Telepathy, or, Why You Need Directions to the Psychic Fair


Telepathy
In my ongoing attempt to be an equal- opportunity crank and occasionally critique spiritual beliefs other than The Big Ones, I want to talk today about the belief in telepathy.

And I want to talk about one of the single most convincing arguments against it. It’s an argument that doesn’t get made all that often, but it’s one that I find very telling indeed.

No, it’s not “It violates every shred of evidence we have about how the mind works.” It’s not “Nobody who believes in it has ever proposed a plausible mechanism for how it might work.” It’s not even “There is not a shred of solid evidence to support it — every anecdotal report of it is easily explained by confirmation bias etc., and every attempt to rigorously test it using the scientific method has come up with bupkis.” Those are all excellent arguments: but I’ve made them before, and it’s not what I want to talk about today.

It’s this:

If telepathy were a real phenomenon, natural selection would have selected for it long ago.

We would all have it. And it would not be a subtle effect, occasionally telling us who’s on the phone when it’s ringing. It would be obvious. We wouldn’t be having debates about whether it’s real, any more than we have debates about whether language is real.

Explanation_of_Evolution
Think about it. If telepathy existed — even to a tiny degree — it would confer an enormous selective advantage in evolution. Even a tiny amount of telepathy would be far more useful than a tiny amount of camouflage, a tiny amount of a wing for gliding, a tiny amount of language. It would enable you to know, just a little bit quicker than your competitors, that there’s a delicious duck with a tasty nest of duck eggs right under that bush… or a ferocious tiger behind that other bush waiting to make you into a meal… or an enemy crouching in the tree branch over your head, waiting to conk you with a stone axe. Even a small amount of telepathy would give you enough of a survival advantage for natural selection to sit up and take notice.

Happy_feet.svg
And, need I say, telepathy would confer a ridiculous advantage when it comes to reproduction. If you could know whether the person you’re trying to mate with is interested or you’re just wasting your time; if you could know what their turn-ons and turn-offs were and work your angle accordingly… you’d be in like Flynn. The ability to know what the opposite sex is thinking, or even to be slightly better at guessing than your competitors, would get your DNA replicated so fast it would make your head spin.

(Yes, I know, all this talk about the opposite sex is assuming heterosexuality, or at least bisexuality. But when you’re talking about reproductive strategy in the days before turkey basters, I think that’s a fair assumption.)

In the exact same way that slightly improved vision, slightly improved manual dexterity, slightly improved cognitive ability, all gave enough of an advantage for these traits to be selected for, a slight improvement in the ability to know, just know, what other people are thinking, would be a mind-blowingly huge advantage for both survival and reproduction. (Plus it would arguably render language unnecessary, thus freeing up a large amount of expensive real estate in the brain… not to mention eliminating thousands of deaths by choking every year.)

Menagerie
If telepathy were plausible, if it were even possible, if even a tenth of the people who claimed to have it throughout history actually had it in even the slightest degree, we’d all have it by now. At the very least, an awful lot of us would have it. We certainly wouldn’t be debating its existence, any more than we debate the existence of eyes or hands or brains.
(These ideas were developed in a comment thread on Pharyngula.)

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Comments

  1. Gib says

    I like this argument, and I agree completely with your sentiments, however, being the devil’s advocate :
    1. Evolution can’t produce physically impossible things. As advantageous as it would be, cheetas will never evolve to run faster than sound. There are limits. Perhaps whatever physical processes produce telepathy are limited, and have already maxed out.
    2. Perhaps the mutations which produce telepathy are extremely improbable, and has only happened recently. In 100 generations, everone will have telepathy, but not yet.
    3. Perhaps telepathy isn’t genetic. How then will it be selected for ? (For instance, it might require the mother to injest some krypton within 30 minutes of conception)
    Nut jobs always have excuses….

  2. says

    This is an old argument, but it needs a bit more work. For example, being smart enough to plan for a wide variety of possible outcomes in a future several years off could benefit many animals. Yet only humans really seem to have this ability. So why isn’t it more commonplace? Well it needs brains, and brains are expensive to run. So there’s quite a bit of pressure to find simple solutions to problems rather than developing big brains.
    There might be many costs associated with telepathy. We need to be sure that it doesn’t require large amounts of energy (say) before we can say for sure that it would be advantageous. Certainly people who claim to be displaying telepathic skills often seem to be straining :-)
    And it’s not necessarily an advantage to you to have others read your mind, so I’d expect telepathic defenses to arise alongside telepathy. And that might result in us seeing very little successful telepathy even if the skill were being selected for.

