12 July 2014

On Trivers "Deceit and Self-Deception"

Trivers R (2013) Deceit and Self-Deception; fooling yourself the better to fool others London; Penguin (p-back edition)

This is a quite extraordinary book. As Robert Trivers comments in the very last paragraph:
"One nice feature of the study of deceit and self-deception is that we will never run out of examples."
And indeed he finds them everywhere, from plants mimicking poisonous varieties, to male fish misrepresenting their sex to gain a reproductive advantage, to the competition within families between the maternal and the paternal genes inherited by offspring, to aviation and space accidents, to international relations and nationalistic myths, and of course religion.

Some of the material is clumsy and clunky and could have done with a brutal editor—principally in the more scientific passages where terms like "donor" and "recipient" are insufficiently precise for a naive reader to follow the argument (not sure he uses those terms, but you get the idea). There's an element here of going through the motions of establishing his unimpeachable biological credential, just so he can move on to the more interesting stuff...

And that stuff—particularly the historical material and the Chomskyan expose of the self-serving myths of US imperialism—is passionate and riveting, but I suspect highly contestable.

Trivers readily admits the limitations of current research in all the areas he covers, but he cites his sources only in end-notes. Generally I prefer this approach in "popular science" texts; author/date citation tends to ruin the flow for the reader, but it is not until you follow up the endnotes that you discover that a whole page of argument may be based on a single source, which may be highly contentious, and the surrounding dispute is not mentioned at all. Much of the discussion of conflict in the Middle East, for example, relies on the work of Robert Fisk—hugely respected, but equally hugely contested in the field, I gather. The intriguing idea that xenophobia and inter-group conflict and religiosity are higher in societies which carry a higher load of parasites and hence probably infections rely on four articles (albeit some in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B—but some of which are not fully referenced). The effect is dogmatic, but Trivers does include occasional exclusions where he acknowledges that he must paint with a broad brush because of the scope of the topic. Hence he starts chapter 12, on religion, with;
"A book could be written on this subject—no, a twelve-volume treatise..."
He is an avowed positivist and reductionist; the social "sciences" in his view forfeit any claim to credibility insofar as they drift away from biology. It's all in the genes, in the Dawkins mould, and he aligns his early thought with E O Wilson (of Sociobiology notoriety in the 70s).

He is also prepared to step into the picture himself, in anecdotes which rarely redound to his credit.

So he has a clear frame of reference, or lens, through which he views a vast swathe of biological to political activity, and as might be expected he finds deceit and self-deception wherever he looks—just as a critical theorist finds oppression and exploitation everywhere. The content and examples are fascinating and thought-provoking, but does the whole really work as anything other than another cynic's charter?


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