Monthly Archives: November 2010

9–Caveman Logic: A Review, aka Epic Post

Caveman Logic, by Hank Davis, is about how our thinking goes wrong. Subtitled The Persistence of Primitive Thinking in a Modern World, it uses evolutionary psychology to explain how our minds goof up. It is one of many similar books to come out lately that continue the tradition of critical thinking that The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan popularized. Its pitfall is that it’s not tightly focused: for example, many fallacies are discussed without giving reasons why nature would select for them, the long meandering chapters could be better organized into shorter chapters, and the target audience is unclear as it seems to be ‘preaching to the choir’. On the other hand, it is conversational and easy reading and I liked it.

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The author is a humanist-atheist like me, and a big focus of the book is on religion. He makes the case that “religion is the inevitable byproduct of how our minds misperform”. Even if you disagree with this, there are probably many things that you can swallow, and you probably agree with the book’s premise that it is important to know how our minds make mistakes so that we can fix them. To be nice, I put the smaller religion section after the main section.

So why “caveman” logic, you ask? Davis is well aware that the ‘caveman’ has been caricatured and is unfairly depicted as stupid and emotionally insensitive, our lesser–something that we’ve transcended, it seems to be implied. But the most important thing to take away from this book is the realization that our minds are very nearly the same as our long-dead ancestors’, and prone to the same errors in perception and reasoning.

Accidentally true

Now I’ll give you a taste of the book. I hope it all makes you think–I hope it epiphanizes the hell out of you. As you may have noticed–because no one likes to read a dissertation–I’ve included many pictures, which may or may not be relevant (but usually are). I hope you like them, but even if you don’t they will still help you remember what you’ve read or at least keep you here (aren’t I a devious demon?). Now prepare to… read.

“The human mind is an illusion generator”

We don’t know reality, we only guess at it and form in our minds what we hope is a faithful picture of how things really are. Sometimes we see things that aren’t there–a false positive–known as a Type I error. Sometimes we don’t see things that are there–this is a Type II error. The bias that natural selection produced in us is to commit Type I errors more frequently, that is, to see things that aren’t there.

For example, evolution makes you think there are Spanish words here

Here’s a hypothetical scenario for you to see why: let’s say you’re a hunter in a forest, and you see something in the distance, obscured by trees, that might be a tiger. What’s the worst that can happen? If you see a tiger that isn’t really there and you flee, all that happened is that you fooled yourself. If you fail to see what is actually a tiger, you may end up his meal. In other words, it’s okay to be a little bit neurotic if the alternative is overlooking something life-threatening. It’s not usually life-threatening to see patterns that don’t exist.

Nor is it usually life-threatening to see a causal link that doesn’t exist, but if you fail to notice the seasonal migration of animals, then you might starve. (If you’re smart, you can see that patterns indicate causes, but if you’re a caveman ignorant of how the world works, it can be hard to reason through to causes.) Cause and effect are not always obvious, but since understanding when there’s a causal link gives a survival advantage, nature erred on the side of inferring too many causal links rather than too few. So you might do a rain dance if there’s been a drought. Lo and behold, rain falls and you live another day, inferring that the dance caused the rain. It may be silly to believe, but it does you no harm from the standpoint of passing on your genes.

You're doing it wrong. It's all in the hips.

Similarly, nature selected for you to perceive social agents of causality even if there isn’t one. Think about animism, the belief that the things of nature have wills and spirits: this is misperceiving social agents. Humans became social because having a group makes it easier to survive. And since knowing who has power is important to get what you need, nature selected for you to realize that Thog is the power center, the leader who can get things done, and also for you to try to befriend him. You then bargain with him or beg if you must to get what you need. And if you get what you want and there’s any chance it was because of him or someone else, you’d better make sure to thank them if you want to keep in his good graces.

