Saturday, May 23, 2009

Are Perceptions of Patterns and Intentionality Inherited

Michael Shermer has an article in the current issue of Scientific American suggesting that we have evolved both to see patterns and to perceive the patterns that we see as intentional. I think he must be right that the perception of patterns is a survival trait. Our ancestors had to learn where to find food and how to avoid predators and those skills involve pattern recognition. Where they concluded that it was dangerous to have one's path crossed by a black cat or that knocking on wood could protect from bad luck, the costs were small.

More interesting is his suggestion that people evolved to attribute intentionality to a perceived pattern. Of course, if one is avoiding being eaten by a predator is it probably useful to assume that the predator is actively seeking a meal. However, our ancestors tended to believe that if one was sickening, it must be because some thing or some one willed one to get sick.

I have often thought that the development of a body of understanding of processes that could produce order without intentionality was not only one of the great advances of science, but a major cultural advance. We can see how markets can set clearing prices, how evolution can produce a web of complex species, and indeed how organizations can behave in ways none of their members fully understand. If Shermer is right, substituting intellectual for instinctive understanding is even more impressive than I had thought.

No comments: