About the SA Blog Network

The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science
The Curious Wavefunction Home

What do conspiracy theories, religious beliefs and detoxifying proteins have in common?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

People who believe in conspiracy theories display the classic symptoms of patternicity and agenticity (Image: Caffeinated Thoughts)

Why do people believe in God, ghosts, goblins, spirits, the afterlife and conspiracy theories? Two common threads running through these belief systems are what skeptic Michael Shermer in his insightful book “The Believing Brain” calls “patternicity” and “agenticity”. As the names indicate, patternicity refers to seeing meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Agenticity refers to seeing mysterious but palpable causal ‘agents’, puppet masters who pull the strings and bring about unexplained phenomena. God is probably the perfect example of an agent.

Patternicity and agenticity can both be seen as primitive evolutionary features of our brain that have been molded into instinctive behaviors. They were important in a paleolithic environment where decisions often had to be made quickly and based on instinct. In a simple example cited by Shermer, consider an early hominid sauntering along somewhere in the African Savannah. He hears a rustle in the grass. Is it a predator or is it just the wind? If he assumes the former and it turns out to be the latter, no harm is done. But if he assumes it’s just the wind and lets down his guard and it turns out to be a predator, that’s it; he’s lunch and just got weeded out of the gene pool. The first mistake is what’s called a ‘Type 1’ or false-positive error; the second one is a ‘Type 2’ or a false-negative error. Humans seem more prone to committing false positive errors because the cost of (literally) living with those errors is often less than the cost of (literally) dying from the false negatives. Agenticity is in some sense subsumed by patternicity; in the case of the hominid, he might end up ascribing the noise in the grass to a predator (an ‘agent’) even if none exists. The important thing to realize is that we are largely the descendants of humans who made false-positive errors; natural selection ensured this perpetuation.

Before we move on it’s worth noting that assuring yourself a place in the genetic pool by committing a false positive error is not as failsafe as it sounds. Sometimes people can actually cause harm by erring on the side of caution; this is the kind of behavior that is enshrined in the Law of Unintended Consequences. For instance after 9/11, about a thousand people died because they thought it safer to drive across the country rather than fly. 9/11 did almost nothing to tarnish the safety record of flying, but those who feared airplane terrorism (the ‘pattern’) reacted with their gut and ended up doing their competitors’ gene pools a favor.

Yet for all this criticism of pattern detection, it goes without saying that patternicity and agenticity have been immensely useful in human development. In fact the hallmark of science is pattern detection in noise. Patternicity is also key for things like solving crimes and predicting where the economy is going. However scientists, detectives and economists are all well aware of how many times the pattern detection machine in their heads misfires or backfires. When it comes to non-scientific predictions the machine’s even worse. The ugly side of patternicity and agenticity is revealed in people’s belief in conspiracy theories. Those who think there was a giant conspiracy between the CIA, the FBI, the Mob, Castro and the executive branch of the government are confronted with the same facts that others are. Yet they connect the dots differently and elevate certain individuals and groups (‘agents’) to great significance. Patternicity connects the dots, agenticity sows belief. The tendency to connect dots and put certain agents on a pedestal is seen everywhere, from believing that vaccines cause autism to being convinced that climate change is a giant hoax orchestrated by thousands of scientists around the world.

Notwithstanding these all too common pathologies of the pattern detection machine, it’s satisfying to find a common, elegant evolutionary mechanism in our primitive brain that would be consistent with generally favoring false positives over false negatives. What I find interesting is that this behavior even seems to exist at the level of molecules.

I realized this when I was recently studying some proteins whose exclusive job is to metabolize and detoxify foreign molecules. These proteins can be seen as the gatekeepers of the cell. Throughout evolution we have been bathed in a sea of useful, useless and toxic chemicals. Our bodies need some mechanism for distinguishing the good molecules from the bad. To enable this living organisms have evolved several proteins which bind to these molecules and in most cases change their structure or simply eject them from the cell. The most important of these are called cytochrome P450 and P-Glycoprotein. Cytochrome P450 metabolizes drugs, nutrients, hormones, poisons; basically any molecular entities that living organisms encounter in a changing environment. P-Glycoprotein is a kind of vacuum cleaner that first sucks up molecules and then throws them out.

