Conspiracy Theories and Evolutionary Psychology 11 Apr 2020
There are a lot of conspiracy theories flying around on social media about the origin of Covid-19: the CIA introduced it into China to disrupt the Chinese economy; the Chinese produced the virus to blow the American economy; Putin spread it to mess with ‘free world’ capitalism or distract the West from his political actions in the Ukraine and Syria.
These theories are steadily becoming more fantastical: governments everywhere allowed Coronavirus to spread so they could impose a police state: rigid controls on the people; 5G network and, one of my favourites, announced on Bosnian TV: MI6 in collaboration with The Pirbright Institute, Surrey (which specialises in Coronaviruses) introduced Covid-19 into Wuhan – Perfidious Albion , or possibly Boris Johnson’s plan to become ‘King of the World’. Throughout history, humans seem to love to develop conspiracy theories but they have become particularly prevalent in this age of modern media: whether it is the Americans faking the Moon landing or the source of Coronavirus. These dystopian theories abound, even permeating our entertainment, from the novels of Dan Brown to the films of James Bond.
The question has been put to me, “As an anthropologist, how do you explain the human desire to invent conspiracy theories?” Since humans have been recording their existence we have been looking for explanations to understand the arbitrary events in our lives. Natural disasters or accidents were seen as the work of the supernatural. For all societies, anthropologists know about, the source of these inexplicable events lay with the gods or spirits, who would have to be appeased and pleaded with to prevent further disasters. Appeasement would be in the form of a gift, usually more demanding than the flowers a husband gives his wife after that last row. In the Ancient World, the sacrifice was often ‘life’ itself. There is good evidence that in some cultures, like the Phoenicians and Aztecs, it was human life but usually, it would be animal sacrifice, like the Greeks and the Romans. The Abrahamic religions, faiths of the word (direct from God), have their rules and instructions written in their holy books; natural disasters might be seen as just punishment for disobedience – a failure to observe the Holy Law – or the work of the devil or demons spreading evil – a Church of England vicar recently pronounced Coronavirus “a profound evil”.
With the growth of science and understanding, humans have sought explanations in observable physical causes to natural disasters rather than the supernatural. Human agency is now perceived not only in accidents (where now there is always someone to blame and sue) but also in the natural world, affected by global warming and destruction of the environment. Usually, the culprit is government, who inflict woes upon the people through misuse of power, lies and corruption but there is also the sinister hidden hand of the power brokers and manipulators, big business, secret organisations and rich, crazy Dr Nos.
What we humans want in our need for certainty in our insecure and random existence is an explanation, however nonsensical, which gives us a sense of understanding our predicament. Back in our Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), past life must have been fraughtwith danger from predators and the environment at every turn and anxiety was a life-saving emotion. What we then needed was the knowledge to save our lives and now we need it to save our minds, so nothing has really changed in our behaviour.
By Tim Boatswain, Professor of Anthropology & History and Chairman of the St Albans Civic Society. Follow Tim on Twitter @timboatswain.