Robert Trivers’s new book is a curious document — a book about deception and self-deception that is itself deceptive, in structure, voice and argument.

A celebrated evolutionary biologist, Trivers uses the tools of his trade to answer a basic question: Why are deception and self-deception so prevalent? Our eyes, noses, tongues, ears and skin tell us so much about the world, why is it that our brains then deny some of this information, hide it from ourselves and others? Natural selection should have rooted out such tendencies — unless they offer some evolutionary advantage.

Trivers thinks they do. We deceive ourselves to better deceive others.

Lying can obviously be helpful, keeping us out of trouble, making us seem better than we are. But our bodies are not so good at fibbing. We have “tells” — an uptick in our voices, sweating palms — and as lies multiply, it becomes difficult to keep track of them. Much better, then, to first deceive ourselves, to believe the lie, so that when we present it to the world all those giveaways are gone.

Trivers offers this bit of ratiocination as the basis of a “science of self-deception.” But in making his arguments, he turns away from the algebraic logic of modern evolutionary biology and opts, instead, for the approach of 19th-century romantic natural history.

’The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life’ by Robert Trivers (Basic Books/Basic Books)

Like a work of Romantic Natural History (as described by historian Bernhard Helmut Kuhn), “The Folly of Fools” assumes the unity of all nature and seeks to comprehend it not merely by observation and reason, but also by subjective impressions, intuition and imagination. And thus Trivers ranges across biology, anthropology, history and politics to find examples of deception and self-deception in action. Viruses and bacteria camouflage themselves from immune systems. Placebos deceive us into becoming healthy. Bettors on the stock market over-rate their aptitude. Trivers supplements these examples with incidents from his own life — we learn about his drug use and his penchant for petty thievery, among other things — as well as eureka moments when he realized that some everyday interaction could be reduced to an effect of self-deception.

Two problems arise from this arrangement. First, it is unclear for whom this book is meant. Scientists are unlikely to find the argument rigorous enough to be persuasive. But the book may not appeal to lay readers, either. Many of Trivers’s examples feel underdeveloped, and the quick jumps from one to another may give the uninitiated reader vertigo. (In a little over two pages, he touches on food-caching by ravens and squirrels, toddlers keeping secrets, his difficulty in listening to some women in his life talk to each other, molting by mantis shrimp, fighting among fiddler crabs, and chimpanzees hiding things behind their backs.) Fewer examples, more fully developed, could have better drawn in the interested non-scientist.

The second problem with his method is its breadth. The examples never gel into a coherent argument. Rather, deception comes to mean so many things that it means nothing at all: The deception that plays out between a cuckoo and the bird in whose nest it has left its eggs is not the deception that explains Japan’s refusal to come to terms with the Rape of Nanking and neither seems related to the use of misleading metaphors, another form of deception Trivers discusses.

Take his discussion of the events leading up to the Iraq War. It is well and good to say that the architects of the invasion deluded themselves in a number of ways — thinking that Saddam Hussein’s regime stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, that American forces would be welcomed as liberators, that the war would be cheap. Fair enough. But speculating on how deception came to be does nothing to explain the Bush administration’s actions. It may be that the deception and self-deception driving the rush to war resulted from an evolutionary process, or was something else — say, the side-effect of having such a clever brain. Whatever the case, to fully understand this fiasco — and much of human life — one must turn to history, sociology, psychology and political science.

Yet Trivers derides these disciplines. They are rife with self-deception, he argues in one chapter, their theories not based on the robust methods of physics — where self-deception is minimized, he insists — but on a preference for poorly defined variables and a tendency to cherry-pick examples. The irony, of course, is that these are the very problems that undermine Trivers’s own book. In the end, “The Folly of Fools” is not just about self-deception: The book seems an example of it, too.

Joshua Blu Buhs is author of “Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend” and is currently at work on a history of the Forteans.


The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life

By Robert Trivers

Basic. 397 pp. $28