Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief

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Why do 70 percent of Americans believe in angels, while others are convinced that they've been abducted by aliens? Why does every society around the world have a religious tradition of some sort? What makes people believe in improbable things when all the evidence points to the contrary? In Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, evolutionary biologist Lewis Wolpert delves into the important and timely debate over the nature of belief, looking at belief's psychological basis to discover just what evolutionary purpose it could serve. Are there advantages to imaginary friends and fantasy worlds, superstitions and religions? Are we born with an evolutionary defense mechanism to believe in things that make us feel better about the world? Wolpert leads the reader through all that science can tell us about the beliefs we are so instinctually sure of. He deftly explores these questions and the different types of belief-those of children, of animals, of the religious, and of those suffering from psychiatric disorders-and he asks whether it is possible to live without belief, or whether it is a necessary component of a functioning society.

About the Author:
Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College London

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
While other scientists are fighting off the claims of creationists, British biology professor Lewis Wolpert ponders why we are all believers. He notes that 70 percent of Americans believe in angels; almost half the population accepts the validity of astrology; and even award-winning academics avoid the number 13 or refuse to walk under ladders. Dr. Wolpert draws on the findings of evolutionary psychology to posit a relationship between early human language and tool making and the development of cause-and-effect beliefs. Wolpert's lucid explanations never evidence any mockery of religious belief, but he does regard science as the most valuable, valid belief system.
Publishers Weekly
Why do we avoid walking under ladders or breaking mirrors? Why do many people believe that illness is related to wrongdoing? Wolpert, a professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College, London, attempts to answer these and other questions in his marvelously funny and provocative study of the nature of belief. He argues that our beliefs-whether everyday ones or religious ones-offer fundamental explanations of the causes and effects of events. Our beliefs thus become a way of guiding our actions as well as a means of judging others' actions. Taking a page from evolutionary psychology, the author contends that belief has its origin in the human development of language and of tools and their uses. Once our early ancestors made the connection between certain causes and effects-such as a flint causing fire-their discoveries led to other cause-and-effect beliefs. Wolpert also discusses how brain abnormalities, hypnosis and psychedelic drugs can lead to false beliefs, and he concludes that religious belief sometimes falls into this category. While he doesn't discount religious belief, Wolpert says that science offers the most reliable beliefs about how the world works. Wolpert's reflections ask us to reconsider how we look at the world every day. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A University College, London, professor of biology as applied to medicine considers the evolutionary basis of our belief in gods, devils, angels, wizards, and more. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A curious melange of speculation, theory and fact strives to explain why humans have beliefs. Wolpert (Biology/University College, London) starts out by observing how devoted we are to our beliefs and judgments, tending to ignore counterarguments. Then he states that a "belief engine" in the brain is grounded in the evolution of causal thinking, which he believes is based on tool-making and is strictly human. (Since animal tool use is primitive, he argues, animals largely lack causal thinking.) To bolster his theory, Wolpert frequently cites "X's study" without bothering to indicate who, what or where X is; readers must hunt through the references at the back for that information. Language, social interaction and culture probably play a role in generating the belief engine, the author admits. But his very pragmatic approach never once considers that idle curiosity or wonder at the sun, moon and stars might have anything to do with stimulating beliefs-or the development of science. In later chapters, Wolpert dissects varieties of belief. He finds no sharp division between "true" beliefs and delusions or hallucinations associated with brain pathology or drugs. He quotes endless surveys to make the point that many "normals" have experienced hallucinations or believe in the paranormal. Religious belief, he speculates, may be written in the genes and may have conferred some evolutionary advantage. Chapters on health and moral convictions mostly describe what people believed then and believe now. In the case of morality, Wolpert states that people's beliefs are not causal in nature, "but determine what causal action an individual may take," with all the wars and other social, political andeconomic consequences that entails. He concludes with a chapter on science, acknowledging it often goes against common sense, but clearly is "inestimable" as a guide to validating beliefs. Need we say in conclusion that readers do not have to believe all that the author says?Agent: Anne Engel/Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393064490
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/29/2007
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Lewis Wolpert is Professor Emeritus of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London. His books include Six Impossible Things before Breakfast, How We Live and Why We Die, and Malignant Sadness, the basis for a BBC television series.
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Table of Contents

Introduction     ix
Everyday     3
Belief     23
Children     35
Animals     51
Tools     69
Believing     83
False     97
Religion     117
Paranormal beliefs     139
Health     161
Moral     187
Science     201
Believable?     217
References     221
Index     231
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2008

    Should have been better

    Professor Wolpert writes well but the content density is much too low. To be truthful, I was unable to finish the book (so much to read, so little time). But after more than 60 pages there had been little payback for my effort, and his characterization of animals and their thought processes seemed largely gratuitous and superficial.

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