A molecular model of cytochrome P450, a protein that metabolizes and detoxifies foreign molecules such as toxins (Image: ESRF)

Cytochrome P450 and P-Glycoprotein are crucial for detoxifying our body and letting only ‘good’ molecules pass through. But like our early hominid they are imperfect and seem to often err on the side of caution, making false positive errors. This problem is routinely confronted by drug developers who are consternated to find molecules that may perform perfectly in killing cancer cells in test tubes, but that are immediately modified or ejected out of the cells by cytochrome P450 and P-Glycoprotein when administered to test subjects like rats or human beings. Finding a putative drug compound that will not be modified or rejected by cytochrome P450, P-Glycoprotein or any number of other gatekeeper proteins is one of the biggest challenges in early stage drug development.

And yet if we think about it, both cytochrome P450 and humans are doing the bidding of patternicity and agenticity. For a human as well as for a protein, generally speaking it’s much safer to make a false positive error than a false negative one. In case of cytochrome P450, it might be ok if it discards a useful nutrient or two along with dozens of toxic chemicals. But if it lets even two or three deadly compounds from, say, snail toxin or snake venom in, those might be the last compounds it encounters during the painfully short lifetime of its human owner. Now of course, at the beginning when cytochrome P450 was in the process of evolving it probably existed in many more forms than what it does today. Some of these forms committed false positive mistakes and others committed false negatives. But it’s clear from the ongoing discussion that just like the human hearing the rustle in the grass and mistaking it for the wind, proteins which committed false negative errors were declared persona non grata by natural selection and weeded out. Those making false positive mistakes lived another day to see another molecule ejected.

To me the observation of patternicity and agenticity at the level of human brains as well as individual proteins is a testament to the enormous power and elegance of evolution in molding living organisms across an incredible hierarchy of molecules, cells, organs, individuals and societies through common mechanisms. It occurs to me that if evolution had to pick favorite lines from poems, one of them would probably be “Two roads diverged on the way to life, and I took the one which made me commit a false positive error”.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 16 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. alan6302 12:14 pm 05/10/2013

    properly prescribed pharma is a leading cause of death. Pharma is a religion.

    Link to this
  2. 2. sonoran 12:26 pm 05/10/2013

    Agenticity is probably also bound up in our brain’s bias toward seeing things in a social context. The consequence of being a hominid alone in the world is the same as that of misperceiving a deadly threat, so we’re evolved to devote much of our brain power to navigating the political world of human social groups.

    Assuming there’s an agent (external or within your group) behind an action (particularly a threatening action) is safer in a social context than not detecting an “enemy”.

    Link to this
  3. 3. alan6302 12:27 pm 05/10/2013

    Agenda 21 is a fact

    Link to this
  4. 4. sonoran 12:34 pm 05/10/2013

    … also because of our brain’s heavy investment in social awareness, it’s difficult to impossible for us to perceive extremely consequential actions (e.g. the death of a family member) as being anything other than the expression of some agent’s intent. The same is true of actions that appear to us to be “improbable” (e.g. winning the lottery). These kinds of things all “happen for a reason” (agency & intent).

    Link to this
  5. 5. alan6302 12:45 pm 05/10/2013

    Pharma intends to reduce the world’s population below 500 million. It is written in the Georgian Stones. Pharma promoted tobacco consumption….that is all we need to know about pharma. The author is delutional .

    Link to this
  6. 6. Spin-oza 1:40 pm 05/10/2013

    WITHOUT doubt, religious beliefs and paranoid “conspiracy theories” are two sides of a coin… one minted and mired in delusional, wishful thinking.

    WHAT is amazing is that so long… centuries after “The Enlightenment” the strangle-hold of relgious musings and the status of “people of faith” has not been reduced to a common understanding among the vast majority of humans… as a quaint, but dysfunctional diversion in human evolutionary progression.

