Not my judgement of this magnificent book, of course, but the fruits of deception and self-deception, and one reason why the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers believes this to be fertile ground for all kinds of enquiry, from full-blown scientific research to more personal reflection. Trivers describes just a few of the many ways in which we deceive others and ourselves, which will either be eye-opening for Pollyannas or no news at all to cynics. Most of us are vaguely aware of politicians who lie about their expenses, advisors who paint a rosy picture of your financial future, celibate priests who are anything but, and so on. What most of us probably do not appreciate is the underlying evolutionary logic that drives deceit, and the importance of biology to understanding what may seem a social or cultural failing. Whether you are a lay reader like myself or a seasoned evolutionist, there can be few better guides to this fascinating field than Robert Trivers, a genuine pioneer in evolutionary thinking.
While we wicked humans can be remarkably creative, we are not alone when it comes to fooling others to get what we want. Deception "is a very deep feature of life" and occurs at all levels, in every nook and cranny of the natural world. Warblers are tricked into feeding cuckoo chicks at the expense of their own young. Birds feign a broken wing or death to avoid predation. Male orchids, fireflies and bluegill sunfish mimic females. There is no moral dimension to any of this behaviour, of course, which is grounded in the complex interplay of selective forces at work in a changing environment. The unit of natural selection is the gene: a butterfly that mimics another, poisonous species and so avoids being eaten is more likely to pass on the genes responsible for the deception to future generations.
Animal mimicry guided by unconscious behaviour is one thing, human deception is a whole different ball game. And why self-deception? Surely, it doesn't make sense to deceive ourselves about reality? Why bother with marvellous sense organs to detect information only to distort it after arrival? In fact, in some situations it does make straightforward evolutionary sense to deceive ourselves: from the top of a tree, for example, "the drop to the ground looks much farther than does the same distance viewed from the ground up". Trivers, however, is more interested in those biases that have a social component, such as denial and projection, the above-average effect, overconfidence, the euphemism treadmill, and so on. A "hallmark of self-deception is bias" and it occurs whenever the conscious mind is kept in the dark.
The central claim of the book "is that self-deception evolves in the service of deception" and the general argument "is that we deceive ourselves the better to deceive others". For us, "deceit and self-deception are two sides of the same coin" and Trivers covers a huge amount of ground to make his case. He explores the neurophysiology, immunology and psychology of self-deception, moving on to self-deception in everyday life and in aviation and space disasters, and then a fascinating and provocative chapter on false historical narratives (one example being the Jewish people's "divine right to Palestine"), followed by chapters on war and religion (segued with the suggestion that "no aspect of language acts as a more powerful force for war than religion"). Just as well he begins the book by admitting that many of his ideas are tentative and may be proved wrong, but I admire his candour: "for me the risk of appearing foolish, indeed self-deluded, is preferable to the cowardice of not taking a position".
Not taking a position is definitely not something Trivers can be accused of. Indeed, some might reach for stronger terms than "foolish" given his trenchant views on certain corners of the academy (psychoanalysis is a full-time hoax and economics is not far behind, most historians are slaves to false historical narratives, social scientists are burdened by decades of dogma, social anthropologists dodge biology by calling themselves cultural anthropologists). Cheerleaders for these professions will be too busy keeping their own show on the road to worry about a maverick biologist, and, even if they did dip in, the great thing about self-deception is that it will enable each psychoanalyst, historian, social scientist and so on to see themselves as the exception (while acknowledging that their colleagues and rivals may well be fraudsters). "Facts counter to one's biases have a way of arousing one's biases. This can lead to those with strong biases being both the least informed and the most certain in their ignorance."
The serious point made by Trivers is that "discipline after discipline - from economics to cultural anthropology - continues to resist growing connections to the underlying science of biology". Genetic variation for mental and behavioural traits should be especially extensive and fine-grained in our species. It matters to humans that "more than half of all genes express themselves in the brain" - including the brains of those responsible for, say, the US war on Iraq in 2003, which from the outset "was drenched in deceit and self-deception". (Any Republican readers that get this far will comfort themselves that even the Bush regime never quite matched the "reign of sadistic terror" launched by Columbus or the genocide urged by America's Founding Fathers, although chances are they will not make it past the attack on the ideology of American exceptionalism.)
Trivers writes with authority and clarity on evolutionary biology, and spices things up with the occasional personal reminiscence or some well-judged sarcasm that most scientists are trained to resist. In this way he is the best kind of scientist: he never forgets his human foibles but he is also an eloquent champion of the power of science, the success of which "appears in great part to be due to a series of built-in devices that guard against deceit and self-deception". And therein lies the hope for humanity.