Sunday, June 28, 2009

Caveman Logic: The Persistence of Primitive Thinking in a Modern World by Prof. Hank Davis

You here it all around you. Even from committed Atheists. On hearing about the death of Michael Jackson my wife repeated 'Oh my God!' several times in a couple of sentances. She was not even aware of doing so when  I questioned her about her language after.
University of Guelph evolutionary psychologist Hank Davis: "I would be more optimistic about our species' chances for survival if pseudoscience, organized religion, and a host of other delusions were ...

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Not long ago, Hank Davis sat down for a chat with a friend. The conversation took an unexpected turn: Out spilled a story of her husband's infidelity, the breakdown of her marriage and the difficulties of raising a child alone. He nodded with sympathy as she told the tale. She concluded with a seemingly innocuous phrase. "But I guess everything happens for a reason. Don't you think so?"

Prof. Davis, an evolutionary psychologist, did not. While his friend was attempting to make sense of the events in her life by searching for a higher meaning, all the reasons Prof. Davis considered were much more concrete: The husband may have been unhappy, or simply attracted to someone else.

"She was ... none too pleased at the here-and-now approach I took to understanding her circumstances," Prof. Davis writes in his new book, Caveman Logic: The Persistence of Primitive Thinking in a Modern World. "It offered little comfort, too much responsibility, and almost no social support."

A professor at the University of Guelph, Prof. Davis has spent the past 20 years

paying attention to the use of such seemingly benign phrases: "It was a sign," "Thank God" and even "Good luck." To him, such phrases reflect a "caveman logic" that helped our ancestors survive the Pleistocene Age, but which is keeping our species from realizing its true potential. While we are well past the primitive age, he argues, we still happily shroud ourselves in superstition, magic and blind faith rather than burn the extra mental calories it takes to think critically and reach rational conclusions.

"We don't have to default to those kind of explanations. But we do. And that's what caveman logic is really about," Prof. Davis said during an interview at his home. "We continue to default to the same magic explanations that our caveman ancestors did. I can't put them down for doing it -- they didn't have any information to work with. But I certainly do wonder about my fellow humans when they do the same thing."

Wearing a loose, flowered shirt and loafers without socks, Prof. Davis confesses that he is not exempt from the same faulty primitive logic he easily spots in those around him.

Nor does he profess to have a cure to stop our brains from resorting to such comfortable shortcuts in logic. Our Pleistocene-era brains, he says, are hard-wired to behave this way.

Indeed, in the first few minutes of our conversation, Prof. Davis refers to himself as "lucky" to have found a publisher for Caveman Logic as quickly as he did, and happily acknowledges the slip. "No one is immune to this kind of thinking," he says. "The message of the book is that we have to try to recognize these patterns and act to avoid them. That's not always easy."

The book strives to present scientific concepts in an approachable way. In an imagined conversation with his grandmother, he debates the relative merits of heuristics and the shortcomings of the human mind. One passage about the merits of baseball statistics helps the reader understand the human mind's difficulty understanding probabilities, quantification, and our propensity to identify patterns or "streaks" that, in reality, do not exist.

"Patterns are everything to us," Prof. Davis writes. "We hunger for them. We revel in them. They are the basis for art, literature, music, and much more in our lives. But a perceptual system that is so geared to wrestling patterns out of complex arrays of stimuli is bound to produce some false positives.

"From time to time, we're going to see or hear what is not there, and those cases will seem no less compelling to us."

Indeed, our Pleistocene ancestors needed to err on the side of caution in order to keep themselves well fed and safe from predators.

For example, if a caveman walked along a path and sensed danger up ahead, he had nothing to lose by jumping behind a tree until he determined the path was safe.

Moreover, when cavemen were faced with catastrophes like earthquakes or hurricanes, they had no means by which to understand them, so they attributed them to the gods expressing displeasure. These days, however, we have enough information that we do not have to default to primitive, magic explanations, Prof. Davis said.

"Our problem is not with the adequacy of the cognitive mechanisms we have inherited; it is with the inability to turn them off," he writes. "They work all too well and too frequently."

Prof. Davis's caveman logic argument is the product of a long and diverse life that has straddled art and science. Born and raised in New York, he played rockabilly guitar as a teenager, attended Columbia University and wound up living in California. Earthquakes, smog and politics eventually chased him north to Ontario in 1971. He has produced re-issue albums of vintage American music--hillbilly, rhythm and blues and pop -- for a half-dozen record labels. He has written books about early science fiction movies and minor league baseball.

Much of his academic career has been devoted to understanding animal cognition and the bond between humans and animals. Among the 100 scientific papers he has published are studies about the ability of rats, scallops and hissing cockroaches from Madagascar to differentiate between humans. Prof. Davis and a colleague studied a dozen cockroaches to determine whether they would come to know individual people; they let the bugs walk on their hands and stroked them, and over time, the majority stopped hissing.

Part of the problem with our brains, he writes, is a "causal detection error" that leads us to wrongly believe that our behaviour has more of an effect on our environment than it actually does. Such "superstitious behaviour" has been observed in everything from pigeons to rats to people, Prof. Davis writes.

Think of a loyal sports fan who refuses to get up and make a sandwich during play, lest his actions influence the game. Even if he recognizes the actions as absurd, he may continue, fearing that if he changes anything, the outcome of the game might be affected.

"I would be more optimistic about our species' chances for survival if pseudoscience, organized religion, and a host of other delusions were voluntarily taken off the table," says Prof. Davis, an atheist.

"We need to see our defective Stone Age minds for what they are if we ever hope to drag ourselves, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century .... Our bodies seem to be standing up rather well; it's our minds that are slipping into obsolescence."

He hopes the ideas in his book, its spirit of skepticism and call for higher standards of critical thought, will spread in the same manner that religion so easily does. But while he says the appetite for such arguments is growing, he acknowledges his beliefs are still in the minority. Asking people to retrain their brains to question their most fundamental beliefs is a tall order. "We name our daughters Faith and Hope. We never name them Doubt or Skeptic," Prof. Davis says. "Those are not valued traits. I believe they should be."


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