Dear Bob and Jude,

While I’ve left the conversation on abduction, these posts raise a different issue. This thread involves the origins of abduction and the history (and possible pre-history) of abduction as a plausible survival strategy. I’m going to dip my toe into this far enough to say that this raises important issues on which work has been done in many fields. Rather than merely conjecture, it’s possible to find out what others have learned in different fields. Neural networks and other cognitive phenomena may well explain the evolution of abduction in humans and other animals, but there is more to the story than asking, “how might this have happened?”

Abduction is a reasonable but flawed evolutionary survival strategy because abduction does not provide “reliable reliability.” Abduction involves apparently reliable inferences that are often unreliable. These unreliable inferences nevertheless enable us to get by in much of our daily life. To this degree, unreliable inferences form a reasonable survival strategy. The problem cases emerge when unreliable inferences fail to help us.

When things seem to work as we infer, we take them as reliable. The appearance or seeming reliability of the inference is another matter. An enormous amount of research in thinking, psychology, cognitive science, and problem solving addresses the problem of unreliable inferences mistaken for correct conclusions. While abductive inference has been a successful survival strategy for most humans who survive their mistakes, it has been unsuccessful far more of the time. One can argue that this phenomenon is one of the aspects of being human — it makes us what we are. Creating ways to determine which of our abductive inferences is reliable or correct came far later in human evolution. Determine ways to ensure that inferences are correct is a field of inquiry that only emerged with the past 3,000 years, the late afternoon of 10,000 years of recorded human history, and blink of an eye in the 250,000 years or so of relatively modern humans.

The vast majority of abductive inferences are false or incorrect. Throughout history, most human conclusions have been mistaken. This is easy to overlook for many reasons. Many mistakes have no consequences. Many mistakes — perhaps most — have such minor consequences that one may imagine that the conclusions are correct when they were not. Many mistakes are fatal. Fatal mistakes are often unknown because the creature, person, or population making the mistake did not live to tell the tale.  

Many instances of successful predatory stratagems take place when predators lure their victims into an abductive inference. The predator knows the inference to be false, using seeming clues that the victim takes to reach an incorrect conclusion that serves the predator's goals at the victim’s expense. This is common in warfare, economic fraud, mimicry for hunting, martial arts, sports, seduction, and in many competitive activities in which one party provides signals that lead the other party to believe that acting on those signals will lead to the end state often associated with those signals. This is so common in economic fraud that many specialists in fraud have a complete vocabulary of the strategies and tactics used to defraud a victim. 

Great battlefield generals and great martial artists have a repertoire of responses, a creative capacity, and a capacity for swift action that allows them to recover swiftly at the first sign of incorrect abductive inference. Losing generals and losing competitors in a martial arts contest lack this skill. Such ancient military classics as Sun Tzu (1995, 2005) and Musashi (1982) devote serious thought to trap or tricking one’s opponent into the belief that one will behave in a certain way when the intent is to do something different. Attention is also given to avoiding such traps when set by an opponent. This strategy uses the human capacity for abduction to trick those who draws plausible but incorrect inferences from plausible evidence, while showing us how to avoid such mistakes or to recover swiftly from such mistakes when we make them ourselves.

Anyone who drives in rush-hour traffic with an eye to safety can see how many thousand times a day drivers make avoidable and dangerous mistakes from which they escape only because other drivers adjust rapidly enough to prevent accident, injury, and death. Everyone who understands the rules of safe driving can also see how many times a day we must adjust to such errors of judgement. There is an entire literature of daily survival in commonplace danger points that demonstrates the difference between reacting to appearances and carefully planning for survival. (See Gonzales 2005 and Gonzales 2008 for a deep, well-researched analysis of who survives potential disasters and why, or Piven and Borgenicht 2000 for a more popular account on survival techniques. Much of this involves helping us to avoid or overcome the partially predictable results of incorrect abduction.) 

Abduction is part of our evolutionary heritage. Abduction is necessary, but this is not only good — it is also a problem. Incorrect abductive inferences have killed many of the 108,000,000,000 human beings that have lived. (The number comes from Haub 2002. The long list of ways in which abduction will have killed many of these is a tale too long to recount.) Drawing on the discussion in the thread, it can be said that we evolved from our increasingly big-brained abductive ancestors. Incorrect abduction has harmed all of them (and most of us) at one time or another.

If abduction is an emergent property of neural networks and increasingly bigger brains, Jude’s inference that abduction has always been part of our human nature is reasonable. We can now learn to make better use of a property around which our evolutionary nature shapes us. 

But I’m not making specific claims or arguments here — simply pointing to the logical conclusion that if we all naturally form abductive inferences, we can find better ways to use them, govern them, ensure that we reach better conclusions.

