You Can’t Get Here from There: A review of Trivers’ Folly of Fools


“One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard when he came to a bunch of grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch.  ‘Just the thing to quench my thirst,’ he said.  Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the grapes.  Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success.  Again and again he tried to reach the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: ‘I am sure they are sour.’  It is easy to despise what you cannot get.”

“In one experiment, people were convinced [by the researchers] that they were likely—or highly unlikely—to be chosen for a prospective date.  If yes, they spent slightly more time studying the positive rather than negative attributes of the prospective date, but if no, they spent more time looking at the negative, as if already rationalizing their pending disappointment.”

The first story is easily recognizable as a fable by Aesop, a sixth-century B.C. Greek writer.  The second story is by Robert Trivers, quoted from his recent book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (October 2011).  Both stories make the same point; what makes them different is that Aesop recognizes the tendency to rationalize disappointment by observation of human behavior in daily life, while Trivers (or rather his source) dresses the idea in scientific cloth.  Yet which is the more effective story of the two?  Clearly Aesop’s is, which is why “sour grapes” is a common shorthand way of saying that someone is rationalizing their disappointment.  I think it unlikely that Trivers’ version will displace Aesop’s, largely because the scientific version is less engaging and, frankly, adds nothing to Aesop’s original insight.

Trivers’ new book is an interesting if rather disorganized continuation of a long tradition, reaching back to Erasmus, of consideration of the benefits and costs of behaviors that at least appear to the author to be foolish, deceiving, or self-deceiving.  He covers a great many examples of such behavior in the relatively short space of this book, many of which could be better served by their own books (and have, by other authors).  I found the chapter on false historical narratives of some interest, though for the most part Trivers’ discussion of human deceptiveness is generalized and, alas, unoriginal.

Of more interest, and concern, is his attempt to explain human deception in biological, particularly genetic and selectionist, terms.  Thus he begins the book by describing deception among plants and, especially, animals.  He cites such examples as butterflies and snakes whose color patterns mimic those of poisonous species, thus protecting themselves against predators; stick insects whose anatomy mimics sticks or leaves, thus making them hard to discern against a background of real branches and leaves; and various kinds of camouflage strategies in speckled coats or feathers.  He also includes examples of deceptive behaviors, such as cuckoos and cowbirds that lay their eggs in other species’ nests, and dissimulation among primates.  All these instances, he claims, strongly suggest that evolution selects for deceptive strategies and also, through co-evolution, strategies for detecting deception.  Therefore, human deception, including self-deception, is a selective adaptation (one assumes therefore genetic rather than learned). (Click here for an interesting discussion of apparent mimicry in a fruit fly.)

There are, however, some problems with this line of argument, which perhaps arise from a conflation of the multiple possible meanings of the words “deceive” and “deception.”  The “deceptions” of butterflies such as the Viceroy, a palatable species that mimics the coloring and wing pattern of the poisonous Monarch, are completely involuntary.  The Viceroy does not ponder the question of how best to avoid being eaten and think, eureka!, I’ll paint myself up to look like a Monarch.  Through the chances of evolution, the Viceroy has evolved a color pattern that happens to closely resemble, but not exactly copy, that of the Monarch—at some point in the remote evolutionary past, those Viceroy ancestors who happened to have genetic mutations that caused this similarity had a greater chance of successfully reproducing than did their less similar relatives; over time, their descendents became the dominant strain.  Likewise the stick insects, scarlet king snakes, striped tigers and speckled grouse.  It should also be noted that all individuals of a mimicking species employ the same strategy—one does not observe individuals choosing to do otherwise, declaring “I have to be me,” so to speak, and giving themselves a unique color or pattern.  Calling such physical traits “deceptive” seems rather odd.

