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Lewis Wolpert


The Evolutionary Origins of Belief

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Wolpert tells us that his aim in this book is to try to understand what determines people's beliefs about causal events. He wants to explore how our thinking and beliefs differ from that of other animals (sic) and how this difference might have evolved. The view he comes up with is that our ideas of causality are linked to tool use. Causality is inevitably implied in the way we use tools and this, he suggests, has spread out into the wider way we think about causality. Although this serves us well enough in many circumstances, it can also give rise to false beliefs, especially when questions of probability are involved.

The opening chapters of the book are concerned with illustrating this viewpoint and then Wolpert goes on to apply the idea to how we form beliefs about religion, the paranormal, health, morals, and science. This is a huge amount to cover in a small book and the inevitable result is that most arguments are not presented in any depth.

Wolpert has deliberately aimed the book at non-scientists, and perhaps for this reason he has chosen not to include any sources for most of his statements. (The list of 'references' provided for each chapter is really more of a reading list.) I think this was a bad mistake. I kept encountering statements, such as that if people are told the cause of their disease (even if it is wrong?) they do better than if they are told that the cause is unknown, but what is the research on which this is based? Another example: we are told that in 1903 Levy-Bruhl came to the conclusion that there was no evidence of a universal cultural logic shaping the way different societies thought. If you want to follow this up you are out of luck, because Levy-Bruhl is not even listed in the references for that chapter.

This lack of sources made me feel as if I were being subtly talked down to, and produced a general feeling of mild irritation. It also made me want to disagree, even though I was generally sympathetic to Wolpert's sceptical tone. So although I think the book is worth reading, because it does offer some interesting insights, I was left with an over-all feeling of dissatisfaction.

20 October 2008

%T Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast
%S The Evolutionary Origins of Belief
%A Wolpert, Lewis
%I faber and faber
%C London
%D 2006
%G ISBN 0-571-20920-3
%P xii + 243pp
%K psychology

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