Everyone Is Self-Deluded But Me

1649928_300John Horgan writes at Scientific American’s Cross-Check blog:

In 1995, I critiqued evolutionary psychology in “The New Social Darwinists,” an article in the December issue of Scientific American. Afterwards I got a scathing letter from Robert Trivers, whose work on altruism, parent-offspring conflict and other tendencies helped lay the foundations for evolutionary psychology, which like its precursor sociobiology attempts to explain human thought and behavior in Darwinian terms. Trivers called my article “shallow” and accused me of “acting out the old Scientific American‘s long-standing inability to look at human sociobiology objectively.” I was annoyed at the implication that I was just parroting the magazine’s party line. And yet the letter stung, not because I agreed with Trivers but because I respected him; unlike some of the hacks who jumped on the Darwinian bandwagon, he is a truly original thinker.

I recalled that letter when I reviewed Triver’s book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (Basic Books, 2011) for The New York Times. (I proposed “Everyone Is Self-Deluded But Me,” as a headline for the review, but the Times went with the bland “Why We Lie.”) I wanted to like the book, and I did. It’s a weirdly compelling hybrid of personal memoir and scientific treatise, which explores why we lie to others and to our selves. Natural selection, Trivers proposes, bequeathed us the gift of deception because it helped our ancestors do what they needed to do to propagate their genes, such as charming mates and tricking rivals. And we often deceive ourselves because those of us who are not sociopaths lie more effectively if we believe our lies.

I withheld one reservation about Folly. Trivers never really addresses an issue fundamental to any consideration of self-deceit. By what criteria do we decide that this person is fooling himself and that person isn’t? Or that we aren’t fooling ourselves? How can we distinguish truth from lies, or substantive claims from what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit”? This is the same puzzle that has plagued philosophers from Plato to Karl Popper. Popper asserted that scientists must constantly test their theories against reality, by gathering observations and performing experiments. But as Thomas Kuhn pointed out, scientists, being emotional as well as rational creatures, often become so committed to a theory that they refuse to acknowledge contrary evidence.

Trivers touches on these conundrums when he turns his attention to science. His judgment of scientists can be, well, scathing. Science has succeeded, he notes, because of “a series of built-in devices that guard against deceit and self-deception at every turn,” and yet even scientists in the most rigorous disciplines are subject to, at the very least, an inflated self-image. Physicists “talk of producing a theory of everything and make other grand claims, but their social utility, in my opinion, is connected primarily to warfare,” Trivers writes. “Their major function has been to build bigger bombs, delivered more accurately to farther distances.” I disagree with that statement—just for starters, physicists have given us computers and a better understanding of the cosmos—but I get a kick imagining how some snooty physicists will react to it.

I agree with Trivers that scientists are especially prone to self-deception when they turn their attention to humanity itself. He proposes that “the greater the social content of a discipline, the more slowly it will develop, because it faces, in part, greater forces of deceit and self-deception.” Trivers notes that social sciences can all too easily be corrupted by moral, political and ideological biases. He takes predictable swipes at psychoanalysis, which he calls a “hoax,” and economics, which tends to be “blind to the possibility that unrestrained pursuit of personal utility can have disastrous effects on group benefit.” Yes, our current recession demonstrates as much.

Trivers concedes that evolutionary biology has spawned some harmful notions. As an example, he cites the odious claim of the Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz that a species will be more fit if only the strongest, most aggressive males mate with females. Trivers nonetheless insists that the social sciences can only benefit from incorporating evolutionary theory and genetics. He is especially harsh toward cultural anthropology, which he accuses of having “made a tragic left turn in the mid-1970s from which it has yet to recover (at least in the United States).” In other words, cultural anthropologists oppose biological accounts of human behavior for political rather than scientific reasons.

Actually, some cultural anthropologists, notably Clifford Geertz of Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, sincerely believed that sociobiology and other biological theories fail to account for human malleability and cultural diversity and go too far in reducing extremely complex behaviors to innate impulses. Trivers himself indulges in this sort of theorizing when he claims, in Folly, that we have “been selected to rape on occasion, to wage aggressive war when it suits us, and to abuse our own children if this brings some compensatory return benefit.”

He adds, “I embrace none of these actions.” Well, I’m glad that Trivers doesn’t “embrace” rape, war and child abuse, but I still have a problem with his assertion that these behaviors are innate. According to my reading, and that of many scientists, the evidence for his claim is not nearly as cut and dried as Trivers implies. For example, as I’ve argued in a previous column, the evidence strongly suggests that war is not a primordial instinct that we share with chimpanzees but a cultural innovation, a virulent meme that began spreading around the world about 10,000 years ago and still infects us.

Trivers is very hard on himself in Folly. He confesses to all manner of deceptions, intentional and inadvertent, that he has foisted on colleagues, wives, lovers, his children—and himself. But when he talks about science, he thinks that he is clear-eyed, and just knows how to tell truth from falsehood. Especially when he writes about evolutionary psychology and its critics, he’s all too confident in his ability to distinguish fools and knaves from sincere truth-seekers. This is a trait that he holds in common with other prominent proponents of evolutionary psychology, such as Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and David Buss. They love to accuse critics of ideological bias but fail to recognize it in themselves. I expected better of Trivers.

15 Comments on "Everyone Is Self-Deluded But Me"

  1. Simon Valentine | Oct 10, 2013 at 12:02 pm |

    i swear i saw the word psyopsy in here …

    “instead, realize that” brain dead “and” absurd “realize that it is impossible to know me, irregardless of you, me, reality, or connection”

    psychosis progno[gene]sis – you and me need to stop confuscating – ‘nevermind’ excuses like “synonym” or “word group” or “symmetry” or “meaning”

    how many parts per million can you divide a word into, anyway?

    gamer < human < god < programmer

    gamer = programmer

    the problem is not that it is true, oh ye of little paradox, the problem is what to do with the shit intestines can't process.

    you'll have better luck approaching this with a "psionic powers do exist and that they do not exist is but one discipline used to procure their existence"

    everyone is a sub-set of me. eat %*@! Indra.

