Lewis Wolpert – The Evolutionary Origins of Belief

July 25, 2008

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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This is Point of Inquiry for Friday, July 25th, 2008. 

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I’m really happy to have Lewis Wolpert on point of inquiry. He’s professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London. He’s a fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. His books include Malignant Sadness, which was the basis of his BBC television series. It explores the evolutionary psychology of depression. His most recent book is Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. The Evolutionary Origins of Belief. Welcome to Point of Inquiry Lewis Wolpert. 

Thank you, Professor. Your book focuses on the evolutionary origins of belief. What struck me in your book is the suggestion that Athie ism is actually pretty unnatural. But belief in the supernatural is very natural. Kind of reminds me of E.O. Wilson’s line that the human brain Ditton evolved to believe in biology, but instead to kind of believe in the gods. 

I think that’s absolutely right. Who said that? That’s E.O. Wilson, the very famous then. I didn’t realize he said that. He’s absolutely right. 

So Athie ism is unnatural. Belief in gods is natural. And here the new atheists are railing against a perfectly natural thing for homosapiens to do. 

Yes. Well, I think a nice example of that is if you take LSD, I’ve never taken LSD. 

I don’t know whether you have it turned off. 

But if you take LSD or any of the things from Magic Mushroom, people have absolutely extraordinary experiences, often very religious. One, not if you consider that these are slightly boring molecules that you you’re taking your drinking, but they can only have this remarkable effect because these mystical circuits are already in your brain. So I think that’s a very good example. And if you go around and ask the public, have you had a strange experience over the last year, a significant number for no reason whatsoever, will have a strange experience over the last year. I have a very close friend who claims to think three times the way she knows that it is because they haven’t gotten a beat as the human brain evolved. 

You say it became really hard for us to accept not knowing causes of things so badly that Jim Underdown. So instead our species came up with explanations for the causes of things, even when so many of them were unsupportable, like supernatural or occult causes. 

Well, unsupportable. 

But people prayed for things and sometimes things happened and they believed that they were supportable using the main push of your book is that religion and beliefs about cause and effect have their evolutionary origin in toolmaking. Yes. How does the invention of tools lead to belief in God? 

It may sound a little odd, but it does. You see, we are the only animal that really has a concept, a proper concept of physical cause of effect. So when I said that we understand about children from a very early age, understand that things don’t move, and then if there’s a force that makes them animals that have that sort of belief, not the real the real point about this concept of physical cause and effect once again, is, as somebody pointed out, that if an animal saw the winds blowing a fruit tree and the branches moved the fruit field, they would never know that if they shook the branch, then the fruit would fall or they don’t have that concept of this cause of an effect. Then at the very beginning, if they break a break nuts with stones and things like that. 

Right. Other animals, especially non-human primates, they don’t have it. 

But humans, we evolved the concept of physical cause and effect. And that led us to toolmaking. You cannot make a tool without having a concept of physical cause and effect. And that’s what drove human evolution. 

But, Professor, other animals use tools very literal. 

The apes use stones to break a nut, takes them years to do it. And occasionally they use these sticks to get in insect out of the trees. Yes, you’re right. 

But they don’t have religion as a result. 

No, no, no, no. But they’re only at the beginning of cause and effect. Mm hmm. Oh, no, they’re nowhere near that there any at the very beginning. And when our ancestors had this concept of cause and effect for complex tools, though, like when you Joy, can I just remind you that no animal has a bag. They can’t take anything with it. 

And so it once enters, had a concept of physical cause of it if they wanted to understand the causes of other things. You know, like why we got to and why the weather changed and why the sun went down the earth. So they thought and the one called everyone short of this is human caused something that you’ve done yourselves or other humans. And that’s the origin of God. So they imagined that there was a god, a human like cause for all these things. And that’s the origin of religion. And that sort of removed. Certainty and also gave them something where they could pray to God for help. 

I just want to stick with this animals not having Kozo beliefs a bit. My little puppy seems to get the cause and effect relationship between cocking his head in Beijing and me giving them the dog. 

That’s learning. Oh, that’s not having a concept of cause and effect. I’m talking about physical cause and effect. Your dog could never play billiards. It could never know how to hit the ball. You understand? So it went in a particular direction. It could learn to do it, but it has no intuitive feeling about it. 

So when a dog modifies its running in order to catch the ball in the air, it’s not because it’s thinking cause and effect, but it’s just learned. 

It’s been trained to learn. Yes. 

Let’s get into why you say it’s so hard for people to give up their unbelievable beliefs. It’s this evolutionary origin and tool use. 

Well, why people find it so hard to give up their beliefs. I really don’t know. But, I mean, do you know many people have changed their belief recently. It’s very hard to get people to change their beliefs. And I think that also has an evolutionary origin, that if you had a reliable belief, for example, that lives were dangerous, you didn’t want to give it up too easily. Mm hmm. 

