A while back, I found myself wondering how our ancestors predicted the future. By “predicted the future”, I don’t mean anything magical. No crystal balls here. Instead, I mean the commonplace sort of predictions anyone of us today routinely and frequently makes about future events.
For instance, when we go outside to check the weather and somehow surmise that it is likely to rain later on. When we do that, we are predicting the future. Or on a cold morning, we expect our car will take longer to start. Again, we are then predicting the future.
Back when I began thinking about that sort of thing, I quickly became interested in a sort of prediction that is a little bit more subtle than the above examples might suggest. Specifically, I began wondering how our ancestors predicted the future when they did not have any past experience that precisely matched their prediction. You see, it seems to be one thing to predict the future when you have the past to go on. e.g. I predict on this cold morning my car will start slowly because on other cold mornings in the past it started slowly. But it is another thing to predict the future when your prediction does not entirely — or perhaps does not at all — match up with a past outcome. For instance, how did one of our ancestors first come to the realization that Robert (or, in those days, “Og”) was very likely to steal food from her — even though Robert (nee Og) had never before stolen food from her?
I suppose that sort of thing happened very far back in our lineage. Most likely it happened back even before we split paths from our closest relatives — the chimp and bonobo. And I say that because I have read that both chimps and bonobos can treat other chimps and bonobos as individuals.
That’s to say, chimps and bonobos do not necessarily treat all their fellows the same, but are capable of treating each of their fellows differently, as individuals. And that leads me to conclude that the first one of our ancestors to notice Og was very likely to steal her food existed even before the split between humans and the chimp/bonobo tribes. This could be a very ancient trait we’re talking about here.
Alas, I have little idea what is the physiology of our being able to make unprecedented predictions of the future behavior of neighbors. I assume mirror neurons might have something to do with that ability, but then again, I assume mirror neurons might in some way have something to do with just about everything. That’s because mirror neurons are just plain mysterious and cool. The truth, though, is I could not point to a region or structure of the brain and say with confidence that our ability to make unprecedented predictions about the behavior of others originates there.
On the other hand, I have an idea or two about what it might seem like to each of us to make an unprecedented prediction about someone’s future behavior. For, in effect, that is what we are doing when we think about someone’s personality or character. Objectively, a bunch of neurons might be firing somewhere in our skull. But subjectively, we have the sensation of thinking about someone’s personality or character.
Why is that?
Well, perhaps we can start by thinking of it this way: Our notion of someone’s personality or character can be thought of as a sort of mental map that somehow shows us the likelihood or probability someone will or will not behave in a certain way. That is, when we think, “Joseph has a grumpy personality”, we are predicting Joseph’s behavior. We are saying, in effect, that at least under certain circumstances, we expect him to be grumpy.
Another way to look at this is to ask why humans are able to think of things — including other humans — as having personalities or characters? What is the underlying function of that sort of thinking? And why did it evolve in us?
So far as I can see, there is no other reason humans would evolve an ability to see other humans as having a personality or character unless it was to facilitate their ability to make ever more subtle predictions about that individual’s behavior.
Now, let me get rather precise here: I do not mean to say the only way Steve can predict Samantha’s behavior is to conceive of Samantha as a personality. Instead, I suspect Steve can to some extent predict her behavior even if he does not conceive of her as having a personality. But I would argue that perhaps the most efficient and effective way for Steve to predict Samantha’s behavior is for Steve to think, “What is Samantha like? What is her personality? What is her character?”
It seems to me that humans, when they want to make predictions about the future behavior of their friends, acquaintances and enemies, are far and away most likely to couch those predictions in the form of one notion or another of those folk’s personalities.
Yet, we don’t just do that with our own kind, do we? As a species, we don’t just perceive personality in other members of our species. Instead, we find personalities nearly everywhere. Obviously, we find them in our pets. But perhaps less obviously, we find them — at times — in such improbable things as our car (“Old Betsy”), the weather (“Old Man Weather”), our computer (pick a name). In fact, if you have studied animism, you might be convinced that we can find personalities even in rocks. The human tendency to find — or project — a personality into nearly everything is one of the most obvious — and one of the most overlooked — things about us.
So, what is the function of all that personality projecting? I think some of it might be idle, but that a lot of it — the majority of it — is to help us predict the future behavior — or future characteristics — of the things to which we assign personalities.
To gain an idea of how efficient assigning personalities to something can be, consider how much easier it is to get a sense or feel for what the weather will be like when you think of the weather as a personality — as opposed to attempting to think of it as many pieces of meteorological data. This morning, I am thinking of how fickle the weather is near the mountains. No doubt I could, if I wanted to, refuse to personify the weather as “fickle”, and instead think of it as having changed within the past hour and likely to change again within the next. But somehow that just isn’t as succinct, nor as forceful, as personifying it.
Next, if you look closely at the notion of personality, then you might notice that it can in practice be very subtle, very nuanced. For instance, our ancestor was not limited to thinking of Og’s proclivity to theft in binary or on or off terms. No, she was not limited to either/or thinking. She could instead think in analog terms — or, more precisely, in probabilities.
She could think, “It’s much more likely than not he will steal from me.”
This might be important in so far as it seems to me that most people do not calculate the odds of something happening very well. People think, for example, that they are more likely to die in a terrorist attack than in a plane accident, although the converse is true.
Yet, I believe I have often noticed that the very person who is unlikely to figure out the practical significance of any abstract odds passed his way, will nevertheless prove to be surprisingly astute at calculating the likelihood that a certain Og will steal his food. It’s as if thinking about things as personalities makes it easier for our species to incorporate sophisticated probabilistic thinking into our calculations of what’s going to happen. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but that’s what I think I’ve seen.
I sometimes wonder whether the gods were born of our human habit of seeing personalities in everything? It does not seem much of a leap between thinking of the weather as “Old Man Weather” and next thinking of it as “Thor, God of Thunder”.
But if that is so — if personality is a path to deification — then what does it mean that thinking of things in terms of personalities functions as a means of predicting the future? In other words, what practical advantage would there be in thinking of things as deities when you can already think of them as non theistic personalities?
Now, for all I’ve said here, I don’t propose that the ideas I’ve presented are anything more than a rambling account of late night thoughts. Certainly, I know of no science that supports my speculations. Consequently, I am hesitant to fob off anything I’ve said as the truth. But if it’s amused you, that’s enough. And if it’s encouraged some thought, that’s even better. Yet, if it has driven you to strong drink, then that’s best of all. 😀