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.