September 2, 2007    EducationPsychology

Procreation and Self-deception

In watching the TV commercials where countless starving children from around the world are staring at me in desperation, I cannot help but ask this question: “Why did their parents decide to have children in the first place?” Their dire predicaments are undeniable to anyone. The severe suffering of their children are virtually guaranteed even before their birth. So, why? For many, this is an immoral question to ask. It is an obvious question to everyone, but the desire to have children is so fundamental and deep-rooted that most people can relate to the predicaments of those who have children in abject reality.

Robert Trivers’ theory describes self-deception as a selective advantage in the process of evolution. According to his theory, those who are good at deceiving themselves are also good at deceiving others, because there would be no signs of them lying. Their lies would be more convincing to others. This would lead to more success in life, and that in turn would lead to propagation of their genes. But this is a long way to go about propagating one’s genes. Self-deception, I believe, can bypass the selective advantage and lead directly to generating offspring, because it allows people to ignore the reality that is hostile or even incompatible with having and raising children.

This process of self-deception is everywhere, even in the developed nations like the US. We often hear of women having children in the midst of tumultuous relationships, reasoning that children would put their relationships on the right course. There are teenage single mothers living on welfare who have multiple kids. In more subtle forms, even many intelligent and mature people would often ignore their financial and practical factors and have multiple kids, despite the fact that some studies show most parents become less happy with more kids. The most common argument they provide is that it’s for their children to have siblings. In other words, they believe they are being altruistic and self-sacrificial. But rationally speaking, if one child necessitates to have another for their own benefit, and if you cannot afford to have two, then perhaps you should not have had any in the first place. Even if there is some degree of truth to their reasoning, it would have to be only one item in a long list of pros and cons. For instance, from the perspective of “The Selfish Gene”, it is only natural that one would have urge to have as many kids as possible. Even if one dies, one would have a backup. One could also have the ulterior motive of having as much support as possible in retirement. There are many such selfish reasons. The fact that they use the sibling argument as their primary reason would have to be a form of self-deception.

But this ability of ours would have to be quite important in the process of evolution. It is a mechanism that guarantees the size and the diversity of the population pool. If everyone acted rationally, as a friend of mine noted, we would have gone extinct during the many periods of hardship in our history. This has a paradoxical implication. The more rationally intelligent you are, the less likely you propagate your genes. This goes counter to the argument listed on this Wikipedia page about self-deception. It says:

It may also be argued that the ability to deceive, or self-deceive, is not the selected trait but a by-product of a more primary trait that is selected. Abstract thinking allows many evolutionary advantages such as more flexible, adaptive behaviors and innovation. Since a lie is an abstraction, the mental process of creating a lie can only occur in animals with enough brain complexity to permit abstract thinking.

The higher the level of education, the less children people have. In other words, the more capable you are of abstract thinking, the less genes you propagate. The opposite of what the theory states above.

A more relevant theory is by Sam Vaknin in his article entitled “Parenting - The Irrational Vocation.” In it, the author states that what drives people to have kids is their narcissism. This rings more true to me, since narcissism is a form of self-deception. In general, the more accomplished people are, the less (or no) children they have, because their accomplishments alone are enough to satisfy their own narcissistic needs. This is a more self-reliant way of achieving the same end. In comparison, having children is a cop-out. Indeed for this reason, many parents whose children have all grown up and are independent, often sit by their phones all day waiting for their children to call them, since they have no other means to give themselves a purpose or a motivation in life. This effect would have the opposite implication to the theory of natural selection. Less-abled would propagate more genes than more-abled would, but this is exactly what is happening. Perhaps our self-awareness has thrown a monkey wrench into evolution.

However, we can argue the opposite also. Perhaps our conventional notion of “intelligence” is misguided. Conventionally “intelligent” people might be out of touch with their own selves. Vaknin’s examples of more “creative” sources of narcissism are politics and art. It is true that especially artists have fewer children. (Many great ones have none at all.) The question, however, is whether art would have the same efficacy of children in supplying narcissism, or even the overall sense of contentment in life. It is quite possible that these artists and intellectual are in fact dumber in the sense that they are out of touch with their true selves. In other words, the ability to deceive ourselves indeed increases with the increase in intelligence. In that sense, these presumably “intelligent” people are in fact inferior species that nature would rather get rid of through the process of natural selection. If this is true, natural selection is working fine by limiting the propagation of their genes.

The mechanism of self-deception is so sophisticated with these “intelligent” people that it becomes virtually impossible to see it at work. These artists and intellectuals may simply be fooling themselves into thinking that their “creative” activities are the ultimate source of narcissism. We often hear many highly successful people with children say on their deathbeds that ultimately the only thing that matters to them are their loved ones. We also hear those who never had children worry in their deathbeds whether their achievements amounted to anything at all. Without their “intelligence” clouding their intuitions, those who are generally considered less “intelligent” might actually know themselves better, and know what life is really about. And perhaps, self-deception is a way for them to achieve that goal at any cost. And, perhaps, that is indeed the right thing to do. Who knows?