How History Gets Things Wrong

How History Gets Thing Wrong shatters many of the most pervasive and seductive illusions about reality. It examines the theory of mind, that is the ability to guess others people thoughts and motivations and how it leads to people’s use of narratives to understand the world. Although this ability is innate to humans, and has been highly adaptive throughout human evolution, it has overshot and turned us into “hyperactive agency detectors who suspect conspiracies and motives behind everything that happens. Narrative history often leads to inaccurate interpretation of events. Evolutionary game theory is probably a better theory for understanding societal developments. The conclusions are shocking, yet compelling and intuitive once the argument is laid out.

In fact, much of the conventional narrative history, written by conventional narrative historians since they started writing down stories 3000 years ago, demonstrates that the driving force of history is this Darwinian process operating through human culture.

Our minds are hardwired to impose the theory of mind on chronologies — to make them into narrative histories — and to find pleasure in doing so … We humans are very much the products of a natural selection process that has made us seek out such histories and conduct our affairs by employing them.

The Theory of Mind is Adaptive

The theory of mind is a highly adaptive trait when we deal with people who are close in space and time.

…As an adaptive trait , the theory of mind is right up there with binocular vision, opposable thumbs, and bipedalism. Together with language , it’s what moved us to the top of the food chain. Like other hardwired traits, its still with us, still shaping our culture, manifesting itself in everything we do. Its still the way we explain ourselves to ourselves and to one another. And because it comes to us before we even learn to walk let alone talk, we aren’t just used to it; we can’t stop using it, without even thinking about it— automatically, persistently, and unrestrainedly.

The theory of mind causes our addiction to stories

There is an interesting nature nurture dilemma in its development:

The almost innate theory of mind is probably the cumulative product of the iteration of an evolutionary process called the “Baldwin effect,” first identified by the psychologist James Mark Baldwin in 1896. In any organism capable of at least some environmental learning, behaviors that are repeatedly rewarded by food or warmth or safety, a bit of prey caught, a mate found, or a predator avoided are reinforced and become more frequent, and behaviors that are repeatedly punished by pain, injury, hunger or other privation are inhibited and become less frequent; deploying the rearded behaviors and avoiding the punished ones as a matter of course become learned traits for the organism. Through its life, there will be other traits, most of them hardwired, that can help the organism learn more quickly, deploy the rewarded behaviors for longer and fine-tune them further and avoid the punished behaviors more often and sooner. All of the traits that help the organism learn will be selected for, over and over again, in the course of evolution. Eventually, selection for traits that accelerate learning will make the organism’s ability to learn so early , so fast, and so accurate that it might as well be innate. There’s hardly any difference between hardwired species-specific behavior and behavior that is learned ealy and quickly, needing only slight reinforcement, and that is strongly maintained and operates with great discrimination.
This process of moving originally learned behaviors “inside” to become innate abilities by small steps over countless generations that makes the behaviors easier to learn, earlier learned further fine-tuned, and more automatically deployed, operates not only for individual behaviors, but also for suites of related behaviors that go together in an organism’s life.

All animals are “means-ends” systems. Their behaviors appear to track sources of food, shelter, reproductive opportunities, predators and prey. Since almost all animals are eaten by other animals, it is highly adaptive for all animals to be able to track the means-ends behavior of predators and prey. There will thus be selection for any new capacity that improves on this ability. Tracking the ends-means behaviors of prey or predators requires the ability to track the environmental resources and opportunities those behaviors are responses to – to see what they prey or predators are seeing, smelling and so on — as well as their ends at any given moment. Then there must be a capacity to combine these two into trajectories that can result in successful predation or escape. In the long-term struggle for survival between predators and prey, anything that facilitates the earliest acquisition of the most accurate version of this ability to predict other animals’ ends and means behavior will be selected for. Natural selection driven by Baldwin-effect mechanisms will continue until the suite of related abilities to do this predicting gets as close to being hardwired into cognitive development as biologically possible.


..Its the building of such suites of abilities, first in mammals, then in primates, and finally in hominins, that probably produced might as well be innate theory of mind in Homo Sapiens. Hers roughly how this may have happened. Natural selection started with operant conditioning, then used Baldwin-effect process on learning to produce what the youngest babies and most predatory mammals can do instinctively- predict behavior with a certain reliability: in what directions prey will move next, where edible insects will build their colonies, or birds lay eggs that predators can steal, how predators hunt and what their own pups or cubs might do that endangers them . By the time the great apes appeared this process had already produced primates who were very good at predicting and acting on a range of behaviors, of their predators, their prey, and their fellow primates.

