Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others, By Robert Trivers

Robert Trivers is a distinguished biologist with an enormous reputation in the trade. He is to some extent the éminence grise behind Richard Dawkins, having written the foreword to the first edition of The Selfish Gene. Dawkins acknowledges Trivers's huge influence on his own work and contributes the cover eulogy to what he calls "a remarkable book, by a uniquely brilliant scientist".

If this suggests that Trivers is a retiring academic figure compared to the omnipresent celebrity, you'll have a shock in reading this book. Trivers has had quite a life. The Black Panther Huey P Newton was one of his closest friends. Trivers recounts scabrous incidents, such getting fleeced by a petty conman in Jamaica, where he now lives, and numerous scrapes involving girlfriends, jealousy, drink and car crashes.

Trivers has nibbled away at the theme of self-deception, the subject of this book, for over 30 years: it featured in that Selfish Gene foreword and in some of his papers. Now we have the full-blown version. It starts from the premise that deception is a proven survival strategy right across the animal kingdom and that the enhanced ability to deceive bestowed by language has been a major factor in the evolution of human intelligence.

The struggle between cheaters and the honest is a classic evolutionary arms race in which, as Trivers says, the advantage lies with the cheaters, "while detection of deception plays catch-up". Or as Macduff's son puts it in Macbeth: "there are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men and hang up them".

Trivers's added twist is that self-deception is not always the loser's game one might suppose. The rationale is that that deceivers give themselves away in many ways: the self-deceiver avoids these traps by behaving perfectly naturally because he believes his own publicity. Hence the subtitle of the book.

Although the book is grounded in biology, it is mostly in the background except in the early chapters on subterfuge in nature, the immunology of self-deception, and the genetics of kinship. There is plenty of evidence from psychological testing to demonstrate the human capacity for self-delusion: 94 per cent of academics believe they belong in the top half of their profession. But the second half of the book deals with everyday life, sex, history, war.

It demonstrates with despairing rigour the enormous role of self-deception in various areas of life such as religion and false national narratives. Trivers has made a special study of air disasters and is particularly scathing about Nasa, which, 17 years after the Challenger disaster of 1986, repeated the same head-in-the-sand approach to safety with the Columbia.

Having read the book, with its roll-call of atrocities mired in self-deception, and winced at Trivers's self-lacerating attempts to root out his own delusions, the reader is sensitised to self-deception at all levels. Many will wonder at his claim that self-deception has been positively selected in human evolution. Surely, a poor grasp of reality is not likely to lead to reproductive success?

But, as Trivers points out, the great self-deceivers kill thousands, and sometimes millions, of other people, not always themselves – the architects of the Great War, Vietnam, and Iraq, for example. Presumably, there are many more lesser self-deceiving "best and brightest" men who have managed to plant their genes in the future quite successfully. But whether you accept Trivers's evolutionary argument or not, this is a powerful book: an essential tool for anyone who wants to understand the patterns of human history and religion, and to try to counter their own unconscious biases.

Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage' (Yale) is out in paperback