robert_trivers's picture
Evolutionary Biologist; Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences, Rutgers University; Author, Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist
Evolutionary Biologist, Rutgers University; Coauthor, Genes In Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements

Long-Term Trends Toward Honesty to Others and Self

What goes up comes down, what goes around comes around, for each action there is a reaction, and so on. Life is intrinsically self-correcting at almost all its levels, including evolutionary, physiological, historical and genetic. This permits a limited optimism. Wickedness and stupidity are ultimately self-destructive and self-limiting, so we need not trouble ourselves that any particular trend in that direction will go on indefinitely.

On the other hand, the principle of self-correction also applies to love, friendship and high intellectual powers. No movement in these directions can proceed long without setting up counter-pressures against their further spread.

In short, we should neither be too despondent nor too elated at the trajectory of current events. Sooner or later — and usually sooner — they will be reversed.

Two questions arise.

Are there long-term trends we could feel optimistic about? Thirty years of work on the evolutionary trajectory of cooperative strategies suggest long-term trends (under a broad range of conditions) toward greater cooperation, contingent on ever more sophisticated discrimination. It seems likely that when similar models are produced for varying degrees of deceit and self-deception, long-term trends toward honesty to others and self will (at least under some conditions) be favored.

Is there any reason to believe that we will survive long enough to enjoy any of these long-term trends?

This is far less certain. Evolution does not plan for contingencies that have not yet occurred and the vast majority of species go extinct. There is no reason to expect humans are exempt from these rules. The good news is that there is presently no chance that we could extinguish all of life — the bacterial "slimosphere" alone extends some ten miles into the earth — and as yet we can only make life truly miserable for the vast majority of people, not extinguish human life entirely. I would expect this state of affairs to continue indefinitely. The feeling that everything may be fine if only we survive the next 50 to 500 years may become a regular part of our psychology.