Giovannoli (The Biology of Belief, 2000) offers an explanation for the origin and diversity of human belief systems in this work of anthropology.
Why do we all perceive reality so differently? Why does a scientist see such a different world when she gets up in the morning than a theologian might see—or even another scientist? “Our history appears to be a series of ongoing disagreements over what is real or true,” observes Giovannoli at the beginning of this work, which seeks to synthesize the findings of many separate fields of study—genetics, neuroscience, psychology, history, cosmology, and more—in order to put forth a cohesive theory for our individualized perceptions. He argues that our brains developed not to perceive the world accurately but rather to help us survive, which isn’t at all the same thing. While this reality-shaping instinct—Giovannoli calls it our “chaperone”—aided our ancestors, it has proven in more recent millennia to be highly susceptible to manipulation. The author theorizes how such a function arose in the first place, how that function operates in our brains, how a belief system comes to be formed, and the ways that culture can be transmitted across generations or groups. Giovannoli describes what he terms “psychogenes,” units of belief that spread due to their perceived value. By taking this new approach to belief, the author attempts to show not only how people can see things so differently, but why they shouldn’t allow that fact to make them enemies. Giovannoli’s prose is technical yet accessible, and he does an admirable job explaining his theories to the general reader, as when he demonstrates how psychogenes moved from ancient Greece to Rome: “Within about one hundred years after conquering Greece, Rome had been influenced significantly by the experience. As the Roman State assimilated its Greek gifts, Roman psychogenes evolved into Greco–Roman psychogenes.” Giovannoli admits to being a generalist, and experts in various fields may take issue with part or all of his theory. Even so, there is much here that is deeply fascinating and may prove to be very persuasive—depending on the leniency of the reader’s chaperone, of course.
An original, highly intriguing theory on how and why beliefs are formed, inherited, and transmitted.