This ambitious, interdisciplinary book seeks to explain the origins of religion using our knowledge of the evolution of cognition. A cognitive anthropologist and psychologist, Scott Atran argues that religion is a by-product of human evolution just as the cognitive intervention, cultural selection, and historical survival of religion is an accommodation of certain existential and moral elements that have evolved in the human condition.
Religion is not an evolutionary adaptation per se, but a recurring cultural by-product of the complex evolutionary landscape that sets cognitive, emotional, and material conditions for ordinary human interactions. Religion exploits only ordinary cognitive processes to passionately display costly devotion to counterintuitive worlds governed by supernatural agents. The conceptual foundations of religion are intuitively given by task-specific panhuman cognitive domains, including folkmechanics, folkbiology, and folkpsychology. Core religious beliefs minimally violate ordinary notions about how the world is, with all of its (...) inescapable problems, thus enabling people to imagine minimally impossible supernatural worlds that solve existential problems, including death and deception. Here the focus is on folkpsychology and agency. A key feature of the supernatural agent concepts common to all religions is the triggering of an “Innate Releasing Mechanism,” or “agency detector,” whose proper (naturally selected) domain encompasses animate objects relevant to hominid survival – such as predators, protectors, and prey – but which actually extends to moving dots on computer screens, voices in wind, and faces on clouds. Folkpsychology also crucially involves metarepresentation, which makes deception possible and threatens any social order. However, these same metacognitive capacities provide the hope and promise of open-ended solutions through representations of counterfactual supernatural worlds that cannot be logically or empirically verified or falsified. Because religious beliefs cannot be deductively or inductively validated, validation occurs only by ritually addressing the very emotions motivating religion. Cross-cultural experimental evidence encourages these claims. Key Words: agency; death anxiety; evolution; folkpsychology; Maya; memory; metarepresentation; morality; religion; supernatural. (shrink)
This essay in the is about how cognition constrains culture in producing science. The example is folk biology, whose cultural recurrence issues from the very same domain-specific cognitive universals that provide the historical backbone of systematic biology. Humans everywhere think about plants and animals in highly structured ways. People have similar folk-biological taxonomies composed of essence-based, species-like groups and the ranking of species into lower- and higher-order groups. Such taxonomies are not as arbitrary in structure and content, nor as variable (...) across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials, or social groups. These structures are routine products of our which may in part be naturally selected to grasp relevant and recurrent An experiment illustrates that the same taxonomic rank is preferred for making biological inferences in two diverse populations: Lowland Maya and Midwest Americans. These findings cannot be explained by domain-general models of similarity because such models cannot account for why both cultures prefer species-like groups, although Americans have relatively little actual knowledge or experience at this level. This supports a modular view of folk biology as a core domain of human knowledge and as a special player, or in the selection processes by which cultures evolve. Structural aspects of folk taxonomy provide people in different cultures with the built-in constraints and flexibility that allow them to understand and respond appropriately to different cultural and ecological settings. Another set of reasoning experiments shows that Maya, American folk, and scientists use similarly structured taxonomies in somewhat different ways to extend their understanding of the world in the face of uncertainty. Although folk and scientific taxonomies diverge historically, they continue to interact. The theory of evolution may ultimately dispense with the core concepts of folk biology, including species, taxonomy, and teleology; in practice, however, these may remain indispensable to doing scientific work. Moreover, theory-driven scientific knowledge cannot simply replace folk knowledge in everyday life. Folk-biological knowledge is not driven by implicit or inchoate theories of the sort science aims to make more accurate and perfect. (shrink)
Understanding religion requires explaining why supernatural beliefs, devotions, and rituals are both universal and variable across cultures, and why religion is so often associated with both large-scale cooperation and enduring group conflict. Emerging lines of research suggest that these oppositions result from the convergence of three processes. First, the interaction of certain reliably developing cognitive processes, such as our ability to infer the presence of intentional agents, favors—as an evolutionary by-product—the spread of certain kinds of counterintuitive concepts. Second, participation in (...) rituals and devotions involving costly displays exploits various aspects of our evolved psychology to deepen people's commitment to both supernatural agents and religious communities. Third, competition among societies and organizations with different faith-based beliefs and practices has increasingly connected religion with both within-group prosociality and between-group enmity. This connection has strengthened dramatically in recent millennia, as part of the evolution of complex societies, and is important to understanding cooperation and conflict in today's world. (shrink)
