Natural Born Lawyers

Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”

Carl Sagan said that, and when I was a youngster watching Cosmos, I would have believed him. Since then, I’ve learned about things like primary and secondary knowledge and I now see statements like this as not only simplistic, but just plain wrong.

But the belief that humans are naturally curious, or more significantly, naturally ‘scientific’ is widespread and is, I suspect, at the root of our tendency to rely on science-is-fun arguments when encouraging school-leavers do study ‘STEM’  disciplines in college.

The idea that we might have evolved to think scientifically is plausible enough. It is reasonably easy to make an argument that there is a survival advantage to being able to think and reason logically – scientifically – about your environment, especially if you do not have the physical attributes that other species have.

On the other hand, it is hard to explain why humans have such an ability to think in the abstract. As Steven Pinker has said,

“Why do humans have the ability to pursue abstract intellectual feats such as science, mathematics, philosophy, and law, given that opportunities to exercise these talents did not exist in the foraging lifestyle in which humans evolved and would not have parlayed themselves into advantages in survival and reproduction even if they did?”

Pinker suggested that humans evolved to think in the abstract because it enabled us to occupy a sort of socio-cognitive niche, one where our ability to figure out and manipulate our environment and, crucially, understand, communicate and cooperate with our fellow humans, enhanced our survivability.

But one thing that is difficult to explain is why we human beings are so susceptible to faulty reasoning. Where’s the advantage in that? Authors like Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt have written extensively about this and it seems that faulty reasoning is literally in our DNA.

So despite the fact that we live in scientific age, many people are still prone to what most reasonable people would consider to be irrational beliefs.  And arguments with the supposed ‘irrationals’ often end up with us resorting to put-downs like “you can’t reason someone out of a position that they haven’t reasoned themselves into”.

But that may be a bit simplistic, unfair even. In their recent book, The Enigma of Reason (which I am struggling through – it’s hard going!), Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier seem to take the socio-cognitive niche idea even further and argue that our ability to reason evolved for purely social reasons.

They argue that to prosper in the social groups formed by our species, humans had to be able to reason in order to win arguments, to persuade, to build alliances, to form relationships and ultimately maintain the cohesion of the group, improving its chances of survival.

It’s a persuasive argument and explains why humans are so prone to confirmation bias. We use our powerful reasoning skills not necessarily to arrive at the truth but to convince others that we are right.

So the truth may well be that we’re not natural born scientists; we’re natural born lawyers.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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