  3. Jeff says

    I don’t believe in telepathy. However, I think your argument is somewhat oversimplified; evolution always selects for what is most fit for a *given* environment, and sometimes what is selected is counterintuitive.
    Take for example, intelligence, which can be argued in place of telepathy as being greatly beneficial in the many situations you listed (mating, hunting, etc). However, research has shown that there is a payoff for intelligence: http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/basanta/2008/05/07/the-cost-of-intelligence
    It appears that in most instances, longer life-span and greater physical prowess is selected.
    Also, your language implies that evolution is a completed process while it is truly ongoing…as the previous commenter suggested, telepathy proponents could argue that it is a recent polymorphism…one that, although will grant a slight improvement in survival, means little in the modern world of monogamy and low reproductive rates.
    Finally, there are many cases of genetically linked phenotypes that are do not display complete penetrance, such as homosexuality and left-handedness. While the genetic correlation is strong, other mechanisms are involved in determining the overall penetrance of the genotype.

  4. says

    Great post — I’ve never thought of it that way.
    I would actually say that telepathy HAS been selected for (in a very loose way). We are all telepathic in that our brains DO have the ability to do folk psychology, to posit what other people might be thinking and to be right more often than by using the flip of a coin.
    That is, cranks think telepathy is something amazing but our real evolved cognitive abilities are no less amazing.

  5. says

    Some fair points. Let me reply to some of them.
    “Evolution can’t produce physically impossible things.”
    That’s exactly my point, actually. Given how the brain and mind work, telepathy is physically impossible.
    “Perhaps the mutations which produce telepathy are extremely improbable, and has only happened recently.”
    and
    “…telepathy proponents could argue that it is a recent polymorphism.”
    A couple of problems with this argument. One: People who say telepathy exists don’t say it’s an itty- bitty, subtle phenomenon that’s just beginning to make itself known in the human race. They make some seriously large claims about what telepathy is and what it can do. (Except when they’re trying to weasel out of arguments and explain failed tests of their ability.)
    Two: Rigorous tests of telepathy show absolutely nothing. Not even a slight itty- bitty bit of advantage. Nothing outside the variation you’d expect with pure random guesswork.
    “Perhaps telepathy isn’t genetic. How then will it be selected for? (For instance, it might require the mother to injest some krypton within 30 minutes of conception).”
    True. It might be caused by environmental factors instead of genetic ones — maternal ingestion of Krypton, say. But then, wouldn’t we begin to develop a genetic predisposition to be hungry for Krypton? At least during pregnancy? We’ve developed genetic predispositions to seek out other things we need from our environment, like foods with Vitamin C.
    “There might be many costs associated with telepathy. We need to be sure that it doesn’t require large amounts of energy (say) before we can say for sure that it would be advantageous.”
    and:
    “Take for example, intelligence, which can be argued in place of telepathy as being greatly beneficial in the many situations you listed (mating, hunting, etc). However, research has shown that there is a payoff for intelligence. It appears that in most instances, longer life-span and greater physical prowess is selected.”
    True. (BTW, Jeff, I’m assuming you meant “price” and not “payoff.”) That is one reason telepathy might not have evolved (although again, I think the main reason is that it’s physically impossible). It might have been too costly in evolutionary terms, and not the best strategy for our niche.
    But again, telepathy proponents aren’t saying, “Telepathy hasn’t evolved for X reason.” They’re that *it exists*, that it is real. And they’re not saying it’s subtle (again, unless they’re backed into a rhetorical corner).
    “And it’s not necessarily an advantage to you to have others read your mind, so I’d expect telepathic defenses to arise alongside telepathy. And that might result in us seeing very little successful telepathy even if the skill were being selected for.”
    Yes, it’s theoretically possible that this might have happened (again, if the thing weren’t impossible given how the brain and mind actually work). But that’s not what we see.
    If that were the reality, we’d be seeing an arms race. Some people would have better telepathy than others, some people would have better telepathic defenses than others. And thus, tests of telepathic ability would show a much wider range of tendencies to get hits and misses than they actually get. The results they actually get are exactly what you would expect if people were just guessing randomly, with nobody having any ability to either read minds or defend against having their mind read.
    “Finally, there are many cases of genetically linked phenotypes that are do not display complete penetrance, such as homosexuality and left-handedness.”
    But neither of these traits confers a selective advantage. Functioning telepathy would — a huge one.
    And I basically agree with Michael. What we know we have — instinct, intuition, the ability to read and add up thousands of verbal and non-verbal cues in an instant — more or less amounts to an imperfect but better- than- guesswork form of telepathy. It’s just not metaphysical or woo.

