Evolution has conferred upon us a brain that is capable of truly amazing things. We have, for thousands of years, been capable of creating incredibly beautiful art, telling compelling tales, and building magnificent structures. We have risen from small and dispersed tribal bands to perhaps the dominate life force on the planet. Our feats have been wondrous. We have put men on the moon, our space probes have reached the outer limits of our solar system, and we have people living and working in space. We have literally doubled the life expectancy of human beings, figured out how to feed billions of people, and eradicated some of the most dreadful diseases known to human kind. We can join together in virtual social communities from remote corners of the world, and even change nations using Facebook and Twitter. This list could go on and on. We are very capable and very smart beings.
Our mark on this planet, for the moment, is indelible. Yet, despite our great powers of intellect and creativity, we are incredibly vulnerable. I am not referring to our susceptibility to the great powers of nature as evidenced in Japan this last week. I am referring to an inherent mode of thinking that is core to our human nature.
It is pretty certain that nature-nature will destroy our species at some point in the future, be it via asteroid impact, super-volcanoes, climate change, microbiome evolution, or the encroachment of the sun’s surface as it goes red giant in five billion years. Of all the species that have ever lived on this planet over 99% have gone extinct. What’s living today will someday be gone – there really is no question about it. But the question that remains is: “Will nature-nature do us in – or will human-nature do it first?”
We have evolved over billions of years to our current homo sapien (wise man) form, and for the vast majority of that evolutionary period, we have had very limited technology. The development of primitive stone and wooden tools dates back only tens of thousands of years; and reading and writing dates back only several thousand years. What we do and take for granted every day has only been around for a minuscule amount of time relative to the vastness of incomprehensible evolutionary and geological time. These facts are relevant because our brains, for the most part, developed under selective pressures that were vastly different than those we live under today.
Much as our appendix and coccyx hair follicle are remnants of our evolutionary past, so too are some of our core thought processes. These vestigial cognitions play out both as adaptive intuitions and potentially quite destructive errors of judgment. We would like to think that as an advanced thinking species, our ability to use reason, is our dominate mental force. Unfortunately, this most recent evolutionary development, takes a back seat to lower and more powerful brain functions that have sustained us for millions of years. I have previously written about this reason versus intuition/emotion paradigm so I won’t go into this issue in detail here; but, suffice it to say, much of what we do is guided by unconscious thought processes outside of our awareness and outside our direct control. And again, these life guiding processes are mere remnants of what it took to survive as roaming bands of hunters and gatherers.
Ours brains came to their current form when we were not in possession of the tools and technologies that help us truly understand the world around us today. Early survival depended on our ability to see patterns in randomness (pareidolia or patternicity) and to make snap judgments. Rational thought, which is slow and arduous, has not played out in a dominate way because it failed to provide our ancestors with the survival advantages that emotional and rapid cognitions did. As such, our brains have been programmed by evolution to make all kinds of rapid cognitions, that in this modern time, are simply prone to error.
We are uncomfortable with randomness and chaos and are driven to pull together causal stories that help us make sense of the world. Our brains are correlation calculators, belief engines, and hyperactive agency detection devices – all inclinations of which lead us to develop polytheism to help explain the whims of “mother nature.” All cultures, for example have also developed creation myths to help explain how we came to be. We are a superstitious lot driven by these vestigial remnants.
It is easy to see how powerful this inclination is. Look at the prevalence of beliefs about things like full moons and bad behavior. And how about bad behavior and acts of nature? Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on homosexuality and hedonism. One wonders what the Japanese did to deserve their most current tragedy. I’ve already heard talk of the attack on Pearl Harbor as an antecedent. Like mother nature would align with the United States to punish long past deeds against us! If mother nature cares at all about herself, I wonder what we have coming for Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Likewise, people blame vaccines for autism and credit homeopathy for their wellness. I could go and on about our silly inclinations. We are prone to Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Illusions of Attention, and the Illusions of Knowledge and Confidence. In the same vein, we are manipulated by the Illusion of Narrative also known as the Narrative Fallacy.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb (a philosopher, author, statistician) coined the phrase “Narrative Fallacy,” which is an encapsulation of this very discussion. We have a deep need to make up a narrative that serves to make sense of a series of connected or disconnected facts. Our correlation calculators pull together these cause and effect stories to help us understand the world around us even if chance has dictated our circumstances. We fit these stories around the observable facts and sometimes render the facts to make them fit the story. This is particularly true, for example, in the case of Intelligent Design.
Now that I am aware of this innate proclivity I enjoy watching it play out in my own mind. For example several weekends ago I went cross country skiing with my wife, Kimberly. We were at Allegany State Park, in Western New York, where there are nearly 20 miles of incredibly beautiful and nicely groomed nordic ski trails. Kimberly and I took a slightly different route than we normally do and at a junction of two trails, we serendipitously ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in quite some time. It was an incredible and highly improbable meeting. Any number of different events or decisions could have resulted in forgoing this meet-up. Such events compel us to string together a narrative to make sense of the sheer randomness. Was it fate, divine intervention, or just coincidence? I am certain it was the latter – but it sure was fun dealing with the cognitions pouring forth to explain it.
I would really like to hear about your dealings with this inclination. Please post comments detailing events that have happened to you and the narratives you fomented to make sense of them. This is a great exercise to help us understand this pattern detection mechanism, so, have some fun with it and share your stories. At the very least, pay attention to how this tendency plays out in your life and think about how it plays out in your belief systems (and ideological paradigms). I’m guessing that it will be informative.