Selection for Credulity

Article excerpt

Dr. Ken Parejko earned his Ph.D. in zoology and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. His research interests revolve around the molecular genetics of populations and the effects of human activities (pollution, habitat destruction, etc.) on the genetic diversity of native species. He has also published articles on the evolution of phenotypic plasticity and on human impacts on water quality. In 1996 he had an historical novel published (Remember Me Dancing, Waubesha Press) and is currently working on a fictionalized biography of the great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder.

A Biologists View of Belief

LIKE OTHER PERSONALITY TRAITS, the tendency in some humans to believe in the paranormal ("credulity") is subject to natural selection, which varies in its intensity from time to time and place to place. As we approach the millennium, are we now experiencing an especially strong expression of, and selection for, "supercredulists"?

The past few years have been marked by news reports of suicidal cults, and evidence of the public's not only willingness but seeming eagerness to embrace paranormal and nonsensical beliefs--Dark Skies and X-Files, the mania for UFOs and alien abductions, crop circles and strange New Age religions. With the coming of the millennium we can expect more and more of the same. It has been argued that these "credulists" effectively disenfranchise their societal impact through their very fringe quality, and their insistence that the reality of the material world is not important (the "Sandbox Syndrome," see Marien, 1983.) We would, however, be naive to ignore the real and potential dangers flowing from these belief systems.

The hypothesis I wish to put forward is that natural selection is simply acting, in these times, in a non-gradualist, punctuated way on a heritable human trait we might call "credulity!' Further, I argue that the possession of this trait, as with most heritable morphological or behavioral traits, at times is favored by selection and at other times is not. In other words, its fitness varies with the environment, the trait is phenotypically plastic (meaning the expression of the trait also varies with the environment), and that the selection which is presently occurring is simply a stabilizing selection which is removing outliers ("supercredulists") from the gene pool.

CREDULISTS AND SKEPTICS

I define a credulist as someone who has not, in the words of Richard Dawkins (1995) "put childish things away!' A credulist would be someone who is gullible, who discounts obvious evidence of the senses, life experiences, or common sense in favor of ideology or cosmology; who is willing to accept extraordinary claims without demanding extraordinary evidence. I would contrast the credulist with the skeptic, who relies on his or her senses, who expects to be convinced rather than is convinced before hearing the evidence, and who requires extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

It is true that most New Age, survivalist, or cult credulists in fact believe themselves to be skeptics, because they have stepped outside the bounds of the normative paradigm. One of the hallmarks of a "cult" is the careful unpeeling, early on in the programming, of the novice's cherished belief-systems, which include the normative paradigm. By removing the socialization which has already occurred, the cult is then able to replace it with what, in the presence of the normative paradigm, would have otherwise been an unacceptable alternative.

I would define the dominant paradigm of modem Western society as ethical humanism and the scientific method, though they perhaps exist only as thin veneer over deeper biological and more primitive psychological factors. Are those who have sloughed off this dominant paradigm truly skeptics, as they claim? When the normative intellectual paradigm is scientific skepticism--"Show Me," as they say in Missouri--then stepping outside that paradigm does not make you a skeptic. …