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Deceit and Self-Deception by Robert Trivers review


Biologist Robert Trivers has written a fascinating book about the survival value of self-deception

W C Fields makes a poker face. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS Carole Jahme Friday 7 October 2011 18.56 BST 13 comments Lying is second nature to us and under the influence of self-delusion we'll hang ourselves if given enough rope. Robert Trivers is one of the few scientists able to take command of an evolutionary perspective on subterfuge, and in his new book Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others, he does exactly that. His overarching premise is that if we can only see our own point of view, we can authentically argue our case because our deceits blind us to the truth. Ignorance can be bliss, until you are outwitted by a perspective you don't share. Trivers explains how natural selection favours self-deception. His vision of deceit encompasses the self, others, the family and even international relations. But Trivers doesn't just wade through the toxic quagmire of human relationships. As the narrative progresses, there's treachery at every level, from the micro of proteins encoded by an individual's genes to the macro of war. Advertisement

Trivers is a hero to students of evolutionary research. The notion that altruistic behaviour was "good for the species" had pervaded evolutionary teaching during the first half of the 20th century. In the 1960s the British naturalist Bill Hamilton corrected this error by highlighting the effect of natural selection upon individual genes. Trivers was influenced by Hamilton and the two men pioneered the selfish gene theory. His research in the early 1970s on reciprocal altruism and parental investment strategies has since become the Rosetta Stone for anyone studying social behaviour. Evolved sex differences, runaway sexual selection and the importance of symmetry in the evolution of sexual preference were all flagged up and theorised on by Trivers, laying the foundations for Sarah Hrdy, Frans de Waal, Edward O Wilson and Richard Dawkins (Trivers wrote the foreword for The Selfish Gene) to popularise his ideas. Advertisement In Deceit and Self-Deception, Trivers synthesises all of his research, including the discovery of a clear correlation between lying and reduced immunity. He also contextualises the deception of the placebo effect (which peaks with unnecessary surgery), explains the self-deceit of airline pilots thinking they are more skilled than they are (Trivers is not a happy flyer), and explores the phenomenon of our thinking we are better looking than we actually are. There are also fascinating examples of deceit in nature, such as the amazing parasitic blister beetles that combine as one organism to mimic a female bee and deceive male bees into "mating" with two thousand parasites. After forty years of research Trivers wrote Deceit against the backdrop of a global economic meltdown caused by self-deceived, over-confident egoists grossly out of touch with reality, and when he explains how the human male drive for power and control correlates with ignorance and self-delusion, your blood runs cold. Trivers uses Donald Rumsfeld as a fine example of delusional over-confidence. According to the logic laid out in Deceit it is possible that some men in positions of responsibility are, due to their deceits, actually in need of someone to take responsibility for them. Trivers has structured Deceit in such a way that you can dip into any chapter in any order, use it as a reference book, or as I did, devour it from cover to cover. In the preface he states that deceit is "a depressing subject", but thanks to his memoir style, which frequently reads more like a hilarious confessional than a traditional work of science, any sobering lows are subverted with personal anecdotes. His admissions of petty thieving, "inadvertent touching" and other disasters with women, of police

searching the boot of his car and confrontations with squirrels are as funny as they are revealing of the man himself. He recalls, for example, how he tried to fool the Rorschach inkblot test used by Harvard to decide whether to readmit him after a breakdown. He couldn't remember what was considered an "appropriate" response so decided to randomise his answers. Trivers's candid style is disarming, though of course such self-deprecation could be a double-bluff, particularly in a book devoted to deceit. Recently Trivers has been in London promoting the book and I went to the Royal Society of Arts to hear him talk and to interview him. Words like "motherfucker" trip off his tongue where others might bite theirs. But as he told me, "I'm of the age now when I don't care any more." Unfortunately the chair, Donald Rowson, who was strictly following the time allocated for his talk before the Q&A, didn't know this in advance and interrupted him. When a clearly disgruntled Trivers said he wanted to finish his sentence before beginning the Q&A, Rowson unwisely argued against this and was promptly labelled a "rude motherfucker", earning Trivers a round of applause from the audience. Trivers was worn out by the time I interviewed him after the talk. He'd recently undergone hip replacement surgery and was in too much pain to even sit, so he stood while I asked questions. He said the reason he thinks his mind has remained so active at nearly 70 years of age is that after blazing a trail in the early stage of his career he then chose to tackle an even harder subject of genetics in his middle years, culminating with his book Genes in Conflict. "You think you're gonna whip genes into shape but they whip you into shape!" Returning to Deceit, I asked Trivers (who by this time was testing his back pain by balancing a chair on his head) why the word empathy was missing from the book. "Empathy is a very important part of deceit and that's one thing I've regretted, not researching empathy. It's not sympathy, it's feeling another's feelings. Long ago I spoke to Bill [Hamilton] about it, I said 'What about empathy Bill?' and he said, 'What's empathy?' As if it didn't exist, as if there was no such thing, so I didn't bother with it." But had Trivers included empathy in his research, the drawn-out impasse between the selfish gene theorists and their critics might have been avoided. Deceit is an exhilarating read: the intertwined issues of deceit and self-deception are infinite, involving positive and negative outcomes for the fool and the fooled roles that can reverse and revert without your even knowing. Trivers opens Deceit with the

