Monday, May 09, 2005

"Robert Trivers has returned"

Trivers' ideas are, if such a thing is possible, even more important than the countless experiments and field studies they kicked off. They belong in the category of ideas that are obvious once they are explained, yet eluded great minds for ages; simple enough to be stated in a few words, yet with implications we are only beginning to work out.

Stephen Pinker


Since there's lots of Trivers' talk to sift through, I'll excerpt what I thought was a particularly provocative nugget:

The particular sub-area that I'm interested in developing myself has to do with the structure of the mind in terms of biased information flow between the conscious and the unconscious, and the very peculiar and counter-intuitive fact that humans in a variety of situations misrepresent reality to the conscious mind while keeping in the unconscious either a fully accurate, or in any case more accurate, view of that which they misrepresent to the conscious mind. That seems so counter-intuitive that it begs explanation. You would have thought that after natural selection ground away for four billion years and produced these eyeballs capable of such subtlety—color, motion-detection, the details of granularity that we see—you would have perfected the organs for interpretation of reality such that they wouldn't systematically distort the information once it reaches you. That seems like a strange way to design a railroad.

The function of this area of self-deception is intimately connected to deception of others. If you are trying to see through me right now, and if I'm lying about something you actually care about, what you see first, to speak loosely, is my conscious mind and its behavioral effects. You can get some sense of my mood or my affect. The quality of voice might give you stress while trying to deceive you. It is much harder for you to figure out what my unconscious is up to. You have to make a study of my behavior, such as a spouse will do, much to your dismay at times.

One simple logic is that we hide things in our unconscious precisely to hide them better from other people, so the key interaction driving this is deception. I often talk about deceit and self-deception in the same voice because you can't see self-deception properly if you don't appreciate its deceptive possibilities. Likewise, if you talk about deception without any reference to self-deception then you tend unconsciously to limit yourself to consciously promoted deception, and you tend to overlook unconsciously promulgated deception. Each failure to link the two topics limits one's understanding of the topic under consideration.

There is also a new area within individual deception that is related to this concept of self-deception directed towards others, but that has not been worked out in a detailed way. That's the extraordinary finding that our maternal genes and our paternal genes—that is, those we inherited from our mother and those we inherited from our father—are capable of being in conflict with each other, each acting to advance the interest of the relevant parent and his or her relatives. You can have a form of internal deception where the maternal side is over-representing maternal interests which the paternal side is discounting, and vice versa.

A profile of Trivers
appeared in The Boston Globe (req's registration).

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