Joseph Giovannoli
The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions

First, I must admit to not having read this book. No, instead, I listened to it. Unfortunately, I don't get nearly as much out of listening to words as I do to reading them. (When the kids are around or other distractions are in place--conditions which did exist while I listened to The Biology of Belief--my comprehension is even worse.) Second, I listened to this book over a period of many months. Again, this is not a good thing if you are going to be writing a review upon completion. If I had a CD player in my car and listened to the 8 CDs while on a single trip I'd have a much better idea of its contents but still not as good if I had read the book. This disclaimer is merely to point out that my review (and your impressions after reading the book) could be very different under alternative circumstances.

The next thing to point out is the subtitle should probably be "How Our Biology and Culture Bias Our Beliefs and Perceptions" as culture and psychogenes are dealt with in far greater depth than biology (although things such as our minds, perception limitations due to our neural makeup, 'god-spots' in our brains, and more are discussed--especially early on in the book). I believe Giovannoli is perhaps using the word biology to mean more than just physical, living organisms. His term psychogenes is quite similar to the word meme and it is this 'living,' reproducing psychogene that he may be alluding to as 'biology.'

The book's view is wide ranging; indeed, it provides a sweeping, very broad overview on a large number of topics including, but not limited to: psychology, history, cosmology, genetics, cognitive science, mythology, anthropology, and evolution. That being the case, if you are well read on the above subjects, you may not find much new here. Those who may benefit most by this work would be those interested in the above subjects but who haven't, yet, dipped into them in any depth. The Biology of Belief will, hence, be an excellent starter book to read before delving into these topics in detail. Similar books, although not as big picture focused, would include: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Why God Won't Go Away, and The Power of Myth (or just about anything else by Joseph Campbell).

Although the topic of how our biology and culture influence (perhaps 'permeate' or 'control' would be more accurate words) our thoughts, beliefs, and actions is of immense interest to me I found some of Giovannoli's work to be overly dogmatic and maybe even hypocritical. Perhaps this was just from listening to the somewhat pompous sounding narrator, rather then reading the book, though. He needed to at least recognize--a little more--that his words, thoughts, and examples are also part of the media, PR, culture, propaganda, and psychogenetic impression that the reader or listener is enveloped in. For instance, it was stated repeatedly that authorities shouldn't be blindly followed; yet they were frequently quoted. Also, his reliance on a single BBC program on Pearl Harbor led him to believe (and likewise any readers not familiar with the subject) that FDR led a conspiracy to allow (encourage?) the attacks on Pearl Harbor so that the US population would back his entrance into the war. It seemed to me that the reason he believes this and the reason we are, too, is because the BBC is a reputable source. Such an approach appears to leave a person open to all sorts of the kind of manipulation Giovannoli warns us about.

Everyone needs to understand the basics that The Biology of Belief covers, whether they get it here or in other books. We all also need to admit that we are guilty of not always, or even usually, being able to live up to the ideals that recognizing our true natures should entail. The first step, however, is to comprehend that we are being moved along with the herd. Being able to step around the pack from time to time can be even more difficult. The long term implications for ourselves as individuals, small communities or families, and the larger communities of countries and the world hang in the balance.

from the publisher:
The Biology of Belief examines how our less than perfectly adapted brains cope with today’s world. Among the things considered are how our brain biology biases our perceptions, organizes ignorance into belief systems, predisposes us to believe in supernatural spirits and gods, permits others to manipulate our beliefs, and is at the root of the ongoing conflict between religion and science.

The human brain evolved over millions of years to cope with survival and reproduction in the rudimentary world of our primitive ancestors. Inasmuch as our brain biology formed to cope with this ancient world, it should be no surprise that it has a few problems in dealing with the complexities of modern life.

The process by which we come to believe something new involves a labyrinth of thought-influencing biological and other factors. In attempting to understand this labyrinth and its effect on how we acquire beliefs, this work addresses a number of considerations. The profound effect brain evolution has had on our way of perceiving the world is one example. Other elements include brain module interactions, neurotransmitters, inborn biological predispositions, and the interdependence of belief and perception. Together with other factors, they collectively comprise the biology of belief. How our beliefs come to define our realities is revealed through an exploration of the processes by which beliefs are created, changed, transmitted, and manipulated. The text challenges readers to consider whether biological and belief mechanisms resistant to change will permit long-held cultural beliefs to adapt rapidly enough to address the new realities of our changing world.

"A treatise for discerning readers seeking an insight into the biological influences that have shaped them into what they are." --David L. Boccagna, Ph. D.

"This excellent, highly readable book discusses how neurobiology interacted with our belief systems to create the meme-plexes we call religion." --Scott Bidstrup, Truth and Reason Web site