Noam Chomsky and Robert Trivers
The anti-war activist and MIT linguist meets the Rutgers evolutionary biologist in the Seed Salon to discuss deceit.
Seed (September 2006)
In the 1970s, a Harvard class taught by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers ignited a controversy that would escalate into the "sociobiology wars." His papers provided a Darwinian basis for understanding complex human activities and relationships. Across town at MIT, revolutionary linguist Noam Chomsky had earned a reputation as a leading opponent of the Vietnam War. Throughout those pivotal years, and in the following decades, the two explored similar ideas from different perspectives. Long aware of each other's work, they had never met until a couple of months ago, when they sat down to compare notes on some common interests: deceit and self-deception.
Noam Chomsky: One of the most important comments on deceit, I think, was made by Adam Smith. He pointed out that a major goal of business is to deceive and oppress the public.
And one of the striking features of the modern period is the institutionalization of that process, so that we now have huge industries deceiving the public—and they're very conscious about it, the public relations industry. Interestingly, this developed in the freest countries—in Britain and the US—roughly around time of WWI, when it was recognized that enough freedom had been won that people could no longer be controlled by force. So modes of deception and manipulation had to be developed in order to keep them under control.
And by now these are huge industries. They not only dominate marketing of commodities, but they also control the political system. As anyone who watches a US election knows, it's marketing. It's the same techniques that are used to market toothpaste.
And, of course, there are power systems in place to facilitate this. Throughout history it's been mostly the property holders or the educated classes who've tended to support power systems. And that's a large part of what I think education is—it's a form of indoctrination. You have to reconstruct a picture of the world in order to be conducive to the interests and concerns of the educated classes, and this involves a lot of self-deceit.
Robert Trivers: So you're talking about self-deception in at least two contexts. One is intellectuals who, in a sense, go through a process of education which results in a self-deceived organism who is really working to serve the interests of the privileged few without necessarily being conscious of it at all.
The other thing is these massive industries of persuasion and deception, which, one can conceptualize, are also inducing a form of either ignorance or self-deception in listeners, where they come to believe that they know the truth when in fact they're just being manipulated.
So let me ask you, when you think about the leaders—let's say the present set of organisms that launched this dreadful Iraq misadventure—how important is their level of self-deception? We know they launched the whole thing in a swarm of lies, the evidence for which is too overwhelming to even need to be referred to now. My view is that their deception leads to self-deception very easily.
To read the rest of the dialogue and access video of their discussion