Lewis Wolpert - The Evolutionary Origins For Belief
Posted: 27 July 2008 06:56 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London, focusing his research on the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the Royal Society of Literature. He has presented science on both radio and TV for years, and was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science in the UK. Among his books are Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression (the basis for the BBC documentary entitled ‘A Living Hell”), The Triumph of the Embryo, and A Passion for Science (with Alison Richards). His most recent book is Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Lewis Wolpert explores the evolutionary origins of belief, and argues that atheism is unnatural while belief in gods is not. He details the relationship between tool-making and belief in God, and shows how human primates are unique in this regard. He explains why he thinks it is so hard for people to give up their unbelievable beliefs. He shares his views on organized religion, including how it benefits believers, and examines if the same tools of science and reason can equally be applied to beliefs about the paranormal. He also debates the usefulness of argumentation with believers.

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Posted: 27 July 2008 08:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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It is important to differentiate between true scientific inquiry and what amounts to an educated thought experiment. Wolpert is engaging in the latter.

Wolpert’s ideas have merit as a hypothesis, and perhaps could direct us toward an understanding of pervasive supernatural beliefs. But those of us who are skeptical should not “give in” to the urge to accept his thoughts simply because they appear to explain a phenomenon that we do not yet fully comprehend. Otherwise we are just as guilty of rushing to embrace an explanation as those who accept superstition and every form of religion.

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People often argue over the term “god” without defining it. It is almost as if they are using the same term to refer both to a penguin and to a quiche. While both may contain eggs, that’s hardly their most salient characteristic.

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Posted: 27 July 2008 10:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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However the notion that belief is somehow genetically driven and not socially driven alone is a reasonable one to contemplate. We are programmed for language - our society dictates which language we learn.

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Posted: 28 July 2008 10:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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who cares if something is natural - what is TRUE is what is important right?

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Posted: 01 August 2008 06:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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No animal has a bag? Well, this crow has a hook. And he made it himself! We are the only animal that has a concept of physical cause and effect? What nonsense.

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Posted: 01 August 2008 11:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I found the distinction he claimed between animals, that he admitted can learn behaviors such as tool use, and humans, who he claims have an innate instinct for cause and effect that led to tool use (and ultimately to religious belief) to be a bit fuzzy, and therefore I am skeptical.  Admittedly my opinion is based on listening to the podcast, not on reading any of his writings, but I’d certainly like to see some hard evidence for such a distinction.

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There is grandeur in this view of life …  from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
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Posted: 17 August 2008 02:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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The most interesting thing to come from this podcast is the notion (which I have heard before but it bears repeating) that we are pre-programmed to believe.

I myself have been a skeptic for my whole life and I have been trying to voice a different viewpoint to true believers of all types since I was a child. I have been able to convincingly demonstrate by force of argument that certain ludicrous beliefs just can’t be right and still the person I’m talking to continues to believe. What’s interesting is that no one had to tell me to question shibboleths. I just did it. Now here is another interesting bit: my oldest son, who has been raised by my wife to go to church every sunday just automatically finds discrepancies in things. I didn’t have to train him. I wonder (just musing here) whether the ability to disbelieve is also genetic or even (dare I say it) a genetic mutation?

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Posted: 17 August 2008 10:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Brian Engler - 01 August 2008 11:11 AM

I found the distinction he claimed between animals, that he admitted can learn behaviors such as tool use, and humans, who he claims have an innate instinct for cause and effect that led to tool use (and ultimately to religious belief) to be a bit fuzzy, and therefore I am skeptical.  Admittedly my opinion is based on listening to the podcast, not on reading any of his writings, but I’d certainly like to see some hard evidence for such a distinction.

One of the most significant differences between ourselves and other animals is sight. Others have better senses of smell, hearing, taste or touch. But our processing makes it possible for us to spot camouflaged prey which escapes other hunters, something which is rather remarkable. The question is, did our ability to use tools, including clothing, come indirectly from this or is it a separate characteristic we also developed? It is certainly a more flexible option.

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Posted: 17 August 2008 10:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Voorlon - 17 August 2008 02:42 AM

The most interesting thing to come from this podcast is the notion (which I have heard before but it bears repeating) that we are pre-programmed to believe.

I myself have been a skeptic for my whole life and I have been trying to voice a different viewpoint to true believers of all types since I was a child. I have been able to convincingly demonstrate by force of argument that certain ludicrous beliefs just can’t be right and still the person I’m talking to continues to believe. What’s interesting is that no one had to tell me to question shibboleths. I just did it. Now here is another interesting bit: my oldest son, who has been raised by my wife to go to church every sunday just automatically finds discrepancies in things. I didn’t have to train him. I wonder (just musing here) whether the ability to disbelieve is also genetic or even (dare I say it) a genetic mutation?

I can still remember seeing ‘holes’ in the logic of the Jesus story when I was about 8. At that time I just assumed it would make more sense as I grew older. Who knew it would make less?

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Posted: 17 August 2008 11:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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A Voice of Sanity - 17 August 2008 10:05 AM
Brian Engler - 01 August 2008 11:11 AM

I found the distinction he claimed between animals, that he admitted can learn behaviors such as tool use, and humans, who he claims have an innate instinct for cause and effect that led to tool use (and ultimately to religious belief) to be a bit fuzzy, and therefore I am skeptical.  Admittedly my opinion is based on listening to the podcast, not on reading any of his writings, but I’d certainly like to see some hard evidence for such a distinction.

