Do Sabre-toothed Tigers Explain Modern Conspiracy Theories?

 Martin Bartels

30 July 2020

Max Delius

The ongoing discussion of conspiracy theories makes me think of a scene in Harry Mulisch's harrowing novel "The Discovery of Heaven": One of the key characters is the astronomer Max Delius who, sitting drunk on a piece of granite one night while looking up at the starry sky, suddenly realises the basic pattern he has been searching for over decades. This pattern was not meant to be understood by humans. Suddenly Max does grasp it, however. And then a small meteorite kills him on the spot.

There are indeed conspiracies. The participants are usually out for economic gain or power. Conspiracies are secret coordinated strategies to achieve benefits. In comparison with other more formally organised social groups such as companies or associations, conspiracies can be categorised as more fragile.

We see conspiracies breaking down all the time. The reason is usually that there are differences of opinion among the participants on the distribution of benefits. One disgruntled person is enough to throw the conspiracy off balance. The larger the number of participants and the more complicated the human network, the lower the chances are that a conspiracy will survive.

An outsider who wants to identify a conspiracy must look for details that suggest a pattern. The word "pattern" seems to be a key word for understanding the emergence of conspiracy theories.


Irrational thinking?


lists 12 principal categories of conspiracy theories. Studying them one by one and discovering new conspiracy theories in the news can be exciting. Again and again one is amazed at the astonishing mental constructions which their creators erect, well beyond rational thought, while claiming to be more rational than others.

If the modern principle of rationality were valid in this context, one could get rid of conspiracy theories by refuting them with arguments and above all with basic facts. But this does not work in this case. Once a large number of people have accepted a theory as plausible or even true, the process of spreading it continues by its own power.

Despite our doubts about the rationality of others’ thinking, nothing frees us from the duty to tackle the matter in a rational way.

There are different approaches to understanding the phenomenon. None of them excludes the others. Together they form a picture that should at least be suitable as a basis for further discussion:


The Ramsey Theory

For almost 100 years the Ramsey theory has been the subject of mathematical research. The theory posits the fact that, if a very large amount of information is available, it is very likely that patterns can be recognised. (Martin Gould)

When a person discovers a pattern through combinatorial skills, that pattern is primarily the product of the thinking observer. There is no guarantee that this pattern has anything to do with reality. Nevertheless, the lucky discoverer has the strong feeling of having found an order in an area of apparent disorder. (PatrickJMT)

When other people acknowledge the pattern, a collective sense of truth emerges. Even if people feel differently, the number of those who agree with a statement has nothing to do with its validity. A sense of community can be fatally deceptive.

A quote from David Spiegelhalter sums up the matter very aptly:

I don’t think we can ever fully rationalise ourselves out of the basic and often creative urge to find patterns even where none exist.” 



"Lucy’s" impressive remains are exhibited in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. She lived about 3 million years ago. She was the result of a very long process of evolution before her birth. Our modern genus Homo Sapiens has only existed for about 300,000 years. The period of advanced civilizations to which we assign ourselves makes up only a small fraction of the history of our species.

Inevitably, our hardware is still largely that of prehistory. This is why anthropologists can provide us with valuable and possibly uncomfortable information about how we are still being internally wired today. Even if we have experienced accelerated civilisational development in the last few millennia, there cannot have been a decoupling from the patterns of the ancient past in this short period of time.

The ability to recognize patterns in a dangerous environment was and is important for human survival. Whether we are in the savannah or in a modern office, our alarm systems always work in the same way. “Pattern recognition”, the sophisticated capability of detecting and making sense of patterns in our environment, is critical.

When prehistoric human beings looked at a bush and noticed an unusual movement, they hypothetically projected a sabre-toothed tiger or another predator that had an appetite for human flesh. Obviously, the movement could also be related to a harmless breeze or a rabbit. But it prolonged the human’s life to look at every bush and try to see a pattern. Refuting assumptions of risk meant relief for the moment, not more.

Anthropologist Brigitte Jordan impressively described the ever-evolving capability of pattern recognition and the urge to constantly use it as a valuable part of human evolution:

Even when there is no danger, modern man enjoys playing with his ability to discover patterns. It inspires us. However, it is not a method to ensure survival: (René Müri, Nicole Göbel)

According to modern scientific thinking, which developed only about 2500 years ago, the refutation of a hypothesis leads to its invalidation. In a dangerous natural environment, however, this thinking would not be successful. It can lead to an early death to conclude that there is no predator lurking behind a bush and therefore to believe that all bushes are harmless. In a dangerous natural environment it is sensible to release adrenaline and react with flight or attack whenever you see a pattern of potential danger.

Prehistoric humans implicitly multiplied the perhaps low subjective probability of danger by the value of what they sought to preserve, i.e. their survival. The latter value was always high. Clearly this pattern of reacting was appropriate.

The word “implicitly” is important in this context: When exposed to a potentially lethal risk, it was crucial that humans react instinctively, at a low cognitive level to be very fast and efficient: (Aditya Shukla)

We should be prepared to acknowledge that the sophisticated human ability to recognize patterns and the historically highly successful mechanisms of reacting by instinct are still fully functional and do make a lot of sense in a modern context, e.g. when we drive a car or ride a bike and expose ourselves to the risk of accidents or when we play tennis. We need this way of thinking for technical innovations and to create and understand art.

There has not been a substantial change of our internal wiring. The trigger may be fear, pleasure or ambition, and the refutation of a hypothesis has no relevance for action once the process has been set in motion.


Dunning-Kruger effect

In contrast to the two approaches described above, the Dunning-Kruger effect has nothing to do with the appropriateness of thinking modes in specific situations. Quite the contrary, its core is plain cluelessness combined with the inability to recognise such cluelessness.

People affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect seem to represent a certain percentage of any population. We all know such people: While they understand very little or stick to misconceptions, they are firmly convinced that they are right and have a deeper understanding than others. In other words, they do not have the mental ability to perceive their inability. Yet they live with a comfortable feeling of superiority. (David Dunning)

This model is very plausible and not at all complicated. It may even seem amusing. However, if a person affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect becomes active and produces and disseminates unfounded "explanations", serious consequences can result.


Fertile soil + seeding

Social environments that harbour collective fears or are characterised by mistrust provide a particularly fertile soil for conspiracy theories. This alone is not a sufficient reason for their emergence. However, if the above-mentioned effects materialise or if an interest group with knowledge of the fertile soil plans to sow conspiracy theories, the mushrooming effect can be powerful. (Zaria Gorvett)

This model is very plausible and not at all complicated. It may even seem amusing. However, if a person affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect becomes active and produces and disseminates unfounded "explanations", serious consequences can result.



There is no doubt that conspiracy theorists can cause great harm. But condemning their thinking as irrational as a whole does not promise any progress. It is in accordance with human nature and is often still appropriate in dangerous situations today.

Instead of dismissing a form of thinking and acting as ethically inappropriate, we should openly address the question which method of thinking is right for which area of life.

We only make progress through clearly comprehensible distinctions. The general disqualification of people who use the wrong method in their search for answers only increases the adrenaline level of the addressees. They keep sitting on the wrong bus. They do not question their way of thinking. This is therefore not a strategy that benefits society.

The question is becoming more pressing as the Internet has multiplied the mass of information available for the formation of theories, facilitates their dissemination and allows hordes to form.