Tag Archives: Lewis Wolpert

Humans, And Other Animals

10 Apr

“To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.”

– Frans de Waal

Lewis Wolpert said that tool use – and hence awareness of cause and effect – is uniquely human. This has been clearly shown to be otherwise for primates and even for crows.

What is different about us is the degree of our awareness of causality, due to our relatively large frontal cortex.

We humans tend to think that we’re somehow superior to all the other animals. Surely, the argument goes, a mere beast cannot experience the breadth of emotion we can? Or understand the moral duties we feel towards each other. Not to mention our linguistic capabilities or self-awareness.

However this approach gets in the way of us understanding how we evolved to be like we are. If we are the pinnacle of evolution then why don’t we have the sense of smell of a dog, the eyesight of an eagle, and the ability to regrow limbs like a spider? We have survived partly due to our adaptability and partly due to blind chance.

Pigeons have been shown to be superstitious, bees can be emotional, elephants mourn their dead and are self-aware and vampire bats are surprisingly altruistic, yet we persist in maintaining a sense of superiority.

This human-centred thinking has held us back in our understanding (we insisted for too long that the sun and other stars go round the earth). Our egotistical tendencies are key to our survival so they do serve a good purpose, but we need to be aware of the side-effects.

Carl Sagan said (in a very silly voice): “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world … Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

Born To Believe?

5 Apr

On the back of the recent discussions around so-called militant secularism, a recent edition of the New Scientist has Justin Barrett discussing why belief in gods is so prevalent and concluded that “religious belief is ingrained into human nature”.

The premise of his argument is that from a young age we understand the concept of agents. An event that creates order must have an agent behind it, or to use a more contentious description: in our minds, a perceived design necessitates a designer. And it’s a good survival trait: if our ancestors saw a movement in a bush, to automatically attribute it to a predator rather than a chance breeze enables us to conclude that running away will decrease the likelihood of us being a tiger’s lunch.

When Barrett’s point is added to our in-built theory of the mind – which means that we are highly prone to anthropomorphism – we see the results: from the man in the moon to imagining ghosts.

Barrett said “the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born“. Couple this “with some other cognitive tendencies, such as the search for purpose, [and you have] children [that are] highly receptive to religion.

While an unfortunate amount of Barrett’s reasoning was nonsense, the conclusion makes sense. (One of the things he said is that “Mozart was a ‘born musician’; he had strong natural talents and required only minimal exposure to music to become fluent.” Actually his dad was one of the best music teachers of the time and most critics agree that the stuff he wrote before 16 was not exactly top rate. He just had a lot of practice and a good trainer.)

This conclusion – that the presumption of agency leads to a belief in the supernatural – reminded me of a lecture I heard from Lewis Wolpert who discussed why we are biologically predisposed to a belief in gods.

He argued that tool use is uniquely human, though he drew plenty of criticism for that assertion.

But for the sake of his main point we can still say that we are significantly more advanced with our use of tools than any other animal. From cars to computers to factories we are streets ahead of the rest.

And the reason for this is that we have a clear understanding of cause and effect. For example: “The ability to foresee that by creating sharp stones would improve the chances of killing game was the defining mental change that led us to diverge away from our ape ancestors“.

Further, we seem to have a need to know the cause of things. People tend to be distinctly uneasy if they don’t know the ‘why’ of an event. And so when we can’t find a rational reason for something we still need a cause.

Enter the god of the gaps: things we can’t explain or don’t understand get called magic, or are assigned to a supernatural initiator.

The problem is, this means we have a tendency to extrapolate causation from a dangerously small sample size which makes us prone to errors. This results fairly easily in superstitions.

As a result of this very useful cognitive bias, we are predisposed to finding a nice simple cause for things. I would suggest that there’s not necessarily one big reason why people believe. We’re not simple creatures and there are many other influences that affect us – social pressure, childhood inculcation, fear of death, etc. Or as geneticists say: genes can be activated or suppressed by environmental factors. And so although I agree that we are probably biologically predisposed to believe in a god, I suspect that for those that do believe it’s not necessarily the only cause.

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