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The Evolutionary Origins of Belief

by Lewis Wolpert

Pub Date: Jan. 29th, 2007
ISBN: 0-393-06449-2
Publisher: Norton

A curious mélange of speculation, theory and fact strives to explain why humans have beliefs.

Wolpert (Biology/University College, London) starts out by observing how devoted we are to our beliefs and judgments, tending to ignore counterarguments. Then he states that a “belief engine” in the brain is grounded in the evolution of causal thinking, which he believes is based on tool-making and is strictly human. (Since animal tool use is primitive, he argues, animals largely lack causal thinking.) To bolster his theory, Wolpert frequently cites “X’s study” without bothering to indicate who, what or where X is; readers must hunt through the references at the back for that information. Language, social interaction and culture probably play a role in generating the belief engine, the author admits. But his very pragmatic approach never once considers that idle curiosity or wonder at the sun, moon and stars might have anything to do with stimulating beliefs—or the development of science. In later chapters, Wolpert dissects varieties of belief. He finds no sharp division between “true” beliefs and delusions or hallucinations associated with brain pathology or drugs. He quotes endless surveys to make the point that many “normals” have experienced hallucinations or believe in the paranormal. Religious belief, he speculates, may be written in the genes and may have conferred some evolutionary advantage. Chapters on health and moral convictions mostly describe what people believed then and believe now. In the case of morality, Wolpert states that people’s beliefs are not causal in nature, “but determine what causal action an individual may take,” with all the wars and other social, political and economic consequences that entails. He concludes with a chapter on science, acknowledging it often goes against common sense, but clearly is “inestimable” as a guide to validating beliefs.

Need we say in conclusion that readers do not have to believe all that the author says?