The Supernatural – Another One Bites the Dust

May 23, 2007 at 1:46 pm 13 comments

Cow suffocated from gases from Lake Nyos
Cow found near Lake Nyos, killed by evil spirits suffocated from gases.

In northwestern Cameroon lies Lake Nyos. According to legend, a long time ago, the evil spirits in the lake became angry and killed everyone in the lake’s proximity (or so says neatorama). On August 21, 1986, the spirits struck again, killing around 1800 people and 3500 livestock. Was this proof of the supernatural?

Of course not. That would be silly. As it turns out, a magma chamber beneath the region is feeding the lake with CO2. Over time, the water becomes supersaturated, and events such as an earthquake can release large amounts of CO2. This is what happened. Up to a cubic kilometer CO2 was released, displacing the air and suffocating human and animal alike.

What is interesting is the local myth, likely the result of previous event(s). Once again, science has explained what folklore would have it is supernatural. It’s pretty obvious that people are hungry for explanations. It’s also pretty obvious, if you peek back in history, that humans have a tendency to attribute human qualities where there are none. Before the forced christening of Norway, my ancestors believed thunder was Thor riding over the sky in his cart pulled by some magical goats. In more recent times, people become emotionally attached to the responses they get when communicating with simplistic computer programs such as ELIZA, which are nothing but mechanical results that come from mechanically applying certain transformations on whatever you type in, with no emotions involved.

What’s even more interesting is when we move from what is culturally accepted as mythology, such as Thor with his hammer and magic goats, to what is culturally accepted as fact, or at least as an acceptable belief. What if we move from Thor to Yahweh, from Zeus to Allah? I’ll make no such move today; perhaps in later posts.

Another example of attributing human qualities to unexplained phenomena that may be very natural is UFO stories. UFOs are all unidentified flying objects, but they’ve become synonymous with flying saucers and extraterrestrial, intelligent lifeforms. When people see strange lights in the sky, they will attribute it to extraterrestrial beings, beings that we have never observed. Not much different from gods, perhaps, except that aliens are much more likely to exist, since we know that the conditions for intelligent life to appear exist in the universe and we know it does appear, since we are intelligent beings ourselves. Perhaps UFOs are aliens. Far more likely, in my view, is an unknown natural cause á la Lake Nyos.

Why is it that we attribute human or at least intelligent qualities to nature? What evolutionary advantage could the traits that lead to this have? I don’t know, but I do know it happens.


Entry filed under: Simen. Tags: , , , , .

When a scientist interprets Scripture Speaking in Tongues: Shandalahai!

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. tobeme  |  May 23, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Yes, it does happen. We want answers for all things, especially those which cannot be easily explained, therefore if the answer is not know we make up an answer. It is interesting, isn’t it.

  • 2. Simen  |  May 23, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    What’s amazing is how easily the made-up answers are accepted. Especially in a society as advanced as ours. Actually, it’s at such times I wonder whether we’re really that advanced at all.

  • 3. Karen  |  May 23, 2007 at 6:22 pm

    We’re predisposed, as pattern-seeking mammals, to find “causes” for things we can’t explain.This is why we’re all so riveted by stories of any kind – movies, TV shows, novels, theater. These big brains of ours love explication and resolution.

    It think it also explains why most of us are predisposed to believe in the supernatural. It’s likely that there is/was a evolutionary advantage to making up answers and inventing rituals that help us blunt or deny the reality and finality of death.

    What happens is that as science begins to provide provable explanations for many of these things, supernatural belief gets continually edged into smaller and smaller “gaps.” Quantum physics is the new “gap” for many believers, though it’s not likely to provide a refuge for the supernatural once it begins to be better understood.

    When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightening rod, preachers all over New England ranted and raved against him! They actually taught that lightening and thunder was god’s wrath being “poured out” on evil people – and they thought Franklin was playing god with his invention that kept many “wicked” people from dying in house fires.

  • 4. beepbeepitsme  |  May 23, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    .I can give you my take on it which is similar to karen’s.

