This Superstitious Naked Ape Fellow

The Superstitious Naked Ape

It was the zoologist, Desmond Morris, who first called our species the ‘naked ape;’ a moniker no doubt uncomfortable or even offensive to some but given the wafer-thin 1.5% genetic difference separating us from our more coarsely haired cousins a near perfect description and one perhaps only made more accurate by adding the superstitious, or better still, the paranoid naked ape.

It sounds far from flattering, a ghastly wart on what Shakespeare called the ‘paragon of animals,’ but we naked apes are however enormously inclined toward paranoia, and for very good reason. It served us extremely well at a time not that very long ago on the evolutionary scale when even the strongest of us were counted as snack items. A breeze bending blades of grass could easily be attributed, albeit incorrectly, to a stalking lioness and all the dangers that it implied. The causal associations between the unpredictable movement of grasses and the presence of danger was a good thing, a skill, and like all skills the better practiced and more highly trained the trick the better it is for the individual and, more importantly, the group at large.

It’s the prediction game, and we naked apes literally ran amok with it. Just as soon as we could we teased it, stretched it out, played with it, chromed it, supercharged it, and eventually got a pretty good handle on the business of forecasting, guessing, and crystal ball gazing. The best in this neck of the celestial woods, at least.

Now to be fair, prediction of the near future based on evidence in the present or even near past is a talent possessed by all higher order creatures; critters marginally more complex than a lobster with all its 100,000 neurons busily firing off, constantly trying to work out which way is up and what is and what’s not food. It takes about another 70,000,000 or so (a field mouse) to actually be in a position to link something like, say, a bloodcurdling roar to a possible or even probable future event like, say, being eaten. It takes a further 300,000,000 (a house cat) to completely understand the source of the sound without seeing it, predict the future event, then deploy some type of timely and remembered response like, say, running like hell in the opposite direction. And it takes somewhere in the region of 100,000,000,000 more neurons to simply put the source of the bloodcurdling roar behind a 20cm thick Perspex glass wall and call it an exhibit.

100,000,000,000: it is the magic number hit by us somewhere around 6,600 generations ago and ever since we’ve gotten a load of nothing but blue sky out ahead, separating “us” from “them” back in the metaphorical and very real jungle. What sustained us however through our long 830,000 generation march from homo habilis (who had no time to even stop and have a chat) to homo sapiens (who had enough spare time on his hands to pop up to the moon for a chat) was our paranoia – our superstitions – and it is as real and ingrained in each of us as that tiny line of operating code which forbids us all from drawing our first earthly breath underwater. Chimpanzees don’t have this skill. A chimp born underwater will as a matter of course draw his first breath regardless of whether he’s submerged or not and, if submerged, subsequently drown. As it so happens most of us aren’t born underwater but should maternity wards across the planet suddenly all sport birthing pools our future ankle-biters will be perfectly safe because that survival skill is there, in-built; a line of operating code deemed at some point in our evolution important enough for the survival of our species to be saved and passed on through the generations.

On the flipside, no such genetic code exists to have prompted 16th Century pirates to pierce their ears with precious metals. They did so for no other reason than they believed it improved their eyesight. Now, how precisely someone like the murderous Calico Jack Rackham arrived at this notion is an utter mystery but the action fits the standard definition for superstition as an ‘irrational mistake in cognition;’ bona fide blunders in the diagnosis of cause and effect which we naked apes not only celebrate on a daily basis but obsess over.

Many people to this day do not bring brooms with them when relocating house for fear of also bringing bad spirits from their former residence. Russians sit on their luggage before travelling to ward off disaster, cutting your fingernails after sunset in Laos is the next best thing to stabbing yourself in the ear with an ice pick, and go to any Brazilian beach on New Year’s eve and you’ll find tens of thousands of people diligently jumping over seven waves to welcome twelve months of good fortune. If you sneeze three times on a Sunday in Iceland smile because good stuff is apparently coming your way, but picking berries after October in Alberta, Canada, will invite only bad things. Getting your hair cut in Mongolia on certain days is literally courting death, and in Indonesia finding a slither of cayenne pepper in a pan for no apparent reason is a sure sign something truly horrendous is about to happen. No self-respecting Palestinian will enter a building right foot first, the Japanese will hide their thumbs when a hearse passes, and upon sensing a storm approaching my wife’s great grandmother would, I’m told, crawl beneath the kitchen sink and furiously beat pots and pans together until the lightning and thunder had passed. Not so surprisingly this method of chasing storms away worked every time. The storm would pass. The reasons why, of course, differed according to whom you asked.

