Tools that cobbled together our faiths

Six Impossible Things before Breakfast
September 29, 2006

The Persian philosopher and tent-maker Omar Khayyam captured deep essences in poetic quatrains such as this: "Ah, love! could you and I with Fate conspire/ To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire/ Would not we shatter it to bits-and then/ Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!"

According to a compendium of research conducted over the past two decades - wonderfully reviewed and integrated into a coherent model of the evolutionary origins of belief by Lewis Wolpert in his latest book - this is precisely what we do: reconfigure the scheme of the world to fit our emotional predilections.

For example, with the confirmation bias we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore evidence that contradicts our beliefs. (This is what drives conspiracy theories.) With the hindsight bias, we look back on what happened and reconstruct it in a way that makes it seem like it had to happen that way and not some other way. (This is what fuels autobiographies and congressional investigations.) Confabulation is the process of concocting explanations for and reconstructing memories of our experiences that may be entirely made up. (This is what generates "eyewitness" accounts of events decades past that cannot possibly be true.) These, and countless other faults and failings of the human mind, lead us to false understandings that obfuscate belief. But why do we believe anything in the first place? Wolpert began his quest to answer this question when his youngest son joined an evangelical fundamentalist denomination, announcing to his father that he was looking forward to dying so that he could go to heaven. The atheist Wolpert was relieved to hear that Christianity forbids suicide, but as a scientist he wanted to understand belief at the deepest causal and evolutionary level. In the Palaeolithic environment in which we evolved, what adaptive function did belief hold that would have allowed the process to be passed down the generations to us?

At the most fundamental level, belief involves understanding causal connections in the world, and we do this through learning. That is, our Palaeolithic ancestors wanted to know why things happen the way they do so that they could predict and control events in their environment. We are the descendants of our ancestors who were best at drawing causal inferences. Yet, belief is more than this, and involves an assessment of the validity and reliability of the causal inferences.

If your religion tells you that you are going to heaven when you die, whether there is a heaven or not matters very much in terms of your commitment to that belief system. But once you are committed to the belief, the veracity of the truth claims that support it becomes less important and, in many cases, irrelevant.

The bulk of Wolpert's important book deals with this aspect of belief, for it is beliefs, not factual knowledge, that motivate people to fly planes into buildings or blow up abortion clinics. Wolpert argues that the ability to form beliefs had its origin in tool-making and use that evolved more than 3 million years.

"Once there were causal beliefs for tool use then our ancestors developed causal beliefs about all the key events in their lives," he writes. "Tool use requires a deep understanding of the physics of the human body, as well as that of the surrounding objects that interact," Wolpert continues, and in a chapter on children's beliefs he demonstrates how adept even very young infants are at grasping cause-and-effect relationships. This is what makes cartoon physics so entertaining where, for example, when a character runs off a cliff he does not fall until he realises that he has left terra firma.

From research on brain abnormalities and injuries we learn about the function of specialised brain regions. A patient suffering from apraxia, for example, "might attempt to brush his teeth with a comb, or cannot act out how a familiar tool could be used. Specific regions of the brain have been identified with tool use, and this should help to identify the evolutionary changes in the human brain that can account for it".

To haft a stone to a stick to make a hand axe, for example, requires a clear understanding of cause and effect, and the foresight of how to use it in the future; add to that ability the brain structures needed for the fine motor control manipulation of stone tools by the hand, and the language abilities to communicate social co-operation in hunting and gathering, and you get a brain order of a magnitude more sophisticated than that of any other animal. In other words, we evolved sophisticated brain modules for advanced tool use, and this ability leads to higher-order functions and, ultimately, belief modules.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine ( ).

Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief

Author - Lewis Wolpert
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 243
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 571 20920 3

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