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Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The evolutionary origins of belief

02 November 2006


Faber & Faber 14.99 (0-571-20920-3); Church Times Bookshop 13.50

It is having beliefs that makes us human: Adam Ford considers thorigins of religious faith in socie

IT WOULD seem to be the ultimate unassailable freedom - to decide foourselves what to believe: an internal matter, private and personalparticularly when it comes to our religious faith.

But are we deluded? Do we really choose the beliefs we hold, or do thechoose us, so that we catch them like an infection from others? After allbeliefs have a way of taking hold of us, and are very hard to give up. And whahidden part do our genes have to play in all this?

Lewis Carroll's White Queen claimed that when she was young she was able tbelieve "as many as six impossible things before breakfast". Professor Wolpertakes his title from this entertaining thought, and explores the origins obelief in society. His views are highly readable, open-minded, and verthought-provoking. Religious believers will find them challenging, but noabrasively so.

Wolpert does not ally himself with Thomas Hobbes, who dismissed all religioas "credulity", "ignorance", and "lies"; nor does he brand those who believe iGod as "scientifically illiterate", as does Richard Dawkins. Though he himselis an atheist, he can write that "while we may be hostile to the beliefs oothers, we need always to remember that it is having beliefs that makes uhuman."  He acknowledges warmly the fact that a member of his family habenefited from religious beliefs.

As a biologist and a well-known name in the field of the publiunderstanding of science, Wolpert writes with authority. His thesis, usinevolutionary biology to explore human evolution, is that human survival waguided by a "belief engine" that impels us to ask questions about the way thworld is, how it came to be, and how we may manipulate it in our own interests"Causal beliefs" help us to understand the world, and survive.

Our preoccupation with causal beliefs he traces back to the evolution of thskills needed for tool-making, which came to distinguish us from other animalsThis "belief engine", encoded in our genes, then generated our various beliesystems, from the crudest superstitions to the highest reli-gions. It helpemankind find meaning and value in the difficulties of daily life.

For the believer, this should con-tain no threat. Evolution has simplhelped us develop a true way to think about life - another of the emergensurprises in this almost unbelievably marvellous univers
The Revd Adam Ford is a former chaplain of St Paul's School for Girlin London.

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