May 03, 2007

Do fool yourself

[This continues from my previous post. Read the first part first].

Humphrey's and Alexander's ideas imply that manipulation, deceit and outright lying -- the tools you use to outwit your competition -- are highly valued social skills. The human mind is the product of rapid evolution that is driven by these skills. In fact, Alexander believes that the mind -- the powerful thinking organ that it is -- would never have evolved in a world where everybody told the truth. If nobody lied, there would be no need for formidable intellects.

But Alexander also maintains that while we must and do compete among ourselves as individuals, intellect is also fueled by conflicts between groups of individuals. The same Machiavellian ideas about competition between individuals apply just as well to groups of individuals that compete with other groups for survival. Those social units whose members, despite their internal conflicts, learn to cooperate best towards a common goal have a natural advantage over units that are less effective at getting along internally. Therefore, as groups compete, they must evolve more and more sophisticated cooperative skills simply in order to keep up with the others.

In the end, members become intensely loyal to their own groups and deeply hostile to outsiders. Because these characteristics help groups survive.

Now loyalty and cooperation may be easy in small groups, like families, where members are usually closely related. But as groups grow in size, members will no longer be related. They might even be total strangers. How do you promote unity in a situation like this? How can members be convinced to subsume their own interests to those of the group?

The answer, in a word, is self-deception.

Remember that deceit is a valued skill for the evolution of intelligence. Alexander argued that the best deceivers of all are those who find ways to deceive themselves. For they can convince themselves -- deceive themselves -- to ignore their own interests and promote the group's. Thus the genesis of such things as ideology, religion and nationalism. For these ideas promote unity within groups who subscribe to them; and unity is a distinct and powerful advantage in a group's conflicts with other groups.

It's a fascinating progression of ideas. From Machiavelli's advice that deceiving the other guy is a key to success, we have come to the understanding that self-deception is perhaps the best key. The evolution of intelligence has brought us to the irrationality of religion and nationalism.

That's a carefully chosen word: so why irrationality? Because appeals to religion and patriotism have always been successful devices -- call them ruses -- to get people to slaughter other people. So from out of the ancient competition to survive -- the goal, after all, of every individual -- has grown a willingness to kill and be killed.

In my mind the most destructive forces mankind has ever discovered or set in motion, religion and nationalism have killed countless millions over the centuries. The carnage goes on all around us even today: remember words like Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechnya, September 11, Beslan, Shia-Sunni, Protestant-Catholic -- and closer home, remember Godhra and Gujarat, Delhi, Bombay, Partition ... what a depressing list.

Is destruction, then, the greatest success of all?


Incidentally, Niccolo Machiavelli's birthday was May 3, the day I posted the first part of this essay.


km said...

Thanks for blogging these two excellent posts, Dilip.

Who could have attributed patriotism or nationalism to intelligence and survival instincts!

But here's a question for you: why are the acts of killing necessarily irrational? Death by itself is not irrational, right?

Besides, what is so rational about "being", when the same rationality of "being" leads us to terrible irrational self-delusions?

OK, I am pushing this into ontological territory....

rossoneri said...

excellent posts! they add a new perspective to Machiavelli. personally he's one for the greatest social thinkers even though men take him to be some kind of conniving scheming ^#%@.

Rahul said...

I think "evolution" is a loaded word. Yes, patriotism and nationalism have evolved in societies, and help them remain fitter by encouraging self-sacrifice in the group's interests. But I doubt there's a genetically heritable basis for that. It's just how the societies bring up their young. Whereas, when one talks about the "evolution of the human mind", one is generally talking about the genetics, not the moulding after birth.

You would argue that a truly intelligent being would not believe his elders who brainwashed him into thinking that self-sacrifice in the name of patriotism is always good. And, indeed, many don't. But there may be some evolutionary advantage to believing what your elders tell you (after all, as your earlier post says, it's the elder monkeys who teach the younger ones how to peel a banana). This may have a genetic, heritable origin; but self-deception may not enter into it.

I think it's skepticism, not self-delusion, that distinguishes humans from other animals.

Anonymous said...

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kartik talamadupula said...

It mightn't be the greatest success of all; certainly seems to be the greaters measure of success though; that which can inflict the maximum destructions stands heralded the most successful.

On a related note, I don't know who said this, but I remember reading something that suggested that human society, with its advances in medicine and social care, is working directly against Darwin and his whole "survival of the fittest" theories.

Since the whole topic came about due to reservations, I think that's relevant.

Bangalore Daze said...


I've always held that the zealots that effectively delude the masses through emotional calls inducing religious/nationalistic fervour are in some way shape or form, superior to those who answer those calls. I never drew a thread that linked that from Machiavelli to a study on gorillas to evolution though.

In the same vein as Rahul's point in the earlier comments, I think that truly intelligent creatures can a). detect bullsh*t such as exortations to kill oneself in the name of a cause and b). can motivate other creatures to perform acts that would benefit the intelligent one.

Intelligent (as defined above) and purely self centered people then, have the highest potential of damage.

What is truly sad though, is the level of intelligence (as defined above) needed to cause serious damage is obviously related to the average intelligence of the society you live in. And looking around doesn't give me too much comfort.

Protegeoflife said...

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