Daily Archives: September 17, 2008

Genes for Superstition????

I was delighted to see that “SuperSense” got a plug in today’s “Independent.” Dr Kevin Foster and Dr Hanna Kokko have published a paper on the evolution of superstitious behavior in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society. By applying cost benefit mathematical modeling they have been able to show how superstitious behavior could evolve as an adaptation. In other words there could be genes that build brains that lead to superstition.

Specifically, they have argued that superstitions arise from a common error of reasoning where humans make wrong assumptions about cause and effect. Very often when two events happen close in time, the natural tendency is to assume that they are causally related. For example, imagine that you have a surprisingly good day on the tennis court or at the poker table. How do you explain it? What did you do differently from the day before? Maybe it was the mismatching socks you wore? So you repeat the odd socks routine and very soon you have developed your own personal superstition.

Foster and Kokko argue that just like altruism (something that has also been similarly modeled and talked about in Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene”) so long as the mismatching mechanism in the brain occasionally gets it right then this can outweigh all the times superstitions get it wrong. And they have proven this mathematically. “The results are clear,” Foster says. “Being superstitious makes sense in an uncertain world.”

I have no problem with this.  However, such research has a very narrow definition of what superstition is and moreover, does not explain why certain superstitions exist. Rather their analysis focuses on whether such behaviors could be adaptive. 

Genes for superstition? I can hear Richard Dawkins stamping his feet now!

Thanks Sanjida for sending me this.



Filed under book publicity, In the News, Newspaper, Research