A universal quality among animal species is the readiness to apply causality to events that happen around them. This is an extremely valuable technique to avoid becoming lunch. Or more broadly, it’s a technique to make sense of events in the natural world:

The long grass wobbles. "Oh look. Roger has been bitten by the snake which sprung from the long grass". 30 minutes elapse. "Oh look. Roger is dead".

We’ll call this event and attribution.

For what reason?

It is wise for the wary homosapian to assume that the snake’s bite caused Roger’s death. It’s clear from this observation that snake bites are best avoided and that the wobbling long grass should be taken as an early warning sign of danger. Thus wobbling grass means you better watch it.

This strategy can be applied to any physical event in the natural world. Attribution is a mechanism which helps to ensure future survival in comparable circumstances, by applying causality to observations. In the harshness of the natural world, survival demands that risky decisions are minimised, since the aim of the game is not to die. Attribution is a life or death compunction.

Following the initial observation, this leads us to the most salient point:

On the balance of probabilities, it is now beneficial to both correctly and incorrectly attribute all long, wobbling grass to a snake, than to risk death.

The risk is too great, to ignore the previous lesson in grass-wobble-snake-phenomena.

Psychologically and practically, it is important for us to be able to attribute events to being caused by something. Attribution is a foundational feature of survival:

  1. Event happens
  2. Our self-preservation switch flips to the 'on' position
  3. We are compelled to ascribe attribution
  4. Attribution for the event is remembered for next time

This eagerness to fill gaps in our understanding is an evolutionary mechanism for self preservation. It’s an emotionally powerful longing in our psychology.

Attribution becomes difficult to change once embedded. After all, taking our story of Roger and the snake, you’d have to risk death to prove that there isn’t a snake wobbling the long grass. Our primate brains long to assure individual survival. We desire to attribute events to some origin or source. This is why we insist on needing reasons for everything that happens in the world. The reason why (read: evolutionary purpose) is to navigate the world safely and to prolong our lives.

It is this deeply imbedded insistence for attribution which gives rise to twaddle about cabals of deities, monotheistic gods, supernatural meddlers and capricious spirits. We’re chimps with unimaginable intellects. With these intellects comes imaginative ways to explain the immediately unexplainable and to fill the gaps of attribution we long to fill. Homosapiens’ have a wonderful knack for storytelling, inventiveness and mental gymnastics which allow us to dream up wild and wonderful ideas.

Then and now

It is important to remember that every feature and every nuance of the human brain is assembled from our biological past. Our cravings, our longings and our desires are each underpinned by an evolutionary mandate for survival.

The modern world is vast, globalised and immeasurably interconnected. We are a long way from the simple causality of our past - but the biological longing to confirm causality remains unchanged.

In a sort of cruel bind, it is inevitable that the same fluidity of human imagination that makes us unique, also leads us to a place where incorrect attribution is extended into the esoteric. Remember at a basic level - on the balance of probability and from the perspective of our primate brains - it’s better to be wrong and safe than to understand an event more thoroughly.

Oh, I walked under that ladder! is an easier attribution for the arm you broke yesterday, than rationalising why you didn’t look both ways when crossing the road. “God has plan for us all” or “The rune stones weren’t shining on the equinox” are quick and easy ways to explain why something so abstract happened. Your deep longing for attribution is satisfied and your primate brain which is craving ‘attribution for survival’ is placated.

All mammalian behaviours have emerged from evolutionary demands. It’s unsurprising that we are yet to acknowledge that our worldviews are mostly shaped by our position as primates rattling around an ecosystem alone, in space. “Why did I loose £20 on that bet?” “Why didn’t my field of wheat grow?”, “Why did Sandra leave me for Roger… surely not for his snake handling proficiency”.

We are not chimps

An important caveat to head off any neo-Darwinian jibberish is to remind ourselves that we are not slaves to our baser primate ancestry. We have the unique ability to choose to reason about the world in ways that appear contradictory to what our evolutionary instincts would insist. This is why we aren’t animals of the usual ilk and we are not beholden to the viciousness of the natural world. It’s not dog-eat-dog and yes, socialism in principal is probably the more equitable way to run society. Even bats have worked this one out.

The trick is balancing how evolution has taught us to survive and how our unique brains permit us to challenge these embedded lessons to construct a more reasonable world.

Be wary of your instinctive machinery filling the gaps of attribution with contemporary nonsense. Be mindful of the long grass.

Written by Thomas

22th June 2020