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Forum Lectures

Evolution of causal beliefs

24 January 2007, 16:00, EMBL Large Operon

Lewis Wolpert, University College London

The primary function of the brain is to control movement and interaction with the environment. Humans, unlike other primates, have beliefs in physical causes which led to technology. Human children have causal beliefs as a developmental primitive, and these can be demonstrated even in infants.

By contrast, behavioural studies requiring simple manipulations of the environment show that chimpanzees are only at the edge of such thinking. The evolution of causal thinking was essential for the development of tool use as it is not possible to make a complex tool without understanding cause and effect. It has been technology that resulted from causal beliefs that has made us human, not social interaction. Once causal belief was possible it became intolerable not to know the causes of events that affected our lives. This may have given rise to religion.