By Robert Trivers
Basic Books, $28.00, 397 pages

A professor of biology, Trivers explains not just how effectively, efficiently and effortlessly we self-deceive, but how we are evolutionarily primed to do so. In his telling, success – whether financial or interpersonal – depends on one’s ability to narrate what might be called ‘reality.’ Human senses have adept skills to determine truth, but they matter less than our ability to get others to accept our self-interested versions of it. Convincing others, who are equally self-interested in telling better stories, means deception, artifice and the motivations of reason. Thus, his thesis could be summed up as this: we must first adapt the ability to deceive ourselves to better enrapt our competitors.

Trivers writes with a light tone, teaching and elucidating as he goes. Most of his points have amble support in scientific research (such as his truly novel nexus of evolutionary theory and neuroscience) and trenchant, revelatory personal anecdotes; however, the sheer weight of evidence bogs down the speed and adds a bit too much clarity. The reader cannot be faulted for wanting a bit less, if only to let more of his thoughtful and often counter-intuitions have greater resonance. Understanding too easily should make us suspicious, since we might just be telling ourselves what we already know.

Neil Liss