We’re all hard-wired for magic

In the beginning, there was a noise in the bush. Our ancestors were sitting around a campfire, huddled in a small group. Half of them thought the noise came from a predator, a huge animal with sharp teeth ready to attack. They leapt up from the fire and ran for their lives.

The other half stuck around to analyze the situation. “Maybe it’s a predator or maybe it’s just the wind in the trees.”

Wind or predator? We don’t know, but we do know that the people who ran away survived. They lived to reproduce and pass their genes on to their children and their children’s children and so on down to us. Even now, we still get nervous when we hear a noise in the dark.

* * *

Perhaps these “just so” stories should come with a label: “Not for literal consumption. For illustrative purposes only.”

The stories may be shaky, but they illustrate a real problem. Why do some human behaviors and psychological traits persist across time and culture even though they seem harmful or pointless? Why do we humans have compassion, self-sacrifice, infanticide, empathy, and common standards of beauty?

Questions like these led to the science of evolutionary psychology. Proponents claim that puzzling traits like self-sacrifice make sense as evolutionary adaptations—they may not do much for contemporary individuals, but they had survival value for our ancient ancestors. They may have outlived their usefulness, but they’re still there in our DNA and in our minds.

Take the campfire story above. The trait in question is known to psychologists as “agent detection,” the ability of humans to detect other beings with a conscious purpose. Our minds detect agents willy-nilly. We do it when we’re in the presence of other people and we do it with inanimate objects.

I’m not the first person to suggest that agent detection is a basic part of religion and magic. I doubt it’s the whole story, but I think that you could build an evolutionary model of magic from a collection of traits. Perhaps these four:

• Detecting agents where there are none
• Detecting patterns where there are none
• Mistaking correlation for causality
• Valuing stories over evidence

These traits may have outlived their evolutionary purpose, but they’re buried deep within us and they’re not going anywhere. They shape our experience and drive our behavior relentlessly whether we like it or not.

The best we can do, I think, is to understand magic for what it is and find a graceful way to live with it. Ironically, skeptics and believers often fail at this task for similar reasons. They take magic at face value. They witness the evolutionary spectacle of faces in the clouds and voices in the wind. One group snickers in contempt and the other asks the wind for advice.

Personally, I’m a rational materialist. I also read Tarot cards. I don’t believe that Tarot cards reveal the future or give me information that I couldn’t obtain through ordinary channels. I do Tarot because I’m a rationalist, because I need help connecting with the powerful, irrational forces flowing deep inside me.

Everybody’s path is different. At some point, though, I think you have to bite the bullet and go native. We’re all hard-wired for magic.

Posted in: Reason and Magic

Leave a Comment (3) ↓


  1. mary wagner April 21, 2014

    Hi Geoff’

    I enjoyed your blog today (as always). I just finished a book about an autitic man in a time in the future. He is employed by a phamaceutical company for his ability to reconize patterns where we “normal” folks can’t. Could this be those patterns “that are not there?”

    Hope to see you soon.


    • Geoff Gilpin April 21, 2014

      Hi, Mary. Thanks for stopping by! I haven’t read the book in question, so my opinion doesn’t count for much. However, I’m guessing that the patterns the autistic man sees really are there in the context of the book’s fictional universe. Otherwise I doubt he’d have a job with a pharmaceutical company. He really does have some special insight that makes a difference to the plot and characters–earns the company a ton of money, saves the planet, prevents the love interest from being murdered, et cetera.

      Books and movies almost always present magic at face value. It would be cool if there were more writers and publishers and film studios willing to take a chance on stories about people who see patterns that really don’t exist.

      That said, I love fiction that handles magic well. I’m a huge fan of John Crowley, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende. Perhaps magic works best in books because it comes out of the imagination and flourishes in its native environment of creative art.

  2. B.Wright April 24, 2014

    Hi Geoff. I enjoyed the rap, and the story you posted at the beginning made me laugh because it reminded me of something I had written only a day earlier on another forum called “The Case for Spiritual Pragmatism.” It was just a rap about why I found some (but not all) aspects of Buddhist thought interesting:

    I have met many Buddhists over the years, and the thing strikes me about the best of them is that they’re pragmatic. The historical Buddha reputedly refused to be drawn into discussions of or arguments about the How and Why of things. He considered it a waste of time. His focus was on the What of things — what is happening, right now, here, in the moment? In his view, it didn’t really help to ponder How the events in this moment happened or Why they happened. Whatever you come up with will be only one view of the moment, and it won’t really help you to deal with the moment itself. Better to focus, in his opinion, on the moment itself, and surfing it gracefully.

    I’m kinda drawn that way myself, which is why some aspects of Buddhism appeal to me. The cool Buddhists I’ve known don’t really spend much time pondering theories of How or Why things happen. They just deal with the What of things, as they happen.

    And y’know, most of the time they’re more *effective* at dealing with the moment than those who are off on the sidelines somewhere trying to figure out Why it happened or How. By the time they come up with an “explanation” that they can settle for, the moment has passed and they’ve lost their chance to deal with it at all.


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