Deception, self-deception and chimpanzees.

It is easy to understand how we come to deceive other people.  But how can you deceive yourself?  Yet, clearly, we do.  Herbert Fingarette argues that we can put ideas we do not wish to entertain so far to the backs of our heads it is as if we did not know we had them.   That rings true.  The biologist Robert Trivers has a more intriguing explanation.  According to him, deception is so widespread throughout nature it is unthinkable that it would not have played a major part in human evolution.  The petals and stamens of the orchid Ophyrs speculum, for example, are so cunningly contrived to mirror a female of the Scolia wasp species feeding on its nectar, that males are attracted in the hope of mating and when they discover their mistake so caper about in their fury they spread the plant’s pollen. Some species of fire flies have learnt to read the fiery signals emitted by a female of a closely allied species indicating to any passing male she is ready to mate, and  are thus able to respond to her invitations and gobble her up, and with any luck an attending male or too as well.  Male chimpanzees are particularly artful in their battles with each other for dominance.  They puff up their fur to make themselves look bigger than they are.  They attempt to frighten opponents by waving branches of trees and displaying erect penises.  They often adopt an air of nonchalance on discovering a coveted food source.  Male chimpanzees approaching a receptive female will try to hide their erections in order to avoid aggressive confrontations.  Chimpanzees are genetically so close to us – we share over 99% of their genes – it must certainly have been the case that similar deceptions would have been practised in early human societies.  But, points out Trivers, human deceivers would have had a special problem in that human faces are so remarkably expressive of hidden motives.  The deceived would have adapted to better detect the true motives of the deceivers, who would, in an evolutionary arms race, have become better at hiding their true intentions, until in the end, thinks Trivers, really successful deceivers would have succeeded by hiding their motives even from themselves.  We are often consciously driven by motives of which we are largely unconscious because we evolved to be that way.


It is because we are so close to the animals from which we evolved that our greatest problem, in my view, is achieving freedom, the behaviour that is proper to human beings, for despite our genetic closeness we are not chimpanzees, far from it.  But we often fall back into the algorithmic and compulsive patterns of behaviour that drive the chimpanzees which, despite our humanity,  we so very nearly are.  When Jane Goodall first went to Gombe she found herself among a remarkably peaceful, even loving, chimpanzee troupe.  The most influential male was not the alpha but wise old David Greybeard who occupied only a middling position in the male hierarchy.  There was little aggression between males and they would often generously look after each other’s’ infants.  Such a picture contrasts sharply with the male chimpanzee behaviour that has been regularly observed since.  Then, about 1973, the males of the Gombe colony changed suddenly and completely.  The troupe split up into a larger northern Kasakela part and the southern Kahale part. The northerners carefully and deliberately began to target the males of the southern division one by one, starting with the weakest and often accompanying the killings with horrific tortures, and when they had all been killed taking over their territory and breeding females.  The comparison with human history can hardly be missed.  In so many places – Germany, Chile, Argentina, China, Cambodia, Armenia, Rwanda Jugoslavia – people have suddenly turned on neighbours with whom they had lived peaceably for centuries and started killing them in frenzies of hatred. How are we to explain it?


Despite the noisy and ebullient behaviour of male hierarchies in monkey troupes, it is not the males who are the rulers but the females.   This is because amongst monkeys it is young males who leave their natal troupes and the females that stay.  Thus it is the females who are the enduring backbone of the troupe, and it is the wise old females who know from their long experience where the best food sources are and where there are hidden water holes in time of drought. But amongst chimpanzees it is the other way round.  It is the females who migrate, leaving the troupe to the volatile mercies of the aggressive, violent, unstable and quarrelling males.  How do chimpanzee troupes survive then?  It is because of the extraordinary love and devotion of chimpanzee mothers for their infants, according to Jane Goodall, bestowing upon them a psychological stability and self- confidence  that enables them to survive the vicissitudes of chimpanzee life. But a stability that is psychological rather than constitutional is finely balanced and easily overthrown. Exactly the same applies to us. We first acquire the sane and loving behaviour we call humane from our parents, especially our mothers, but all too easily fall back into patterns of behaviour more appropriate to stages of evolutionary development more primitive than our own,  just as the Kasakela chimpanzees did in 1973.  It is no accident that the devil is traditionally pictured with horns and a tail.

We are conditioned by evolution to be led astray by the great deceivers who believe their own lies.  We are all self-deceivers because we evolved to be that way but most of us are in some sort of touch with reality.  But not the great deceivers who believe their own lies.  What do they do?  They become politicians.  I do not doubt that a few names will readily spring to mind.


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