“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
It is often argued that the development of man’s intelligence grew because our early ancestors’ need for social interaction. In order to survive, man had work cooperatively and a social and family structure evolved that led us to language and reasoning.
A good argument as far as it goes, but a new book suggests that actually what marks man out from other creatures is our ability to believe things for which there is no rational evidence. Like religion, superstitions, feng shui, Diana conspiracy theories or the Stockport County fan who in August thinks, “This is going to be our season.”
In Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, author Lewis Wolpert contends that it is man’s ability to invent tools that sets us apart. Yes, there are apes that have figured that if they hit a nut hard enough with a lump of wood they can get inside to the eatable bits, but early man went further and started to bring different things together because he understood cause and effect.
“Hmm,” he thought, “If I rub this bit of flint on a harder stone, I can make it really sharp to cut things with, and if I attach that to a stick, I can use it to kill things, and if I get another long stick and tie some of that stringy stuff to either end, I can use it to shoot and kill things without doing anything dangerous, like getting close to it.”
And from the bow and arrow the process has gone on until today we have smart bombs that only kill enemy soldiers and not civilians (not), weapons of mass destruction, satellites, computers in virtually every home, Burger King, personal transport, mobile phones and Trevor McDonald.
It is called ‘causal thinking’ and is what has got us where we are, even if where we are isn’t where we want to be. The problem with causal thinking is that it isn’t very good at dealing with things that just happen, like death or earthquakes or sickness. There has to be a reason why such things occur says the causal thinker and so man developed a tool to deal with it, namely religion and superstition.
This explains why religion has been, and continues to be, a common factor in societies around the world. It may not be as influential in increasingly secular countries like the UK, but why is it that we still touch wood, avoid walking under ladders, throw spilt salt over our shoulder or regret breaking mirrors? Or why every week we think we might win the lottery using our ‘lucky’ numbers?
Or why do I think that one day I will ever get round to actually reading any of the books I keeping adding to my must read list? If you don’t have time either, at least read the Sunday Times review.