Many psychological studies of categorization and reasoning use undergraduates to make claims about human conceptualization. Generalizability of findings to other populations is often assumed but rarely tested. Even when comparative studies are conducted, it may be challenging to interpret differences. As a partial remedy, in the present studies we adopt a 'triangulation strategy' to evaluate the ways expertise and culturally different belief systems can lead to different ways of conceptualizing the biological world. We use three groups (US bird experts, US (...) undergraduates, and ordinary Itza' Maya) and two sets of birds (North American and Central American). Categorization tasks show considerable similarity among the three groups' taxonomic sorts, but also systematic differences. Notably, US expert categorization is more similar to Itza' than to US novice categorization. The differences are magnified on inductive reasoning tasks where only undergraduates show patterns of judgment that are largely consistent with current models of category-based taxonomic inference. The Maya commonly employ causal and ecological reasoning rather than taxonomic reasoning. Experts use a mixture of strategies (including causal and ecological reasoning), only some of which current models explain. US and Itza' informants differed markedly when reasoning about passerines (songbirds), reflecting the somewhat different role that songbirds play in the two cultures. The results call into question the importance of similarity-based notions of typicality and central tendency in natural categorization and reasoning. These findings also show that relative expertise leads to a convergence of thought that transcends cultural boundaries and shared experiences. (shrink)
Memes are hypothetical cultural units passed on by imitation; although nonbiological, they undergo Darwinian selection like genes. Cognitive study of multimodular human minds undermines memetics: unlike in genetic replication, high-fidelity transmission of cultural information is the exception, not the rule. Constant, rapid 'mutation' of information during communication generates endlessly varied creations that nevertheless adhere to modular input conditions. The sort of cultural information most susceptible to modular processing is that most readily acquired by children, most easily transmitted across individuals, most (...) apt to survive within a culture, most likely to recur in different cultures, and most disposed to cultural variation and elaboration. (shrink)
Strong adaptationists explore complex organic design as taskspecific adaptations to ancestral environments. This strategy seems best when there is evidence of homology. Weak adaptationists don't assume that complex organic (including cognitive and linguistic) functioning necessarily or primarily represents taskspecific adaptation. This approach to cognition resembles physicists' attempts to deductively explain the most facts with fewest hypotheses. For certain domainspecific competencies (folkbiology) strong adaptationism is useful but not necessary to research. With grouplevel belief systems (religion) strong adaptationism degenerates into spurious notions (...) of social function and cultural selection. In other cases (language, especially universal grammar) weak adaptationism's 'minimalist' approach seems productive. (shrink)
. This paper describes a cross-cultural and developmental research project on naïve or folk biology, that is, the study of how people conceptualize nature. The combination of domain specificity and cross-cultural comparison brings a new perspective to theories of categorization and reasoning and undermines the tendency to focus on “standard populations.” From the standpoint of mainstream cognitive psychology, we find that results gathered from standard populations in industrialized societies often fail to generalize to humanity at large. For example, similarity-driven typicality (...) and diversity effects and basic level phenomena either are not found or pattern differently when we move beyond undergraduates. From the perspective of domain-specificity, standard populations may yield misleading results, because such populations represent examples of especially impoverished experience with respect to nature. Conceptions of humans as biological kinds vary with cultural milieu and input conditions. We also show certain phenomena that are robust across populations, consistent with notions of domain-specificity. (shrink)
What follows is a discussion of three sets of experimental results that deal with various aspects of universal biological understanding among American and Maya children and adults. The first set of experiments shows that by the age of four-to-five years urban American and Yukatek Maya children employ a concept of innate species potential, or underlying essence, as an inferential framework for understanding the affiliation of an organism to a biological species, and for projecting known and unknown biological properties to organisms (...) in the face of uncertainty. The second set of experiments shows that the youngest Maya children do not have an anthropocentric understanding of the biological world. Children do not initially need to reason about non-human living kinds by analogy to human kinds. The third set of results show that the same taxonomic rank is cognitively preferred for biological induction in two diverse populations: people raised in the Mid-western USA and Itza' Maya of the Lowland Meso-american rainforest. This is the generic species the level of oak and robin. These findings cannot be explained by domain-general models of similarity because such models cannot account for why both cultures prefer species-like groups in making inferences about the biological world, although Americans have relatively little actual knowledge or experience at this level. The implication from these experiments is that folk biology may well represent an evolutionary design: universal taxonomic structures, centred on essence-based generic species, are arguably routine products of our ‘habits of mind,' which may be in part naturally selected to grasp relevant and recurrent ‘habits of the world.' The science of biology is built upon these domain-specific cognitive universals: folk biology sets initial cognitive constraints on the development of any possible macro-biological theory, including the initial development of evolutionary theory. Nevertheless, the conditions of relevance under which science operates diverge from those pertinent to folk biology. For natural science, the motivating idea is to understand nature as it is ‘in itself,' independently of the human observer. From this standpoint, the species-concept, like taxonomy and teleology, may arguably be allowed to survive in science as a regulative principle that enables the mind to readily establish stable contact with the surrounding environment, rather than as an epistemic concept that guides the search for truth. (shrink)
Sacred values differ from material or instrumental values in that they incorporate moral beliefs that drive action in ways dissociated from prospects for success. Across the world, people believe that devotion to essential or core values – such as the welfare of their family and country, or their commitment to religion, honor, and justice – are, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable. Counterintuitively, understanding an opponent's sacred values, we believe, offers surprising opportunities for breakthroughs to peace. Because of the (...) emotional unwillingness of those in conflict situations to negotiate sacred values, conventional wisdom suggests that negotiators should either leave sacred values for last in political negotiations or try to bypass them with sufficient material incentives. Our empirical findings and historical analysis suggest that conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, offering to provide material benefits in exchange for giving up a sacred value actually makes settlement more difficult because people see the offering as an insult rather than a compromise. But we also found that making symbolic concessions of no apparent material benefit might open the way to resolving seemingly irresolvable conflicts. We offer suggestions for how negotiators can reframe their position by demonstrating respect, and/or by apologizing for what they sincerely regret. We also offer suggestions for how to overcome sacred barriers by refining sacred values to exclude outmoded claims, exploiting the inevitable ambiguity of sacred values, shifting the context, provisionally prioritizing values, and reframing responsibility. (shrink)
People usually fail the Wason selection task, choosing P and Q cases, when attempting to validate descriptive rules having the form “If P, then Q.” Yet they solve it, selecting P and not-Q cases, when validating deontic rules of the form “If P, then must Q.” The field of evolutionary psychology has overwhelmingly interpreted deontic versions of the selection task in terms of a naturally-selected, domain-specific social-contract or cheating algorithm. This work has done much to promote evolutionary psychology as an (...) alternative to a mindblind sociobiology that ignores the computational structure of cognitive mechanisms in producing people's behaviors. Nevertheless, evolution-minded researchers outside cognitive psychology know little of the ample literature challenging this interpretation and uncritically cite the “cheater-detection module” as a key insight into human cognition. Although a priori arguments for a specially evolved cheater-detection module are plausible, the selection task provides no direct evidence for such a module. (shrink)
The target article contains a number of distinct but interrelated claims about the cognitive nature of folk biology based in part on cross-cultural work with urbanized Americans and forest-dwelling Maya Indians. Folk biology consists universally of a ranked taxonomy centered on essence-based generic species. This taxonomy is domain-specific, perhaps an innately determined evolutionary adaptation. Folk biology also plays a special role in cultural evolution in general, and in the development of Western biological science in particular. Even in our culture, however, (...) it retains an autonomy from other domains of thought and from science. These claims are questioned and clarified. (shrink)
The framework of the Israel-Palestinian Arab conflict has evolved over the last half century through an instrumentalization of violence by the parties concerned. Two alternating "structures of violence" have emerged to define this instrumentality: the one Israeli, the other Palestinian. I call these structures of violence "alternating" rather than merely "reciprocating" because the one not only feeds off the other and actually practices on the other that which is merely fancied and projected as the other's intention but also because they (...) have inverse periodicities: The "Great Revolt" of 1936-1939 introduced the principle of "armed struggle" into the practice and lore of a fractured and often factional antiBritish and anti-Zionist insurgency. It was effectively countered by British might coupled with an essentially defensive Jewish posture of consensus and "restraint". By contrast the current Palestinian "Uprising" has the Arab side preaching restraint if not always nonviolence, through a pluralistic consensus on the immediate national ends such practice aims to achieve. Against this is an avowed Israeli policy of "the iron fist" that for the first time since independence has broken the general Zionist consensus with regard not only to the utility and morality of violent means but also to national goals. (shrink)
