Being another excerpt from my gestating tome The Beowulf Effect, written today between Liverpool Street and Colchester, after which I played several rounds of Angry Birds.
We human beings have at least two remarkable abilities. One of them is pattern recognition.
It is easy to see why. Without some ability to categorise objects, the complex and crowded world in which we live would indeed be a dangerous place. In earlier times, an ability to recognise and quickly infer the nature of an approaching object, without taking time to explore it first, might have been a life-saver. Those early hominins unable to tell the difference between a dead branch and a black mamba, or who misinterpreted the growl of an approaching leopard as the purr of a cuddly kitten, would stand less chance of passing on their genes to the next generation than those who saw the patterns; sorted these objects into the right categories; made the right choices.
We use that ancient circuitry today, and every day, when trying to make sense of our world. In his book Us and Them (which is probably the best anthropology book I have ever read, and if you haven’t read it, I implore you to do so), David Berreby notes how this ability prompts us to leap to snap judgements about our fellow humans which on closer inspection they might not deserve. That rowdy crowd of tattooed and pierced bikers hanging around in your favourite restaurant? Instinct and experience – if only perhaps vicarious – might make you turn on your heel and walk out for fear of being mugged. The stories you’ve heard… Your instincts might well be right, and could save your life. Except that further investigation might have revealed that these particular bikers are all college graduates devoted to their mothers; have congregated to celebrate their charity bike-ride to raise money for a sanctuary for abandoned puppies; and have chosen this restaurant because they’ve heard that the chef cooks up a crême brulée that’s to die for.
First impressions can save your life – or tell you lies.
So, while we are very good at recognising objects, our talent is so refined that we are inclined to see patterns where there aren’t any. Almost everyone who looks at the surface of the Moon sees a human face, even though we know that the features responsible for the illusion are in fact gigantic plains of ancient lava, and nothing to do with faces at all. We are perfectly aware of our tendency to make non-existent connections, to spot non-existent patterns. In such error lies much of importance and interest in our cultural heritage, in images of all kinds from classical trompe l’oeil to surrealism; in the comedies of errors in Shakespeare’s plays and Mozart’s operas to the cheapest farces; and in just about every joke you can think of. Here is an example (I have a better one but it is too rude for a family audience.)
A: I say, I say, I say, how do you tell the difference between a posting box and the back end of a rhinoceros?
B: I don’t know, how do you tell the difference between a posting box and the back end of a rhinoceros?
A: Well, if you don’t know the answer to that, I won’t send you to post the letters.
‘Ba-boom’, and, moreover, ’tish’.
So, much we might indulge children who see elephants and whales in passing clouds, not to mention scoff at people who see images of Jesus or the Virgin in scraps of material or pieces of toast, everyone is at it – even scientists. One immediately brings to mind the story of the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli who unwittingly joined the barely visible dots of craters on distant Mars into channels or canali – an illusion (compounded by mistranslation) that led astronomer Percival Lowell to posit the existence of canals dug by a technologically advanced civilization under threat of extinction by drought. From this error comes H. G. Wells’ stirring tale of Earth’s invasion by Mars in The War Of The Worlds; Orson Welles’ notorious radio adaptation that had fearful crowds flocking into the streets; Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom fantasies, and much else. Even today, when we know perfectly well that John Carter of Mars is a character in a pulp fantasy, and that tripods squirting death rays are unlikely to be found on Horsell Common, nor, as it may be, New Jersey, scientists with their intellects vast and overheated and over-sympathetic look at Mars with eyes perhaps over-welcoming of the possibility of life.
All of which areological digression leads me very conveniently to another remarkable ability of humans – that of telling stories. Chains of unconnected craters became lines which became canals which became, implicitly, an heroic narrative of a great civilisation struggling against extinction – and, more explicitly, thrilling yarns of interplanetary warfare and high adventure. So, not only are we good at spotting patterns, even if non-existent ones, we tend to weave them into tales as ways of making sense of what might otherwise be sets of disconnected and therefore worrying phenomena. This ability is so ingrained in us that it even haunts our subconscious. Things that go bump in the night are seamlessly woven into the stories we tell ourselves in dreams. It is easy to see how our ancestors, living much closer to nature, the unknown and the reality of sudden and unexplained phenomena than we do nowadays, would hear thunder in the mountains and console themselves with stories of angry