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Is Robert Trivers Deceiving Himself about Evolutionary Psychology’s Flaws?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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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.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jdonald 3:19 pm 01/6/2012

    Is it your position that all evolutionary psychologists are unoriginal hacks who merely jumped on the Darwinian bandwagon? If not all would you be so kind as to share your thoughts on which EPs are not unoriginal hacks?

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  2. 2. naya8 4:30 pm 01/6/2012

    John I think that you are a big writer and a good human beeing.But I disagree that war is a cultural feature. It’s innat in our biological brain exactly like animals not only primates. Until now I don’t understand how could we beleive in evolution but not in the evolution of brains. There are no “mems”, there are neurones evolution and it’s fast one.I believe that genetics of brain and evolution go together.

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  3. 3. Matthew Hutson 4:38 pm 01/6/2012

    Sorry if I’m misinterpreting, but it sounds like you’re saying rape, war, and child abuse do not have roots in our evolved cognitions. Does that mean that if we reran human history a hundred times, in various environments, those things would be rare?

    Even if they are cultural products (whatever that means), culture acts as a mediator between biology and behavior. We’ve evolved to develop cultures in which people sometime rape, fight, and abuse. Evolutionary psychology does not deny the influence of culture on behavior. It, in part, seeks to understand why humans tend to develop certain types of culture.

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  4. 4. gregdowney 5:37 pm 01/6/2012

    Thanks, John, for a great column, although I suspect you’re going to get an ear-full (or in-box full) of irritated EP responses. I think most of your points are valid, although the assessment of Trivers at the end is pretty harsh — admittedly, balanced by an acknowledgment of his originality and brilliance earlier on in the piece.

    One of the issues I think people will have is the misunderstanding of ‘war.’ I’m a cultural anthropologist, so my opinion is likely to be immediately suspect, but people are too likely to equate ‘war’ to other human conflicts scaled up. That is, they tend to think of ‘war,’ at least when they’re talking about its evolutionary precursors or innate nature, as kind of a really large disagreement, or a bit of a drunken bust-up between nations.

    The problem is that war is not like a spontaneous conflagration between two groups. War is a massive logistical, political, social, ideological and technological undertaking. War in the human sense requires people, not only to cooperate on a massive scale, but to go into a conflict about which most have absolutely no actual interest, often over a point of ideology or imagined interest that will make virtually no positive difference to most participants and may kill them.

    To me, the link between inter-group territorial conflict among chimpanzees in Gombe, and religiously-based conflicts in Europe, imperial wars in early agricultural civilizations, and the sorts of wars we fight today to ‘make us safe’ by killing 10s and 100s of thousands of civilians to fight an ideology are worlds apart. Perhaps you could argue that some sorts of territorial conflict among foraging or herding peoples look like chimpanzee ‘war,’ but this is often low intensity, sporadic skirmishing, not the protracted, intense conflicts that we typically think of as ‘war.’

    It’s only one of the points you make though, John, and I think you’ve got a great piece here.

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  5. 5. cbjones1943 6:42 pm 01/6/2012

    1. I have not read Trivers’ new book but am familiar with his propositions re: deception/self-deception.
    2. I would be surprised, and I consider it unlikely, that he used the descriptor, “innate”, as you state.
    3. It is not clear to me why an evolutionary biologist who has something to say about human behavior is termed, “evolutionary psychologist”. IMO, this misses the point. If evolutionary biologists who speak of human behavior have anything in common with evolutionary psychology, please provide a defense.
    5. Pure speculation: perhaps the turn taken by cultural anthropology in the 70s to which you refer was the turn towards post-modernism. Unless I am mistaken, Geertz strongly objected to this “turn”, creating his own highly-influential reaction cum linguistic movement.
    4. Though you do not state it explicitly, I think you imply that Trivers’ theory, deception/self-deception, is not testable, a very common criticism of these ideas among evolutionary biologists. It would be instructive, IMO, to have a theoretician (mathematician) take on the task of modeling Trivers’ ideas on these topics then, depending upon theoretical results, empiricists might take on the task(s) of testing Trivers’ ideas.