Irrational mistakes in cognition.

“The General root of superstition,” said the giant of Empiricism, Francis Bacon, “is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss, and commit to memory the one, and pass over the other.” Not a truer word has been spoken. It’s the fallacy of causation and correlation where we observe one event (B) happening after another event (A) and assume A is responsible for B. Sometimes that relationship is correct, many times it is not and so it would be natural – certainly logical – to think that such processing errors would be singled out for annihilation according to the blindly intuitive forces of natural selection first described by Charles Darwin five generations ago. Oddly enough the opposite has in fact rung true; the mistake has been perpetuated and elaborated upon through successive generations. My wife’s grandmother might not have followed her mother under the sink to battle storm demons, education had taught her about the nature of weather, but that did not apparently stop her from spinning brooms upside down and hiding them behind the kitchen door when a person she didn’t trust came visiting the family home. Whatever the elaborate explanation might have been, and I’m betting it would indeed be quite fantastic, the very fact that brooms were even spun begs the question, why? What is the evolutionary benefit of a mistake in cognition? A rationalist would say there is none, but there it is standing out like giant irrational dogs balls dangling in the air, or in our case, steeples and minaret’s scratching at the sky.

The abridged answer arrived at by naked apes far brighter than I is as eloquent as it is uncomplicated: we, as a species, erred on the side of caution. Our evolutionary path rewarded the lesser of two evils whereby the cost of paranoia was deemed lower than the cost of scepticism which, if wrong, extracts a painfully high price: death. The sceptical hominid might see the bending grass but take a moment to then survey surrounding trees and see if they too were bending. If they were then the probability of wind causing the movement of the grass increased but did not necessarily rule out the presence of a hungry lioness. Wrongly attributing the bending grass to an approaching lioness ninety-nine times out of a hundred was, it appears, less costly than being wrong once. The paranoid lived on to practice (or fend off ) increasingly bad pick-up lines whereas the brazen sceptic tired of jumping at the slightest rustle met a less than pleasant demise.

In a sentence, nature beatified the neurotic.

A tendency to make quick albeit mostly false associations was deemed more evolutionarily beneficial than more reliable but equally more time-consuming rational cynicism. There was a price to pay for this paranoia, anxiety and its more complex uglier cousins, suspicion and superstition, but the price was evidently considered tolerable in the face of the more costly alternatives. We are, as such, biologically attuned to this neurosis. It is, at a genetic level, our default setting; a physiological reality etched deep inside the genome of every highly strung naked ape.

Bending blades of grass are observed, synaptic nerve endings fire and the observation is linked to past events where the pattern of bending grass is followed by a blinding flash of sandy blonde fur, hazardously huge feline paws, and teeth-lined jaws that could ruin anyone’s day. What happens next is entirely involuntary. Up top there is a not-so mild biochemical explosion and norepinephrine floods the brain; the neurological equivalent of someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Adrenal glands go off like solid rocket fuel motors and adrenalin saturates the sympathetic nervous system. Neurons in the visual cortex spark off at triple normal speed and time appears to slow. Faster than thought the liver dumps its store of glucose into the blood. The heart and lungs snap into overdrive flooding muscles with oxygen, and with that the body is near-instantly prepared for Flight or Fight: a survival mechanism that has changed little, if at all, through the last 830,000 generations.

That’s just the way it is and I can no sooner change that than I can change my eye colour. Today as I walk my dogs an abrupt rustle in the tall grass will make me jump. The likelihood of a lioness leaping out might be remote, a snake is more probable, but the remembered false association is there, ingrained. My speedy reaction, which I’m not shy to admit might include yelping like a little girl, I can thank some deep time relative – perhaps Australopithecus afarensis – for. However, simply because some 830,000 generations ago this neurosis was deemed less expensive than careful scepticism does not mean there hasn’t been a hidden cost slowly accruing in the background; an expense steadily but surely building up like silt behind a once useful dam wall. The truth is there has been, and that cumulative cost is our stubborn attachment to superstition: the nucleus of religion and all its nonsense.

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