Does Biology Make Us Liars?
ARISTOTLE WAS a cynic. Sure, the Bible exhorts to “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” but he knew better. “The friendly feelings that we bear for another,” instructed his Ethics, “have arisen from the friendly feelings that we bear for ourselves.”
Two thousand years later, in 1739, Hume spelled out what the pagan thinker intuited: “I learn to do service to another, without bearing him any real kindness; because I foresee, that he will return my service, in expectation of another of the same kind.” Hume’s Edinburgh neighbor, Adam Smith, penned an often quoted phrase in this vein in The Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly on the benevolence of his fellow citizens.”
Self-love makes the world go round. But, alongside cooperation, could self-love give birth to deception? Could the imperative of self-regard be so great, in fact, as to lead to self-deceit? In his new book, Robert Trivers, a master of evolutionary thought, roams from stick insects and brain magnets to plane crashes and Israeli-Palestinian wars in service of a corollary to Aristotle’s hard-boiled thesis. We humans deceive ourselves, Trivers argues. We do so often, and almost always the better to deceive others for our own personal gain. From misguided estimates of self-worth to false historical narratives of nations, the self-love that spins the world is itself fueled by self-deceit. And the price can be substantial.
Deception comes before self-deceit, and nature is riddled with it. A third of the 26,000 species of orchids propagate by deceiving pollinators into believing that they are enjoying a non-existent reward. Foraging octopi, who can change the color patterns on their skin at a rate of three times per minute for four hours at a time, bamboozle would-be predators into complete confusion. Male antelopes use warning barks to fool frightened females into sticking around rather than search for another mate. Cuckoos and cowbirds trick other species of birds into believing that the eggs they furtively lug into their nests are their own, carrying on carefree as the duped foster parents shoulder the burden of nestling and feeding the newborn hatchlings. The opossum feigns death, viral DNA hoodwinks bacterial (and every other kind of) DNA, the Viceroy dupes Monarch-wary would-be munchers.