Why We Believe

Evolution and the Human Way of Being

Agustín Fuentes

This title is copublished with Yale University Press as part of the Foundational Questions in Science series. It is only available for purchase through Yale University Press or your favorite bookstore. 

Why are so many humans religious? Why do we daydream, imagine, and hope? Philosophers, theologians, social scientists, and historians have offered explanations for centuries, but their accounts often ignore or even avoid human evolution. Evolutionary scientists answer with proposals for why ritual, religion, and faith make sense as adaptations to past challenges or as by-products of our hyper-complex cognitive capacities.

But what if the focus on religion is too narrow? Renowned anthropologist Agustín Fuentes argues that the capacity to be religious is actually a small part of a larger and deeper human capacity to believe. Why believe in religion, economies, love? A fascinating intervention into some of the most common misconceptions about human nature, this book employs evolutionary, neurobiological, and anthropological evidence to argue that belief—the ability to commit passionately and wholeheartedly to an idea—is central to the human way of being in the world.

Preface: Why We Believe · ix

Part 1: Who Are We and How Did We Come to Believe?

1. Belief, Evolution, and Our Place in the World · 3

2. What Makes Us Human? · 19

3. Constructing the Human Niche · 31

4. Animals, Plants, Buildings, and Pottery · 47

Part 2: How Do We Believe?

5. What Is Culture? · 77

6. How Culture Works · 97

Part 3: Religion, Economies, Love, and Our Future

7. Why We Believe versus What We Believe · 115

8. Religion · 121

9. Economies · 147

10. Love · 173

11. Does Belief Matter? · 191

Acknowledgments · 205

Notes · 207

Bibliography · 227

Index · 251

"A wholly impressive look at how our capacity for belief evolved, with fresh insights, especially about early Homo sapiens. I found Fuentes’ case studies on religion, economics, and love fascinating."

Barbara J. King, author of Evolving God

"We are the believing species. Much of what we are and what we do is driven by belief of one kind or another. Agustín Fuentes, a gifted writer and teacher, helps us understand both the power and role of belief in this brilliant book. Why We Believe is an exciting intellectual tour through culture, neurobiology, prehistory, religion, economies, love, war, and more. Read it to better know yourself and your species."

Guy P. Harrison, author of At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life and Think: Why You Should Question Everything