Biology Magazine

Don’t Seek and You Shall Find

By Cris

Some weeks ago Farhad Manjoo penned a techno-robotic piece arguing that independent bookstores are superfluous and should just die. It was one of the coldest things I’ve read in years but it wasn’t surprising. Manjoo’s pleasures in life seem to be efficiency, pricing, and technology. His idea of literary fun is to preview books on Amazon, push order buttons, and consume books — all from the solitary comfort of home or while riding the bus.

Don’t Seek and You Shall Find

Once a month my mastiffs and I walk to our local bookstore, located right in the center of a thriving restaurant and arts district filled with locally owned shops. It’s a daylong affair, punctuated by coffee, conversation, and discovery. The owner whom I’ve known for years is always there; she brims with  obscure knowledge and wonderful recommendations. I’ve read at least 20 books this year I never would have considered or even known about without her. I’ve read another 40 books I never would have considered or known about without spending many hours browsing the shelves and stacks. Many are no longer in print and most haven’t been reviewed.

At the end of a magical day, we go next door with a backpack full of books for beers and some food. The dogs like beer. On one of our recent outings I came across Wish and Wisdom: Episodes in the Vagaries of Belief, published in 1935 by Joseph Jastrow. It is curiously written in Victorian style and on the surface appears to be a series of vignettes demonstrating human folly and foible.

Jastrow, an early pioneer in experimental psychology and eccentric founder of the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, divides the book into 7 parts that correspond to 7 psychological traits or propensities. When these traits are combined and not overridden by rationality or reason, the common result is mental error and unfounded belief. According to Jastrow, the traits are:

  • Credulity: The Urge to Believe
  • Marvel: The Appeal of Wonder
  • Transcendence: Escaping Limitations
  • Prepossession: Finding What You Look For
  • Congenial Conclusion: Folk-Mind and Doctrinal Survivals
  • Cults and Vagaries: Strange Solutions
  • Rationalization: Flaunting Reason’s Banner

At the start of each section Jastrow explains what each trait (which can be psychological, cultural or both) means and how it works. Following this prefatory telling, he then shows each trait or proclivity in historical action. There are 3-4 standalone vignettes for each section; some are well known (Madame Blavatsky, Ouija, Numerology, Phrenology, Clever Hans) whereas others are wonderfully obscure and rescued from oblivion (Leo Taxil, Theological Zoology, Astral Chemistry, Jaeger Woolens). The moral of each story is that humans are psychologically prone to wishful thinking and with cultural reinforcement (which is never lacking) we will believe just about anything.

Jastrow was taking aim at all manner of supernatural, mystical, and magical thinking, yet did so in ways that did not directly attack religion. He reasonably surmised that if the religiously inclined were to contemplate his carefully chosen examples they would realize there could be no principled distinction between one form of folly and another. Jastrow’s friendship with William James may have prompted the book and been a gentle rejoinder to the man who turned toward mysticism later in his life.

In closing, Jastrow — a pioneer in the evolutionary study of language — asks why humans are driven by sincere wishes and dubious confirmations. Without any apparent sense of irony, he roots the problem in language:

I place first vagueness, with its symbol, the cloud. If you would impose, be cloudy, vaporous, misty; soar under conditions of low visibility, trailing a smoke-screen in your wake. Erratic beliefs like wraiths shun daylight; clarity is their vital enemy. And man, by the very necessities of his mental existence — by the urgencies of expression and communication — has, in the supreme invention of language, forged the very instrument of his undoing. Words make effective cloud-screens. As indispensably as they express thought when used lucidly they may as effectively mask it, obscure it, conceal its absence.

In all ages, cultists and propagandists of a hollow or shaky cause resort to verbal screenery. The more successful become adept in linguistic obfuscation. My reference is not to the most common employment, the political appeal, nor to rhetoric, which Huxley called the pestilent cosmetic smearing the fair face of truth. My theme is limited to beliefs and faiths which in intent make an appeal to fact. In another reference, I have called this trend the lure of the obscure, accounting for the wide prevalence of the cult of the occult.

This provides a nice sense for Jastrow’s style, which during the 1960s landed him on the required reading list for undergraduate English majors at Harvard. Rendered differently, it’s a clarion call that hearkens back to Ludwig Wittgenstein and forward to Jerry Coyne.

For me, the moral of this story is not that Jastrow prefigured or presaged recent work in the cognitive study of religion, or that he did it in high style with entertaining vignettes. It is that I never would have found this book or known that it existed by searching Amazon. Had I been Farhad Manjoo, this nothing is what I would have found. Support your local bookstore.

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