The mother-son co-authors of Chances Are…: Adventures in Probability (2006) turn their considerable authorial skills and wit to human behavior, from our isolated cave-dwelling ancestors to today’s globalized, interconnected world.
Humans make a lot of mistakes, write documentarian Michael and archaeologist Ellen (co-author: Out of the Labyrinth: Setting Mathematics Free, 2007, etc.). Rather than use logic and reason, our brains are hardwired to make snap judgments, go with gut feelings, surrender to passions and celebrate our in-group as Us and dislike others as Them. It’s all part of the adaptability mechanisms that favored cooperation and sharing among small hunter-gatherer groups and wariness, if not fear, of unknown Others. Much of this behavior can be found in other primates as well—along with strategies for getting along, resolving conflict and overthrowing leaders who become too powerful. Before expanding on the tenets of evolutionary biology, the authors offer a timely discussion of behavioral economics, including flawed logic, the failure to apply rules of probability and the irrational exuberance underlying the current economic meltdown. They also include some nifty new vocabulary—“hyperbolic discounting” describes the never-have-to-pay thinking that drives credit-card spending; “availability heuristic” describes the tale that a Ponzi schemer tells to explain his financial genius; and so on. Our beliefs and our errors, write the Kaplans, derive from the complexity of the brain, a parallel processor with myriad connections linking visceral, emotional and rational parts. These enable us to construct our idiosyncratic perceptions of the world—which are susceptible to illusions—but they are also hardwired to read gestures and facial expressions common to all cultures, as well as interpret notions of civility and fairness. The authors discuss how concepts of morality and justice have developed, and the last chapters concentrate on the dilemmas of life, love, marriage and child-rearing in modern society. In a world grown enormously complex, culture may be our salvation, giving us the tools to create new explanations when we err, and in so doing enable us to rewrite our history and survive.
Gourmet reading—rich in ideas, global references and amusing and provocative examples, served with great style.