Trivers’s The Folly of Fools


Jason Collins


February 3, 2012

Robert Trivers is one of the giants of biology. His work in altruism, parental investment and parent-offspring conflict is seminal. For this, he has been justly rewarded.

Trivers’s later work on deception and self-deception is also important. His basic argument is that self-deception is not irrationality in the way we might normally categorise it. Rather self-deception plays an important role in convincing others of the “truth”. Believing in something prevents one from giving signs of deception, while possibly reducing cognitive load.

Against that backdrop, I can only describe The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life as a mixed bag. I learnt many things from the book. His discussion of the biological basis of deception in other species is interesting, such as his description of the evolutionary battle between birds that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and the subjects of their deception. The immune effects of deception were new to me. His discussion of deception as one of the weapons in parent-offspring conflict links some of his most important work.

The book is also full of small insights that pop up in random places - Trivers’s writing style has a certain “flow of consciousness” feel about it. This has a cost, however, as many of those insights are sporadically placed through passages that are little more than political rants. When Trivers applied the framework developed in earlier chapters, it did not feel that there was any in-depth analysis. The chapters on Israel and United States imperialism, while possibly containing some fair points, consist of little but an assertion that the facts are obvious and that supporters of Israel or the United States are engaging in self-deception in denying them. I would not have minded that Trivers wore his heart on his sleeve if he was making a more substantive point on deception. Rather, the point was political, with little new insight in that direction.

Much of the book is reflective of a growing trend for people to accompany their work with assertions that biases and deception have led others to come to different conclusions or ignore their brilliant work. I’d prefer that they stick with arguing their point and acknowledge that bias and deception is a two-way street.

Overall, I would still recommend reading the book, and I have a hunch that many of the ideas in it will come in useful. Just be ready to wade through a mix of substance and speeches from the soapbox to find them.

(Or even better, as recommended by Razib at Gene Expression, get hold of a copy of Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers (Evolution and Cognition) - there is some true gold in there.)