    We are a pattern seeking species. Through our abiility to differentiate similar from dissimilar, we are able to produce complex environments like blogs for example. The language we use on blogs is a complex pattern of symbols, shapes, and sounds which we are able to make sense of through the processes of similar and dissimilar – the processes of visual and auditory discrimination.

    If we think back to out tribal ancestors, this ability to form visual and auditory patterns of recognition would have been a survival advantage. Not only would it have helped mankind to be able to progress to more and more complex technological and cultural concepts – but it would have enabled many of our ancestors to survive, literally.

    Not only are we pattern seeking animals, we are a species which is honed evolutionary for physical survival. The ancestor who was in the forest at night and saw a shape in the woods with which he/she was unfamiliar, would have probably quickly visually processed if the shape was friend or foe. If the shape could not be quickly identified as a friend, or as something harmless, it would have been advantageous from a survival point of view to assume that the shape was harmful. And as the natural world was distinctly more harmful to human survival than it is now for many of us – the wary individual would have been one who assumed harm.

    Of course, when he or she got back into the comfort and security of the tribe and the fire, he/she would have described this menacing shape which confronted him in the darkness. As danger lurked in nature in either human or animal form – the shape, whether it was a tree trunk or not – may have been interpreted to be a threatening combination of something human-like but not human, animal like, but not a known animal.

    We can still see this survival mechanism in play with other herd species such as zebras or deer. It is advantageous to assume the worst when grazing on the plain. The deer which is “spooked” over a small sound or an odd shadow, may increase the survival of himself and also the herd.

    So fear or anxiety is a survival mechanism, but continual fear would be deleterious as the processes of living would not occur if a species was in a continual state of fear or apprehension. The trade off to this survival mechanism is that in many circumstances the fear is irrational. How many times in a herd situation, is the herd frightened by a sound or by something visual which does not pose any threat to its existence?

    So basically as a pattern seeking species which is honed through evolution towards survival, we are fearful of situations, sounds, and images which we can even slightly define as a potential threat. These threats, irrational and imagined in many instances, take on the attributes and characteristics of KNOWN threats. Human being’s known threats are other humans and other powerful animals – which is why these “mysterious” sounds and shapes take on the attributes and characteristics of known dangers. So a shape in the forest becomes human- but not completely human and a sound in the forest, or in the house becomes the sound of an animal predator.

    So fear is useful even though much of it is irrational.

  • 5. beepbeepitsme  |  May 23, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    To add to that previous long-winded thought.

    The people who decided that it was evil spirits or unknown powerful threats which were deliberately killing the cattle – ensured that people didn’t hang around in that area for too long. In that way it was a survival mechanism. The unfortunate thing is that that immediate type of survival mechanism doesn’t provide a useful explanation as to what was actually killing the cattle. It takes someone who is prepared to put their irrational fears to one side, in order to ascertain the real problem. Once the real problem is defined, and a solution to the “cow killing” is found – positive steps can be taken to ensure the continued survival of the cattle.

  • 6. HeIsSailing  |  May 23, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    beepbeepitsme and Karen,
    I enjoyed your replies. I had heard Dawkins try to explain how religion could have an evolutionary advantage for our ancestors, but remained unconvinced. I think you two explained how religious belief could be borne of fear – which is itself definitely a survival advantage. As beeepbeep says, a smart tribe will move away from harmful gases due to healthy fear.

    But this only brings fear into the mix, and I think there has to be a sense of awe and ecstacy also.

    I live in the desert of the southwestern United States. It is sparsely populated, and you can see seemingly forever in every direction around you. Nothing but vast desert with barren mountains rising in the distance. In the spring, the nights are still very cold out here, but as soon as the sun rises the temperature rises extremely fast near the ground. The point is, there is a high temperature gradiant – and it produces mirages.

    So if you look at a distant mountain just as the sun is heating up the desert floor, that mountain will sometimes appear to have a giant hole in the middle of it. Or it will appear to change shape right before your eyes, from a mountain, to a ship’s prow, to a strange mushroom shape. Sometimes that mountain will even float in the sky, or even appear upside-down! It will just seem to lift right off the ground and move this way and that!