It’s hard to accept that we don’t have control. A lack of control is an evolutionary red flag that you can’t secure resources that you need. On the flipside, if you observe that always shaking a certain tree causes edible fruits to fall, then you have some control over your world and you’re happier. It was our natural desire to have control, and natural inclination to see causal links that aren’t there, that evolved superstitions. So we believe that the number an athlete wears on his shirt is important, or wacky stuff about black cats and spilling salt. And it’s because of our natural need to thank someone when we get what we want, even if there’s no one to thank, that we reflexively utter ‘Thank God’.


Yes, thank God... for... ...... what were you saying?

In other words, what it all comes down to is this: natural selection is a stickler for efficiency, and takes shortcuts, evolving for us heuristics to quickly evaluate something–rules of thumb that do well for us most of the time. The problem, in a nutshell, is that sometimes nature’s bar for ‘good enough’ is a good deal lower than our standard, and sometimes these heuristics fail us and make trouble for us. Sometimes our intuition fails. It’s sensible to believe that the Earth is flat, and natural to believe that our home is located more or less in the center of the universe, even if these things are dead wrong.

Glitches and faces, randomness and coincidence, how we love Meaning, summarizing, and a conclusion about how our inborn tendencies aren’t all bad for you sissies out there who won’t read the religion section

Sometimes our imperfect minds malfunction. One fairly common glitch is mishearing someone (‘I thought you said…’). One fairly hilarious misperception is when you’re in a hurry and don’t notice that you’ve accidentally jumped into the wrong car. Sometimes we see faces in the clouds, or the face of Jesus or Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. This is anthropomorphism, our tendency to see ourselves in everything. This is an inappropriate extension of our pattern-seeking tendency (I guess), and also comes from our ‘theory of mind’ that we develop as a young child at work: our realization that other humans have minds, are conscious, too. Of course the clouds don’t have faces–even if I do enjoy relaxing outside on a warm summer day and pretending they do–but unfortunately, many people aren’t so sure that the sandwich faces don’t have some kind of larger meaning.

How ya doin'? You haven't talked to me in awhile. Fyi, too much cheese. I'm stuck.

The same tendency to think things have personal meaning when they don’t is what allows psychics to take your money. It’s called the Forer or Barnum effect. Psychics take advantage of the fact that we tend to see vague, general descriptions as describing us particularly well. They might say things like ‘You enjoy socializing, but sometimes prefer to reflect on your own. You are sometimes critical of yourself but overall you think life is okay.’ Of course, this can fit anyone–especially given the clever use of qualifiers that captures people on ‘both sides’ for a given tendency (no one is totally anti-social or a social butterfly, so both can relate). It makes sense to me that evolution might have a hand in this: if there’s any chance that something concerns you, it suddenly becomes more important.

We just can’t get away from meaning, even if it’s not really there. After all, it’s better to see meaning where you probably shouldn’t than it is to miss something that might really mean something. A non-religious example would be synchronicity, or the New-Age belief, hearkening back to Jung, that some coincidences are meaningful. This is when something keeps on coming up–maybe the word fish, or the animal fish, or the last name fish–and you think it’s a sign from the universe (and so perhaps you make that fishing trip you’ve been meaning to do). People never seem to ask whether ‘the universe’ is an entity that can give them signs–or if it could, why it would care about them at all.

I love you and want you to be happy. Also, fish.

It’s partly because evolution hasn’t prepared us to understand chance and probabilities. It’s a common sentiment that there’s ‘no such thing as coincidences’. What people fail to realize is that the truly astonishing thing would be a world without coincidences. That’s right–a world in which, even though you think of calling a good friend several times a week, he or she never happens to call you just when you’re thinking about it–because that would be a coincidence. Or more mundanely, a world in which you never roll seven ones (or sixes) in a row–clearly, that couldn’t be just a coincidence.