And you think that’s kind of a leftover in our beliefs about these unsupported. 

Really? I wish I knew I did. But we do find it very also intolerable not to know the causes of things that affect our lives. We go to the doctor. We cannot tolerate it. If the doctor said he or she doesn’t know what’s wrong with us, and when they tell us what is wrong with us, we’ll always tell ourselves a story as to why we got to. We shouldn’t have eaten that food. We shouldn’t have gone on that trip and so forth. 

So that’s a big paradox that I find in your argument, that on the one hand, you say that people came up with belief in God and the supernatural because they can’t tolerate mystery and not knowing. Yet in religion, it’s kind of all about mystery and not knowing in the mystery of the divine thought about mystery. 

It’s about the all knowing gods who know everything and can control everything. There’s no mystery there. 

I grant you that some religions are very cut and dry and kind of try to answer everything, but in some religions believe that ancestors are up there doing important things right. I want to explore your views on organized religion, even though you’re really public atheist. Your son is a believer. Something of a fundamentalist. Yes. 

And also, Sloan Wilson has pointed to that a community of religious people really, from an evolutionary point of view, do better. Could they help each other? And that’s an important community for each other. 

Right. You seem pretty okay with religion because of what it gives people. 

Yes, it really helps them. I think many people of greatly helped by religion. 

So you’re saying that as an outspoken atheist, unlike some other spokespeople for atheists in science, it doesn’t seem like it’s your goal to vanquish all manner of religion. 

I really am not against people with religious beliefs, but I’m totally against them interfering with the lives of people who don’t share those beliefs. They, for example, lives, you know, about whether the fertilized egg is already a human being. And things like that. I don’t want religious people to interfere with the lives of non-religious people. 

So your beef with religion isn’t that its claims are completely unsupported in the light of modern science? 

Yes, they are. There’s just zero evidence, for God’s sake. 

But that doesn’t make you rail against religion. Your problem with religion is when it interferes with people’s lives or interfere with the with non-religious people here. 

So even religious people like Jim Underdown brings harm. Yes. 

What I liked about your book is while you really zero in on religion, it’s really about the origins of belief. In general, you don’t you don’t only examine belief in God throughout your book, but also belief in the paranormal like ESPN stuff. Do you think that the same skeptical rules apply across the board, the same explanations that you give for the origin of belief? Do they make you an equal opportunity skeptic, whether of gods or ghosts or gremlins, or are you just talking about religion? 

I mean, if you just think of how many paranormal beliefs people have, you know, whether is their date of birth, the horoscope and all sorts of things like that, communicating with the dead, they aren’t simple. We really do have a very mystical mind. Mm hmm. 

And you argue again, this is evolutionarily determined because of the weather with an advantage. And those times you see no longer an advantage. 

So it’s no longer an advantage, I don’t think. Well, I think for some people to be religious, it’s an advantage because I think it helps them a great deal. Yes. 

And these paranormal beliefs, you give it and I’m sure I don’t think that helps. 

Very much the people like it. 

Well, people who believe in New Age claims or or the healing power of crystals, it’s similar to the healing power of praying. 

I suppose it seems as if similarly advantageous in, say, you give each a free pass. Yes, I do. Just in that regard. 

How do you explain the fact that many skeptics aren’t skeptics across the board like you are some rail against psychics and ghosts, but they believe in God. Some fight against organized religion and God belief, but believe in chakras and acupuncture and alternate, though. 

I wish I had a simple explanation for that. I regret. I do not understand. Right. 

Do you think there are evolutionary origins to all of those kinds of beliefs? 

I think there are evolutionary origins. All those things we want to understand the causes of things that affect our lives. Yes, absolutely. Particularly in relation to illness. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you could purchase a copy of Six Impossible Things before breakfast through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dot work. 

Professor, I want to have you kind of step back a little and talk about this skeptical enterprise. Do you think that speaking out like you do? Or let let’s just say the tools of skepticism, critical thinking? Can they be used to educate the public equally well about acupuncture and Bigfoot as the tools of skepticism educate the public about angels and the healing power of Jesus? Or are there different evolutionary explanations why we believe, say, in ghosts than for why we believe in God? 

No, I think the belief in God is rather different from that. Why we believe in ghosts and the paranormal than alternative medicine. But I have the reason why I think we believe in those ideas about alternative medicine is we have such a public in general, has such a poor understanding of the body’s function within it, feel that it will try anything in order to try and get better. 

But people are turning to God not just to heal an ailment, but to get answers to questions they have about the causes of things. 

Yes, but they don’t tend to God in order to know what to do in their day to day life. But they tend to go to help them where there are crises, right. 

They they don’t turn to God to figure out how to change the tire on the car. If they do not have the big handwringing moments of life, that’s when you turn to the God upstairs. 

Do you think that science has completely closed the door on the possibility of paranormal phenomena? 

I don’t believe in any paranormal Kopelman because I just don’t think there’s any evidence. 

And I think that’s consensus among skeptics. But absolutely. 

But would you consider yourself an open minded skeptic? 

Would you change your mind if there was evidence, of course, that there was good evidence and you just had good evidence for God? I would also change my mind, right. 

If there was a God and one loud, booming voice told everybody on the planet I am that I am is overturned by local sort of vaikunta into a lovely sea of champagne that would impress me. Great. 

Well, there you have it. That’s an invitation to convert Lewis Wolpert right there for any. 

I did that someone, a distinguished physicist who is religious, gave a talk recently on the evidence for God, and he mainly used the Bible. And I said, but what have got done in the last two thousand years didn’t have much to say. 

Yeah. God was pretty active with the with the performances way back. But these days he’s a little out of work and we didn’t that much recently. 

Now your book focuses really on cause and effect. But some people imagined there are other reasons why belief developed, and especially now people turn to religion not just for answers about the the ultimate cause of the universe, et cetera, but for moral questions, moral inquiry. They think that belief in God kind of undergirds their sense of right and wrong. You don’t really touch on that in this book at all. 

I try to avoid getting too much involved in the ethical issues. And I do think religion possibly can help with ethical issues, although I think some of the ethical stances taken by religions are not that good. But I did not pursue that idea. I was more concerned with the thing about cause and effect on the moral issues. That’s a complex issue on where we stand or how we arrive at our moral issues. And I suppose religion does provide a little bit of that. Yes. 

So religion provides some pointers. You’re deriving a lot of your argument. Your kind of thesis comes out of what’s called evolutionary psychology, the understanding of the working of the human brain as informed by evolutionary theory. They’re also looking at the evolution of morality in that same burgeoning field. Do you think that both of these lines of research will converge? Will we someday have a complete picture of how religion developed both in. Terms of morality and in terms of these ultimate questions about cause and effect coming from evolutionary psychology, in a way, yes. 

But remember, with no relation to morality, that’s more in relation to Slade Wilson’s idea as to how important it was to be a part of a religious community with the same ethical views who could help each other that helped them survive. 

There was an evolutionary advantage to everyone believing the same supernatural faith claims it is a cohered a community helping each other. 

Yes. Right. Professor, I want to finish up with kind of getting your take on where you think all of this is headed. 

Do you think that we are so hard wired for religion? You know, your explanation for its origins in in the invention of tools, that religion is going to always be with us. 

I mean, nobody but will always be with us. And in America, there’s no evidence of it being done. And I know the Mormon Church has been growing enormously. 

Right. The Mormon Church, one of the most amazing religions out there, kind of an a complete volunteer ministry. And last I saw something like 15 million members worldwide. And no one’s even getting paid for it. It’s just a brilliant religion. 

No, I know. But in this country, in the United Kingdom and I think in Europe in general, going to church has decreased. Whether people really have no longer religious beliefs. I simply don’t know. But it probably has gone down a bit. 

But you don’t seem very optimistic that mere argumentation can reprogram our species to have. Anderson, did not you? You’re not going to talk someone out of their supernatural explanations for cause and effect? 

No, I don’t believe you will. 

Well, that’s professor. That’s kind of a bleak picture. That’s the way it is. Why shouldn’t the skeptical, the atheist, the science communities just give up in their struggle against implausible beliefs? Considering that you’re really fighting against the very powers of evolution itself? 

Well, it depends in which area you want to give up these beliefs. I think in relation to alternative medicine, certain of the belief there and unless you can if you really show that they have no advantage to the patients, you should continue to fight. It will be difficult. But I think you really, you know, for example, homoeopathy, you know, where you give the drug that every cause of the illness that this school does and think that’s actually cures the patient. I’m afraid you really must keep fighting against ideas like that. But whether you would actually make any progress is another matter. 

So you do it despite the odds. Yes. So you’re all for fighting against alternative medicine, but you seem more reticent to fight against religion because you think it’s here to stay. 

Yes, I do. And I think it helps a lot of people. Mm hmm. 

So you’re kind of coming down on the other side of the fence from the New Atheists, people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris? 

Well, I think the point about Richard, who I borrowed a great deal. But the point about Richard. He never considers what religion does for people. 

I guess on this point, tell me the story about your son, that religion really works for him. 

And so you’re really is much less religious and he no longer goes to church. But it helped him a great deal. He’s still religious, but that it helped him a great deal when it really mattered. 

And it should be said that he he no longer goes to that church because it folded, not because he converted or something. Yes. Professor Lewis Wolpert, I really appreciate this discussion. Thanks for joining me on Point of Inquiry. 

Well, thank you very much indeed. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.