The Natural Origin of the Supernatural
How the Theory of Mind shaped our relationships with Nature and each other
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
And sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused).
— J.R.R. Tolkein, Mythopeia
Do you like Loki? Are you enamored of elves? Scared of Satan?
We careen into a techno-materialist future, clinging to avatars of our primitive past while busily inventing new ones. We are friends with Frodo and besotted with Batman.
Our collective catalog of supernatural beings is vast and still growing, probably because of basic brain abilities that began aeons ago.
Stories can show how it all came about. We start with mammals today, who stand-in for our pre-human ancestors.
You’re a lion near a water hole. You’ve learned that any antelope who shows up will likely approach the water and put their head down to drink. If the wind blows from them to you, they will approach sooner. If you don’t stay still while they approach, they will run away.
All these contingencies of behavior indicate antelope intentions. In the past, we would say that the lion learned simple “stimulus-response” connections. However, these connections are causal, and mentally grasping causation is not simple. Even our powerful AI systems do not know how to pick out causal connections from observations of behavior.
Real brains model their internal and external environments in order to predict and control them. Some mammals evolved the ability to model other beasts as agents with intentions: a type of model that, in people, we call Theory of Mind.
I studied social behavior in three species of macaque monkeys. Decades later, as a tourist stopping for tea in the Zimbabwe bush, I saw baboons acting out the same old primate soap operas.
You’re a young female gray-foot chacma whose troop, seeing the sun redden and drop, heads for the clearing with the two big acacias. Night brings hyenas, so to the sleeping trees you must go. The western tree is easier for leopards to climb, and once there was a rock python there. A high-status mother is slowly, confidently ambling towards the safer, eastern tree with the best sleeping perches.
You want very much to sleep in the east tree, so you follow and approach the mother, lip-smacking and grunting at her baby so that — you hope — she will tolerate you. Without warning the mother turns, grabs your tail, and bites it, hard enough to really hurt. You flee and screech and screech, while she calmly picks up her infant and carries it to the safer tree. You, who are cursed to be born of a low-status mother, slink over to the other tree to await the night.
Monkey troops are connected networks of individuals who know and manipulate each other in three-party interactions. Alice uses Bob to influence how Alice is treated by Cora.
Primatologists proposed years ago that the expanding complexity of social life forced our nonhuman ancestors to start making predictive models of what might be driving their peers’ behavior. David Premack, who studied chimps, actually coined the term, Theory of Mind, for such a model. Decades later, the concept is now common in the social, psychological, and mind sciences.
We can guess about the transformation of primate minds into human minds. From later eras, we can dig up the likes of burial trappings, stone tools, and various clues to the food that was eaten. These indicate more enduring, complex social relationships, functioning in a cultural context (like tools, customs, knowledge of the environment) that accumulated over generations.
You’re an adolescent male Homo habilis in a band on the margin of the Great Kalahari Desert. Drought has forced your people into greener territory, but because of that, predators are everywhere. An elder mother draws a rounded shape in the sand with a stick. She names it, and points to a lone cloud in the sky. She mimics tears falling down her crinkled face, repeats the name. That night you watch the camp fire billowing smoke. You point to the smoke, and chant the crying cloud name over and over.
Philosophers define agency to be the intentional exercise of a being’s capacity to act.
Surely proto-humans would have sharpened their sensitivity for detecting and interpreting agency. Some things in the world around them did not truly have agency: weather, objects in the sky, plants, seasons. But agency is a powerful predictive model. So our ancestors lost little by attributing agency to anything that affected them.
By the time we became human, we had brains with great sensitivities to stimulus patterns, and especially patterns that might indicate agency. There is a theory (Barrett 2004) that we evolved a “Hypersensitive Agency Detecting Device.” It’s a cognitive ability that leads us to assume supernatural causes for events around us. So how does that work?
We readily grab onto beliefs that are “minimally counterintuitive.” These are beliefs that involve only a simple difference from another one that we intuitively know to be true. We especially like new beliefs that explain behavior in terms of agency.
Suppose you, our Homo habilis, assume one small difference from your intuitive reality: that clouds have a single human trait, the ability to cry. This minimally counterintuitive belief then explains something. Rain and tears are both wet. If clouds cry to make rain, they must do so only when they feel like it. So clouds have agency.
Smoke, which looks like a cloud, might, in fact be a cloud. Clouds don’t seem to come from fire, but that’s just one minimal difference between the two. So talk to the smoke if you want rain; convince it to cry for you. You have personified an aspect of nature (rain clouds) and have connected it to another personified thing that you can manipulate (smoke). That’s not bad work for a proto-human.
Rulers and gods.
We know that gods were a big deal by the time of agricultural civilization. A god has agency like a person but is very different from one. How did humans come to believe in the improbable gods? There’s a fascinating theory for that, from an improbable source, a 20th-century psychologist and animal behaviorist: a controversial genius named Julian Jaynes.
You’re the son of a Mesolithic chieftain. The chief has died, but the tribe needs to keep hearing his voice. It’s your job to bury his body, but place his head in a stone shrine so that he can continue to issue guidance to one and all. When the chief’s hallucinated voice starts to fade out, the people will start listening to you, the new chief, instead.
Archaeology has found heads enshrined in central places of early agricultural settlements around the world. Jaynes’s theory was that those people heard the voices of leaders even when the leaders were not present. This was the major source of social cohesion, control, and passing of cultural knowledge.
