This is a longish response to a post on the blog, Round Dice, on Evolution of the Obvious. Read it first, then come back here if you like. Or stay there and soak up more of Mr. Menon’s encyclopedic mind.
The Day Before Yesterday (also the title of my upcoming disaster novel) my sister-in-law’s chimney caught fire, causing some smoke damage and sending them to a friend’s house for the night. My mother-in-law called my wife and I yesterday to tell us what happened and then, unable to keep herself off the stage, intimated that she had went to bed that night unable to stop thinking about my sister-in-law and, in hindsight, sure that dark clouds were gathering over her daughter’s home.
I have a not entirely irrational habit of taking words and plugging them into Inigo Montoya’s retort, “I don’t think [term] means what you think it means.” In this case, coincidence or mother’s intuition–when your habit is to worry about any one of your children as you wait for sleep, weighting your worry toward those struggling the most, odds are good that you’ll hit jackpot when disaster strikes. The statistics of coincidence aside (coincidence not being all that coincidental), my mother-in-law created an event, then assigned an adaptive value to it (mom still needs to be needed). Societies could (and have) built rules of behavior around such intuition (placing them in the murky realm of the unquestionable–not the inexplicable, because the explanation is the unexplainable intuition, which some people reduce to a lifetime of perceptions creating a complex web of awareness that exceeds the bounds of what most of us can comprehend on an average day, leading to notions of intelligent design–but I digress.)
A nice thing about superstition is that it jumps right to the results–no boring search and sift through data (a word as dry and, to some, as nefarious in meaning as “corpse powder”) to help explain the system–so superstition is an adaption to prevent boredom. (Or weevils.) And it gets us back to work, to surviving the day. BUT (sorry for the big but), ironically, it also causes boredom–as in, sheesh, is that all there is? Or, maybe, as it turns out, there’s this fascinating system of behaviors and cultural transmission tied to genetics that makes it possible to view a node (person) or a group of nodes (crowd, congregation, etc.) as almost impossibly but not inconceivably (that word does mean what I think it means) rich systems that should occasionally make us giddy with delight (or, optionally, disgust) when we look at each other. Like looking at clouds–what do you see, a kitty chasing a bunny, two gods butting thunderheads, a chimney fire, or….
P.S. This doesn’t mean I don’t love my mother-in-law. Or worry about her at night.