Here are two particular ways we have trouble with randomness and coincidence: one, we fail to predict what randomness looks like, and two, we take note of rare events for arbitrary reasons. As for one, when students in statistics classes are asked to come up with what they think is a random sequence of coin flips, they always err on the side of alternating too frequently. That is, in real life, you will often have sequences of five or six heads, but most people would never come up with that because it seems too ‘non-random’. The second, related, reason, is that we decide for no good reason that six heads in a row is special, as opposed to, say, heads-tails-heads-heads-heads-tails. Here’s a similar example: any hand of thirteen randomly drawn cards from a normal deck of fifty-two has a probability of about 1 in 635 billion of being chosen. So if you were to treat every hand as the same, every single hand you got you’d say ‘wow! what are the odds I’d get this particular hand? The odds are astronomical!’. But in actuality, you only notice if all thirteen are hearts, or you get one of each number and each face card.

What are the odds?

Of course, it might be meaningful. Perhaps Thog–a very clever caveman who plays cards!–stacked them such that you’d get a certain significant hand for whatever reason (maybe all spades proves you’re a witch). Or it could be just a random hand of thirteen cards. Anyway, to recap what I’ve said so far: evolution causes us to err on the side of seeing what isn’t there, whether a pattern, causal link, social agent, a coincidence, or a description of ourselves. We were not equipped to understand randomness and coincidence, and we tend to over-invest meaning in things. Superstitions express our desire for control. Anthropomorphism reflects our need to notice things like us (usually other humans).

However, 0ur natural tendencies aren’t all bad. Seeing human things in nonhumans makes it easier to form bonds with our pets, enjoy cloud-gazing on a lazy afternoon, and give us a source of analogies to understand things better with. Music is entirely due to our ability to construct an experience out of patterns that isn’t inherent in the patterns themselves. And I think we can all enjoy succumbing frenziedly to the natural desire to procreate–even when it’s not to procreate. Finally, a huge part of some people’s lives, from which they derive meaning and joy, comes from what Mr. Davis and I believe is the most entrenched expression of caveman logic–religion.

Religion (mostly)

Why pray to end drought?–didn’t God know? If God has a grand cosmic scheme, is he really going to care if you promise to do your part to help the community if only he’ll make it your lucky day? “Why should God play favorites with you or your child or your puppy? Why not just abolish pain and suffering and death and be done with it? Then nobody would have to pray.” That, my friends, is the atheist’s passionate denunciation of what he or she perceives to be widespread irrationality and the frustration that comes with finding yourself surrounded with nonsensical beliefs. Davis observes that it’s telling of its roots in our evolutionary past that people try to bargain with God as if he were an uber village-chief and not an all-knowing, all-powerful… well..  God.

Awww!-For that puppy? Anything!

Of course, as for all agendas, I am well aware that people who identify as atheists are likely to exaggerate the things that define their atheist-icity, and downplay the fact that for the most part their neighbors are ordinary humans more or less like them. We all want happiness and love, right? For a bit of levity that is also relevant, watch this hilarious episode of a series of comedy shorts called “Mr. Deity”. Besides, even if the world would be better without religion, it’s not going to go away, so perhaps we should not aim to get rid of it, but just emphasize its better aspects. Even if religion suddenly vanished, Davis claims it would re-emerge almost immediately. “If religion were not here today, we would be busy inventing it by tomorrow. The problem lies within the structure of our minds, not within the institutions they create.”

Yet its unsavory aspects are embarrassing. For example, more Americans believe in creationism than “believe” in evolution (which in my opinion is not a matter of belief). Creationism is so appealing because we naturally think of things as being explainable and because there is strong social support to sustain this belief. Social support feels good–is good–because it lends validity and comfort and makes it easier to form bonds. The power of social support extends to the very language we use, as feminists noticed, as we reflexively say ‘Thank God’ or ‘Bless you’. Hence the reason for political correctness: it may be unpleasant in the short-term, even feel phony, but the long-term objective is to level the playing field for one group or another, and so it’s probably worth it (by the same thinking, I think affirmative action does good overall). By the way, as young kids, the way we saw the world was that everything had a ‘reason for being’; it would seem that this tendency to look for meaning–to ‘explain’ things–sticks with us as adults.


Pictured: the Creator, for all you know.

