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.