It's been a hard year, a scary year, but we'll all be OK, won’t we? Of course we will. In the face of a sliding economy, lost jobs, vanishing retirement and checkbooks in the red, everyone just keeps on going. In fact, we keep on smiling. Are we idiots deceiving ourselves? Or are humans a naturally hopeful species? Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers of Rutgers University feels that humans are constantly deceiving themselves, but that self-deception is a good thing. According to Trivers, all creatures have the ability to deceive others, and they have to. For example, insects change color to camouflage themselves against a background so that birds won't swoop down and eat them; fish sport odd appendages to bait their prey; mother birds act like cripples and lure predators away from the nest; chimpanzees cover their submissive grins to hide the fact that they are scared and avoid a beating from higher ups. Deception is, in fact, a strong selective force. Richard Byrne and Nadia Corp of the University of Saint Andrews, in Scotland, have discovered that there is a relationship between the ability to be deceptive and brain size; lemurs, monkeys and apes that socially manipulate others by being deceptive have larger neocortexes, the part of the brain associated with perception and conscious thought. That relationship makes sense because it takes a really smart primate to know all the members of her troop and know which ones to leave alone and which ones to hustle. More important, a talent for deceiving others would probably translate into staying alive and passing on more genes. Trivers claims that it's an easy leap from deceiving others to deceiving oneself. And that talent would be just as important in an evolutionary sense. We lie to get ahead and justify our behavior so as not to feel paralyzed by guilt. Men cheat on their wives and claim they had no idea what they were doing, and believe their own explanation. Women forget the pain of labor and get pregnant again. All day, every day, we deceive ourselves and it helps us stay alive, and sane. From Trivers' viewpoint, we are probably lying to ourselves right now about the economy so that we will carry on, because the other option, not carrying on, is not exactly good for passing on genes. Or does our sunny disposition come from a happier place? Evolutionary Psychiatrist Randolph Nesse of the University of Michigan is a great believer in hope as a evolutionary strategy. According to Nesse, all emotions have an evolutionary basis, and for every negative emotion, there is a balancing positive one. Hope arrives on the coattails of despair, and without hope, we'd all be lost. Since everyone experiences bad stuff, and feels it deeply, our brains have adapted by also delivering hope. And without our inborn measure of hope, we fall into depression, where someone like psychiatrist Nesse has to remind us to be hopeful. Nesse also claims that leaders of social groups have good reason to inspire hope; it's no coincidence that our incoming president's mantra was all about hope. Societies function well on hope, but they fall apart in despair, and we are all clinging to the hope that our new leadership will fix the economy and make everything right. If Nesse is right, then hope is something that evolution has handed us to get through tough situations, and we aren’t deceiving ourselves at all. We are simply looking on the bright side and searching for the silver linings, as we are designed to do. No matter the evolutionary source, humans do seem to have a capacity for resilience. So go ahead, put on a happy face in 2009.
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Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).