I bought this book because I knew that Lewis Wolpert is a Humanist – kind of a less famous, less uncompromising Richard Dawkins. This book is about the evolutionary origins of belief, and its central thesis is that beliefs arose because they allowed humans to make tools – and therefore to gain an advantage in the fight to survive. The volume is divided into a dozen or so chapters, each generally looking at one form of belief.
After setting out his contention about beliefs and tools, Wolpert goes on to develop the idea of beliefs. To most people, ‘belief’ means, or at least strongly implies, an unprovable, unfalsifiable belief – about the existence of gods or ghosts, for instance. But belief is actually more basic than that. At its most fundamental level, belief is about interacting with the environment, about cause and effect. The expectation that if you poke an object with a stick, say, it will move in response is a belief.
In the early chapters Wolpert mentions various pieces of research that indicate that humans at a very early age have a very sophisticated understanding of cause and effect that even the most intelligent of the other animals – benobos, for instance – lack. Babies of one year old, apparently have the ability to point to attract a second person’s attention to something within sight of both; no other animal can do this.
This ties into Wolpert’s contention that belief was an evolutionary adaptation that facilitated the use of tools – rather than the use of language, as many believe (Wolpert categorises language as a tool that probably developed because early humans had already learned how to manipulate materials into useful objects).
All very interesting and quite believable. But this highlights one of the issues that detract from the book’s efficacy (and which Wolpert freely admits more than once): there is little evidence or research to support this view.
And this leads on to a further problem: much of the book is simply a list of very brief sketches of various pieces of research (none of which was conducted by the author). A lot of this research is quite interesting, but it doesn’t really add up to much. Apart from the first two or three chapters, much of the book seems pretty irrelevant to the central thesis.
Some of it is blindingly obvious – like the idea that religion is evolutionarily useful because it provides people with social and psychological benefits. Other parts just seem to suggest some ignorance on the author’s part. He compares psychoanalysis to belief in religion or the paranormal, citing the lack of evidence for its ideas, like the id, ego and superego. However, it’s my understanding that Freud’s ideas and practices had long been superceded by cognitive behavioural therapy and such like.
In summary, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (a reference to the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland) is an interesting read, but ultimately lacking in substance and disappointing.