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  6. 6. hogansherrow 11:26 am 01/7/2012

    Dear John, I like aspects of this column, and I appreciate your critical viewpoint about Trivers, Ev Psych, and using evolutionary principles to analyze human behavior. I’m a huge proponent of the importance for scientists to be cautious, and to reflect on the accuracy and importance of their work. However, when you state, “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.” You are as mistaken now as you were in your original piece, “Quitting the Hominid Fight Club”. The evidence does not suggest that war suddenly dropped down on the human species out of nowhere 10,000 years ago and began to spread as a successful mental idea. Instead, the data suggest that war has evolutionary roots, and that lethal intercommunity conflicts between social groups [the base form or warfare] share traits in common. From the ubiquitous nature of war across human cultures, to the shared xenophobic tendencies of humans, chimpanzees, and even male bonobos [they are aggressive toward extra-community males], to the ease with which we categorize others as members of in-groups and out-groups and are willing to act in a lethal manner against them, the basal behaviors are the same. Further, the archaeological evidence indicates that humans have acted lethally toward members of other groups for much longer than 10,000 years. Having said all of that, I agree with Greg’s point about modern warfare. Modern warfare is complex and involves massive group coordination, political maneuvering and ideology and [sometimes] prolonged conflict [though this is debatable]. In short, modern warfare is impacted and intensified by language and culture. However, to suggest that a behavior as universal and common-place among humans as war has no evolutionary prehistory is naive and illogical.

    Beyond the issue of war, I think you have some good points in your piece John. Still, while I think that Professor Trivers can suffer from a lack of diplomacy, I appreciate some of his points as well. Ev Psych is one of the disciplines we can use to understand human behavior at a level that most disciplines cannot touch, and it has its utility. The mistake that I think researchers in any discipline make is to embrace their own brilliance to the extent that they elevate their own perspective by attacking others. It’s not that we all need to “just get along” but we can all learn from one another.

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  7. 7. Harry Anderson MD FRCP 5:53 pm 01/7/2012

    The problems of self deception when the scientist turns to the study of a human issue can be engaged, identified and explored if he(she) simply thinks of developing a scientific research design for the project. If, for example, he finds himself deciding that it is impossible in his particular field, and that conclusion is not, itself, scientifically viable, he can proceed to study why he has accepted it rather than at least have left the question open.

    I am a psychoanalyst and clinical researcher who was inspired by the scientists encountered during medical training and carried ideas for research designs into my later career. After my training analysis, I applied the scientific method (multiple logical hypotheses, validation criteria. tests for predictive capability, etc.) to Freud’s principles. Some proved quite correct while others did not, and new theories replaced the latter. As I did so, I oberved that symptoms partially addressed in my analysis (but not by any means eliminated) were becoming more definable, and, over a period of ten years, I used my developing research findings to systematicaly explore and dismantle them. Then the self analysis and the clinical work with analysands complemented each other and I was led to a comprehensive, genuinely-scientific collection of basic and appled theories of the symptoms of my domain. That is, as I became freer of underlying psychological interferences, and my vulnerability to dysfunctional social factors was reduced, I was able to identify and explore areas of human experience that had been closed to scientific investigation.

    During the course of such work and since, I have also been interested in the signs of psychological and sociological factors in others that prevent them from even thinking that a science of psychoanalysis is possible. Professionals and critics have had responses ranging from disinterest, to unchecked assumption and dismissal, to a passionate rejection of methods and conclusions that have been tested many times (e.g. “prediction is impossible in the clinical situation”). And I am at present collecting saved material of that kind that allows initial observational access into what produces such reactions.

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  8. 8. gesimsek 6:29 pm 01/7/2012

    As Arendt wrote “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together”. This explains why war is cultural.

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  9. 9. drglennking 2:52 pm 01/9/2012

    A premise of this column is just as simplistic as the worst of sociobiology: “I still have a problem with his assertion that these behaviors are innate.” Above the level of reflexes it makes no sense to debate whether or not a behavior is “innate.” The question is whether or not a particular pattern of behavior has innate components. Warfare is a highly complex system of behavior with many components that probably bring together innate, cultural, and psychological influences. The individual motivations behind line fighting and ambushes, as I’ve argued elsewhere, are probably subject to innate influences. On the other hand, most religious, political, and economic rationales for warfare are probably of cultural origin.
    With regard to the “turn to the left,” as an anthropologist I can certainly confirm that. At the beginning of that shift in attitude, I raised the issue of sociobiology in a session of the American Anthropological Association and was accused of being a Nazi. Much more recently a prominent archeologist wrote to the AAA’s newsletter to imply an association between sociobiology and the Ku Klux Klan.
    Science is self-corrective (albeit clumsily) when it is practiced honestly. There is no chance of this when political propaganda replaces reasoned discourse.
    Dr. Glenn King
    Professor Emeritus of Anthropology
    Monmouth University

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  10. 10. drglennking 3:03 pm 01/9/2012

    Having reread the previous comments, I’d like to emphasize one point. Any innate influences on behavior operate within individuals, mainly at the perceptual and motivational levels. This is where we have to investigate the problem. Bare statements about the logistics and complexity of modern warfare or its socioeconomic causes are only marginally relevant. The innate issue revolves around the perceptions and feelings of the grunts in the field. There is evidence that many adult males in many cultures participated in warfare out of anger or pursuit of pleasure (e.g. the “sportive” warfare of native New Guinea). The relevance of modern warfare to the innate question is that modern warfare is much more dangerous than fighting in the past, which tends to suppress innate motivations to participate.