statement: "My hope is to engage you in applying these concepts to you own life and developing them further." If we want to understand how and why we unconsciously fool ourselves, then his is an honest offer we can't refuse.

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DisabledRage 8 Oct 2011 03:27 23 Guardian Pick If you can fool yourself, you'll be better at fooling others. Prime candidates surname beings with a C Report

languageandgenes 8 Oct 2011 04:16 23 Guardian Pick Certainly fooled himself on this one then. These rightwing ideologies cloaked in the deceit of "research", "theory", is so obvious that when these rightwingers expouse their deterministic

supremist ideology, it exposes them to ridicule, and their vile world view of inequality and exploitation. There's nothing "selfish" about the genes, only ideology makes it so. Report

MrMann 8 Oct 2011 14:57 12 Guardian Pick Trivers explains how natural selection favours self-deception. But does heproveit? Report

greatherzog 8 Oct 2011 14:59 23

Guardian Pick This is too much: an evolutionary psychologist's theory of self-deception; oh Carole you really are a comedian, my spleen is about to burst. Richard Dawkins receiving a lesson on genes by Steven Rose: http://atheistmovies.blogspot.com/2010/06/richard-dawkins-interviews-stevenrose.html There is no reason to blame your genes for peddling this mumbo-jumbo around anymore Report

e5equalmt 8 Oct 2011 17:29 67 Guardian Pick All actors are good liars Oscar winners are the best liars, except for politicians of course ! Report

CrewsControl 8 Oct 2011 17:37 34 Guardian Pick @greaterzog Richard Dawkins receiving a lesson on genes by Steven Rose: Not my reading at all. In fact Rose agrees that when he reads the footnotes in Dawkin's books he is in complete agreement and can't understand why anyone thinks they differ substantially. Rose 'complains' about Dawkins being great at metaphorical exposition; which is true as in the Dawkins variant of the Waddington 'elastic band-blanket metaphor; but is that a fault if it aids understanding? Perhaps some left-wing/Marxist scientists will always feel they have to factor in a greater role for the environment in evolution. Maybe a little self-deception is involved Report

e5equalmt 8 Oct 2011 18:03 45 Guardian Pick The greatest deception that people live under is the deception of democracy ! Clealy the reality is PLUTOCRACY RULES and all it's minions like monachists and the likes of titles which are an insult to the inteligensia, e.t.c. Report

greatherzog 9 Oct 2011 14:24 56 Guardian Pick Not my reading at all. In fact Rose agrees that when he reads the footnotes in Dawkin's books he is in complete agreement and can't understand why anyone thinks they differ substantially.

Oh they certainly do differ immensely: what Rose tells Dawkins is that his insistence on the primacy of the 'code' as a 'self -replicating' entity(alas the whole of Dawkins argument) is both mistaken and simplistic-or just damn right idiotic. What Dawkins tries to do in every turn is somehow accommodate Rose's far advanced knowledge of genes and evolution so that he doesn't have to argue his point. Dawnkis- "We don't disagree that much" Rose- "Yes we do-and here is why." Dawkins' inept theories are not in his footnotes as far as I know.

Perhaps some left-wing/Marxist scientists will always feel they have to factor in a greater role for the environment in evolution. Maybe a little self-deception is involved That is a crude and vague statement but considering that Dawkins can only agree agree with Rose, it also mean that you don't agree with Dawkins. Dawnkis certainly did not make his case for breeding children for 'musical talent' to Rose; I wonder why. Report

orbusterrarum 9 Oct 2011 21:54 910 Guardian Pick American television figured out this book's entire premise years ago. George Costanza: "It's not a lie if you believe it, Jerry" (the "you" in question being yourself) Report

cornelia23 10 Oct 2011 01:31 01 Guardian Pick "I'm of the age now when I don't care any more." I don't believe him ! Report

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