Narratives Help Us Learn

As a matter of fact, acquiring the ability to teach and to learn is arguably more complicated than acquiring the technology of building compound axes. If teaching and learning that technology also requires learning teaching the more complex theory of mind, iits not surprise hominins were around for a million years before inventing the compound ax. Accomplishing the simpler task– building a compound ax– required learning how to imitate and figuring out how to teach. And because teaching required both parties to apply the theory of mind repeatedly, over and over again, each party would have had to frame beliefs about the beliefs of the other party, beliefs about the desires of the other party, desires about that party’s beliefs as well as desires, and sometimes each of these, over and over again.
If everything we ever learn from other requires that we already have the ability to learn, there is only about one solution to the problem of how we ever accomplished the original feat, acquiring the theory of mind, or at least as much of it as is needed for learning by imitation— the theory had to have been either innate, or once learned, faithfully preserved from generation to generation by teaching. Because without it, the evolutionary path to us humans could never have gotten started.

Narratives are a key part of human evolution

The theory of mind allowed humans to rise out of the African Savannah to dominate the planet. Yet we also extend and misapply the theory.

The progression from a (nearly ) innate theory of mind to a fixation on stories- narrative– was made in only a few short steps. We went from explaining how and why we did things in the present, to explaining how and why we did things in the past, to explaining how and why others did things in the present, then in the past, and finally to explaining how others did things with, to against, and for still others.
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In its response to particular environments, natural selection often appears to overshoot and then sometimes fine-tune. But what looks like overshooting may really be adapatation to a different “design problem” or even to a new problem created by the solution to an earlier one. Our theory of mind is probably embroiled in one such tangle of “problems” and “solutions” . To encourage our use of the theory of mind, natural selection has selected for those of us who are rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction, an “aha” experience when we do (Gopnik, 2000). Neuroscientists have shown that hearing a story, especially a tension filled one in the protagonists’ emotions are invoked, is followed by the release of pleasure-producing hormones such as oxytocin, which is also released during orgasm and is important for sustaining cooperation as well(Zak, 2015) . The pleasurable sensation reinforces our subsequent use of the theory of mind and is another source of our love of history and biography.

We evolved not to see what is true, but to survive.

How can the theory of mind be so adaptive if it is wrong? Its because there is no evolutionary reason for us to always see what is true.

The process of natural selection does not as a rule produce true beliefs, just ones that foster survival. Nor does it “track” truths about the world or about us so much as produce “quick and dirty” solutions to problems of survival and reproduction

Yet the Theory of Mind Is wrong

The trouble is, the theory of mind is not a very good theory, not at least by the standards we set for theories everywhere else. This should come as no surprise. If the neory was, in effect, conferred by natural selection, and not the result of careful scientific investigation, it wasn’t likely to be anything more than a relatively recent quick and dirty solution to an evolutionary “design problem” or perhaps a quick and dirty response to a “competitive opportunity “, like most of our other inherited traits.

The theory of mind overshot and led to an addiction to narratives. Its not enough to understand anything. its not even indispensable or necessary. In fact its not even in a good way, let alone the best or only way to understand anything. Most of the book is detailing how the theory of mind is wrong, and constant application of narratives leads us astray.

But the theory of mind was the first, indeed the only, cognitive tool available for coping with other people when human life became more complex and it was already wired in, hard to give up, and hard not to think things through with. Which meant that all of subsequent theorizing about human affairs has been built on its rickety foundations.

The theory of mind has been debunked by modern science

Neuroscientists tried to find evidence for the theory of mind, but what they found was the opposite.

Neuroscientists were supposed to show us how our pairings of beliefs and desires caused us to act: how the beliefs and desires in our minds were expressed with content in the neural circuits of our brains, and how the firing of these neural circuits brought about our movements and actions.


But when neuroscientists instead found that the neural circuits neither content nor needed it to perform their functions, it became clear that there was no room either for beliefs and desires or for purpose in those circuits or in the brain itself, even when almost all of us persisted in attaching purpose to beliefs and desires, both ours and other people’s. Most neuroscientists were not surprised by this outcome. The behaviorists anticipated it two or three generations before them but just didn’t have the tools that neuroscientists had to achieve it.

