehow or attracted to the entertainment value?

Justin:

Yeah, in some ways. It’s a little bit like cheesecake. It’s super stimuli, it gets our, you know, our attraction to prestige, celebrity and skill, going really hard in a direction that turns out to be not very good for us.

Jim: 

Okay, finally, we’re running out of time here. But I’d like to have you say one last thing about this third category of abilities and behaviors that humans have that’s so distinctive. And you put this under the heading of self control, which I find really interesting. What is it about humans that is so distinctive in this regard? 

Justin:

Yeah, wow. I know, it’s easy from an ordinary day to day perspective, to think that we’re suffering from a lack of self control. But, again, if you spend any time with other kinds of animals, it’s pretty remarkable how good we are at inhibiting ourselves. Humans, for predatory animals, with the kind of social complexity we have, we’re amazingly restrained and docile, in some ways. We fight a lot less than you might think, actually, especially when we’re bumping up against potential competitors and strangers, we just sort of tip our hat and walk by usually, whereas in most other animals, a fight’s going to break out pretty quickly. We inhibit actions, right? We think, ‘Oh, I want this, but maybe I shouldn’t just take it, maybe I should find another way to get this that isn’t aggressive, violent, or anti-social.’ All of this seems to be facilitated in large part by our pretty exceptional prefrontal cortex. We sometimes call this the seat of our so-called executive functions, which includes things like looking to the future, looking down the road at possible outcomes of a behavior and deciding ‘Yeah, I’m not going to do that. It’s not my best choice.’ Or inhibiting a fight or flight response. I want to punch this guy, but I’m not going to because I’ll let the, you know, the authorities handle this one. We tell our emotional center sometimes ‘Okay, calm down, back off, now is not the time.’ And that enables us to do all this future planning, coordination of activity, maybe it actually helps us in learning from each other. It helps keep our social learning strong, our expertise acquisition strong, and enables us to build these what you might think of as moral or ethical systems where we can really evaluate the possibility of whether a decision is good in and of itself, and not just for me, or in the short run.

Jim:

Yeah, I was, as I was thinking about this point, I, myself came to that question and wondering whether our self control is predicated on our ability to think of different possibilities for the way we ought to be, you know? To have a higher vision for the kind of creatures we could become where we are kind, maybe there may be some of its social contract, but some of its theology too, and saying, what have we been called to as Christians, how ought we to live? And so then there is this potential disconnect between our more base natures and the fight or flight wanting to punch the guy in the nose versus ‘No, this is not the kind of person I should be.’ And so is my self control, predicated on having that kind of vision? And, is that what other animals lack is that chimps don’t have this idea of, ‘I could really be a good chimp, if I would, you know, control myself in this regard’?

Justin:

I think they don’t have it. But I don’t think that I wouldn’t say that it’s predicated on that, that kind of imagination about what I could be, I think these two ratchet off of each other. And so this is where we’re back to that incrementalism, where if I have a little bit more self awareness, able to inspect my own motives, future outcomes, then I may be a little bit more able to dissociate those sort of ideas from immediate action, I may be able to control myself a little more. But to do that, I needed a little bit of self control as well to get sort of out of the now and into my head as it were. But those two then can feed off of each other, and they can build each other up. And so even though… Well, and then over time, they can be very different and mutually dependent on each other. So I guess that’s the way I think about it is these two reinforce each other.

Jim:

In conclusion, you wrote “What it takes to thrive has changed markedly in a short period of time.” Do you expect that to continue? And how does that sort of influenced this overall project of us figuring out where are we today? Given how rapidly I mean, you mentioned in the introduction, 200 years ago, we were very living in very different circumstances. As we try to sort out this gap, this disconnect between the way our minds evolved versus the circumstances we find us in now. And we look to the future perhaps by your target date of 2043, is this going to be a very different conversation by then? Are we going to construct our niches very differently still, in the next couple of decades that what we’re learning now is going to have to be relearned again?

Justin:

Wow, prognosticating about the future is tough. It sure looks like we are on that trajectory though, that things are going to keep changing rapidly. My hope in raising the issues that I do in the book, though, is to maybe encourage us to tap the brakes just a little bit, to do a little bit more thorough job of anticipating the unintended consequences of our technologies, of our urbanization, of the kinds of decisions we make, the investments we’re making in terms of research and development, including scientific work. So that instead of rushing ahead, we really slow down and think yes, but what are the consequences on human thriving? Some things that look like oh, well, that’s a good thing, have these unintended consequences that could put us on a treadmill of not doing so well.

