Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast : The Evolutionary Origins of Belief, Paperback Book

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast : The Evolutionary Origins of Belief Paperback

3.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


Why does every society around the world have a religious tradition of some sort?

Professor Lewis Wolpert investigates the nature of belief and its causes.

He looks at belief's psychological basis and its possible evolutionary origins in physical cause and effect.

Wolpert explores the different types of belief - including that of animals, of children, of the religious, and of those suffering from psychiatric disorders. And, he asks whether it is possible to live without belief at all, or whether it is a necessary component of a functioning society.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Popular psychology
  • ISBN: 9780571231683

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Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert is an attempt to explain where and why belief – and particularly religious belief – arose from in humans. Wolpert, a developmental biologist and Professor of Biological Medicine , has a long-standing interest in raising the public understanding of science. As such, there are similarities between him and Richard Dawkins ... also from a biology background with an interest in explaining science to the public. Also like Dawkins, Wolpert has an interest in why the concept of religious belief persists in human society.To look at the reasons he believes that to be so, he first reviews what we already understand of the origins of belief, and then attempts to link that development specifically to the rise of tool use in early human societies. He covers development of theory of mind, looks at the evidence for belief systems in animals, then goes on to examine how he thinks that links to tool use, and from there onward into belief, faith and religious conviction. Along the way he links the ideas of false beliefs to mental illnesses and neurological diseases. His primary thesis relates to how tool use primed those mental circuits, something he freely admits is speculative and for which he has no hard evidence; his secondary conclusion is less original, and relates to why those beliefs, once established will persist.Wolpert’s approach is more conciliatory than Dawkins, or Sam Harris, but his conclusions are no less strong ... religion is something for which we are genetically and evolutionarily primed, but one we have no strict need for on those levels any more. What we have is an overpowering internal need to create explanations; and it is unmistakably human that those explanations satisfy us on a narrative, common-sense level. That to many people science offers conclusions which are to them counter-intuitive is Wolpert’s explanation – again not original – for why people often seem to prefer explanations for which not only is there a lack of evidence, but a heavy weight of evidence against the belief....more importantly, our belief engine, programmed in our brains by our genes operates on different principles. It prefers quick decisions, it is bad with numbers, loves represntativeness, and sees patterns where there is only randomness. It is too often influenced by authority, and it has a liking for mysticism.Scientific thought is the best way we have to think rationally about the world around us, the whys and hows o it all. What is easy to forget is that though it is rational, it is not always natural – and that dissonance is often difficult to overcome.In his conclusion, Wolpert draws the line at railing against religion as being a purely malignant force. For him religion is simply the prevalent expression of the human need to create beliefs, and extinguishing that entirely is not necessarily necessary nor beneficial. As long as religion does not act in a negative manner on others or on society as a whole, then there is room in Wolpert’s world view for it to co-exist.Wolpert’s view is closer to mine than Dawkins’ and Harris’ views, both expressed in books within the last year (The God Delusion and Letter to a Christian Nation respectively). His book is a relatively short review of the various areas of evidence that contribute to his conclusion (the chapter on development of Theory of Mind, a particular interest of mine, for example puts forward some of the standard schools of thought without really going into the counter-evidence, or the more advanced current synthesis), but he presents the basic points well. Where he presents the standard argument, he does so fairly, and without malice, and where he advances his own speculation, he does so with candour and frankness.An enjoyable introduction if you do not know the topic that well, a good recap if you do; a book worth reading by those interested in ideas of belief.