This paper describes a cross-cultural research project on the relation between how people conceptualize nature and how they act in it. Mental models of nature differ dramatically among and within populations living in the same area and engaged in more or less the same activities. This has novel implications for environmental decision making and management, including dealing with commons problems. Our research also offers a distinct perspective on models of culture, and a unified approach to the study of culture and (...) cognition. We argue that cultural transmission and formation does not consist primarily in shared rules or norms, but in complex distributions of causally-connected representations across minds in interaction with the environment. The cultural stability and diversity of these representations often derives from rich, biologically-prepared mental mechanisms that limit variation to readily transmissible psychological forms. This framework addresses a series of methodological issues, such as the limitations of conceiving culture to be a well-defined system or bounded entity, an independent variable, or an internalized component of minds. (shrink)
Strong adaptationists would explain complex organic designs as specific adaptations to particular ancestral environments. Weak adaptationists don't assume that complex organic functioning represents evolutionary design in the sense of niche-specific adaptation. For some domain-specific competencies (folkbiology) strong adaptationism is useful, not necessary. With group-level belief systems (religion), strong adaptationism can become spurious pseudo-adaptationism. In other cases (language), weak adaptationism proves productive.
We report a series of experiments carried out with Palestinian and Israeli participants showing that violent opposition to compromise over issues considered sacred is increased by offering material incentives to compromise but decreased when the adversary makes symbolic compromises over their own sacred values. These results demonstrate some of the unique properties of reasoning and decision-making over sacred values. We show that the use of material incentives to promote the peaceful resolution of political and cultural conflicts may backfire when adversaries (...) treat contested issues as sacred values. (shrink)
We investigated the influence of humiliation on inter-group conflict in three studies of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. We demonstrate that experienced humiliation produces an inertia effect; a tendency towards inaction that suppresses rebellious or violent action but which paradoxically also suppresses support for acts of inter-group compromise. In Study 1, Palestinians who felt more humiliated by the Israeli occupation were less likely to support suicide attacks against Israelis. In Study 2, priming Palestinians with a humiliating experience (...) caused fewer expressions of joy when subsequently hearing about suicide attacks. In Study 3, Palestinians who felt more humiliated by peace deals were less likely to support those deals, while Israeli symbolic compromises that decreased feelings of humiliation increased support for the same deals. While the experience of humiliation does not seem to contribute to political violence, it does seem to suppress support for conflict resolution. (shrink)
The "surrogate colonization" of Palestine had a foreign power giving to a nonnative group rights over land occupied by an indigenous people. It thus brought into play the complementary and conflicting agendas of three culturally distinguishable parties: British, Jews and Arabs. Each party had both "externalist" [those with no sustained practical experience of day to day life in Palestine] and "internalist" representatives. The surrogate idea was based on a "strategic consensus" involving each party's externalist camp: the British ruling elite, the (...) leadership of the World Zionist Organization and the Hashemite Dynasty of Arabia. The collapse of this triangular consensus, which put an end to the policy but not the process of surrogate colonization, resulted from irreconcilable antagonisms within and between the major currents of each internalist camp. A focus on the land problem in Palestine highlights contradictions in each party's internalist agenda, which forestalled a rift between the Jewish and British sides of the consensus long enough for the Zionist settlement in Palestine to acquire territory and to develop a largely self-sufficient economic, cultural, political and military infrastructure. (shrink)