    HOW can modern humans, after scientific endeavors have revealed so much about the Natural World… compartmentalize their thoughts, and cling to such delusional dogma (i.e. cognitive dissonance)? I have two answers that easily trump the patternicity/agenicity construct: social mores/pressure and fear of death/desire for immortality.

    IT is beyond clear that many of the so-called “faith based” are “church goers” to benefit from social-approval and the social-networking of their “christian club”. Indoctrinated from childhood… it takes tremendous maturational resistance to branch off the charted relgious path… into the Light o’ Reason and Reality. One’s religion is much like one’s language… and related to time and place of birth and thus, one’s culture. Until quite recently non-believers (i.e. the truly sane among us), were labeled “heretics” and ostracized… or much worse.

    HOWEVER, the real “ace in the hole” for those selling the “kool aid”… is there childish expectation of “eternal life in heaven/paradise”… if “sinful men and women” only tow the line… speak the right words with heads bowed… and keep the faith. Sadly, this crass ploy by religious institutions plays upon the basic human fear of dying. It is beyond egotistical to think that while NOTHING in this Universe is remotely “eternal” (everything evolving continually) their biological, aging, frail bodies, will exist… forever. Are you kidding me? Really?

    Personally, I take comfort that all organism are completely embedded in Nature, the inexorably unfolding Cosmos. That is the “god” of Spinoza and Einstein… and if you wish to call Nature “god”, then you’ll get no argument from me.

    Link to this
  7. 7. string_beery 3:19 pm 05/10/2013

    interesting article – the molecular aspect in particular was new to me…

    as for ‘odd’ beliefs and the reason(s) behind them, i worry less about these than about the far-too-strong tendency for so many people to insist (demand) that their beliefs must be your beliefs also (or else…)
    perhaps this is just a to-be-expected extension of the assumed ‘rightness’ of their personal beliefs (if i’m right, then you must be wrong, and must therefore be corrected) – the alternative of course is that i may be wrong, but i really don’t like being wrong…not sure where assumed rightness fits into the evolutionary viewpoint, other than it’s just simpler/easier to lock onto some belief than it is to remain open to other possibilities…is there an evolutionary advantage to intellectual laziness?

    Link to this
  8. 8. jimmywat 3:48 pm 05/10/2013

    What do conspiracy deniers, propagandists, and spin doctors have in common?

    They are purport that THEIR rulers would never do anything deceptive. They worked for Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot, et. al. They ignore history. They paint their opponents as nuts or traitors. They hold up a few crazy people and claim that all the scientists, architects and engineers that disagree with them are crazy too. They create unintelligible and meaningless words to label them so they sound smart and knowledgeable.
    They write superficial papers without tests or independent verification and pass them off as scientific.

    Link to this
  9. 9. curiouswavefunction 3:50 pm 05/10/2013

    A few of the comments in this thread are making me feel that Shermer has a point after all.

    Link to this
  10. 10. alan6302 4:02 pm 05/10/2013

    Take your meds …..sheeple

    Link to this
  11. 11. alan6302 4:58 pm 05/10/2013

    The term ” kool -aid drinkers” is now meaningless. Jones town was a massacre . …not a suicide. It was a government job and not the work of a “lone nut job”.

    Link to this
  12. 12. hoamingin 2:54 am 05/11/2013

    Why do people believe in religion? And why do biologists continue to believe in that other enduring false positive, Natural Selection?

    Both are products of the brain that evolved to perpetuate behaviours that kept humans and their ancestors alive through millions of years. For all but the last 200,000 years it evolved in ancestors who lacked speech. The brain evolved to observe and absorb practices that had been passed down from generation to generation.

    The brain did not evolve to think, it evolved to learn past practices to know how to respond without thinking. Which explains why the large brain produced so few innovations until recent times, where culture comes from and why old beliefs persist even when demonstrably wrong.

