Conspiracy Theories Forever
Why even the silliest claims will always attract countless true believers
The human animal occupies a highly unusual and somewhat uncomfortable niche in the animal kingdom.
Our brains are evolved to cope with the relatively simple environmental challenges of the African savannah and the primordial forests of Eurasia. Unlike our nearest relatives the chimps, our brains have enough neural hardwiring to enable us to adapt to a wide range of different conditions. And, most importantly of all, thanks to as-yet improperly understood genetic mutations occurring somewhere around 70,000 years ago, we live in a different world from all other creatures around us.
Unlike other intelligent animals like corvids, cetaceans, certain gastropods, other apes, and elephants, we humans live primarily not in the real world of the past and present but in an imaginary world in which dreams and desires often take precedence. Furthermore, although other intelligent creatures have to deal with death and bereavement, we humans appear to have a greater capacity for vaguely sensing how vast and impersonal and dangerous the world around us truly is.
For 98% of our evolutionary history we were very vulnerable indeed. Death was everywhere. With relatively weak muscles, slow movements, feeble teeth, and no claws, we were easy prey. In a world without even rudimentary medicine, even a scratch could lead to sepsis and death. A fall could result not only in a painful broken limb but also, thanks again to sepsis, to gangrene and death. Even a decayed tooth could ultimately kill. Invisible illnesses were a constant source of anxiety too, not least because no one knew how and when they would manifest.
In short, our ancestors lived in a near-constant state of dread. And that’s not very adaptive. Any animal that is constantly terrified won’t last long.
So we evolved various cognitive mechanisms to blot out the harsh realities of the world and replace them with comforting fables. Many of these mechanisms were intimately connected to group bonding, because as weak and feeble animals we depend entirely on membership of the group for our survival. The life expectancy of a lone human 30,000 years ago would be measured in hours whereas within a…