Jim:

So social media seems to be an obvious example in that right? 

Justin:

Social media’s a great example.

Jim:

The amount of time people spend on social media is directly correlated with lower levels of well-being right, I think I’ve seen studies to that effect.

Justin:

Well, and we’re seeing what it seems that the evidence is starting to strengthen that over the past, you know, 40 years or so we’re seeing a rise in anxiety and anxiety-related mental health problems. And I believe it was a World Health Organization, has even linked this to things like noise pollution, and you might think, well, noise, that’s kind of a trivial kind of thing, but add enough, and a lot of it’s just traffic noise. So cars make a lot of noise. Airplanes and trains make a lot of noise. And our physiology, all that noise, right causes a physiological arousal for us. Because it signals danger, right? It gets us heightened and ready to act. And imagine that you’re just we accommodate that to a certain extent. But it looks like the cumulative consequences of noise pollution, light pollution, and other kinds of products of high density, urbanization, also is making us anxious. And anxiety leads to all kinds of health problems. So even though we’re making all of these huge technological strides in medical technologies and medical treatments that can make us healthier and combat for various diseases. On the other hand, we’re creating the conditions for other kinds of disorders at the same time. And hadn’t, I don’t think we really thought about it that way. Because I think we have gone into this contemporary kind of techno-enthusiastic age, assuming that human nature is so flexible, so fluid, that it doesn’t really matter what we throw at it. We’ll be okay, we’ll figure it out. Instead of realizing, no, we are creatures, we’re not gods. We’re not infinitely flexible, where we have the equipment we have to work with and it’s best to work with that equipment and then instead of assuming that it either doesn’t exist or we can build new equipment from nothing.

Jim:

Very good. Well, in closing, any advice for people who may be interested in this work that you’re engaged in about thriving and evolutionary psychology or even advice to other people who just want to thrive more?

Justin:

You know, an upshot of this analysis of thriving that sort of strikes close to my heart, I think because of my past work in youth ministry, is to maybe not be so enthusiastic about pigeonholing each other into a particular kind of job or vocation. One of the things that really worries me about contemporary society, and I can’t tell that the church is any better at this than, you know, non-believers, is to push people to identify by their vocation, or their job, you know, really more specifically their job. Oh that guy’s a born athlete, or, you know, that’s a born artist, and that’s their purpose in life. It just strikes me as very dangerous from a theological perspective, and especially in this way. One of the, from this analysis, I don’t think anybody’s sort of heart of thriving is dependent on particular, cultural artifacts, or cultural arrangements. God wouldn’t make our thriving as fragile as that, it seems to me. God cares much more about I mean, we hear it said sometimes, who we’re becoming rather than what we do. But I think that’s a lesson that it’s easy for us to sweep aside and say, Yeah, but what are you going to major in college, and then what’s your career choice, instead of, you know, that really doesn’t matter at the end of the day, what matters is the kind of person you’re becoming and the kind of improvement you’re making on the world around you. And you can actualize that in lots of different ways. And I say this as a guy who’s pretty convinced he’s supposed to be a nerd, and an academic and all of this. But if I suffer brain damage or something tomorrow, and can’t do this kind of work anymore, that doesn’t mean my work here is done. It doesn’t mean I can’t still thrive. And so I think I’d encourage us all, as parents, as teachers, as ministry leaders to have a more flexible and maybe even more biblical view of thriving then I think our popular culture feeds to us.

Jim:

Very good. Well, the book again is called Thriving with Stone Age Minds. And I thank you so much for talking to me. My conversations with you always contribute to my own personal thriving, Justin, hope we can do it again sometime. 

Justin:

Great to talk. Thanks for having me.

Colin:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Justin Barrett

Justin Barrett

Justin L. Barrett (PhD Cornell University) is President of Blueprint 1543 and honorary Professor of Theology and the Sciences at St Andrews University School of Divinity. Prior to founding BP1543, he was at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he led the Thrive Center for Human Development and then the Office for Science, Theology, and Religion (STAR). He came to Fuller from the University of Oxford, where he taught and served as senior researcher for Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind. He has also taught at the University of Michigan and Calvin College, and served as co-area director for Young Life in Lawrence, Kansas. His book Thriving with Stone Age Minds: Evolutionary Psychology, Christian Faith, and the Quest for Human Flourishing, co-authored with Pamela Ebstyne King, is out now as part of the BioLogos series of books on science and Christianity. Some of his other publications include Psychology of Religion (ed., 2010), Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004), Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds (2011), and Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief (2012).

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