Evolutionary Origins of Beliefs

I have recently read the book: Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief by Lewis Wolpert. I have gathered some of my most favorite passages from this book and wanted to share them on this blog. Mainly because my blog’s main purpose is meant to serve on topics about Religion, Philosophy, and worldviews like Atheism. I hope you enjoy this brief gathering of quotes. I find them incredibly interesting.

The research on this book is tremendous, without doubt. This does it no justice. Either way, an introduction to the topic was due.

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Original. Instagram: davidferencik


“There is in the standard developmental sequence of children what is called a teleological stance, a tendency to view objects as being designed for a purpose. So children will judge that an otter spends time in the water because of its webbed feet, even though it looks like a land-living weasel. It was Piaget who first suggested that teleological thought was inherent in childhood and that children see nature as goal-directed. This is common in adults, who will ask why something exists, what its future might be, its properties, or more generally, what it is for. It may be something we are compelled to do because our minds are made that way. It is indeed a basic feature of cognition, particularly related to living things, and may be linked to a specialized module for classifying organisms. A child might spontaneously ask about a pointy part of a rock. Children at six to seven years prefer a functional explanation for why plants are green, and a physical one for emeralds. For plants they understand that it helps them grow” (42–43).

“Many causal beliefs come from parents, teachers and friends. Key religious beliefs come in this way, and build on — but also violate — ordinary causal ideas. In many religions there are special beings who hear and receive messages and are also, for example, able to read our minds and pass through solid barriers, and are immortal. Children have a human-like conception of God. They also accept that God, unlike ordinary humans, would know what was inside a closed box without having to open it. American six-year-olds strongly endorse the idea that animals, as well as objects, are made by God” (49).

“All these causal beliefs in children are determined by our brains giving us the ability, from a very early age, to have the concept of cause. This ability may require special modules that have evolved by changes in the genes that control the development of the human brain. Over millions of years these changes, together with those in our bodies, have made us fundamentally different from all other animals. Why did this occur, and why was the acquisition of causal beliefs so important? It is all related to tools, which may sound improbable, but I hope to persuade you. First, however, we should look at animals, and examine if they have beliefs similar to children” (49–50).


“For humans, the weights of a falling rock ‘forces’ a log to splinter, and wind makes the tree’s branches shake. No animal has a similar understanding of force, or cause and effect” (51).

“Primates recognise other individuals, predict their behaviour, and form alliances. They can also differentiate between animate and inanimate objects. However, they have a limited understanding of the intentionality of other animals, and only a glimmer of understanding of the causal relationships between inanimate objects . . . They have, for example, no concept of force, and even more important, no concept of causality” (53–4).

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