Criticism & Features


A Conversation with Barbara J. King

By Jessa Crispin

For the past two years, biological anthropologist Barbara J. King has written a monthly feature for my literary webzine, I believe the original idea was that she would write about evolution and science, but we quickly discovered we had similar passions for spiritual memoirs, books about the history of religion, and authors who try to build bridges between science and God. With her new book “Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion,” she blends some of these topics to look at our religious beliefs developed in our ancestors.

I sent King a few questions about how her omnivorous reading habits influence her writing and the sudden glut of atheist manifestos on the market.

For a scientist, you sure do read a lot of books about religion. Your features at swing from books about evolutionary biology to Karen Armstrong to (NBCC Award Nominee) Elizabeth Gilbert finding inner peace and excellent pizza. What keeps you coming back to the subject?

Observing monkeys and apes for all these years, in the Kenyan bush or close-to-home zoos, has been for me wrestling with smallish parts of big questions about what it means to be human. I love the anthropology of it, the relating of what I see to questions of humanity. I began to wonder whether religion has evolved in anything like the ways that tools, language, or culture has evolved. So, on one track, I started to read the peer-reviewed literature from paleoanthropology and archaeology to see if there's an incremental sequence there in prehuman culture for the origins of religion. On another track, I went a little wild, released from my own discipline! I sampled books that express all kinds of ways that humans today relate to, or don't relate to, the sacred.

I'm pretty bored at this point with the shrill Dawkins-Dennett camp. A steady diet of condescension for anyone with faith isn't all that intellectually interesting. I want to be able to agree or argue (in my head or in print) in a more meaningful way. So I read Joan Roughgarden, a fabulous evolutionary biologist, and think she just ties herself up in knots trying to placate the intelligent-design crowd when she writes about evolution. I read Pascal Boyer, and yes, I think he's too caught up in evolved brain architecture over evolving emotional ritual, but his observations of certain African religious rituals are fascinating. And I love John Haught's writing– he's a theologian who knows evolutionary theory and brings it together with religion in concrete and smart ways.

Elizabeth Gilbert's and Karen Armstrong's memoirs took me in a different direction by getting me emotionally inside another's faith. I love the “Best Spiritual Writing” volumes by the Zaleskis for the same reason– essays and poems of all lengths reflect others' insights about the sacred in everyday life. Magazines engage me too. I had no idea there were such fun Buddhist magazines out there! Also, the magazine Tikkun just asked me to write something for them and I am thrilled– because I had a sense-awakening when I read Rabbi Michael Lerner's editorial about possible strategic and spiritual solutions to issues related to the Iraq War. Even the magazine put out by Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah had a good piece on religion recently. I want to be clear– this doesn't mean I always share Gilbert or Armstrong's or Lerner's or animal activists' worldview about religion, it means they stirred me with ideas and that's what keeps me coming back.

What made you first want to sit down and start researching and writing Evolving God?

I owe a lot to my editor at Doubleday Religion. In 2004, he cold-contacted me and suggested a book about religion and human evolution. I was writing a book (The Dynamic Dance) at the time, on a Guggenheim Fellowship, completely steeped in analyses of African ape communciational patterns. His idea seemed the strangest ever, at first. Slowly I began to understand what he'd had in mind, and why all my work about social-emotional connections in ape and human groups could apply directly to an evolutionary perspective on religion. Then, when I dipped into the origins of religion literature, I found far too few anthropological voices. Lots about genes, lots about brains frozen in function since Paleolithic times. I wanted to jump in there, but I did read, read, and read first.

It seems like you would get a lot of impassioned responses from both sides for daring to meld religion and science. What's your mailbox like these days?

It sounds hokey but I love my mail every day, and there are lots of people writing. For an anthropologist who hopes to reach the public, well, it's important to listen when people do speak back to you. Many people are very thoughtful, and agree or disagree in ways that make an open dialogue very possible. Some are amazing jerks, but that tends to come out more at one level removed– when people post to after my interview or at Post/Newsweek online after my piece at 'On Faith'. All the time people are deciding that I write from this or that place, or from this or that motivation! First I'm accused of being an apologist for centuries of religious atrocities and next I'm confronted by being too soft on atheists, whatever that could mean. Listen, people don't get this stirred up about ape gestural patterns!

What are you reading/working on these days?

We're building a huge new bookcase in our new sunroom right now because of my bookbuying habit. If I'm not reading a novel, I feel uneasy, in a weird embodied way. I read about a novel a week, not a fast pace, but not too bad. Novel just finished: Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World, which I loved because I'm a sucker for alternative-life stories, or whatever you call them (a person's life unfolds, in alternating chapters, in two directions following a key choice point). Probably this has to do with my certainty, for a while, I'd live my life in Kenya instead of the US. Current novel: Lisa Fugard's Skinner's Drift, set in South Africa, which in its elegance has ungated a flood of African memories and made me quite wistful. I want to take my husband and daughter to Africa….Waiting in the wings: a bunch of books that touch in some way on animals and spirituality, including Piers Vitebsky's The Reindeer People: Living With Animals and Spirits in Siberia.

I'm pretty busy at William and Mary at this point in the academic year, but I'm slowly writing a new book. It's on the evolutionary history of humans and other animals, in spiritual contexts. In the shorter term, I'm excited about some speaking invitations. One is to spend a week this summer on Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, with other scientists who write about religion and science in some fashion. People go with their families, and give talks on this small, rocky island, with, I'm told, limited water for showers! And, I'm asked to comment on papers exploring the topic of bonobos and religion, of all things, at the American Academy of Religion in San Diego next fall.