The implications are startling :

To see the theory of mind reconciled with, vindicated by what neuro scientists have discovered about the brain and how it works- we’d need to show (1) how the neural circuits in the brain have content are about things, represent the world; and (2) how they run the rest of the body in at least roughly the way the theory of mind says beliefs and desires do.

If we can’t do this, the two theories will compete with each other. The theory of mind’s explanations of how the mind works will rule out neuroscience’s explanations of how the brain works as being just wrong. And vice versa. We’ll have to choose which theory to accept. There’s only one way the theory of mind and neuroscience could both be right, or even at least roughly right, on track to being right about how our brains work. That way would be f neuroscience were able to find content, aboutness, representation somewhere in the neural circuits of the brain.

Theory of mind works in small groups, not in big groups:

We’ve noted several times that the core application of the theory of mind, the one we use it for most and in which it works best is in coping with the immediate behaviour of other people in immediate contact with us over relatively short periods of time. The more people are hidden from our direct observation, and the longer into the future we attempt to use the theory, the more ambiguous and unreliable its predictions become. Within the domain of its optimal application the theory works well because it treats its subjects- people and other animals as ends-means systems and combines this assumption with information about their immediate circumstances.


The theory of mind works best when it doesn’t stray very far from the mind-reading ability we share with other mammals. Since mind readers share their target animals’ environments, they have some sensory access to what the target animals see, hear, smell, taste and so on. Mind readers also have sensory access to their target animals’ current behaviour and perhaps memory access (somewhere in the hippocampus or neocortex) to the past behavior of those and similar animals in the local environment. Mind reading, whether in predators, prey, or cooperators is just a matter of how the brain makes a means-end calculation from a target’ animal’s current behavior in its environment to its behavior in the near future. Think of a lion tracking a gazelle. The lion factors the gazelle’s speed and endurance and the terrain to close in and make the kill. Think of the gazelle trying to escape the lion. The gazelle factors the lion’s speed and endurance and the terrain to take evasive action, which it adjusted to match the lion’s pursuit. The behaviors of booth lion and gazelle reflect the means-ends calculation that mind reading consists in.

The theory of mind doesn’t work when we apply it beyond immediate circumstances.

Thus the development of language creates a theory of mind out of the means-ends calculation that the human brain’s mind-reading ability consists in. then that theory provides languages use with a ready-made easily understood explanation of how language comes by the meanings of its words. Meanwhile the theory also helps Homo sapiens climb to the top of the African food chain and continues to work well enough in interactions both between cooperating people and between them and their predators and prey (human and nonhuman). Eventually this adaptation overshoots and humans start to use the theory of mind beyond their immediate circumstances that selected for its adaptive improvements on their mind-reading ability. Until, finally, we begin to speculate, invent conspiracies, to narrate, tell stories and write histories.

This overshooting is impossible to turn off:

By this point, natural selection is no longer able to do much about such overshooting and our use of mind reading outside its effective range of application. Having selected for the theory of mind’s placement in the mind-reading module of our brains and the reward system for using it, it can’t easily fine-tune the theory further. Nor can natural selection select for turning the theory off unless and until it becomes clearly harmful for our survival and reproduction.

Addiction to stories can lead us badly astray. It causes us to assume the worst about strangers:

But mind reading becomes malevolent when the theory of mind enables it to unleash our hostile emotions against people we don’t even know, people who may even be long dead or far away.    

See also: Talking to Strangers

On a broader scale, narratives become extremely destructive:

… Most people , especially those who drag narrative history into politics didn’t get the message. National narratives especially move people by giving meaning to the chronicle of their history. People mistake the emotions such narratives foster for understanding. When the broad sweep of narrative history comes packaged in a story – Manifest Destiny, The White Man’s Burden, “the civilizing mission【la mission civilatrice]” “blood and soil [blud und Boden]”- its hard for anyone to shake it off just because of the way its packages.
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Not only has historical storytelling led us astray in our expectations about the future. It is more often than not led those who believe it into moral catastrophes. No one can seriously suggest , on balance, narrative history has been a force for good since it began to be written down some 5,000 years ago. There are, of course, exceptions to this woeful track record, onese we honor even as we try to overlook the atrocities sincerely perpetrated in the name of history.

The author believes we need to move beyond narratives, in order to avoid continued suffering.

