What does Hajj have to do with Humanity’s successful survival when the Neanderthals died out? Read on! Human survival is about more than genetics.  The current rapid advancement in genetic knowledge of the human and other species is truly breath-taking. But that is not all to the story of human life on earth and its development. Religious practices, especially Ḥajj/Pilgrimage, have played their part.

Epigenetics [i]

For almost a century scientists believed that genetic mutations and natural selection were the only two ways that evolution could occur. But we now know that we are more than the sum of our genes. Epigenetic mechanisms modulated by environmental cues such as diet, disease or our cultural lifestyle can play a major role in regulating our DNA by switching genes on and off. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics have robust evidence (7/2017) that not only the inherited DNA itself, but also the inherited epigenetic instructions, contribute in regulating gene expression in future generations.

In our bodies there are more than 250 different cell types that contain the exact same DNA bases in exactly the same order; however, liver or nerve cells, for example, look very different from each other and have different capabilities/functions. What makes the difference is a process called epigenetics. Epigenetic modifications label specific regions of DNA to attract or keep away proteins that activate genes. These modifications create the typical patterns of active and inactive DNA sequences for each cell type.

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Moreover, contrary to the fixed sequence of ‘letters’ (A, G, C, T) in our DNA, epigenetic marks can also change throughout our lives and in response to our environment or in response to our spiritual/cultural lifestyle changes. So external stimuli like stress and disease, as well as internal spiritual-cultural stimuli like beliefs, can be stored in the epigenetic memory of cells. Thus, non-material spiritual and cultural factors can be passed on to future generations biologically, and these affect future developmental changes.

Religious activities among Homo Sapiens have ‘evolved’ over the last 100,000-150,000 years and therefore in general —although not in detail— are adaptive in a positive direction, that is, they tend to support the survival and well-being of mankind.

Revealed Knowledge

If one takes seriously the Biblical claim (Genesis 1:27), that humanity was created “in the Divine image” or the Qur’anic statement that humans were created to be vice-gerents with God, there are direct consequences for our modern understanding.

Now behold! Your Lord said to the angels: I am placing upon the earth a [human] successor [to steward [it].  (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:30)

For He [alone] is the One who has made you successors in the land, [O humankind], and He has raised some of you above others by degrees to test you in all that He has given you.  (Surah Al-An’âm, 6:165)

The concept of spiritual evolution testifies to creatures who by nature are social co-creators of purpose-driven, non-material responses to environmental and social challenges. The fruition of religious activities that enhance the successful survival of humanity is not concerned with enhancing the survival of our own species only, but of all those in our world.

With the domestication of plants and animals —which is ‘recent’ in terms of geological ages— and with the very recent industrial revolution, humans have acquired a great deal of responsibility for the development and survival of many of the species on the planet itself. Thus the behavior of religious people themselves now becomes a factor in the direction of epigenetic modifications of life on earth.

Sociologically speaking, religious behaviors are evidence of the self-conscious creative thought processes which are associated with Homo Sapiens. Religious behaviors are the creative responses of intelligent minds to certain challenges and situations in life, the foremost of which is survival.

Evolutionary Anthropology

As successful bands of Homo Sapiens became more numerous, it became harder and harder to keep them from internal conflict and splitting up. Larger groups, or groups with strong alliances, were more likely to win when there was inter-group conflict. They also would naturally reduced negative effects from inbreeding.

Also, technological advances and the accumulation of other know-how gets a jump start as populations expand, according to laboratory experiments reported in the November 13, 2013 issue of Nature, which indicate that improvements in tool design occur more frequently as group size grows.

Anything like religion, that helped larger groups create bonds that were more inclusive than just extended family behavioral norms, would increase survival rates for bands, clans, tribes, and larger tribal communities.

A genetic study by Svante Pääbo, a major pioneer in ancient genetics at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, found that compared to Homo Neanderthals, our species (Homo Sapiens) had much greater genetic variety, something consistent with hardiness and resilience.