    Ernst Mayr was a co-founder of the Darwinian Synthesis and active promoter of Natural Selection, yet he wrote that there can be no selection in nature, that the process is one of non-random elimination. This article states that the brain is predisposed to false positives and Natural Selection is a false positive explanation of a negative process.

    The writer attributes evolution of molecules that purge potentially detrimental substances to Natural Selection, but there is a much simpler and more direct explanation – deselection. The beneficial molecules evolved when individuals who lacked them were eliminated by detrimental substances that their bodies failed to purge.

    Darwin excluded the effect of external conditions from Natural Selection. In Ch 2 of Origin Darwin wrote that the effect of external conditions was indirect by creating variations.

    Read Ch. 3 of Origin to see how Darwin rejected the agency of external conditions and attributed change instead to variations that gave individuals superior internal qualities that favoured them in competition for resources in those conditions. A student of logic would make mincemeat of that argument but it has been sufficiently plausible to human brains that did not evolve to operate on logic that it has been the central plank of biology for close to the last century.

    Present day biologists almost universally accept that change comes from changes in external conditions that operate directly on individual differences within a species. If all variants are able to survive there is no change in the species. If none are able to survive the species becomes extinct. Evolution is what happens between these extremes. Yet biologists cling to Natural Selection which is not only based on the opposite of what they now believe, it is disproved by their own science.

    Natural Selection states that change begins with variations that favour individuals in unrelenting struggle for scarce resources, so the more variations, the more change. Genetics shows the opposite. Variations occur in every species all the time, yet many species remain unchanged for long periods. In fact, greater genetic diversity is a sign of a lack of change. The sign of past evolutionary change is a loss of diversity, pointing to change being the result of non-random elimination of some individuals that evolves the species towards survivors. The agency of change is the direct effect of external conditions that adapts the species to changed conditions by eliminating those who are not adapted.

    Ditching Natural Selection as the agent of evolutionary change in favour of direct effect of external conditions helps understand many things that cannot be explained by Natural Selection, including why species become more closely adapted in more demanding environments and what the brain evolved to do – to learn past practices that had proved their effectiveness by the survival of those from whom they were being learned.

    It is clear that Creationists and biologists use the same brain to cling to beliefs passed down to them that do not pass the test of logic.

    Link to this
  13. 13. doctorja 9:23 am 05/12/2013

    Very nice article. I like to see connections like this pointed out. Stimulates some deep thinking…if you think about it.

    Link to this
  14. 14. bucketofsquid 3:42 pm 06/6/2013

    alan6302 is as expected, completely insane and disconnected from reality. What bothers me is some of the other posters.

    spin-oza – Thank you for sharing your completely unscientific, deeply held religious beliefs. Just like the Catholics and other Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Taoists, Jews, and Animists, you are attempting to prove false a non-falsifiable dogma. That isn’t science. Did it ever occur to you that religions espouse behavior patterns that contribute to survival in addition to their other accumulations? If I do what someone tells me and I survive where others refuse and then die or suffer I’m probably going to buy into the idea. When atheism eventually gets to the point where it provides better outcomes then people will start to abandon religions. Atheism is nowhere near that point.

    Jimmywat – Did you really mean conspiracy deniers? The reason I ask is because the people you listed were each very open about exactly what they were going to do and made very little secret of it. Hitler did lie to Chamberlin but other than that he was very open about getting rid of Jews, blacks and Communists and establishing a global empire.

    hoamingin – Interesting hypothesis. I won’t say that it is wrong but much of what you say is contradictory appear to me to be 2 sides of the same process. I think you may be confusing causation and correlation. Then again, I might be the one doing that.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Troelsy 4:51 pm 08/9/2013

    Thank you for this. I’ve really been struggling for a while with understanding why so many people are prone to taking the irrational route to the extent seen with conspiracy theorists. Before reading this I had come up with very little, now I have more to consider.

    Link to this
  16. 16. danp5648 11:50 pm 09/6/2013

    NEW 9/11 Explosive Evidence 2013 summary

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article