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The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions Paperback – January 29, 2001

4.1 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


A treatise for discerning readers seeking an insight into the biological influences that have shaped them into what they are. -- David L. Boccagna, Ph. D.

This excellent, highly readable book discusses how neurobiology interacted with our belief systems to create the meme-plexes we call religion. -- Scott Bidstrup, Truth and Reason Web site 2003

From the Publisher

The publisher wishes to make a few observations concerning the review of the reader from San Francisco. With all due respect, the book is not a "thesis", it is a "synthesis".

The*sis, n.; A position or proposition which a person advances and offers to maintain, or which is actually maintained by argument. Hence, an essay or dissertation written upon specific or definite theme; especially, an essay presented by a candidate for a diploma or degree.

Syn*the*sis, n.; The combination of separate elements of thought into a whole, as of simple into complex conceptions, species into genera, individual propositions into systems.

There are numerous references in the book to consilience, which means to combine objective information from different disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation, i.e., synthesis. In addition, on page 1 the author provided the following guidance to the reader:

"Understanding the biology of belief involves understanding aspects of knowledge ranging from astronomy to zoology. As with weaving cloth, weaving these knowledge disciplines into a coherent fabric of understanding requires time to put the various threads of knowledge into place. The discussion of consilience in the Preface explains what the reader can expect as the early chapters begin to assemble these necessary-but at times seemingly unrelated-threads of knowledge into a fabric of understanding."

"Fabric of understanding" equals synthesis. That being said, at times the author suggests ways of considering things, such as the mechanism underlying the cultural transmission of beliefs, which question well known ways of thinking, such as the logic behind meme theory. If I may address another misconception in this reader's review, the central concept of this book is not a variation on Richard Dawkins' memes. It is that the conflict between emotion and reason, which characterizes human history, is directly traceable to limbic and neocortex brain structures that evolved over millions of years and aided the survival of our ancestors. In other words, biological evolution is a major influence on human belief system formation. This is the reason for the title referring to biology and for about half the book describing micro and macro biological influences on the process of perception and belief system formation. I am pleased that the reviewer from San Francisco found the book "very entertaining with many tidbits of information from a wide range of disciplines." However, those "tidbits" were carefully chosen to demonstrate various aspects of the fibers of understanding the author wove for most readers into a fabric of understanding. I agree that anyone looking for a serious treatment of cognitive science and what it says about human capacity for belief should read other authors. However, in this age of specialization, it is likely that they will be reading a thesis and not a synthesis. Two final thoughts. The Amazon.com system provides readers with a book excerpt, customer reviews and editorial reviews. If these resources were examined before a reader purchased a book, it is unlikely that the reader would be "mislead" by the title. Four word titles that are unambiguous are rare. Also, I believe the reviewer's "gifted amateur" description lacks perception. Becoming expert in any subject today doesn't permit the luxury of keeping up with everyone else's specialty. Anyone who can authoritatively integrate a dozen complex and technical subjects into a readable and meaningful explanation of how humanity works would be an expert in one or two subjects at most and necessarily an "amateur" in all the rest.

Publishing a scientific analysis of how belief systems are formed in a country where 78% of the population believes in miracles makes the plight of spawning salmon look easy. Religion motivated terrorism here and abroad must be understood if we are to overcome it. This understanding requires an objective look at the science and history behind how belief systems are formed. "The Biology of Belief" brings together an understanding of biological, cultural and historical influences in a frank analysis of how this process works. As part of his analysis, the author takes a critical look at the reasons for the errors and accomplishments of religious and other belief systems. Although it is expected that some reviewers will not like what was written or how it was written, it would be refreshing if those reviewers refrain from shooting the messenger and focus on the message.