This essay explores the universal cognitive bases of biological taxonomy and taxonomic inference using cross-cultural experimental work with urbanized Americans and forest-dwelling Maya Indians. A universal, essentialist appreciation of generic species appears as the causal foundation for the taxonomic arrangement of biodiversity, and for inference about the distribution of causally-related properties that underlie biodiversity. Universal folkbiological taxonomy is domain-specific: its structure does not spontaneously or invariably arise in other cognitive domains, like substances, artifacts or persons. It is plausibly an innately-determined (...) evolutionary adaptation to relevant and recurrent aspects of ancestral hominid environments, such as the need to recognize, locate, react to, and profit from many ambient species. Folkbiological concepts are special players in cultural evolution, whose native stability attaches to more variable and difficult-to-learn representational forms, thus enhancing the latter's prospects for regularity and recurrence in transmission within and across cultures. This includes knowledge that cumulatively enriches (folk expertise), overrides (religious belief) or otherwise transcends (science) the commonsense ontology prescribed by folkbiology. Finally, the studies summarized here indicate that results gathered from “standard populations” in regard to biological categorization and reasoning more often than not fail to generalize in straightforward ways to humanity at large. This suggests the need for much more serious attention to cross-cultural research on basic cognitive processes. (shrink)
A Scientific Approach The facts detailed in this briefing are the results of scientific exploration of terror networks and sacred values and their association to political violence. The research is sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation.
Sacred values are different from secular values in that they are often associated with violations of the cost-benefit logic of rational choice models. Previous work on sacred values has been largely limited to religious or territorial conflicts deeply embedded in historical contexts. In this work we find that the Iranian nuclear program, a relatively recent development, is treated as sacred by some Iranians, leading to a greater disapproval of deals which involve monetary incentives to end the program. Our results suggest (...) that depending on the prevalence of such values, incentive-focused negotiations may backfire. (shrink)
We are fixated on technology and technological success, and we have no sustained or systematic approach to field-based social understanding of our adversaries' motivation, intent, will, and the dreams that drive their strategic vision, however strange those dreams and vision may seem to us.
There have been many criticisms of “nativism” in “Cartesian linguistics,” attacking positions that neither Chomsky nor any well-known generative grammarian has ever thought to defend. Shanker's polemic is no exception. It involves two spurious claims: Cartesian linguistics vitiates understanding language structure and use; nativism permits linguistic anthropology only to “validate” and “apply” generative principles. Briefly, Chomsky's outlines a language system, LS, of the human brain. LS reflexively discriminates and categorizes parts of the flux of human experience as “language,” and develops (...) complex abilities to infer and interpret this highly structured, and structurally peculiar, type of human production. There is nothing intrinsically different about LS – concerning innateness, evolution or universality – than the visual system, immune system, respiratory system, or any other complex biological system. Much polemic is driven by distaste for “innateness,” “genes,” and “evolution.” Historical and ideological reasons explain this aversion - some well-justified. None bear on universal grammar. Biologists believe all life consists of universal, highly structured codings of biological information. Still, biologists go on to explore diversity at many different levels. Similarly, linguistic anthropology can use generative grammar to better comprehend the diversity of languages and the cultural worlds they describe. This includes the very issues about proper names that Shanker highlights. (shrink)
AS diplomats stitch together a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, the most depressing feature of the conflict is the sense that future fighting is inevitable. Rational calculation suggests that neither side can win these wars. The thousands of lives and billions of dollars sacrificed in fighting demonstrate the advantages of peace and coexistence; yet still both sides opt to fight. This small territory is the world's great symbolic knot. “Palestine is the mother of all problems” is a common refrain among (...) people we have interviewed across the Muslim world: from Middle Eastern leaders to fighters in the remote island jungles of Indonesia; from Islamist senators in Pakistan to volunteers for martyrdom on the move from Morocco to Iraq. Some analysts see this as a testament to the essentially religious nature of the conflict. But research we recently undertook suggests a way to go beyond that. For there is a moral logic to seemingly intractable religious and cultural disputes. These conflicts cannot be reduced to secular calculations of interest but must be dealt with on their own terms, a logic very different from the marketplace or realpolitik. (shrink)
The evolutionary landscape that canalizes human thought and behavior into religious beliefs and practices includes naturally selected emotions, cognitive modules, and constraints on social interactions. Evolutionary by-products, including metacognitive awareness of death and possibilities for deception, further channel people into religious paths. Religion represents a community's costly commitment to a counterintuitive world of supernatural agents who manage people's existential anxieties. Religious devotion, though not an adaptation, informs all cultures and most people.