Homo Neanderthal genes suggested that sometime prior to 500,000 years ago, Neanderthal numbers decreased, and the population stayed small, Pääbo’s group determined. Pääbo states:

“Genetic diversity among Neanderthals was about one-fourth as much as is seen among modern Africans, and one-third that of modern Europeans or Asians.”

Why did ancient Homo Sapiens have a much larger population size than did the Homo Neanderthals? Until recently the standard explanation was that our species was smarter or more technologically advanced than ‘them. ‘ But another study (2014) indicates that there is little real evidence for that species-chauvinistic view. [ii]

The Ancient Human Practice of Pilgrimage

Now we come to a key point.  Over the long run, shared religious rituals have increased group stability; and even more important, religious pilgrimages have enabled growing groups of tribes to remain in contact even long after they had moved far apart geographically.

There is a social bonding and solidarity reflected by the first archetypical set of directions given to Homo Sapiens,

“God created Adam in His own image, created in the image of God; male and female created He them. God blessed them; and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth…'” (Bible: Genesis 1:27-28).

As Adam’s descendants multiplied and migrated, the specific traditions of pilgrimage to non-local sacred spots were founded in the early days of today’s religions, especially so in Islam and Judaism:

  • In Islamic tradition the holy site of the Kâ’bah was consecrated in the pre-historic days of Adam.
  • The site where Solomon’s Temple would be built was consecrated 40 years later, which was thousands of years before David would locate there to acquire the site where his son Solomon would build the Jerusalem temple.

Abu Dharr narrated: I said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Which mosque [place of prayer] was first built on the surface of the earth?” He said, “Al-Masjid-al-Haram (in Mecca).” I said, “Which was built next?” He replied “The mosque of Al-Aqsa (in Jerusalem).” I said, “What was the period between the two?” He said, “Forty years.” (Sahih al-Bukhari: Volume 4, Book 55, Hadith Number 585)

Such pilgrimage sites were established, or consecrated, as collective places of worship for groups larger than the family, band, clan or tribe.

I use the English word ‘consecrate’ in regard to the site because the sense of ‘built’ [in the sense of constructed] isn’t found in the original Arabic of the above hadith. ‘Built’ is a mistranslation of the word وُضِعَ: This root word has several meanings, such as “stationed, situated or positioned,” referring to location, not to construction. Thus, وُضِعَ doesn’t mean “built.” In fact, the present-day Kâ’bah is not, properly speaking, a building constructed by Adam. A physical structure is not the point of Abu Dharr’s hadith!  Rather, the Kâ’bah in Mecca is located on the geographical site where Adam first consecrated a place of worship/prayer to the One God. Similarly, the site of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was consecrated as a holy site long before Solomon was even born.

A Divine Wisdom Behind the Institution of Pilgrimage

Hajj (Pilgrimage) is an ancient religious ritual practiced among the people of a cohesive community. Pilgrimage to a shared sacred spot is an important factor in social cohesion, and social cohesion is an important factor in coping with challenges to survival.

The much greater genetic variety within the Homo Sapiens species appears to correlate with the epigenetic factor of strong social cohesion. Pilgrimage is a prime example of a strong social institution promoting cohesion of a group. Both Islam and Judaism have texts which date our ancestry back to Adam, to the origins of humankind.

The descendants of Adam, or at least some subset of them, have thrived on earth from prehistory and over the centuries until today. The Neanderthal species is extinct.  Is mankind’s successful thriving, even survival, correlated with adherence to the religious practices originating from divine instruction regarding how he is to live? There is certainly a case to be made that it does.

[i]   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics

[ii]   See “Neanderthal Demise: An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority Complex” by Paola Villa and Wil Roebroeks (April 30, 2014): https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0096424#s2

Rabbi Allen S Maller

Allen S. Maller was the rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California for 39 years, from 1967 to 2006. Rabbi Maller edited the Tikun series of High Holy Days prayerbooks, used at Temple Akiba and at seven other congregations in California, Nevada and Arizona. Read Full Bio

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