by Gene Callahan
“This [is] an objection to evolutionary epistemology in all of its forms—that there is no reason whatever for supposing that the web of belief which has emerged via natural and cultural evolution mirrors nature or tracks reality. It will do so, according to evolutionary theory itself, only in so far as such mirroring or tracking enhances survival chances. There is, in fact, nothing a priori to tell against the possibility that false belief systems may sometimes give their holders a competitive edge in survival stakes, if unreasonable optimism, or false religious or other hopes are useful in sustaining them in adversity.” – John Gray, Liberalisms, 248.
It seems to me that Gray’s point is indisputable: the mere fact that, say, our brains or our scientific enterprises evolved as “spontaneous orders” gives them, contra Hayek, no warrant of epistemological reliability whatsoever. (Gray, in fact, specifically notes Hayek as someone committing the error he is criticizing.) In any case, while thinking about Gray’s passage above, I was struck by an amusing illustration of the principle in question, which I thought I’d share.
Ever since Evans-Pritchard’s famous work Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande demonstrated that the magical belief system of the Azande was internally consistent, it generally has been held forth as an example of the way in which people are able to tenaciously hold to incorrect beliefs, like the Azande’s belief in sorcery. But I would like to put forward an alternative hypothesis that, I suggest, is every bit as compatible with evolutionary epistemology as the common hypothesis—in fact, it explains just why the common hypothesis is common, and why the Azande are stunned at our inability to see the obvious evidence for sorcery.
In my hypothesis, the Azande are absolutely correct — sorcery exists, and is extremely efficacious… for the individual. It truly allows individuals to punish enemies, gain wealth, woo sexual partners, and so on. But, for society as a whole, the unbridled practice of sorcery is extremely destructive. Instead of (mainly) entering into a system of social cooperation based on the division of labor, everyone in a sorcerous society is constantly scheming how to protect themselves against others’ spells and ensure that their own spells remain unblocked and undetected. In a society without sorcery, it is often simple to identify “rights violators” and punish them, but in the Azande’s society, just who done you wrong is veiled in magic.
By a stroke of evolutionary luck, Europeans developed a gene that made them incapable of believing in sorcery (except under very special circumstances described below). As a result, they were able to stop worrying about magic spells and start producing and trading goods like food and clothing much more successfully. (Hmm, is it any coincidence that persecutions for witchcraft, almost unknown in the Middle Ages, suddenly took off with the Renaissance, and continued to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution? Maybe this purged Western Europe of those who lacked the new gene? But, you protest, this persecution relied on a belief in witchcraft! Ah, that’s easy—it was a transitional period, with the new behavior only incompletely in effect.)
But Europeans had not lost the ability to do sorcery, and, in fact, one form of sorcery has been a key to their success in spreading their way of life across the globe: they continued to believe in and be able to perceive the results of sorcery when the sorcery took a very public form and there was a strong consensus that it would work. They called such sorcery “science and technology.” By limiting themselves to only this type of sorcery, Europeans were able to reduce the socially destructive effects of sorcery largely to a minimum. (In day-to-day life: when an entire society wants to perform destructive sorcery on an entire other society, we get, of course, things like the Holocaust and nuclear weapons.)
Given the social success of this new inability to conceive of the reality of sorcery, it rapidly spread through many other societies. (How? We can think of countless ways: Perhaps genes can spread through sorcery of a sort! Of course, per the above theory, our geneticists would be unable to conceive of this.)
In this view, our belief in the illusory nature of sorcery has not spread because it is true. It is most definitely false, but that is the very secret of its success—in this case, perceiving the truth is highly anti-survival. That we can’t see the overwhelming evidence of the efficacy of sorcery present to the Azande is precisely our advantage. And, of course, to us, as heirs of the Scientific Revolution, the “sorcery-is-real-but-destructive” hypothesis seems quite outlandish and implausible. Which, of course, is just how the hypothesis itself claims we will react to it—if we found it plausible, that would be good evidence that it is false!
And other than citing the implausibility of and lack of evidence for the above theory—both of which are predicted by the theory!—I don’t see how any evolutionary epistemology can dismiss it.