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  11. 11. Tractorthoughts 5:12 pm 01/9/2012

    Your review and the comments that follow are excellent. I have been trained in the “hard” sciences and have done a fair amount of cross cultural anthropology. I have come to the conclusion that there are a number of human behaviors that have evolutionary roots but that are heavily mediated by culture. Sex is an excellent example. But for most behaviors it is difficult to draw a definitive line and say this is where culture begins and or innate traits end (if ever). Clearly the capability for aggressive behavior among humans is innate. But we often forget that cooperation and altruistic behavior is also. It seems clear to me that culture vastly influences the relative expression of both. As such warfare is very much the product of culture. Soldiers and populations often have to be tricked and or coerced into participation. I suspect that warfare has its roots in patriarchy but that is an open question. The fact that warfare is less frequent between democracies is evidence of that.

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  12. 12. Snowshoe 6:24 pm 01/9/2012

    War, rape and child abuse are all manifestations of a thirst for power and control, which are about as basic a set of genetically-driven characteristics one could imagine. War as a recent cultural phenomenon fails the test of Occam’s Razor for starters. The means to war effectively may have developed 10,000 years ago, but the suggestion that we suddenly decided to fight seems unlikely to me.

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  13. 13. Bob Grumman 9:14 pm 01/9/2012

    Quick comment. It seems beyond reasonable doubt to me that everything we do is the result of our nervous and endocrinological systems, and that they are the result of evolution. That Trivers’s guesses about how evolution has shaped our psychology may be sometimes wrong does not make sociobiology wrong.

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  14. 14. david_burress 1:51 am 01/10/2012

    To expand on Bob Grumman’s point, you can’t possibly accept evolutionary theory and yet deny evolutionary origins for psychology, unless you also claim there are no innate human psychological tendencies at all. Almost no one believes that anymore–human beings are definitely kinky.
    So criticism of EP as such are just plain ignorant. However research done within the field can legitimately criticized for three possible kinds of errors:
    -getting wrong what is innate in human psychology
    -proposing the wrong evolutionary mechanism for something that is innate
    -accepting a mechanism as true without providing adequate empirical evidence.
    However any claims that the field inevitably makes one or another of these errors and that they cannot be corrected over time is implicitly hostile to the scientific enterprise as such. In particular the claim that empirical evidence can never be found depends on an unacceptably narrow notion of what constitutes “evidence.”
    Thus if an evolutionary model predicts a novel fact about human behavior, and that fact is subsequently validated, then that is good scientific evidence for the model independently of any hard genetic traces.

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  15. 15. voyager 10:09 pm 01/10/2012

    English Major here. I think in one case we can all get along. Aggression is genetic and preserved because it has had benefits long enough. Culture–that is, the impulse toward limiting ‘natural’ behavior, such as aggression–is also itself a genetically successful artifact. Democracy seems to be the most successful cultural sub-artifact in modifying aggression.

    But modern warfare, thanks to intelligence and aggression, may have become more efficient than has the modification of aggression, even among democracies if attacked by a non-democracy.

    This may eventually result in a situation of extremely effective conflict that is not sufficiently restrained by culture. Future social scientists of another species would interpret the sudden disappearance of the only highly intelligent life on Earth as an unfortunate imbalance in genetic pre-dispositions, and, “Aren’t we lucky on Externus that in our case, aggression was modified to a higher degree?”

    We might miss survival by just an inch. The analyzable record of how we missed it, though, could be just the thing that nudges another species into more rational balance.

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  16. 16. ggianop 1:08 pm 01/11/2012

    In response to the comment from Hogansherrow:

    “The mistake that I think researchers in any discipline make is to embrace their own brilliance to the extent that they elevate their own perspective by attacking others.”

    It occurs to me that this is just another example of how an innate psychological trait (self-aggrandizement and self-delussion) leads an individual to a socio-biological behavior which equates to conflict, albeit on a smaller scale, tempered by the scientific process itself. Is there NOT some degree of “conflict” within the scientific process of discourse and peer review? Is there not an evolution of thought and theory that results from this process? Is not this very article an illustration of that?

