Word of the Day: Hyperactive Agency Detection

Does God exist?  I doubt it.February 12 is Darwin Day, the birthday of Charles Darwin.  In honor of Darwin’s 203rd birthday, let’s look into a term that’s related to both evolution and religion.

Imagine an early hominid in the grasslands of Africa.  He hears a rustling in the bushes—is that a cheetah or just the wind?  Should he run away or ignore it?

There are two kinds of errors.  Suppose our friend thinks it’s a cheetah and runs away … but he’s wrong.  This is a false positive.  He’s crying wolf.  There can be a cost to this—our timid hominid might have been frightened away from a water hole.

But consider the other error.  The hominid might think it’s the wind in the tall grass … but he’s wrong.  This is a false negative.  The cost is obvious—he likely becomes a predator’s lunch.

Given the disproportionate consequences for guessing wrongly, natural selection seems to have selected for caution.  As a result, early man may have developed a “hyperactive agency detection device”—an overactive tendency to see agency (that is, intelligence) in nature, even where there is none.  The HADD may also be where we detect patterns in things—superstition, concluding that odd events are more than coincidence, or even conspiracy theories.

If this gave early man the ideas of spirits of the dead and gods, this may help explain where early religion came from.

Photo credit: Simon Varwell

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2 thoughts on “Word of the Day: Hyperactive Agency Detection

  1. Daniel Dennett calls this the “intentional stance” — the general attitude that phenomena you observe are the result of someone’s intention that they be so. I find this phrase to be particularly opaque and have gone for the more colorful expression “secret agent theory”. It means the same thing: that behind every observation there’s an agent secretly acting to make it happen.
    Since about 80-90% of the experiences of a newborn infant really ARE the result of someone’s intention to make them happen, this innate tendency gets a lot of early reinforcement, so it’s not surprising that, when the folx say it’s time to go to church and worship the invisible sky daddy behind it all, they find a willing, gullible audience.

    • I also find it interesting how children see purpose in nature. For example, why are rocks pointy? “So animals can scratch themselves.” Looks like we’re built to infer design.

      Maybe this underscores the maturity we need to see reality correctly (or the comfort we can have in falling back on this immature outlook).

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