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Are Humans Genetically Disposed to Pray to the State?

In the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly (paid subscription required), Yale University Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom reports on research that suggests that our minds are evolved to anthropomorphize events and institutions.

Bloom’s purpose is to explain the nearly universal human belief in supernatural beings. He and other researchers find, from studying infants, that humans are genetically equipped to distinguish physical phenomena from psychological phenomena:

Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby’s brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks. The understandings develop at different rates: the social one emerges somewhat later than the physical one. They evolved at different points in our prehistory; our physical understanding is shared by many species, whereas our social understanding is a relatively recent adaptation, and in some regards might be uniquely human….

Babies have two systems that work in a cold-bloodedly rational way to help them anticipate and understand—and, when they get older, to manipulate—physical and social entities. In other words, both these systems are biological adaptations that give human beings a badly needed head start in dealing with objects and people. But these systems go awry in two important ways that are the foundations of religion. First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, as we will see, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists.

It’s the very last sentence that prompts this blog post.

If – as I find compelling – “our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist,” then not only are we genetically predisposed to infer the existence of a supernatural designer of our physical world (or a supernatural bully, depending), but we’re also genetically predisposed to infer imaginary goals and desires operating in the social world.  That is, we’re too likely to anthropomorphize institutions such as “the market” or “the nation” or “the people.”

Naturally, then, we also anthropomorphize natural (albeit they social) events – as evidenced by the frequent resort to accusations of conspiracy and evil-doing to explain events such as rising prices, growth in income inequality, and a fall in the number of black Americans playing Major League baseball.

And we’re also likely genetically disposed to seek relief from unplanned, emergent phenomena by imploring an imaginary higher power — or an earthly power whom we imagine to possess unreal abilities and superhuman goodness — to intervene on our behalf.

Evidence of this anthropomorphization is ample: count how many times you read or hear the phrase “we as a nation choose” this, or “we as a nation did” that – as if 300 million of us are analogous to an individual who perceives, chooses, and acts.  Likewise, note how many times you find people who believe that “the market” “seeks” or “aims” to achieve this or that outcome.

Just as it is perhaps inevitable that most people will continue to believe in a supernatural god, it is likely that most people will remain blind to the invisible hand.  (It’s not called the “invisible hand” for nothing.)  And just as it is appropriate to insist on scientifically sound explanations for natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and acne outbreaks, it is appropriate to insist on scientifically sound explanations for complex phenomena such as rising prices, trade patterns, and differences in incomes across households.  Explaining such economic patterns by resort to intentions (such as “greed”) is religion, not science.


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