Superstitions Helped Mankind Survive

Did superstitions develop to help mankind survive? Evolutionary biologist Kevin Foster of Harvard University and Hanna Kokko of the University of Helsinki thought so:

Darwin never warned against crossing black cats, walking under ladders or stepping on cracks in the pavement, but his theory of natural selection explains why people believe in such nonsense.

The tendency to falsely link cause to effect – a superstition – is occasionally beneficial, says Kevin Foster, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University.

For instance, a prehistoric human might associate rustling grass with the approach of a predator and hide. Most of the time, the wind will have caused the sound, but "if a group of lions is coming there’s a huge benefit to not being around," Foster says.

Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine explains:

"Our brains are pattern-recognition machines, connecting the dots and creating meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B, and sometimes it is not," he says. "When it isn't, we err in thinking that it is, but for the most part this process isn't likely to remove us from the gene pool, and thus magical thinking will always be a part of the human condition."

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Surely it's even simpler than that. All we are, all intelligence is, is a peripatetic model of the world beyond our eyelids. We're not just addicted to building models, we just can't help it (listen to any piece of contrapuntal music if you doubt this). Just recently, we've got far enough off the ground to learn how to test our models rigourously; before that we tested them by repeated experience, let's call it "ritual".

To know that you get sparks from steel against flint is science, but it requires a few millennia of infrastructure before you can know that. To know that you often get sparks from a red rock against a glassy rock is superstition, but a damn sight more useful for any hunter gatherer. To recite a verse from an epic telling how a hero got sparks from a red rock against a glassy rock is ritual, but it helps you remember the useful stuff.
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Of course, there was that story (on Faces of Death I believe) of the guy that bungee-jumped off his college roof, hit the floor in a messy heap and died.

The reason being that when they were working out how long the cord should be they failed to take into account the fact that the building had actually been built without a 13th floor; thus making the cord 10-13 feet too short. That's superstition biting you in the ass (as it makes it's way through your head).

Of courese, this story may well be apocryphal but maybe the pattern he should have recognised was college + bungee + alcohol = bad idea.
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