  6. says

    I’m not near my books, but wasn’t it Dawkins who made a similar point (that if telepathy was real, we’d know it because of the enormous selective advantage) in one of his books?

  7. says

    “I’m not near my books, but wasn’t it Dawkins who made a similar point (that if telepathy was real, we’d know it because of the enormous selective advantage) in one of his books?”
    He may well have. It’s not an original idea with me. I don’t remember Dawkins saying that, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me; the Pharyngula post I linked to (the one that sparked this piece) was about Dawkins interviewing Rupert Sheldrake, a notorious telepathy proponent.

  8. Jon Berger says

    . . . and, come to think of it, there was a science fiction story a few years back that addressed this issue. It was about some prehistoric early human tribes, one of which had telepathy, and how the other one wiped them out. I don’t remember the details; does this ring a bell for anyone? But it was basically about the point in human evolution where telepathy failed as a selected-for trait, primarily because it made the people who had it such good hunters that the people who didn’t have it had to exterminate them in self-defense. Or something like that. It’s been a long time.

  9. Justin says

    Telepathy is amazing–just look how many people have telepathy gadgets in their pocket. Why, with the wonders of science and technology, you’re now able to hear what someone is thinking anywhere in the world, verbally or textually! And in a few decades, we’ll probably all have the hardware implanted in our heads, for unparalleled silent communication.
    Oh… that ESP nonsense. There’s no argument that’ll convince ESP freaks, because their worldview isn’t based on reason and evidence. They believe what they believe because it makes them feel special: they’re in the know, they have magic powers, and you don’t. Nya-na-na-naaa-na!
    I think that’s the problem with arguing about these things–you’re the only one arguing. When you say that there’s no evidence for telepathy, you’re not presenting a scientific argument. You’re *personally insulting the believer* by saying they’re not special. How *dare* you not believe them? They are entitled to unlimited credulity in a polite society!
    When they state that their friend has magic powers that lets them fly and control ponies with their brain, they’re not stating a scientific argument. They’re making personal statements of experience which you *must* believe or be an arrogant asshole.
    Then again, I remember being a kid once, and finding these arguments very helpful in figuring out which things adults were saying were lies, and which ones weren’t. So bravo! And I want my neural interface mobile network, dammit.

  10. says

    Just for fun, I sometimes wonder whether telepathy may be in its beginning stages of evolution. It would, of course, not work very well. It would not transmit whole ideas, but rather fragmented ideas or flashes of emotion. It would be highly untestable for many generations, so really, we might as well not have telepathy at all.

  11. VorJack says

    Jon Berger – That’s a plot point from “King Kobold Revived,” the second book in Christopher Stasheff’s “Warlock” series. Basically, some REALLY elitist humans used a time machine and altered the genetics of a tribe of proto-humans. They gave them the telepathic ability to stun other proto-humans, the “evil eye.” The point was to create a tribe of uber-men who would rule over humanity for all time – only the other tribes kept ganging up on them and winning.
    Man, that’s an old one. I think it’s early eighties. You’re really dating yourself with this one … wait a minute …

  12. Nurse Ingrid says

    Remember the Belcerebon people of Kakrafoon, in the second Hitchhiker’s Guide book? When they had “that most cruel of all social diseases, telepathy” inflicted upon them, they quickly realized that the only way to prevent others from reading their thoughts was to engage in continuous, loud, and completely inane chitchat.
    They were miserable.
    Fortunately, they hosted a Disaster Area rock concert which triggered a series of environmental disasters that wiped out their telepathic powers.
    I also seem to recall a Star Trek: TNG episode in which an extra-sensitive telepath from Deanna Troi’s planet decided to escape into outer space because he couldn’t stand the cacophony of everyone’s thoughts in his head all the time.
    Telepathy doesn’t sound like much of a benefit, really, when you think of it that way.
    So, do I win the Nerd Prize?

  13. Leigh Shryock says

    @Ingrid: Nah. The only way to have earned the Nerd Prize would have been to mention the race and planet by name, in a way that you expect everyone else to know exactly what you meant. :)
    Though, he did end up with that telepathic ship to keep him company…

  14. says

    Yeah, the “telepathy as a curse” idea has come up in a few different Star Trek episodes. The Original Series episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” featured a human woman who through some unexplained mechanism (maybe mutation, maybe maternal ingestion of tetralithium, whatever) was born a telepath. The cacophony of other people’s thoughts nearly drove her mad, and she had to spend years on Vulcan, studying how to build mental barriers against second-hand thinking.

