Feature

The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life by Robert Trivers

The author, who is an evolutionary biologist, argues that evolution has equipped humans to be “master dissemblers.”

(Basic, $28)

In everyday human interactions, “lying can obviously be helpful,” said Joshua Blu Buhs in The Washington Post. However much it’s disparaged, fibbing can be a useful tool for “keeping us out of trouble” or “making us seem better than we are.” But the difficulties most of us have with lying—including sweaty palms and other such physical “tells”—suggest that the practice, in evolutionary terms, is detrimental to our well-being. Unless, that is, evolution has allowed us to avoid such discomfort by equipping us to first deceive ourselves. In his fascinating yet flawed new book, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers makes exactly that argument. Unfortunately—and ironically—his case is marred by his own tendency to bend the evidence to suit his biases.

One can hardly blame Trivers for falling prey to the malady he diagnoses, said John Horgan in The New York Times. Humans, he’ll convince you, were born to lie. “Even before we can speak, we learn to cry insincerely to manipulate our caregivers.” By the time we’re adults, we’re all “master dissemblers,” concealing our weaknesses from ourselves and exaggerating our strengths. Such self-deception helps us attain the things that we want from others, but the overconfidence it breeds can also have “devastating consequences.” Trivers offers countless examples—“from the dissolution of a marriage to stock-market collapses and world wars”—that can be blamed on an overly rosy self-image.

If only he’d stuck to the science, said Jesse Singal in The Boston Globe. After doing a marvelous job of detailing how poor our brains are at discerning “objective” reality, Trivers instead tries to expand his argument and ends up sidetracked in political rants. In the book’s second half, it sometimes seems as if he’s “more interested in venting about U.S. foreign policy” than in broadening “the ideas he worked so hard to develop.” What can a reader conclude other than that overconfidence got the better of Trivers? After all, any book that starts so promisingly and goes so far offtrack “has more than a whiff of self-deception to it.”

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