    If “steel sharpens steel” can be used to explain how warring skill is aquired, then discourse such as this may be the analogue in the scientific process. It has the effect of sharpening our theories and thoughts, and is itself part of the evolution of our thinking. Is it really any different in its basis than the social behaviors that lead to inter-societal conflicts? Is propelling one’s own perspective above all others, to the point of conflict, really any different than the way we have traditionally propelled our religious beliefs over those of others, and been willing to go to war to defend them? Is it not, therefore, perhaps part of the same phenominon.

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  17. 17. D. Baxter 9:24 pm 01/12/2012

    As an encultuerated Anthropologist with a far too robust mythological background, I am puzzled by the conflict between the strictly Darwinian and the socio-cultural perspectives. Yes, we have evolving, genetically influenced interactions with our environment. And, yes, we observe and learn nuanced responses from those interactions. But what is more obvious than the observation that those nuanced responses are governed to a great extent by our social environments, and that those social environments are, in turn, governed by our cultural environments.

    Simple observational proof?

    We consciously breed physiological and behavioral traits into almost every species we bring into our lives. These traits are quite specific to the tasks we require of our domestic partners. Work: hunting dogs, plow horses. Companions: lapdogs, perpetual kittens. Performers: talking birds, rodeo bulls. And I dare say, that a dog in the Kalahari is not the same as a dog in New York City.
    Can any observer of human nature be so blind as to not believe we have done this to ourselves, also? Our genes determine what traits are possible; but, at least, since the introduction of language and storytelling, our cultures have determined what traits we breed for.
    It is only the opinion of a lone storyteller, but it seems highly plausible that where we are going biologically will be, at least partially, the result of learned choices.

    Evolution is as much a macro-environmental systems phenomena as a microbiological one.

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  18. 18. HubertB 9:36 am 01/13/2012

    To say that war began 10,000 years ago because that is when the archeological record finds spears with clovis points attacked agricultural villages, only proves that is as far back as it is possible to trace agricultural villages. The archaeological record has no way of discovering war from a pre-agricultural era. No one should make an assumption about war from an earlier era without knowing how such a war would have occurred and what archaeological record would remain. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
    Child abuse occurs among other primates in times of want. Some children are fed first. In times of famine, some children are killed so others can be fed. Some apes even kill their kids so others can have enough to eat. We apes can abuse our children.
    If someone claims a pattern existing among all other apes suddenly stopped existing among the group of apes called humans and then just as suddenly started up again, he or she should explain why.
    In today’s environment social scientists write politically correct reports for one reason: to get the next grant.
    When the president of a major university was fired for uttering a politically incorrect statement, what researcher seeking tenure would be stupid enough to deviate from the politically correct line? His whole report should be true. The report should be able to stand on its own without the conclusion. He should have a politically correct conclusion.

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  19. 19. tribalypredisposed 1:07 am 01/14/2012

    John, the self-deception you should be concerned with is your own wrong belief that you understand these topics well enough to have an opinion which you share with others. I have followed you around the internet correcting your views on the topic of human warfare over and over and over. So perhaps a series of questions…
    1)What group social territorial species does NOT engage in group level physical conflict with its conspecifics?
    2)If the Theory of Evolution is correct and the struggle for resources results in selection, how would a species arise where access to resources was largely determined at the group level, as with humans, but there was no conflict over resources at the group level?
    3)At least the following components of human behavior contribute to our waging war: desire to belong to a group, conformity, “patriotic” feelings of commitment to “our” group, stereotyping, tendency to dualistic thinking, automatic positive bias towards in-group, readily triggered negative bias towards out-group…why did these evolved predispositions not push our ancestors towards war when they work quite well to do so now?
    4)Why have you gone so far as to demand that others take an anti-scientific stance on this issue, changing their views because you do not like what you, in error, think the implications of their views are. Either they are right or they are wrong. How can you write for Scientific American and demand researcher bias? Is not making such a demand strong evidence that you are not engaging this issue in a scientific manner yourself?

    The fantasy that “we” are peaceful and “good” is what feeds into the fantasy that our conflict with “them” is caused by their being violent and evil. The fantasy you are fighting to preserve is an integral part of what allows us to justify going to war and killing people we do not know. Only by starting by admitting that all humans are predisposed to going to war can we begin to address war in an effective way that reduces its occurrence. Your efforts only hinder this progress. Please stop.

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  20. 20. futuremd 3:51 pm 11/8/2012

    One of the biggest problems with evolutionary psychology is that you can’t strawman them. They *are* the straw man. What I mean is, it’s easy to say “We’re going back to the days of phrenology.” Then they’ll say “The length of your fingers determines sexual orientation.”

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