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Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief Hardcover – January 17, 2007

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393064492
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393064490
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,438,324 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From 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.)
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"'Brilliant and persuasive search for the source of our need to believe.' Sunday Times" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

As the reader below wrote, this is a cocktail party book.
Takis Konstantopoulos
As he himself admits, this is pure speculation in any case, and there is no evidence to support his claim.
In short, this book seems like it was written in an ad-hoc, stream-of-consciousness manner.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Luc REYNAERT on February 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The basic concept of Lewis Wolpert's book is Darwinism: chance events lead to variation followed by selection. Its key notion is causality, the necessary connections among things and actions.

The understanding of causality was a crucial breakthrough for mankind in the struggle for survival. It made complex tool manufacturing, conceptual thinking and language possible.

Technology drives human evolution: there are only 20.000 years between the first bow and arrow and the International Space Station. Language requires causal thinking, because verbs like `go, hit, throw' don't have any meaning without belief in cause and effect.

Experiencing the efficiency of causality in tool making, people sought to apply this principle for the understanding of the causes of all events, and certainly of life, death and disease. Through experience (tool making), cognition, intuition and also emotion (which helped already animals to make appropriate motor movements for survival), together with cultural transmission, people arrived at certain `beliefs', which became part of our genes.

The belief engine in our brain created religious, moral, ethical and scientific beliefs.

Religion is a belief in spiritual things. Its importance for survival could lay in its promotion of hope and optimism. Until recently, the whole world population was constantly confronted with war, death, disease, hunger, bad hygiene. The average lifespan was not more than 30 years.

Moral and ethical beliefs can have devastating effects because they are often imposed by those in power on its population (religious and ideological oppression).

Scientific beliefs have no moral or ethical content and are in conflict with religion, because there is no scientific evidence of God.
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52 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on October 10, 2006
Format: Hardcover
It seems quirky, claiming to "imagine six impossible things" as Alice's White Queen did. Before breakfast or at any time. Wolpert shows, however, that most of us are firmly convinced of many things that aren't so: gods, unlikely events, strange medical practices - the list seems almost endless. The lack of tangible evidence supporting or even evidence countering, those things we have faith in seems to have little impact on our credulity. In a dozen illuminating chapters, this award-winning biologist examines this almost inexplicable facet of our lives. Written with precision and deep insight, Wolpert demonstrates his command of how belief is a fundamental aspect of our society. Why do we believe the things we do?

As a biologist, Wolpert naturally turns to our evolutionary roots for clues to the origins of belief. That which sets us apart from the other animals - our oversized brain, our use of tools, and our ability to use language - as the indicators. The brain's capacity to store, retrieve and assemble information is tied to our abilities in technology and language. For Wolpert, the prime element is the making of tools. Making tools means envisioning the final product, and devising how to bring it about. Put more simply, understanding cause and effect - something even other primates have trouble with. From this beginning, he argues, come social relationships and a sense of values. Along the way, we also developed the idea of agency which we assigned to events or circumstances that were out of ordinary, everyday experience. If the process of flaking stone went wrong, why did that happen. The best-laid plans, etc.

From this beginning, Wolpert shows how the panoply of modern beliefs has come into our lives.
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41 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Charles D. Hayes on January 27, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A very thoughtful examination of belief. I read it in one sitting. I was delighted to see that Wolpert referenced the work of John F. Schumaker. Long before Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Shermer began writing about the dangers of irrational beliefs Schumaker wrote two books on the subject that remain unsurpassed: "Wings of Illusion" and "The Corruption of Reality." It's ironic that these two timeless books were before their time.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Bernard Zeigler on March 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
In a kind of free-association but readable style, this book discusses a variety of aspects of the evolution of belief. The key technical aspect is a hypothesis about how the ability to create beliefs arose in humans which is developed in tantalizingly sketchy fashion. What distinguishes humans from some animals and other primates is not tool use per se, but the deliberate manufacture of tools. The origin of the "belief engine" is traceable to the binding of a rock and a stick to create the first axe. This required insight into the cause/effect nature of such construction (giving the rock a greater pounding force by extending its leverage) and foresight that it would work (securing a stick to a rock would prove effective). Once established, the belief engine became a primary cognitive module that allowed our ancestors to create beliefs that explained the vagaries of the uncertain environment with which they had to cope. Indeed, it became so useful that the predisposition to create beliefs acquired a genetic basis.

However, unlike the controllable world of technology, the wider world of daily living does not conform to easily perceived regularities. So the belief engine works in a fast and frugal way, shunning reliable beliefs for quickly developed and applicable, albeit error prone, ones. As a consequence, we are genetically predisposed to be suggestible (e.g. hypnosis) and susceptible (e.g. jumping to conclusions) to factually unsupported beliefs, such as belief in the paranormal. Wolport concludes that children today are genetically programmed to accept religious beliefs from authority figures and this programming may be an evolutionary adaptive mechanism.
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