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

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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

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

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