Religion is not an evolutionary adaptation per se, but a recurring by-product of the complex evolutionary landscape that sets cognitive, emotional and material conditions for ordinary human interactions. Religion involves extraordinary use of ordinary cognitive processes to passionately display costly devotion to counterintuitive worlds governed by supernatural agents. The conceptual foundations of religion are intuitively given by task-specific panhuman cognitive domains, including folkmechanics, folkbiology, folkpsychology. Core religious beliefs minimally violate ordinary notions about how the world is, with all of its (...) inescapable problems, thus enabling people to imagine minimally impossible supernatural worlds that solve existential problems, including death and deception. Here the focus is on folkpsychology and agency. A key feature of the supernatural agent concepts common to all religions is the triggering of an "Innate Releasing Mechanism," or “agency detector,” whose proper domain encompasses animate objects relevant to hominid survival - such as predators, protectors and prey - but which actually extends to moving dots on computer screens, voices in wind, faces on clouds. Folkpsychology also crucially involves metarepresentation, which makes deception possible and threatens any social order; however, these same metacognitive capacities provide the hope and promise of open-ended solutions through representations of counterfactual supernatural worlds that cannot be logically or empirically verified or falsified. Because religious beliefs cannot be deductively or inductively validated, validation occurs only by ritually addressing the very emotions motivating religion. Cross-cultural experimental evidence encourages these claims. (shrink)
Those who assume domain specificity or conceptual modularity face Fodor’ Paradox (the problem of “combinatorial explosion”). One strategy involves postulating a metamodule that evolved to take as input the output of all other specialized conceptual modules, then integrates these outputs into cross-domain thoughts. It’ difficult to see whether this proposed metamodular capacity stems from language or theory of mind.
This essay in the "anthropology of science" is about how cognition constrains culture in producing science. The example is folk biology, whose cultural recurrence issues from the very same domain-specific cognitive universals that provide the historical backbone of systematic biology. Humans everywhere think about plants and animals in highly structured ways. People have similar folk-biological taxonomies composed of essence-based species-like groups and the ranking of species into lower- and higher-order groups. Such taxonomies are not as arbitrary in structure and content, (...) nor as variable across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials or social groups. (shrink)
Contemporary suicide terrorists from the Middle East are publicly deemed crazed cowards bent on senseless destruction who thrive in poverty and ignorance. Recent research indicates they have no appreciable psychopathology and are as educated and economically well-off as surrounding populations. A first line of defense is to get the communities from which suicide attackers stem to stop the attacks by learning how to minimize the receptivity of mostly ordinary people to recruiting organizations.