    • BuzzCoastin | Oct 10, 2013 at 3:26 pm |

      Next morning, at the gate of the palace that is being built, there appears a beautiful blue boy with a lot of children around him, just admiring his beauty. The porter at the gate of the new palace goes running to Indra, and Indra says, “Well, bring in the boy.”

      The boy is brought in, and Indra, the king god, sitting on his throne, says, “Young man, welcome. And what brings you to my palace?” “Well,” says the boy with a voice like thunder rolling on the horizon, “I have been told that you are building such a palace as no Indra
      before you ever built.” And Indra says, “Indras before me, young man— what are you talking about?”

      • Simon Valentine | Oct 10, 2013 at 3:39 pm |

        and so began me not logged in at the moment err i mean an ado about pearls and where the pearls that were indras that were before indra’s vision and may coincidentally have been in front of indra’s eyes are located. also the pearl that does not reflect indra, since every pearl is present, and indra isn’t Cantor on holloween. going as Cantor for holloween is actually a great idea. or as Euler.

        “enough retroactive pearls for today” said Indris
        “i’m hungry and that spider Indra … ” the rest is muffled and reflexively ineffable as Indris wanders off to the nearest food…

        A Sound of Thunder … A Time of Lightning >.<

        Galois pearls… mmmmm

        • BuzzCoastin | Oct 10, 2013 at 3:54 pm |

          The boy says, “Indras before you. I have seen them come and go, come and go. Just think, Vishnu sleeps in the cosmic ocean, and the lotus of the universe grows from his navel. On the lotus sits Brahma, the creator. Brahma opens his eyes, and a world comes into being, governed by an Indra. Brahma closes his eyes, and a world goes out of being. The life of a Brahma is 432,000 years. When he dies, the lotus goes back, and another lotus is formed, and another Brahma. Then think of the galaxies beyond galaxies in infinite space, each a lotus, with a Brahma sitting on it, opening his eyes, closing his eyes. And Indras? There may be wise men in your court who would volunteer to count the drops of water in the oceans or the grains of sand on the beaches, but no one would count those Brahmin, let alone those Indras.”

          • Simon Valentine | Oct 10, 2013 at 4:10 pm |

            a plateau surrounds itself with bluff and world things, and to say i do not seek it is itself a comprehension, yet if the boy i would have asked, in manner of conversation, of blueprints. “yet then having been blue, i would not have been the only ox to walk this way. nor the only to wonder of the blueprints of Indra, seen again in the others, and within them, and within us. with any one then come to teach us more of anything, am i but not Indra? save not Indra? is not Indra a pearl? and the Others, even outside? am i but not, Indra?” a lone lotus galloped past and Alice woke up.

          • Simon Valentine | Oct 10, 2013 at 4:33 pm |

            Awaken my child, and embrace the glory that is your birthright

          • Black Prince or Black Knight?

          • Simon Valentine | Oct 11, 2013 at 11:53 am |

            The Infernal City and Lord of Souls

            Attrebus Mede can keep his empire city shenanigans – i am far more fascinated by Oblivion and this … Umbra, Vuhon, and Sul. but of chess there was the rest involving soul stones clear, still, putting magic to the test is what i hold so dear. from black templar to outsider even unknown to me, the rogue that became nephelite i only once have seen.

          • BuzzCoastin | Oct 10, 2013 at 5:00 pm |

            Indra’s Net of Gems

          • Monkey See Monkey Do | Oct 11, 2013 at 1:11 am |

            That little goblin freaked me out.

          • Calypso_1 | Oct 11, 2013 at 2:21 am |

            I felt the same way regarding the swingwing.

          • Simon Valentine | Oct 10, 2013 at 4:54 pm |

            just realized that 432,000 is divisible by both 1200 and 1080, and that, respectively, 360 and 400 mark degrees of a circle and 100 moon trolls with monitors minotauring each other while the universes flash past frame by frame, screen by screen.

  2. BuzzCoastin | Oct 10, 2013 at 3:20 pm |

    only the most courageous can encounter their shadow of self-deceit
    very few are willing to test the assumptions of acquired conditioning
    most people live in a tiny bubble they call reality
    and never really attempt to penetrate that reality
    with exploration & experiment
    which is how self deception stays with them

  3. Monkey See Monkey Do | Oct 11, 2013 at 1:34 am |

    Trivers account of cultural anthropology just shows how much prejudice he has in his thinking. More than any other science discipline, social and cultural anthropology embraces the notion of being ‘agnostic about everything’. I too enjoyed the criticism of physicists (because of their materialist snootiness) but obviously Trivers is out of line about them. Blaming them for the bomb is like blaming anthropologists and biologists for eugenics. I guess Indra’s net convinces each discipline that their the ones closest to the ultimate truth.

    • Sorry, but as someone very close to Physics (and I do love physics as one lens to view thee world), modern physicists do in fact carry quite a bit of guilt for thee bomb.
      Physicist try to distance themselves by talking of tools that can be used however they will be… while being paid by DOD… and then concentrate on thee immediate technical problems at hand… using a lot of mental energy to forget how their projects can be used to destroy, both by death and power imbalances…
      Our philosophy has a long way to go to catch up to our technology.

      Actually, I wonder if we can blame eugenics for anthropology… 😉

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