Social support comes in the form of status-quo-preserving mechanisms too: for one, the fact that it’s considered off-topics to talk frankly about religion like you can about other things; for two, the fact that the supernatural is just plain interesting, so the media will always have a bias towards reporting on such things since we want to know about it. And problems with our cognitive architecture support it too, especially our misperception of meaning. Consider a natural disaster like an earthquake in which hundreds or more die. Among the hundreds of lives, there will be some that had things going on their lives that can easily lead to construing the disaster as ‘punishment’ from God for something they did wrong, for example yelling at their family. And so they take a coincidence and give it meaning. Even though shifting tectonic plates couldn’t care less that you got after your baby sister for starving the pet cat.

Another thinking error is a critical support for belief in God: multiple endpoints. The fallacy of multiple endpoints is when you conclude something based on inadequate proof, proof that is poor because all manner of things can qualify as “proof”. For instance, if you pray to God, asking for a sign, it’s easy to find confirming “evidence” because anything can qualify as a sign from God, even the lack of a sign. Another way we go wrong is our ability to always, always find a reason for something in retrospect. To be able to explain something terrible that happened to you, or a rough time in your life in general (maybe your girlfriend dumped you), as actually being ‘for the best’ (this is our need to explain). The human mind has an amazing ability to rationalize–in the extreme case are people like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who predicted the world would end in 1914 and several times again in the 20th century. It didn’t. Of course they explained away these predictions after the fact, because they were so invested in their religious belief that they were blind to the possibility that their investment was misplaced.

It was an old city. We needed to renovate anyway!

Well, I think that’s enough of religion for today. So I’ll just end this section on a totally different subject: the naturalistic fallacy, or the assumption that what is natural is good. (This might be a modern tendency rather than one deriving from evolution). In fact, sometimes our ‘natural’ responses to a crisis can be downright terrifying. If you found yourself working in the Twin Towers on 9/11 and you find out that terrorists have crashed a plane into your building and it is now on fire, what do you do? Do you flee for safety, for your life?

If you’re like over a thousand survivors, you turned your computers off first. If you’re like a great many, you might have taken up to a half-hour to leave, freezing instead of fleeing, apparently blind to your imminent death–a zombie. A similar thing happened in 1977, that is, the Tenerife airport disaster in which two planes that hadn’t taken off crashed into each other. Most victims died not from the crash but from the resultant fire, and though they were told to flee to safety, away from the fire that would engulf them, they froze and perished. A third case Davis mentions is a series of mysterious scuba diving suffocations. They were later determined to be the result of a panic response, in which you attempt to tear away whatever’s covering your head. For most of our ancestors, this is a good reaction. Just not when you’re underwater and the thing covering your head is providing your oxygen. Sometimes nature’s instinct is not for the best. Okay, I guess this paragraph was just to scare you. Sorry. Consider it a late tribute to Halloween in my personal style.

Pictured: my personal idea of Halloween.

A call to action (the short section)

A somewhat substantial part of the book is a call-to-action. He asks you to imagine our world if we were liberated from our caveman logic, and he even makes a list of 12 ways we can check our less noble tendencies in an excellent summary of the way our thinking goes wrong near the end of the last chapter. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to repeat what he said, which is why this section is very short. But essentially, Mr. Davis asks you: if we’re good enough to suppress primitive antisocial impulses towards sexuality and aggression, why shouldn’t we also be proud to resist our primitive thinking impulses, our caveman logic?

If we want to do this, we should first recognize the nature of the flaw and the effects it’s likely to produce in your mind, and then take conscious steps to counteract these effects (this is where his list comes in handy). And we need to counteract the natural support systems for faulty thinking with our own support networks. He urges us to do something about the unfairness that exists towards people who don’t buy into religion or religious values: “Cognitive architecture will not change within our lifetimes, but the allocation of social and political power can. Humanists should not feel like outsiders when they express their views at school boards or town hall meetings. Atheists should not feel like pariahs when they band together and speak up at national political rallies. Their viewpoint should not be shunned by network media or relegated to the fringes of publicly supported communication.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Yes. Yes it would.