Jaynes also said that, at this stage, human beings did not have the personal, first-person consciousness which we take for granted. Whether he is right about consciousness, his theory about the origin of gods is plausible because it offers a series of steps instead of a giant leap.
Villages expanded into the cities of the earlier civilizations. Chiefs became kings with the greater powers of authority needed to control more people, who were doing more kinds of things, such as: raising food, making needed artifacts, and conquering neighbors. More powerful kings became understood to be gods who lived longer than people and controlled some of those agent-like natural forces that rewarded or punished. Priests were delegated to speak for the god-king. Stone effigies of the king replaced the more ancient custom of chieftains’ moldering heads or clay-covered skulls.
You are a priest of a Mesopotamian city-state. The god-king has died and, luckily for you and your caste, he did not dictate that you die with him. Your caste decides that the numerous problems of kingly succession can be avoided. From now on, the high god lives on for eternity, and each new king is merely his steward, taking care of the people on behalf of the god. The soldier caste helps you find a new king who will uphold this new order.
Eventually, there are many such gods, some with dominions over particular peoples, and others over parts of nature itself. The agent-like personification of nature has been completed. Cultural evolution takes over, and some beliefs become major religions with lifespans of thousands of years.
Human-like supernatural beings have been described in numerous places around the world. There were written mentions even 1000 years ago, in old English, Germanic, and Norse languages. Though we mostly now know and enjoy elves, dwarves, trolls, and such in literary high fantasy, actual believers can still be found around the world.
We kayaked into the jungle of central Kauai. As we stumbled through green light up a notional trail, vines covered traces of old stone terracing. Our guide, white and from Cincinnati, said with a straight face that the walls were built by the Menehune, a dwarfish race under two feet tall who preceded the Polynesian settlers.
Our tour guide in Iceland showed us an isolated home under a crumbling cliff. Everybody in the country knew that the house’s residents believed that álfur (elves) living in nearby boulders had promised to protect the threatened house.
But how would specific beliefs have been shaped, so long ago? It must have involved storytelling and gossip.
You are a farming peasant, somewhere in northern Europe. It’s any time between the settling of Iceland and the Fall of Constantinople. When doesn’t really matter because common people have centuries of experience with the inhuman. You and others sit around the village well:
Avey: My cows milk’s spoilt ‘gin, in less time thant takes to wash a bairn.
You (Maeb): Old Feleric was a-movin his sheep and saw unseelie, mayhaps bogles, a-makin merry with some poor sod.
Boy: Feleric can’t sees own feet. Belike he heard foxes sportin. Is’ta matin season. Ow! Ma! (as Avey whacks Boy with broom stick)
Cran: My milk’s spoilt as well, an three rooks sittin on hedgerow ever morn. An don I know what else I saw?
Cran: I saw headman Dab’s young wife, Eve, tawkin ta stranger, fair handsome an big eyes, I ken. He was standin in shadow at edge of copse, just bfore dark.
Boy: Thou’rt blind tew. That lass has always tawked ta that pony o hers. Thinks she’s better cuz she ‘as a horse.
Maeb: Boy, don’ let beauty blind you. That girl is just the type to consort with faie, an us the worse for it.
Avey: Whether tis unseelie or alfen, Boy, they mean us no good. Eve might be witch. Or the faery might dance her to death.
“Boy” was ahead of his time. Only recently have we grasped that Nature, as a whole, is a thing unto itself; that it functions in its own myriad interlocked rhythms, yet it is purposeless, without agency, without a mind. By then we had long since carved up the natural world into distorted images of ourselves: minds with intent. Cultural evolution constrained those beliefs into enduring channels, such as particular gods, demons, and species of inhuman creatures, hiding in, and visiting from, alternate realities.
That we saw similar entities in different places and times is probably because of commonalities in how our minds work and in the natural things we wanted to explain. Dragons, a famously worldwide belief, might be personifications of rainbows.
Passing the buck.
Suppose, as some say today, that strange things happen because of visitors from some unknown ur-reality, some kind of parallel universe. Why would entities from “another dimension”, who therefore have nothing in common with us, want to mess us up or even steal our stuff?
Why would they for godsake want to mate with us, as happens in so many legends? It’s common to have temporary waking-up paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations. These are minor malfunctions of our dreaming states. The suggestible can attribute these to rape, possession, or even returns from some Other Realm.
We know that Nature includes chaotic, destructive events, at scales from tiny to gargantuan, that are not in any sense purposeful. We wrongly attribute mishaps and catastrophes to “the Others” and we also do it, ad nauseum, to people who aren’t like us. Attribution of trouble is known as “blame.” We might well be called the blaming species.
Compared to the days when our legends first arose, our world is densely packed. Vanished are the invisible homelands for denizens of the occult. Isolated habitat for fantastic beasts is nearly gone. And yet, our imaginations are teeming with mythical agents. Superheros, magicians, and vampires are commonplace. And, we personify the strangest things. A Free Market creature that magically solves all problems even while creating most of them. A Nature that is either hostile or nurturing, depending on your identification with a political party. Our real heroes go unrecognized, or they are reviled and blamed. Lies are truth, truth is “fake”.
Perhaps if we taught our young about how we overly impute personal agency, they would grow up to blame less and understand more. They would deal with actuality, use Theory of Mind to understand and collaborate, and stop bargaining with reality. We could still cherish and enjoy our heritage of supernatural beings.