One of the most significant differences between ourselves and other animals is sight. Others have better senses of smell, hearing, taste or touch. But our processing makes it possible for us to spot camouflaged prey which escapes other hunters, something which is rather remarkable. The question is, did our ability to use tools, including clothing, come indirectly from this or is it a separate characteristic we also developed? It is certainly a more flexible option.

True to some extent.  We share binocular vision with birds, though, and the visual acuity of some of them—notably some hawks—exceeds ours by quite a bit.  That certainly doesn’t mean that our ability to use tools wasn’t somehow enabled by our remarkable eyesight.  It still wouldn’t explain, though, why our use of tools can be considered to be a function of an innate instinct humans have for cause and effect, while that of some birds (and some of them as I understand do exhibit a form of tool use) can be considered only learned behaviors.

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There is grandeur in this view of life …  from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
- Charles Darwin

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Posted: 17 August 2008 12:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Brian Engler - 17 August 2008 11:51 AM

True to some extent.  We share binocular vision with birds, though, and the visual acuity of some of them—notably some hawks—exceeds ours by quite a bit.  That certainly doesn’t mean that our ability to use tools wasn’t somehow enabled by our remarkable eyesight.  It still wouldn’t explain, though, why our use of tools can be considered to be a function of an innate instinct humans have for cause and effect, while that of some birds (and some of them as I understand do exhibit a form of tool use) can be considered only learned behaviors.

While their sight is more acute, their processing power is far less. We can spot the leaf insect - they cannot unless it moves.

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Posted: 17 August 2008 01:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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A Voice of Sanity - 17 August 2008 12:00 PM
Brian Engler - 17 August 2008 11:51 AM

True to some extent.  We share binocular vision with birds, though, and the visual acuity of some of them—notably some hawks—exceeds ours by quite a bit.  That certainly doesn’t mean that our ability to use tools wasn’t somehow enabled by our remarkable eyesight.  It still wouldn’t explain, though, why our use of tools can be considered to be a function of an innate instinct humans have for cause and effect, while that of some birds (and some of them as I understand do exhibit a form of tool use) can be considered only learned behaviors.

While their sight is more acute, their processing power is far less. We can spot the leaf insect - they cannot unless it moves.

It does make sense that humans’ larger brains could process what the eye sees in some deeper sense than any bird’s brain could.  Using your example, and granting that a bird would need movement whereas a human wouldn’t (I’m not an ornithologist, but I’ll grant that may be true): Presumably a bird would sense movement—judge insect not leaf—and conclude food source.  Whereas a human would sense either movement or some differentiating characteristic between the leaf insect and an actual leaf—also judge insect not leaf—and then conclude remarkable evolutionary adaptation (or even food source in some cases).  In a way, I suppose, that means that humans can apply a certain amount of judgement to observations of the world, and that our conclusions are likely to be (1) deeper than that of (in this case) a bird, and (2) informed by our understanding of cause and effect.  I’m still not sure that this sensory processing difference necessarily explains the difference between humans and animals addressed in my original observation, i.e. that Dr. Wolpert stated that humans have an innate instinct for cause and effect that led to tool use, whereas animals can use tools only as learned behaviors.  I’m not disagreeing with your postings, I just would like to have heard or seen proof of Dr. Wolpert’s observation during the podcast.

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There is grandeur in this view of life …  from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
- Charles Darwin

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Posted: 17 August 2008 01:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Brian Engler - 17 August 2008 01:01 PM

It does make sense that humans’ larger brains could process what the eye sees in some deeper sense than any bird’s brain could.

There is a common misperception, and pervasive urban legend that we only use a fraction of our brains. The fraction of our brains we supposedly use is 10% or one tenth. This belief is often followed by the theory if we were to make use of the remaining 90% of our brains not in use, we would have amazing potential for intelligence, perhaps extra-sensory perception, and other sixth sense abilities.

Except I don’t believe it. We pay a high price as a species for brain size and there is no way that is not evolutionary. It’s all there for a reason, and part of the reason is to find and catch food IMO. Is some of it for tool use, for analysis? I’m not sure but we have it.

A dog has great hearing and sense of smell but they can’t open a can of dog food. They are what they are.

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Posted: 17 August 2008 02:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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A Voice of Sanity - 17 August 2008 01:26 PM
Brian Engler - 17 August 2008 01:01 PM

It does make sense that humans’ larger brains could process what the eye sees in some deeper sense than any bird’s brain could.

There is a common misperception, and pervasive urban legend that we only use a fraction of our brains. The fraction of our brains we supposedly use is 10% or one tenth. This belief is often followed by the theory if we were to make use of the remaining 90% of our brains not in use, we would have amazing potential for intelligence, perhaps extra-sensory perception, and other sixth sense abilities.

Except I don’t believe it. We pay a high price as a species for brain size and there is no way that is not evolutionary. It’s all there for a reason, and part of the reason is to find and catch food IMO. Is some of it for tool use, for analysis? I’m not sure but we have it.

A dog has great hearing and sense of smell but they can’t open a can of dog food. They are what they are.

Agree.  Like many shibboleths, that old brain usage myth just keeps coming back.

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There is grandeur in this view of life …  from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
- Charles Darwin

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