The great British biologist J.B.S Haldane counted monotheism's creation of fanaticism as one of the most important inventions of the last 5,000 years. Call it love of God or love of group, it matters little in the end. Modern civilizations spin the potter's wheel of monotheism to manufacture the greatest cause of all, humanity. Before missionary monotheism, people did not consider that all others could be pigeonholed into one kind. The salvation of humanity is a cause as stimulating as it (...) is impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, all modern missionary "-isms," whether religious or in their secular post-Enlightenment guise, preach devotion unto death for the sake of humanity, including allowance for mass killing for the mass good. "The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology," wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. Especially for young men, mortal combat in a great cause provides the ultimate adventure and glory to gain maximum esteem in the eyes of many and, most dearly, in the hearts of their peers. By identifying their devotion with the greater defense and salvation of humanity, they commit themselves to a path that allows massive killing for what they think is a massive good.... (shrink)
In standard models of decision making, participation in violent political action is understood as the product of instrumentally rational reasoning. According to this line of thinking, instrumentally rational individuals will participate in violent political action only if there are selective incentives that are limited to participants. We argue in favor of an alternate model of political violence where participants are motivated by moral commitments to collective sacred values. Correlative and experimental empirical evidence in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict strongly (...) supports this alternate view. (shrink)
Humankind faces a wide range of threats to its security and safety, from terrorist groups and cybercriminals to disease pandemics and climate change. All these threats share one characteristic: they are constantly changing. Decision-makers can never be sure whether the next tropical storm will be as violent as the last, or whether Taliban insurgents will use a roadside improvised explosive device or a suicide bomber for their next attack. Therefore, many of our security systems — those that are resistant to (...) change, or that try to eliminate all risk — are doomed. Firewalls have failed to protect computers from hackers for 40 years; screening airline passengers for liquids didn't prevent Umar Abdulmutallab from taking a powdered incendiary onto a plane; and so cumbersome is the military procurement cycle that heavy armoured vehicles designed to repel improvised explosive attacks were deployed in Iraq a full three years after soldiers had identified the need. (shrink)
The past three years saw more suicide attacks than the last quarter century. Most of these were religiously motivated. While most Westerners have imagined a tightly coordinated transnational terrorist organization headed by Al Qaeda, it seems more likely that nations under attack face a set of largely autonomous groups and cells pursuing their own regional aims. Repeated suicide actions show that massive counterforce alone does not diminish the frequency or intensity of suicide attack. Like pounding mercury with a hammer, this (...) sort of top-heavy counterstrategy only seems to generate more dispersed and insidious forms of suicide terrorism. Even with many top Qaeda leaders now dead or in custody, the transnational Jihadist fraternity is transforming into a hydra-headed network more difficult to fight than before. Poverty and lack of education per se are not root causes of suicide terrorism. And Muslims who have expressed support for martyr actions and trust in Osama Bin Laden or the late Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin do not as a rule hate democratic freedoms or Western culture, although many despise American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Rising aspirations followed by dwindling expectations – especially regarding civil liberties – are critical factors in generating support for suicide terrorism. The United States, Israel, Russia and other nations on the frontline in the war on terror need to realize that military and counterinsurgency actions are tactical, not strategic responses to suicide terrorism, the most politically destabilizing and psychologically devastating form of terrorism. When these nations back oppressive and unpopular governments this only generates popular resentment and support for terrorism against those governments and their backers. To attract potential recruits away from Jihadist martyrdom – suicide terrorism's most virulent strain - and to dry up its popular support, requires addressing these grievances before a downward spiral sets in where core meaning in life is sought, and found, in religious networks that sanctify vengeance at any cost against stronger powers, even if it kills the avenger. (shrink)
Anthropological inquiry suggests that all societies classify animals and plants in similar ways. Paradoxically, in the same cultures that have seen large advances in biological science, citizenry's practical knowledge of nature has dramatically diminished. Here we describe historical, cross-cultural and developmental research on how people ordinarily conceptualize organic nature, concentrating on cognitive consequences associated with knowledge devolution. We show that results on psychological studies of categorization and reasoning from “standard populations” fail to generalize to humanity at large. Usual populations have (...) impoverished experience with nature, which yields misleading results about knowledge acquisition and the ontogenetic relationship between folkbiology and folkpsychology. We also show that groups living in the same habitat can manifest strikingly distinct behaviors, cognitions and social relations relative to it. This has novel implications for environmental decision making and management, including commons problems. (shrink)
Strong adaptationists explore complex organic design as task-specific adaptations to ancestral environments. Its strategy seems best when there is evidence of homology. Weak adaptationists don't assume that complex organic functioning necessarily or primarily represents task-specific adaptation. Its approach to cognition resembles physicists' attempts to deductively explain the most facts with fewest hypotheses. For certain domain-specific competencies strong adaptationism is useful but not necessary to research. With group-level belief systems strong adaptationism degenerates into spurious notions of social function and cultural selection. (...) In other cases weak adaptationism's “minimalist” approach seems productive. (shrink)