    Now a scientist will observe this a as mundane natural phenomena, and can write a few lines of equations that will explain the whole matter. But the ancients could not do that. No, the ancients had no idea about temperature gradients, wavelength dependent refraction, or anything else like that.

    No, they had no basis to know those things. All they knew was that those distant mountains move, change shape and disappear. Place yourselves in their shoes for a moment. Just considering this simple example, it is no wonder the ancients believed in ghosts, spirits, or other powers beyond their reasoning! The earth is full of bizarre phenomena that we take for granted, that absolutely mystified the ancients.

    Combine that sense of wonder and ecstacy from me, with a little fear from Karen and beepbeep – hey, there is your religion.

  • 7. Epiphanist  |  May 24, 2007 at 6:06 am

    Evolution theory is the new Reincarnation theory. The Big Bang Theory is the new Creation theory. Science is the new Superstition. Same hooks, different baits! Don’t get me started on Dawkins and his derivative drivel.

  • 8. HeIsSailing  |  May 24, 2007 at 7:02 am

    Epiphanist declares:
    “Science is the new Superstition. ”

    I just find it ironic that you typed this on one of the greatest scientific marvels of all history.

  • 9. Simen  |  May 24, 2007 at 8:25 am

    Karen, beepbeepitsme and Hels Sailing, thanks for your comments. It does make sense that fear would lead to irrationally attributing semi-familiar patterns to semi-familiar animals, imagination mixing and blending known animals into malevolent, fantastic creatures.

    I also think that awe and wonder takes some part. While fear and anxiety (much like pain) are unpleasant reactions that clearly lead us to avoid potentially dangerous situations, it’s unclear to me exactly how to work in awe and wonder in the equation. How does the benevolent spirit and the almighty good lead to a higher survival rate? Humans spend much time devoted to their nonexistent deities, time that could be better spent say hunting or bonding together the tribe in a social context. Perhaps it’s exactly this that is so good about religion? Perhaps praying together forms closer ties to the rest of the tribe? Most religions, at least anceint ones, have xenophobia in one degree or another built-in. “My god’s stronger than your god” might lead to better defense mechanisms against threats outside of the tribe.

    Epiphanist says:

    Evolution theory is the new Reincarnation theory. The Big Bang Theory is the new Creation theory. Science is the new Superstition. Same hooks, different baits!

    The only thing that is constant is human ignorance.

    Don’t get me started on Dawkins and his derivative drivel.

    No need. Start with backing up your own assertions.

  • 10. Paul Martin  |  May 24, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    So you mean when the toast always lands face down – that’s really not Satan then?

  • 11. Karen  |  May 24, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    Combine that sense of wonder and ecstacy from me, with a little fear from Karen and beepbeep – hey, there is your religion.

    That seems to be as good an explanation as any we’ve got currently. But there’s a lot of study going on about the rise and universality of religion, so it’s a fascinating subject.

    Daniel Denett is really good on this topic. He talks about “belief in belief in god” as being an inherent virtue. So the idea is, people are judged in society by a “belief in belief” standard: Anyone who has a god-belief (no matter which specific deity) is more trustworthy, kinder, fairer etc. than someone who doesn’t have any god-belief.

    This is why atheism is still shocking and appalling to many people, because “belief in belief” is so inherent to our culture.

    Dennett also posits a hypothesis about people who are particularly intuitive, sensitive, “spiritual” – such as the medicine people or shamans of ancient tribes. Because they were trained in using herbs and other pseudo-medical that DID work occasionally (whether by coincidence or training or whatever), they were revered and protected and rewarded.

    Other people of similar personality type were trained by them, held special places in the tribes, were protected, etc. So being a deeply “religious” person became a survival advantage.

    Not too sure how valid that hypothesis is, but it’s interesting to contemplate.

  • […] Let’s not conform to all these religions created by our ancestors who believed in myths and unseen spiritual forces. Let’s view life through the lens of knowledge, science, and what we have learned from […]

  • 13. Fidelia  |  December 21, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Hi GregI came across your blog when A Blog Supreme wrote about us both in the same post. I like the site a lot and think it’s a great recurose in helping jazz musicians to think in a more business-like way.Keep up the great work!

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