  15. stephen says

    Greta, I have to say I am dissapointed. Not in your arguement that functional telepathy would be a monumental survival advantage (it would). I am dissapointed that you seem to think that these things could simply be beyond our understanding or perception.
    Except humans altering their environment by their perception of it is very easy to see.
    The beginning of our perception of quantum mechanical theory started when we left experiments to sit by themselves and they did something, well, odd. Then we watched them, and they behaved themselves properly again. Demonstrably, humans, simply by perception, and as an entire group, affect our environment by doing nothing more than observing it with an expectation. Clearly this effect is not massive, but it is, by definition, a psychokinetic effect.
    Given the delicate, precise machinery of the human brain, is it impossible that some people are able to percieve, not affect, as we have proven we can, just percieve the foremost thoughts of another person? Your arrogance in believing the universe cannot behave in a way you find unlikely just because you cannot percieve it is very disturbing coming from a person who prides themselves so heavily on thought, reason and an open mind.

  16. says

    Um….
    “I am dissapointed that you seem to think that these things could simply be beyond our understanding or perception.”
    Um…
    Stephen, I don’t think that. That’s the exact opposite of what I think. I don’t think the idea of telepathy is beyond our understanding or perception. I think that, if it existed, we’d be able to perceive it. That’s my whole point.
    The telepathy hypothesis contradicts everything we know about how the mind works. If there were evidence for it, then sure, we should rethink what we know about how the mind works. But telepathy has also been tested ad nauseum — and no evidence for it has ever been found under any rigorous testing conditions.
    Telepathy is like God. If it existed in any meaningful way, we’d be able to observe its effects. If its effects are too small to observe, then either it doesn’t exist, or it exists in a way that has no effect on us and is utterly meaningless.
    And re your comments on quantum theory: Woo proponents love to talk about quantum theory… but they grossly misrepresent and misunderstand it. I mean, even people who have studied quantum theory their whole lives have a hard time with it. What makes you think Deepak Chopra or whoever really gets it? As Richard Feynman famously said, “”If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory.”
    But just a very quick precis to address your point: The Heisenberg uncertainty principle says (among other things) that *measuring* the position of a particle is what disturbs its momentum — not just sitting there thinking about it. No serious quantum physicist sees telepathy, or any of the woo interpretations of quantum theory, as anything but a gross distortion of the concepts involved.

  17. says

    I should think that you Buffy fans out there would have come up with “Earshot” as an example of telepathy as an unproductive human trait. At least, sooner than me. ;)

  18. says

    It’s true. Telepathy would be pretty much useless — in fact, worse than useless — if you didn’t have the ability to turn it off and on at will. Like a set of mental eyelids.
    And we have the pop culture to prove it. :-)

  19. says

    Well, I suppose if the mutation for telepathy had occurred just a few generations ago, it wouldn’t have had time to be selected in a majority of the population….
    And the episode was, I believe, called Tin Man.

  20. Alice in Wonderland says

    Now Greta’s argument about why telepathy would be ubiquitous if it existed at all has me wondering about a real-world parallel: why don’t more people have great eyesight?
    I mean, the genes for 20/20 eyesight are clearly present in the population at large in pretty great numbers, and yet the majority of adults, I think, need corrective lenses to see that well. My husband can’t see across the room without glasses. Why didn’t his 100xgreat grandpa get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger that he didn’t see coming? (Or, more to the point, why didn’t the early humans with great vision out-breed and out-survive the ones without it?)

  21. DM8954 says

    About eyesight: it gets worse with age. Humans become reproductive long before natural 20/20 eyesight fades. There are those who are born with poor eyesight earlier in life (from 2 parents with poor eyesight in earlier-than-usual adulthood?) but with the invention of eyeglasses (and general safety from large predators) it’s no longer selected against so strongly.
    Back to telepathy:
    The author mentions the physical impossibility of telepathy several times but doesn’t explain why. It may seem obvious but I want to give a quick explanatory analogy anyways. The brain is a computer. It’s hardwired and there is no ethernet. No wireless signal. We would first need to develop a way to sense electromagnetic radiation outside the visible spectrum AND begin broadcasting our thought patterns. The low-energy electron exchanges of our neurons firing isn’t likely to create any kind of transmission over long distances. [I’d guess such an effect would barely penetrate the skull.]
    Though… I remember seeing something about ‘aura’s around people. I don’t know if it was ever proven to be anything more than fancy camera tricks/errors (hoax?) but with the right equipment they captured these colorful/variable ‘aura effects’ around people. If those are real, all it would take is someone developing the ability to sense the differences in such a thing.
    Even that is quite a stretch, though.

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