Monday, January 9, 2006

Bird Brain

(No, not a post about the hydrocephalic Pat Robertson.)

A lovely little exchange with Scribe Steff about morality leads me to ponder (for the zillionth time) the human propensity for the supernatural. I've said before that I have absolutely no patience for supernatural explanations of anything, and when it spills over into spirituality it becomes the turd in my punchbowl as concerns elevated human thinking. I think there is wonder enough in the world without our having to conjure up comparatively simplistic and inane spook stories to keep our searching minds at rest.

But clearly I'm fighting something deeply ingrained in the human psyche, some kind of evolved mechanism that aids in our survival, something genetic. I know that so much of what used to be the purview of religion has been ceded (reluctantly, and with much violence and death) to the baloney grinder that is the scientific method. And with almost no exception we all now accept and embrace the fruits of science (if not science itself). It is everywhere in our world now, from medicine to transportation to communications and computer technology, on and on in every facet of our lives.

And yet, while the church clearly does not wield anything like the power and influence it once did, still people profess a generic belief in religious ideas and many still attend some kind of regular church service. This all puzzles me a bit.

My little Apple widget dictionary defines superstition this way:


Excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings.

A widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.

My short working definition for this word is:

Ascription of meaning to a statistically random event.

And that came from some reading years ago about B.F. Skinner and his experiments on animal psychology. I'm especially taken by some of his (rather famous) discoveries with pigeons.

In these experiments, hungry pigeons were put in a cage, and the delivery of a pellet of food was randomized and divorced from any reference to the pigeon's behavior. And Skinner found, rather delightfully I think, that the pigeon attributed the appearance of the food to whatever it was doing when the food arrived. Thus, the birds developed elaborate dances and strange moves in the belief that it was this action that had rewarded them with food. The moves, tentative at first, became emphatic and exaggerated and evolved over time, especially with the arrival of other randomly-delivered pellets.

It is not hard to see the germ of something quite functional in this, even as it appears a bit absurd. The hungry bird is trying to feed itself, and it quickly and instinctively constructs a cause-and-effect sensibility (or rather, applies an existing one) with respect to these food pellets. In the wild this might ensure provision of food, and could be the difference between life and death. And from the POV of natural selection, it seems clearly better to have a mechanism so sensitively tuned that it detects things that aren't there, than to have the same mechanism detuned to miss opportunities--any opportunity--that might put food in the gullet.

Now, this is an animal with a brain the size of a Lindor chocolate ball (everything in my world exists relative to candy--I've been conditioned!). But you can see in this the kernel of so much of human behavior, especially as relates to religion and our affection for supernatural explanations of things. Creation mythologies and ghosts and spirits and gods, and all the attendant details and nuances that follow them like Pig Pen's cloud, all seem eerily illuminated by these experiments. To this tendency to find patterns where there aren't any, add our innate need to exist in a dominance heirarchy, and you have the makings of a church and all the trimmings.

So far as I know, Skinner never applied his results to religion explicitly. But it seems a most logical extrapolation, and in any case it's fertile ground for contemplation.


Esbee said...

This thoughtful post came from the same guy who wrote the Beevis and Butthead number yesterday?

wunelle said...

I hear that B.F. Skinner was a big fan of fart jokes.

OK, not really.

I try to keep 'em all happy, giving each little demographic its own post once every four or five months.

Esbee said...

Ahhhh, good tactic.

I skirted the edge of our place as an educators' blog today. I like to make them worry every now and then, let's me know that they're reading.

OOOOH! 10 pm on the nose. L&O starting! See ya!

wunelle said...

Lucky you. I'm sitting hot standby at the airport until 3:am and there is no L&O for me. At least I can blog.

I'm dense, but what do you mean by "I skirted the edge of our place as an educators' blog today"?

Say Hi to Jack McCoy for me!

Esbee said...

Scroll down to Language-Related Blogs.

Jack said to tell you, "Hi." It was a L&O rerun based loosely on Michael Jackson, in that an entertainer was perving out with young boys invited over to "play" and "spend the night".