Seemingly silly superstitions may still be with us because they have evolutionary value. While they may be considered the linking of peculiar and irrational ~ if not just plain incorrect ~ causes and effects, they are far from worthless, according to recent research.
Harvard evolutionary biologist Kevin Foster worked with Hanna Kokko of the University of Helsinki to develop a complex computer model to compare scenarios where animals linked two events, such as the sound of rustling grass and the approach of a predator. But they also examined scenarios connecting less-dangerous situations, such as the sound of rustling grass and the wind.
The model showed that mistaken beliefs ~ superstitions, for example ~ can accompany similar beliefs that may save lives.
“It’s worth carrying many mistaken beliefs just to ensure you get the important ones right," said Foster. Even if an animal is often frightened by rustling grass caused by wind, if that causes it to avoid a predator in the grass on just one occasion, it may be enough to save its life. A relevant human example is that of a primitive tribe using a whole range of medicinal plants even if only very few work as an effective treatment, he said.
Though the model is purely theoretical at this stage, "it does make a number of testable predictions," Foster says. "The goal is to produce a logical framework to start to understand the evolution of superstition."
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