Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Pattern-Recognising Ape

Mt Susitna. Looking west across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, Alaska, USA.
Photo: Bob Jones
If humans are good at anything we are good at recognising things.

In fact we are so good at it that we see lots of things that aren't really there. Take a good look at this picture. What do you see, other than a very beautiful vista of a low mountain range seen over water. It is a view of Mt Susitna seen from Anchorage, Alaska, USA but it is supposed to look like a familiar object from which it gets it's popular name.

Can you see it? Don't cheat but have a good go. What do you see when you look at that scene - other than the obvious?

How about this view? Is that any help?

The answer is at the bottom of this post. You can look now...

Now look at the first picture again. Isn't it obvious now? How could you have missed it?

So, we are pretty good at recognising things especially when we know what we are looking for. It's more difficult but not impossible if we don't know what we are supposed to be seeing of course, and sometimes even our mood can determine what we see, as in this next picture on the right - something for creationists.

Dunker’s duck-rabbit. A transitional Quackabit?
The phenomenon is known as pareidolia. It may well have evolved to recognise the faces of friends and foes; of leaders and subordinates and especially those of our parents and siblings.

One of the big evolutionary benefits of this pattern-recognition ability was our (probably unique) ability to read the story seen in animal tracks of both prey and predator. Those of our ancestors who could read the tracks and so could catch dinner or avoid becoming dinner would have lived longer and prospered - and would have had more children on average. And from being able to read the story in the tracks we may have developed the ability to 'read the story' all around us and so invent causes where there were none or where they were obscure, and to see evidence in the patterns all around us of things which were not there.

The mountain range in the first picture doesn't just look like something familiar and recognisable, there has to be a story to explain it. The patterns we see in nature are 'evidence' of cause and proof of the story. If there was a cause there must have been an agent and culture conditions what we see as this agent.

 
The Prophet at prayer!
A who can forget the evidence of the Prophet Mohammad which appeared on a damp wall in Mali and had people queing overnight to see the wonderous miracle!

The nonsensical fashionable superstition of a magic intelligent designer is merely a manifestation of pareidolia, a useful but often erroneous function of cognition, optical illusion and mistaken perception.

But what is the adaptive benefit of mistaken perception?

When the cost of a mistake is simply to 'see' something that isn't there, but the benefit of recognising friends, foe, prey and predator (and especially predator) are great, then the benefits might well outweigh the cost of even frequent mistakes. We fail safe. But the consequence now is that we have to live with the false perception of gods and the unjustified power those with a god illusion have managed to take for themselves when too many people share their illusion.

In a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, globalised world what were once harmless, even behneficial, illusions are now the cause of division, mistrust and dehumanisation as deluded factions fight over who has the best false story and the best false image of something that just isn't there.

Answer: This mountain range is popularly known as 'Sleeping Lady'. There is even a legend to accompany it.


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