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Best To Be Bad
January 10, 2003
It is good to appear clement, trustworthy, humane, religious and honest, and also to be so,' wrote the 15th century Italian writer and statesman Niccolo Machiavelli, 'but always with the mind so disposed that, when the occasion arises not to be so, you can become the opposite.'
Take a moment to digest that. Machiavelli's point was that getting ahead in life is a matter of intrigue and deception. Survival means no less than outwitting the other guy. It's nice to be nice, but it's better to be bad. Yes, take a moment to think that over.
In the early 1970s, a British psychologist called Nicholas Humphrey spent time observing gorillas in the Virunga mountains in Africa. He already knew, from laboratory experiments, that gorillas displayed startlingly acute intelligence. What might have made them so? He expected to find some answers in the conditions in which they lived, the environment in the Virunga mountains.
The apparent ease of gorilla life, then, came as something of a shock to Humphrey. Besides man, gorillas have no natural predators to be wary of. Eating is a matter of stretching an arm out for a bunch of leaves. There were few challenges for Virunga gorillas as they went about their lives. If, as scientists believed, intelligence evolved as a function of environmental conditions and pressures, how could such an unpressured animal be so obviously smart?
After his stay in the Virungas, Humphrey addressed this paradox in a groundbreaking essay, 'The Social Function of Intellect.' Society, he suggested, is the driving force behind intelligence, and in two different
ways. On one hand, the societies animals live in offer a steady stream of lessons for their young to watch and learn from, learning that is essential for survival. We are not born, for example, knowing how to peel a banana. Neither are the monkeys we see doing it. They, and we, learn from watching older, more experienced members of our society -- our parents, perhaps -- peel bananas.
On the other hand, and this is where Machiavelli becomes relevant, society also promotes competition between its members, and competition drives intelligence. While they can behave cooperatively at times, ultimately the interest of each member of a society lies in his own survival. This means they all have to compete from the day they are born: whether for a share of mom's milk or a place in an engineering college or a chance to mate. While a member must rely on his growing intelligence to take on the challenges of his surroundings, the other members of his group quickly become his real intellectual enemies. By being so, they push the development of his intelligence.
Look at it this way: sure, you need a certain amount of intelligence to reach out and grab the right kind of leaves to eat, or to kill a more stupid animal for food. But it's something else altogether to outwit another intelligent member of your society -- someone who is trying to outwit you at the same time.
Humphrey's essay ushered in a whole new way to look at the origins of intelligence. Some scientists called it 'Machiavellian intelligence,' a recognition that being clever has its -- for want of a better word --
political advantages. Want to get ahead in life? What you know, or how much, is less important than keeping what you know from your competition.
Richard Alexander, a scientist at the University of Michigan, applied Humphrey's ideas to the ascent of man. We are the one species on earth, he observed, that lives just about everywhere on the planet: desert, forests, tundra, slums. We have learned to eliminate any threat to our survival from the environment. We deal with predators very simply: by fighting back. So well have we fought back, in fact, that we now have to scramble to preserve some of those very predators from going extinct. For a long time now, forces of natural selection that act on other animals -- climate, predators, drought and so on -- have had no effect on the evolution of man. Thus they cannot be said to have contributed much to man's striking intelligence.
Then what has produced that intelligence? 'The only plausible [explanation],' wrote Alexander, 'is to assume that humans uniquely became their own principal hostile forces of nature.' We ourselves became our own competition, the force that drove our evolution and intelligence. In that sense, you might say mankind invented itself.
Humphrey's and Alexander's ideas imply that manipulation, deceit and outright lying -- the tools you use to keep knowledge from your competition -- are highly valued social skills. The human mind is the product of rapid evolution that is fueled 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 everyone simply 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. That is, 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 such characteristics help groups survive.
Now loyalty and cooperation may be easy in small groups, like families, where the members are usually closely related to each other. But as groups grow in size, members will no longer be related. They might even be total strangers to one another. How do you promote unity in a situation like this? How can group 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 rise of
ideas like religion, ideology and patriotism: these examples of self-deception promote unity among those who have faith in them. And unity is a distinct and powerful advantage in a group's conflicts with other
It's an interesting progression of ideas. From Machiavelli's advice that deceiving the other guy is often necessary, the key to success, we have come to seeing that self-deception is perhaps the best key. The evolution of intelligence has brought us to the irrationality, the blind faith of religion and patriotism.
Why irrationality? Because appeals to religion and patriotism have always been successful ruses to get people to slaughter each other. So from out of the ancient competition to survive -- the aim, after all, of every individual -- has grown a willingness to kill and be killed.
Certainly the most destructive forces mankind has ever discovered or set in motion, religion and patriotism have killed countless millions over the centuries. The carnage goes on all around us even today: remember, from just the last decade, names like Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechnya, September 11,
and our very own India.
Is destruction, then, the greatest success of all?