Tilly, our three-year-old pit bull, approached the flower bed cautiously, her body weight shifted behind her paws, ready to retreat in an eyeblink. As she intensely sniffed, her ears were stiffly erect and pointing forward. For each four inches she crept forward, she flinched two backward. What the heck was she up to? I stepped outside our porch and spied the highly translucent skin of a snake that had apparently been shed in the flower bed.
Tilly got her nose right up to the skin and suddenly spasmed with such vigor she landed two full feet behind were she previously crouched. And again she inched forward, ready to flee.
Was it sight or scent that had ignited a template within my dog’s mind? Her instincts “told” her “this could be dangerous.” And yet it wasn’t.
Those cute animals! . . . Cute?
One of the least cute things I have ever done involves a rope I nearly to strangled. It was a blisteringly hot day and I had just had a heated and disturbing disagreement with a loved one. I was attempting to tie something to the bed of a pickup truck and the rope that I attempted to use was hopelessly tangled. I pulled and un-weaved, pausing to wipe the sweat from my face onto my sleeve. The rope “refused” to untangle. Frustrated, overheated, and angry, I chucked the mass of rope to the ground. Then, as if my emotions had been uncorked, I lifted the large tangle and heaved it into a tree. And there it hung, a full five feet above my reach.
Those cute humans! I had behaved as if I could threaten and/or punish the rope into submission and compliance. Which is an odd way to treat an inanimate object.(1)
It seems that both pit bulls and people can respond to things that resemble snakes as if they were live snakes. Not coincidentally the snake plays a role in many religions and mythological tales.(2)(3)
And it’s not just snakes. Have you ever wanted to tip over a table you just stubbed your toe on? Why react like that? Because “it” caused you pain. It caused, not you. As many ethologists have remarked, “animism and anthropomorphism stem from the principle, ‘better safe than sorry.’”(4)
Did I treat the rope as if it were alive, an agent? Have you ever likewise treated an object as if it were alive and could respond to your actions?
Pascal Boyer notes, “The expense of false positives…is minimal….the cost of not detecting agents when they are actually around (either predator or prey) could be very high.”(5)
And so, at the relatively meager expense of false positives, we over-extend our tendency to see agents and their behavior in our environments. The human brain is not a blank slate.
We anthropomorphize whenever possible. In fact, we even vivomorphize. We have built-in programs to decide what kind of movements mean a thing is alive. Tiny babies, like adults, conclude that dots of light moving in synchrony are a single “organism.” Toddlers, like adults, know when two such dots are helping or hurting each other, chasing, hunting, supporting. If in doubt, it’s alive. And if it is alive, we suspect is has intentions–the stuck automobile, the purring pussycat, the automatic bank teller, the thunderstorm. (6)
As a social species, faces particularly interest us and a mere hint of a mouth and two eyes will draw our attention. Human beings recognize thousands of real faces. Knowing your neighbor is apparently important to survival in a close-knit social group. We even find faces where none exist: in rock outcroppings, in the grain and knots of a slab of wood, etc. Beyond the false positives of finding faces in abstract forms, we find the work of agents – the consequence of behavior – in the events we experience. It is better to incorrectly interpret the inconsequential result of a passing wind as the rustling of branches as a sign of a creature with intentions than to incorrectly interpret branches rustled by a predator or enemy as the inert workings of nature.
Chimpanzees will throw sticks and stomp and gesture towards a stuffed panther. Similarly, human hunters get caught poaching when they shoot at a fake deer. Mistaken, yes. Stupid, not really.
As Jane Goodall and others have observed, at the sound of an approaching thunderstorm, chimpanzees will get worked up and perform threat displays at nothing in particular.(7) Mistaken, yes. A safe error, yes.
Likewise, human beings have perceived the dumb, intention-less, phenomena of volcanic eruptions, earthquake shakes and hurricane destruction as the work of an angry god. Mistaken, yes. Stupid . . . only if better information is ignored.
That fact it does tend to make them feel better, and is apparently indulged in by people of every culture, suggest how deeply rooted in human biology is the urge to treat things – especially frustrating things – as agents with beliefs and desires.(8)
In theistic religions we find the projection of a human-like agency behind the poorly understood workings of our world.(9)
Humans are social creatures who readily infer agency when something happens. We have the knee-jerk tendency to ask “who did that?” first, “how did that happen?” second. Other individuals are the most important feature of human life. Predator and prey (agents) are next in line as those “things” that are most likely to rapidly impact our existence.
And so our agency-detecting radar is set at an over-sensitive level. Better to be mistaken and alive. When a person hears a noise in the darkness – the proverbial bump in the night – their first thought is not how did it happen, but who or what living thing caused it. We perceive bumps in the night as evidence of UFOs – unidentified, functional operators. As much as we live up to our classification as Homo sapiens, we perhaps equally manifest just how much we are Homo bumpkins down to our core.
(1) My stance on the centrality of agency detection to religion relies on the broad shoulders of the work of others. In particular, I would like to extend kudos to Stewart Guthrie, Pascal Boyer, and Daniel Dennett for the essential influence they have had upon my thinking.
(2) Asimov, I., Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old and New Testaments, Wing Books, New York, 1969, p. 31
(3) Scientists at the University of Virginia have recently teased out evidence that the human fear of snakes (and thus snake-like things) may be innate: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080227121840.htm
(4) Guthrie, S. E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, p. 5
(5) Boyer, P. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Basic Books, New York, 2001, p. 145
(6) Jolly, A. Lucy’s Legacy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999, p. 222
(7) “My guess is that the display is indeed a threat against the storm and that the chimpanzees do perceive the storm as animate.” Guthrie, S. E., 1993, 52
(8) Dennett, D., Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking, New York, 2006, p. 117
(9)“A stronger alternative is to say religion is one kind of interpretation of the world—one in which the world, in whole or in part, is significantly humanlike.”
Guthrie, S. E., 1993, p. 15
[first appeared here: http://almightyalpha.blogspot.com/2008/02/who-goes-there.html]