Its not just that “collective historical memory” is neither factual n or proportional nor stable. The same problems arise in the best, most disinterested archibally scrupulous, primary source- driven historical scholarship. If the historical record is anything more than a chronology, its not verifiable. Its wrong. And wrong in the most dangerous way, the way pretty much guaranteed to ensure the mayhem of the last 5,000 years of recorded history will continue into the future.

OK Computer

… the appearance of design by some all-powerful intelligence is produced mindlessly by purely mechanical processes(Dennett, 1995) And they make manifest that the next stage in the research program that began with Newton ins the banishment of the theory of mind from its last bastion- the domain of human psychology.

Hardwarde-software models are probably a better model for understanding reality. Note that the Jeapordy! winning computer doesn’t operate according to theory of mind.

But now we’ve seen that programs, even programs powerful enough to win at Jeopardy! don’t have, indeed can’t have the features that the theory of mind requires. They don’t operate on the content of their inputs to shape the content of their outputs.  All programs do is take the form, structure, and syntax of each input and produce an output with the same or different form, structure and syntax. If their inputs represent anything, mean anything, are about anything, that fact about them doesn’t matter to how programs work.  Content doesn’t matter to programs because all they can do is change 0s to 1s, low voltage to high voltage and so on, or vice versa.  

..If the computer hardware-software model is a good model of how our brains and minds work- how we think- then the theory of mind is critically, completely and hopelessly wrong. 

This has huge implications for the future, as artificial intelligence takes on a bigger role in society.

Unpredictable Factors

The author also had some interesting insights into the role technological progress has made the future more unpredictable. Unfortunately our narrative toolkit isn’t auto updating.

.. But the users of history have increasingly underestimated the role of entirely new factors in shifting the trajectory of events away from its past directions. The effect of entirely new and unarguably unpredictable factors on history has grown rapidly in the last two centuries. Ironically, its safe to predict the role of these factors will soon completely undermine confidence in any predictive role for history. This prediction is not itself based on history, though the history of the four German thrusts through Ardennes illustrates it plainly enough. Technological change from 1870 through 1944 was clearly unpredictable and had a decisive impact when added to other factors that remained the same over the period. The machine gun, the Maginot Line , the tank, Ultra decryption all made a difference in what happened in each of the thrusts- and all made any extrapolation from previous history pretty pointless. It’s interesting to note that the military planners were later criticized by historians for not having learned this obvious fact from history. If technological change is driven by scientific discovery and invention– the quintessentially unpredictable results of human creativity— then it seems obvious that the events technology affects will be just as unpredictable. And, as the role played by technology in humans affairs grows ever greater, the study of history will have fewer and fewer lessons for the future.

There is no purpose in nature, only the illusion of purpose

This conclusion manages to be shocking, yet intuitive:

But the whole history of science from Newton onward tells us there is no purpose in nature, only the appearance of purpose, overlay our minds spread across the domains of nature, whether physical, biological, or psychological. Neurosciences just completed project of banishing purpose from nature, showing that its appearance is an illusion, although once a highly adaptive illusion and perhaps still indispensable in everyday life , but, for all that, not real, so not available to explain anything.
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Recall that Darwin revealed the causal mechanism, the “machine behind the curtain” that produced in us the illusion in nature – blind variation and natural selection. Perhaps he should have called natural selection “environmental filtration” instead to emphasize the passivity of the proces, its complete freedom from even the suggestion of purposeful “selection.” But its too late to change the name of the theory even though calling it something like the :theory of environmental filtration” would have made Diamond’s reliance on it to drive the process Guns, Germs and Steel describes much easier.
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It needs to be re emphasized how science first banished purpose from the physical domain, and then revealed the detailed mechanisms that produced the illusion of purpose wherever that illusion appeared. That purpose has no explanatory role and indeed no place at all in the physical domain is abundantly clear from the most fundamental facts of physics. Until Darwin, there was no way to banish purpose from the biological domain as well. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, “There will never be a Newton for the blade of grass, “ meaning that purpose could never be surrendered in the life sciences , since without it, the evident means-ends economy of nature couldn’t b explained. But 25 years later, in 1809, the Newton of the blade of grass” was in fact born in Shropshire, England. Darwin would advance the Newtonian project, banishing purpose from the biological domain while leaving the appearance of purpose, even as he explained it way. Contemporary molecular biology would fill in the details of Darwin’s theory, showing how both the heredity and development of organic systems were simply the result of the interaction of macromolecules, and how these systems interact with their environment through the same physical and chemical processes to produce adaptations that we still take for the fulfillment of purpose.

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