Friday, October 14, 2011

The usefulness of lying, genetically speaking (The Folly of Fools by Robert Trivers)

Acerbic critique of Robert Trivers's new book on evolutionary biology Deceit and Self Deception, by Jenny Diski in The Guardian this week (hat tip: Book Slut).
...Now, decades on, he has arrived at a big, new universal theory, also essentially based on the arithmetic of gene selection. Deceit is useful where telling the (unpleasant) truth would hamper your progress. Progress towards what? Trivers would say your fitness, which is defined as raising the chances of replicating your genes into the next generation.
Your genes, apparently, would agree with him; but they would, wouldn't they? That is if they were capable of agreeing. I want to hang on to the fact that the building blocks of ourselves do not want or intend anything.
Chemicals aren't conscious, although by amazing chance they can combine to make a conscious organism.
Once self-conscious humans begin to do science, and with the benefit of language, start to describe the nature of the chemicals that make them what they are, but having to use regular language if they want a large audience (maths is a much better language, but fewer people can read it), they cannot help but slide into the notion of intention. Dawkins's selfish gene gained an absurd life of its own because most people don't speak arithmetic.
It's an excellent point, in fact, genes aren't really even actual things per se, they are more an idea advanced to characterize chemical function, but many of those who advance our understanding of evolution find the notion of genes necessary, or let's say helpful, as they find Trivers's work influential. Indeed, it's interesting to consider the usefulness of deceitful behavior since, if we look at our psychological development, once we learn how to speak we generally learn how to lie and thereafter we must be taught when and when not to do so. For instance, you should tell mommy the truth about spilling the powder all over the bathroom, but you should not tell the lady who works in the bakery that she has a fat tushy. The review has made me most interested to read the book despite the fact that all the science with which I'm familiar links genes to the production of proteins not behaviors. Genes are no doubt necessary to produce behaviors as cold is necessary to produce snow, but just because it's cold doesn't mean that it's snowing. Behavior evolves in the context of individual bodies and collective environments and is the product of many genes upon many proteins and subsequent neurotransmitters upon neurons via mechanisms that are many steps away from the initial genes, but still, somebody has to ask the questions at the level of behavior if we are ever to understand the answers. This book is made all the more interesting after learning a little more about the author from Andrew Brown's profile, also in The Guardian. Trivers seems a fascinating iconoclast. The book appears to be called The Folly of Fools in its American version, at least I believe they're the same (someone please correct me if I'm wrong about that.)

No comments: