Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

Bookmark and Share

About IGMS / Staff
Write to Us

  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
September 2017

The Bastard Sister of Science

“The principles of association are excellent in themselves,
and indeed absolutely essential to the working of the human mind.
Legitimately applied they yield science; illegitimately applied
they yield magic, the bastard sister of science.”
-Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (1922), ch. 4

I started out as a comic book geek. Superheroes were my childhood drug of choice. Prose reading was mostly mystery novels and nonfiction. I started reading SF and fantasy in high school, partly through Wendy & Richard Pini's Elfquest comics, which spun off a couple of shared-world prose anthologies that eased the transition. The comics community had by that time been infected with a collecting mindset that discouraged free trades, which meant I had to budget my monthly reading more carefully than I liked. It also meant that used comics (at least the popular ones) tended to be more expensive than new ones. Thankfully, neither of those phenomena held with used books.

Comics have always mixed scientific and fantastic elements, sometimes in clever ways and sometimes not. When I made my jump to prose, I tended to like books that did the same, like Elfquest. Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions was a particular favorite, with its radioactive giants and ultraviolet-sensitive denizens of Faerie. I never read Gordon R. Dickson's Dragon Knight series, but if I remember the cartoon correctly, it had a similar flavor.

Sir James Frazer was famous in Victorian England, though academics these days tend to dismiss him as an armchair anthropologist, one who never visited any of the tribes or cultures he wrote about, but only culled from the writings of those who had. He wrote several versions of his masterwork, The Golden Bough, of varying length. Quite a few SF writers were inspired by Frazer's work over the course of the twentieth century, as detailed in this article. One author Clute leaves out is Lyndon Hardy, whose Magic by the Numbers trilogy, like Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories, explicitly referred to Frazer's laws—and then added some more. I read the first one in college and rather liked it.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law may be more famous (few things are more often quoted by nerds), but given his influence on authors, Sir James G. Frazer's quote from the opening of this column may be equally important in the history of SF. Clarke defined magic as mystery; Frazer took the opposite point of view, that magic could be understood in a rigorous scientific way. In Frazer's view, magic is a mechanical, deterministic process, not a social negotiation with a spirit or a god. Instead, the magician imagines that s/he is taking advantage of the correlations between worldly phenomena, just different ones, more intuitively obvious than those that experimental science has shown to be important. Two of these correlations were central:

  1. The Law of Sympathy: “the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it.”

  2. The Law of Contagion: “whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.”

Inflamed wounds are hot, red, and swollen (thus the word inflamed). Given that, the practice of heating the weapon that inflicted a wound to cause further inflammation of that wound makes some sense. Where our current science blames invisible microbes for inflammation and disease, cultures without microscopes usually blamed other invisible things, like bad smells or magical operations by distant or hidden sorcerers.

Frazer also described a simple linear model for the gradual historical sophistication of human models of reality.

Magic → Religion → Science

Although he placed religion as the transition between magic and science, Frazer appears to me to have thought of religion as more of a detour. While magic's laws of Contagion and Sympathy were mistaken models of reality, to Frazer they were only minor errors, fixable by experimental data and practice. He seems to have considered the invention of supernatural intelligent entities, whose decisions might be influenced like those of humans, as a whole other category of error, one that required its own phase in the development of society.

His model was too simple, of course. The real world is nothing if not messy. But the value of a model is to make one's thinking explicit enough to be tested, and while Frazer did no experiments himself, his model was clear enough for other people to test it. That was valuable.

Modern neuroscience might actually kind of agree with Frazer about one thing, that there are categories of error. There have been many studies of the human tendency to project—especially socially. We tend to create agents like ourselves to explain natural processes. This tendency has even been somewhat localized in the brain. Our dedicated primate social circuitry's normal function includes making inferences about known people who are not physically present at the moment, because they're in another location. It makes perfect sense to us to say, “What would this person want, if s/he were here?”—even if that person is dead, as we regularly do in making funeral arrangements, for instance. This same highly developed neural network reflexively looks for someone to blame whenever anything goes wrong. Accidents don't just happen; they have to be caused by some agent. Under this intuitive viewpoint, even atheists will blame natural disasters and mechanical failures on people. They just choose different people to blame.

The growth of computer malware that can affect the physical world, like StuxNet, will muddy these conceptual waters even further, as at this industrial accident in Russia, which was at one point suspected of being caused by electronic sabotage. Just wait until somebody remotely hacks a moving robot car in the wild. People will go nuts. We may be moving from a techno-logical world into a techno-magical one, although to be fair it's experiments and humility, not logic, that distinguish science from magic. As Frazer so eloquently showed, magic can be very logical.

In a 2003 review paper, Pascal Boyer extended the idea that social circuits propose social causes for everything into a framework for a neuroscience of religion, in which every magical or supernatural idea is a perfectly logical possibility that just happens to defy common experience (and its distillation, experimental evidence). Then he tried to map those possibilities onto the brain networks that generate common experience. Here's the abstract:

“Religious concepts activate various functionally distinct mental systems, present also in non-religious contexts, and ‘tweak’ the usual inferences of these systems. They deal with detection and representation of animacy and agency, social exchange, moral intuitions, precaution against natural hazards and understanding of misfortune. Each of these activates distinct neural resources or families of networks. What makes notions of supernatural agency intuitively plausible? This article reviews evidence suggesting that it is the joint, coordinated activation of these diverse systems, a supposition that opens up the prospect of a cognitive neuroscience of religious beliefs.”

Boyer has since written a lot more about this model of religion as an orchestra (or more accurately, a jam band), and I hope to return to it at some point, but for now I will just recommend his website as a resource. I can also recommend Frazer's book to any writer of SF or fantasy, despite its theoretical shortcomings, both because of the quality of his writing and because of the sheer number of obscure customs he listed. The Golden Bough is indeed full of gold, mostly in nuggets of raw informational ore, waiting to be smelted into shining, clever stories.

Randall Hayes, Ph.D., has been waiting a long time for the opportunity to use the word “smelted” in a sentence, and it feels pretty good. In between columns, keep up with SF/science news at the PlotBot Facebook page, and read book reviews by following @PlotBot2015 on Steemit.com.



A fan page about my favorite juvenile detective series—after Scooby Doo, of course.





26:30: “Captain Marvel was the first superhero comic to just throw out the notion of realism.”


Crap! I had forgotten all about Hugi the dwarf. Clearly, I need to read it again.




New Makers of Modern Culture, pages 518-20.

I think this is the same version I have in print.






With rare exceptions like Marcus Terentius Varro: “Precautions must also be taken in the neighbourhood of swamps, both for the reasons given, and because there are bred certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases.”


This review has 19 pages of references.








Pascal Boyer offers up one recent framework for the study of religion, formerly a taboo subject for cognitive neuroscientists.



Read more by Randall Hayes

Home | About IGMS
        Copyright © 2023 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com