Allen Lane, £25, 416pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas