Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Evolution of Gullibility.

Gullible: easily fooled or cheated ; especially: quick to believe something that is not true

Atheists are often quick to point out that religious people are usually religious because they were indoctrinated as children when they were young and gullible. They point to the strong association between geography and religious belief so that you can make a guess about the religion someone was brought up with based on where they were born. In some parts of the world, the Balkans and Northern Ireland for example, this often holds down to the level of the town or village or even the street or housing estate you were born in.

This of course strongly suggests that religious ‘faith’ isn’t something which most people arrive at through independent thought or through examination of the evidence; rather is suggests that they were given their beliefs by their parents, their peers and authority figures in their immediate culture. Any later justification for that belief in terms of presumed evidence or ‘personal experience’, or on the basis of ‘faith’ alone, is a post hoc rationalisation of pre-existing beliefs. For example, if someone has a ‘religious experience’ it is rare for them to interpret this as anything other than a manifestation in some form of the god they were brought up to believe in or in whom many or most of their friends and associates believe. It is rare for a ‘religious experience' to result in conversion to a ‘foreign’ religion. The same applies to so-called out-of-body experience where recalled memories recorded by a malfunctioning, usually anoxic, brain is often interpreted in terms of the locally popular religion.

They fuck you up your mum and dad
They don’t mean to but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add so new ones just for you.

Philip Larkin
Why are children so easily persuaded to believe things simply because they are told to, without requiring any evidence? Why do children believe in Santa?

The simple answer is that they are gullible. Gullibility in children is almost a universal trait. It would be rare indeed to find a child below the age of about ten who required solid evidence before believing anything his or her parents said. Children appear to be hard-wired to believe what their parents and other authority figures tell them.

So where did gullibility come from? We know it must have evolved and therefore there must have been a survival advantage to childhood gullibility. Why is gullibility in children an advantage when in adults it places them at a distinct disadvantage in life, prone to being easily fooled and cheated?

As with almost everything else about our evolution, we need to go back to our roots on the plains of East Africa as a relatively weak and defenceless ape and very much part of the food chain of predators like lions, leopards, crocodiles, snakes and even eagles.

As our brains developed so our children needed longer and longer to develop before being capable of independent existence, yet part of acquiring life skills in growing children involves curiosity. Human children have perhaps the longest childhood of any species. Curious children learn about their environments, where food can be found, which trees are easiest to climb, where shelter may be found, etc, etc, etc. Unfortunately, overly curious children are also at risk from predators.

Children who were told to avoid the water-hole where crocodiles live, or the places where pythons lurk and who believe what they were told, would have lived to pass their gullibility on to their children; those who wanted evidence and went to look for themselves would have been quickly removed from the gene pool.

And so we evolved childhood gullibility as a survival strategy. The downside to it is that it has made us susceptible to all manner of superstition, including religion. It has also made children vulnerable to depredation by paedophile priests who exploit this evolved gullibility and deference to authority figures for their own selfish gratification.

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  1. I suspect many quirks of humanity (i.e. religious gullibility) are spandrels. Mere by-products of evolution and not particularly selective in themselves.

  2. Interesting, but it leaves me wondering why children also have a tendency to ask interminable strings of questions.
    Maybe they believe what we tell them, but they always ask "Why?"
    Don't go near that water hole.
    Because a crocodile will eat you.
    Because crocodiles eat little children like you.

  3. I think gullible in children is also trust and that is OK. But when the child grows up and develops critical thinking skills/questioning skills, then gullible/trust/appeal to authority is not a good thing.


  4. Then there is the indoctrinated idea of hell to keep them from even thinking of the possibility that no such thing exists later in life(unlike santa where nothing bad exists so its easier to let go)
    We are seen as apostates and probably alienated which further proves how we are sort of removed from the gene pool. So religion breeds religion. :/

  5. Ideas also replicate, like said above: religiion breeds. The idea of hell is alive because it assures survivability for itself and for other religious memes as they evolved together.
    Not only us evolved, rather, culture used us as vehicles and unconsciously evolved too.
    Many ideas are not alive because they're useful for they're fleshy vehicles, but because they're useful for themselves.

  6. I think the problem is not so much gullibility as a basic instinctive emotional urge. Believers in religion all suffer from a condition known as 'Inverted Selfishness' an evolutionary tactic adopted by social animals whereby one does seemingly selfless acts in order to curry favour from other members of the social group.
    If you look at the thread of religious philosophy it is based upon a system of rewards and reprisals in much the same way as through social hierarchy in basic communal animal groups leading ultimately to the group leader who is followed unquestioningly through displays of dominance.
    Religion is nothing more than a subscription to an ancient system of instinctive behaviour that is mutated by limited intellect.


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