Evolutionary Biologists

Fooled by evolution? Take a reality check

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 December, 2011, 12:00am

The great actor Peter O'Toole once said that he never felt more alone than in a crowd celebrating Christmas.

Perhaps feelings of loneliness and failure during festivities make us see ourselves for who we are. That may be why suicide rates supposedly peak at this time of year.

For most of the time, according to Robert Trivers, the sociobiologist, we go about thinking we are smarter, sexier, nicer and more righteous than we really are. This self-regard confers vast evolutionary advantage, Trivers argues, allowing us to fool ourselves with such self-deceptions so as to better fool others about ourselves.

I had never heard of Trivers until I read a recent book review in The New York Times. But if the reviewer is right, Trivers, now 68, may be one of the great unacknowledged geniuses of our time.

According to the reviewer, less original writers have ripped off his ideas and lived off the fat: Edward O. Wilson in Sociobiology, Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene and Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works.

In a TEDx lecture - you can watch it on YouTube - Trivers, a womaniser, drunk and manic depressive, tells of one poignant moment when he was amusing a beautiful lady with his cleverness in a city street. He suddenly spotted an old, ugly man shambling by her side ... only to realise he was seeing his own reflection in a shop window.

Did his depression make him see himself for less than what he was, or did it balance the grandiosity to which his genius makes him prone?

By his personality and scientific discipline, Trivers entertains a healthy scepticism about himself and others. And that, strangely, is similar to the scientific attitude espoused by the philosopher Karl Popper.

To paraphrase Popper: any belief may agree with many facts. That is why, to corroborate a belief, you should look for refuting facts, not supporting ones.

Perhaps we should all try that in the new year.