In 2003, "The Biology of Belief" was either a text or reference in the following courses:

Boston University School of Theology Religious Experience, Cognitive Neuroscience Research seminar for doctoral candidates

Breyer State University, Idaho Clinical Hypnotherapy Perception: Biology, Beliefs, and Biases

Eastern Michigan University Department of History & Philosophy Course: History 100

International University Bremen, Germany School of Engineering and Science From Cell to Community: Understanding Animal and Human Societies Course: 020005-A

Mary Washington College, Virginia Philosophy Department Readings in Philosophy Course: 481

Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada Department of Religious Studies The Interpretation of Religion Course: RELS-353/853

Umeå University, Sweden Department of Religious Studies Neurology, Cognitive Psychology and Religion Course: RELC71


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 389 pages
  • Publisher: Rosetta Press, Inc. (January 29, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0970813716
  • ISBN-13: 978-0970813718
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,167,033 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Throughout this book, Mr. Giovannoli has tried to stay close to the science while giving the reader an intuitive understatnding, often through analogy and metaphor of how scientists and philosophers have reached the current perception of beliefs. Even though he avoids burdensome technical language and equations, because of the radically new concepts invloved, the reader may need to pause now and then, to mull over a section here or ponder an explanation there, in order to follow the progression of ideas fully.
Despite an acceptable "Western" perspective, "The Biology of Belief" does more than just augment the fragments of understanding we have about our belief system..It arranges biological and historical benchmarks into a sometimes thrilling intellectual jaunt that belies Mr. Giovannoli's belief that the whole is much greater than the sum of it's parts. A common evolutionary thread pierces the book and illustrates our dependence on our reptilian ancestors brain functions, and ties it to the world's current dealings with zealots and fundalmentalism. A quantum leap, presented with conviction and compassion.
Never in my years of associated reading, have I been so anxious to read a book for the third time.
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By A Customer on January 29, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The author is a gifted amateur who raises a wide range of ideas, but has difficulty in tying them all together in a coherent thesis. The central concept is a variation of Richard Dawkin's idea of the meme, and how our core beliefs are passed from generation to generation without much critical thought.
There is not very much biology in this book, so I found the title rather misleading. Giovannoli does not lay a rigorous scientific foundation for his hypothesis, and he leaves the reader with many questions concerning the basis for his assertions.
That said, the book is often very entertaining with many tidbits of information from a wide range of disciplines. Anyone looking for a serious treatment of cognitive science and what it says about human capacity for belief is likely to be disappointed, as I was. If you are looking for a very personal discussion of mythology vs. science, you are likely to find this book most enjoyable.
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Format: Paperback
There are very few books that can truly alter the way one views the world. The Biology of Belief is one of those very few. The author's comment, that the original motivation of the book was to see "why rational minds are capable of believing in myth" and "its capacity to alter our view of reality", took me on my own "journey". An understanding of the extent of brainwashing that exists in our culture was very enlightening. In fact, I can only describe my experience in the following manner: in borrowing the phase "I once was blind but now I see.." I think the book should be require reading at EVERY liberal arts university. The tough part would be supplying the professors to teach it!
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Format: Paperback
This book was recommended by a friend, but after reading a review that described the author as a "gifted amateur" I must admit I had reservations. However, on reading the book I found that it explained the process of belief formation through an extraordinary synthesis of diverse knowledge disciplines. The author, apparently a generalist with encyclopedic comprehension, described how the human brain evolved and the significance of that evolution on the biological and social influences affecting how we form beliefs. I found the description of the evolution of life on earth, and specifically the events that directly influenced brain evolution to be enlightening. The book's use of historical examples of belief evolution and manipulation caused me to think twice about what I had been taught to believe. The current science-religion debates were given a neuro-historical perspective through a description of the parallel histories of both ways of thinking, beginning with Plato and Aristotle. The book posits that the brain's emotional limbic structures might account for the thinking of Plato and subsequent religious thinkers, while the frontal portion of the brain's neocortex might explain Aristotle's reasoned, more scientific approach to the world. In this regard, the book painfully reminded me of the injustices experienced by scientists and others in the name of religion. The rise of religious fundamentalism in our time might explain the author's concern about the possible negative influences of mythological belief systems on the future of humanity.
I have a special interest in the ongoing debate over Richard Dawkins' meme theory.
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