Three interesting cases of abduction occur in Peter Weir’s 2003 film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Russell Crowe plays the bold and irrepressible role of Lucky Jack Aubrey from the Patrick O’Brian novels, commanding HMS Surprise. When he is trying to catch and destroy the opposing French privateer, Acheron. While a privateer commissioned by Napoleon, the ship seems to far outclass its military opponents in the region, and Acheron has twice bested or escaped Aubrey. Built with unusually tough sides, it is impossible for most ships in the region to win a a fight with the normal side-by-side broadside strategy. Cannon balls seemingly bounce off the Acheron. Fast enough to escape an attack on the vulnerable stern, Acheron represents a serious threat to British interests in the south Pacific. While at the Galapagos Islands, Aubrey's surgeon and a midshipman trek across the islands. They bring back a stick insect that fools predators into overlooking it by imitating the tree or branch on which it hides. This is an anti-predatory stratagem that uses abduction: the prey escapes the intending predator by leading it conclude to falsely that it is a twig rather than an insect. Aubrey suddenly has a flash of insight: the French have been preying on whalers, slow-moving ships without a fighting crew, each carrying valuable oil collected in years-long voyages. Aubrey disguises the Surprise as a whaler, repainting it, placing on deck a cooking stove of the kind that whalers use, disguising the crew in civilian clothes, and sailing the ship in a “lubberly” fashion unsuited to the smart sailing expect of a vessel in the Royal Navy. The purpose of the ruse is to lure the Acheron alongside where raised cannon can shoot out the Acheron’s masts, boarding the enemy for a hand-to-hand fight. Concluding from the ruse that Surprise is what it seems to be, abduction leads the French vessel to close on Aubrey’s disguised man-of-war. The British win, but the wily French captain escapes by standing in the ship’s surgery over the corpse of a man while handing Aubrey the sword of surrender. The French captain thus fools Aubrey into the abductive conclusion that he is dead and the surgeon alive. The privateer is sent to Valparaiso with a prize crew, far outnumbered by the French captives once away from Aubrey’s ship and crew. The film ends when Aubrey learns that the surgeon died some months back — he realises that the captain tricked him, so he turns his now-faster ship after the crippled privateer. The movie ends of this note, with a fast commander recognising the need to recover from a problematic abduction.

In each of these three cases, abduction leads to false conclusions that benefit one party over another in a competitive situation. Evolutionary uses of abduction and trickery suggest that abduction precedes the human brain, and this is at least a reason to suppose that Jude may be right in saying that abduction precedes conscious in some areas of human thought. Philosophy, logic, science, and rigorous research all entail efforts to improve on raw abduction. As my smart friend wrote me off-list, abduction leads him to make mistakes all the time, and learning from these mistakes leads him to better conclusions that those provided by abductive inference alone.   

While I find this thread interesting, I’d find it far more satisfying if someone who understands the evolution of abduction were to offer some serious comments and links to relevant literature. The question “How did we come to be abductive?” has surely been subject to work in many fields. If the question is interesting enough to ask, it must surely be interesting enough to warrant some study of what has been done. I am not personally interested enough in the question of how abduction evolved to do that work — I am interested in the question of abduction for other reasons, and I've drawn on some of what I do know to enter this thread.

Perhaps on this list of 2,600 subscribers, someone has useful information on the evolutionary, biological, cognitive, or psychological origins of abduction.  I would find it interesting to read an answer anchored in research rather than pure conjecture of what might be possible. Many things are possible. Some abductive inferences lead us to testable conclusions and useful outcomes. This happens in design on many occasions. Other abductive inferences get us blown out of the water like the Acheron. There are many possible answers to the question, “How did we come to be abductive?” It would be useful and informative to know what some of the people working on these issues in different fields have learned.  

As Jack Aubrey said in Treason’s Harbor (O’Brian 1983: 331), “There’s a good deal to be said for making hay while the iron is hot.”

Of course, there is always Stephen Maturin’s reply to Jack in The Fortune of War (O’Brian 1979: 176)  “. . . as you know, one man may lead a horse to the water, but ten cannot make him think.” 



Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Elsevier in Cooperation with Tongji University Press | Launching in 2015

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| University Distinguished Professor | Centre for Design Innovation | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia ||| Adjunct Professor | School of Creative Arts | James Cook University | Townsville, Australia ||| Visiting Professor | UTS Business School | University of Technology Sydney University | Sydney, Australia 

Email [log in to unmask] | Academia | D&I 



Gonzales, Laurence. 2005. Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why. New York: W.W. Norton.

Gonzales, Laurence. 2008. Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things. New York: W.W. Norton.

Haub, Carl. 2002. "How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth?”.  Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau. URL: Accessed 2015 February 19. 

Musashi, Miyamoto. 1982. The Book of Five Rings. (With Family Traditions on the Art of War by Yagyu Munenori.) Translated by Thomas Cleary. Boston and London: Shambhala.

O’Brian, Patrick. 1979. The Fortune of War. New York: W. W. Norton.

O’Brian, Patrick. 1983. Treason’s Harbor. New York: W. W. Norton.

Piven, Joshua, and David Borgenicht. 2000. The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Sun Tzu. 2005. The Art of War. Thomas Cleary, trans. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala.

Sun Tzu. 1995.  Sunzi Speaks. Written and Illustrated by Chih Chung Tsai. London: Thorsons.


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