FABER £14.99 (243pp) £13.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, by Lewis Wolpert

From tool-makers to belief-makers

"If you were to go into the jungle, which would you prefer to have with you, a friend or an axe?" asks Lewis Wolpert. Our ancestors preferred their axes, he believes, and that was what made us human. For Wolpert, the capacity to make tools, entailing a sense of cause and effect, is the basis of the human capacity to hold beliefs. In this, he upholds a tradition that sees man, in Benjamin Franklin's words, as a "tool-making animal".

His publisher is apt, for his account is an affirmation of Homo faber, man the maker, defined by his relationships with physical objects. A blue, white and blue "tricolour" emblazoned with a bird would also have been apt, for this book embodies the spirit of popular science upheld through the middle of the last century by Pelican paperbacks. It is the work of a distinguished scientist reflecting on subjects outside his specialism (he is a developmental biologist). It is imbued with a sense of public service, arising in part from the restraint with which he presents himself as a narrator and the respect with which he discusses perspectives other than his. And his central thesis about tools enjoyed its heyday when humankind was known as Man.

It adds up to an account that doesn't scintillate but fufils one of the principal functions of popular science by providing the lay reader with a good sense of the shape of the problem. The book's worth also owes much to its liberal spirit. Although Wolpert maintains a firm grip on his opinions, they do not exclude him from a circle of friends in which the familiar superstitions of our time flourish. He is sympathetically interested in the beliefs encouraged by other cultures; and what a pleasant change it makes to read an account of evolved psychology that does not sneer whenever a social anthropologist is mentioned.

Less commendable is the lax editorial hand that has allowed him to get away with a clunker such as "Suicide bombers in London have led to further attempts being made to understand their beliefs". This is a rare sign of struggle with religion. His rules of engagement do not permit him to try to persuade people to shed religious beliefs that benefit them.

Although religion only gets a single dedicated chapter, it is the heart of the matter. In this respect, Wolpert's insistence on the exclusive role of tools seems contrary. As Daniel Dennett argues in his new book on religion, Breaking the Spell, an evolved sense of others' intentions must underlie belief in deities, whose supposed intentions are used to explain the unexplainable.

This idea arises from a vision of humans as social animals that now overlies the older vision of the tool-making animal. Intelligence is explained as the result of the evolutionary pressures of living in groups of clever primates. Individuals need to monitor relationships and understand them, to choose their friends and enemies as best they can. The cleverer they all become under such pressures, the greater become the benefits of alliance.

The alternative answer to Wolpert's question is that, eventually, shared beliefs are established about abstractions and gods, creating the confidence that a companion is truly a friend, and thus far more valuable than an axe.

Marek Kohn's 'A Reason for Everything' is published by Faber

Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?