Study suggests superstitious behaviour has evolved and has or had benefits to survival

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Study suggests superstitious behaviour has evolved and has or had benefits to survival

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Contrary to popular belief,

Contrary to popular belief, we know quite a bit about rudimentary learning in simple animals.  In a series of experiments with a type of worm, simple "learning" was very straightforward.  When the worm experienced a predictive event followed by either a positive or negative event, it learned to expect the result when it experienced the prediction.  Without going into extraneous details, the worm's genes literally changed the way they expressed themselves.  In other words, there are genes specifically built to adapt to change and learn from the environment.

The famous pigeon experiments prove the same thing.  Ring a bell or turn on a light before putting food into a compartment, and the birds will learn to open the compartment after hearing the bell or seeing the light.  Nothing particularly magical about it.

However, if we think about the nature of nature, we'll notice some interesting truths.  First, generally speaking, false positives are less harmful than false negatives.  Consider a rodent searching for food.  Suppose it learns that the presence of a certain kind of plant above ground often signals the presence of a tasty grub underground.  For its whole life, the rodent will dig around the base of all the plants it encounters, provided it is hungry at the time.  Sometimes, there will be no grub, but the loss of energy in those cases is minimal.  The false positives cost almost nothing.

Imagine the same rodent walking across a relatively open field.  It has learned early on that seeing a shadow is indicative of danger from above.  Without looking up to verify the presence of an owl, the rodent simply flees for cover anytime it sees a large moving shadow.  Again, supposing there is actually an owl, this is a wise behavior.  Taking the time to verify the identity of the thing causing the shadow could be fatal.  However, being wrong is not so bad.  (Suppose it was a hangglider.  No real danger to the rodent.)  It wastes a little energy finding a place to hide for a few seconds, but then life goes on as before.

False negatives, on the other hand, are really bad, particularly where predation is concerned.  (And remember, we didn't hit the top of the food chain until relatively late in our evolution.)  Seeing a moving shadow and not running away will produce very short lived rodents in the long run.  Likewise, if an early human thought he saw a tiger in the tall grass, better to run really fast in the opposite direction than investigate further to be certain.

In other words, our brains, like most animal brains, are designed to err on the side of meaningful patterns.  Whenever something works, a very real, very old genetic alarm sounds, and our brains catalog the correlation.  This is, in a nutshell, what leads to superstition.  Two things need only be relatively common for them to occur together.  There need be no cause-effect relationship.  As an example, my area of the country has been in a severe drought for several years.  Curiously, one year, I went to three baseball games in Atlanta, and on all three occasions, it rained.  To my skeptical scientific mind, it was easy to decide that my presence had no effect on the weather, but imagine early man in the same kind of position.  The plants are dying and there isn't enough water to drink, but curiously, each time they have gone to a particular hunting ground, it's rained.  (They've only done it three times, but three for three is impressive, and really, what have they got to lose by trying again?  False positive is not as bad as false negative!

In more enlightened times, clever humans have learned to exploit this tendency, and invented horoscopes and magic shows.  So yeah, humans are built to find patterns, and there are many patterns in the cosmos that appear to correlate with their individual lives.  Superstition is built into our genes.


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