Now, in the case of cuckoos and cowbirds, one might at first glance think that, unlike physical features such as color, behavior is indicative of intelligence and therefore suggestive of intentional deception.  But as in the case of physical markings, we again have to note that all members of a brood-parasitic species engage in the behavior; we do not have instances of some individuals choosing to lay their eggs in other species’ nests, while some individuals decide to do the ethical thing and build their own nests and incubate and raise their own young.  And as Trivers does note, some brood-parasitic species lay eggs similar in color and speckling to their host species’ eggs—but birds do not have a choice about the color of their own eggs.  It is again odd to label the stereotypical, species-wide behavior of these brood-parasitic species “deceptive.”  The behaviors of primates which Trivers cites are more readily recognizable as deliberate and therefore truly deceptive, but with them we are within the realm of active intelligence.  Primates can deliberately manipulate stereotypical behaviors, such as warning calls, to deceive others within their own group.  Unlike butterflies and cuckoos, which cannot think about their “deceptions” and don’t need to, monkeys and apes think about their deceptions, because they must.  Clearly, to label all of these phenomena as “deceptive” (“deception,” “deceive,” etc.) confuses rather than clarifies what is actually going on.

The conflation of various possible meanings of this key word is not the only verbal problem displayed in the book.  In the early chapters, where Trivers labors to establish an evolutionary basis for deception, the lack of evidence supporting that view is manifested in his repeated use of provisional language, some examples of which are:

“This feature [self-deception] probably extends far back in our animal past.”

“Those who believe their self-enhancement are probably more likely to get their opponents to back down .  .  .”

“selection for deception may easily favor self-deception”

“There are undoubtedly many other such contexts” [such as?]

presumably evolved”

“deception has probably been a major factor favoring intelligence”

“seems,” “suggests,”  “if true”

“One is tempted to imagine

may be favored by natural selection”

Repeatedly resorting to provisional language does not inspire confidence in Trivers’ conclusions, and in fact leads at least this reader to wonder if he has been subjected to yet another collection of evolutionary Just-So stories.  Science, as Trivers explains later in the book, is supposed to be about evidence and to self-correct for individual biases, yet all too often, it appears to me, when it comes to explaining modern human behavior in terms of genes and natural selection, evolutionary scientists and evolutionary psychologists have way too thin an evidentiary foundation for the elaborate theories they wish to build on it.  Further, none of their evolutionary/genetic explanations appear to add anything of substance to our understanding of our own behaviors.  Trivers’ sour-grapes story does not improve on Aesop’s.  It is perhaps for this reason that Trivers abandons the evolutionary clichés in the chapters that deal with human deceptions and self-deceptions.

I see lurking in the background of these attempts to explain human behavior in selectionist terms a perennial problem, that of the lack of any other species to which we can genuinely compare and contrast ourselves.  Many of the examples of animal mimicry and display which Trivers cites are taken from species who are only marginally related to humans and who rely either on anatomical features or on instincts over which they have no conscious control.  As mentioned earlier, butterflies and cuckoos do not have to think about their strategies, as they are wholly inherited and therefore stereotypical.  Examples from primates are not necessarily much more helpful, for despite their evident intelligence, monkeys and apes are nonetheless not humans.  The hominid line split from its common ancestor with the apes at least 8 million years ago, and ever since our line has taken a different evolutionary path than has the ape line. Despite the trite fact that we share 97 or 98 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, the chimpanzee is the product of a quite different evolutionary path.  The chimp is not literally our cousin.  The last true cousins that human beings could compare themselves to were the Neanderthals, who went extinct some 30,000 or so years ago and left little record of their behaviors; nor did our ancestors leave any record of their encounters with Neanderthals or of whether or not they learned anything interesting about their own behaviors from those encounters.  Consequently, in the absence of true close relatives, we are tempted to find explanations in observations of more distantly related species; but I fear that what we learn from them may be of quite limited use in trying to understand ourselves.  As to the supposed genetic basis for specific modern human behaviors, a colleague whom Trivers paraphrases may have the best answer: “his genes could not care less about him, and he feels the same way toward them.”

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