scott_atran's picture
Anthropologist; Emeritus Research Director, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Institut Jean Nicod, Paris; Co-Founder, Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, University of Oxford; Author, Talking to the Enemy
Atran's Law

Atran's Power Law of History

(a corollary to the law of unintended consequences)

The major events that determine human history follow a power distribution (a more or less straight line on a log-log scale), with catastrophic and cascading consequences (economic and health crises, political and cultural revolutions, war and terrorism, etc.), because people naturally prefer to act upon the future based on their modeling of past occurrences. People do not repeat the catastrophes of history because they forget it; people build up self-destructing ideologies and behavior patterns that continue history's catastrophic path because they remember the past too well (e.g., "the maginot effect" for war and the soon-to-be "box-cutting effect" for terrorism).

Ancillary: For politics, history's most well-developed and self-assured "isms" (e.g., colonialism, fascism, communism, globalism) are those most prone to radical collapse.

Atran's Law of Bare Counterintuition

(for the cultural survival of absurd ideas)

Natural selection endowed humans with an intuitive ontology that includes folkbiology (e.g., biodiversity divides into mutually exclusive groups of beings, and each group has a proprietary essence), folkpsychology (e.g., intentional and emotional beings have bodies, and have knowledge of other like beings by observing and inferring how other bodies act), and folkphysics (e.g., two bodies cannot simultaneously occupy the same place at the same time, and no body can occupy different places at the same time). Barely counterintuitive ideas, which violate universal constraints on intuitive ontology (e.g., a bodiless being) but otherwise retain most commonsense properties associated with intuitive ontology (a bodiless being who mostly acts and thinks like a person), are those fictions most apt to survive within a culture, most likely to recur in different cultures, and most disposed to cultural variation and elaboration (e.g., sphinxes and griffins, spirits and crystal balls, ghosts and gods).

Ancillary: For religion (i.e., for most humans in all human societies), the more costly one's commitment to some factually absurd but barely counterintuitive world (e.g., afterlife), the more others believe that person to be sincere and trustworthy.