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Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow Purpose

Purposehis symposium is linked to an ongoing project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation and others, on the evolution of human wisdom that is seeking answers to such key questions as: Where did human wisdom come from and how did it begin? Are the changing evolutionary patterns in human relationships, understood through the lens of complex social negotiation and symbol making integral to human evolution, also an expression of human wisdom? The symposium taking place in Stellenbosch expands on this research and asks: What might be the relationship between the virtues of wisdom and humility and could the latter be tracked in the evolutionary record along with wisdom? Furthermore, does the integration of theological approaches into such questions shape, facilitate, and change answers to them?

Working definitions for wisdom, humility, and grace developed by the symposium planners are these: Wisdom is the pattern (and ability) of successful complex decision-making in navigating social networks and dynamic niches in human communities. Humility is the capacity for openness to the other and right assessment of one’s own capabilities, and we postulate that it is a prerequisite for the full development of wisdom. Grace, understood theologically, is an experience of capabilities that seem to exceed those endowed by ordinary human experience.

While we have an idea of how to track wisdom in the evolutionary record, this symposium hopes to discern if there are perhaps distinctive, indeed, ‘advanced’ forms of wisdom associated with humility that also leave their mark. As grace is likely to be concomitant with religious experience, and thus would only be possible following the appearance of ‘transcendent’ wisdom, a focus on the experience of grace is intended to lead to better understanding of the complex way religious experience emerged in deep time. The goal is to begin to discover more about the evolution of wisdom by investigating these patterns in their relationship to both humility and grace.

The endeavor brings together fourteen researchers from archeology, anthropology, and theology at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in a university town in the Western Cape. A dominant thesis in evolutionary anthropology is that South Africa was part of a large region in which modern humans first evolved and lived, populating the landscape for hundreds of thousands of generations—and from which, against all odds, they migrated across the globe.