Though the creator of the entertaining video, Christopher
Griffin, used the fruitful idea of hyper-active threat
detection derived from evolutionary psychology to
explain the tendency of some hyper-active brains to see
conspiracies where there are none, he is only giving a part
of the evolutionary picture. He overlooks the idea thatas
people have evolved faculties to detect the good or bad
intentions of other people, and as we try to detect the
intentions for beneficial cooperation or nefarious conspiracies
in other groupswe do so because deception and deception-detection
are structural ingredients of evolution. It is not merely
the simple case of evading predators. There is more going
on, and more than we might be comfortable with.
Way back in our evolutionary history deception and deception-detection
were functional adaptations, not intentional strategies.
If a species survives by deception it is because a gene
in an ancestor had randomly mutated and made its host into
a deceiver, which gave its progeny an edge over its cousins
and secured the longevity of the mutated gene (Dawkins).
Then one member of the deceived species had the good chance
of mutating into a deception-detector and thereby started
its own line of fitter progeny. Of course, none
of these species do this intentionally or are morally 'selfish'.
It just is the iron logic of evolution in which genes blindly
cooperate to produce survival machines which compete in
an environment of limited resources. Maybe only with the
primates one can detect instances of intentional, strategic
deception, but those are quite simple and short-term (de
Waal). Then homo sapiens evolved partially through
an unintentional cognitive arms race of hiding its own desires
and detecting the desires of others (Pinker). Only with
the onset of human self-consciousness, with its inner theater
to run through alternate scenarios, 1) the capacity for
elaborate, intentional deceptions became established (Jaynes);
2) conspiracies and counter-conspiracies became important
drivers of the historical process; and 3) scheming became
a structural element of the political process (Machiavelli;
Peter Dale Scott).
Making the whole picture even more complex and dark is the
idea that individuals are sometimes bad liars when they
self-consciously try to deceive and will easily be detected.
Natures unintentional answer to this dilemma is self-deception.
Deceivers, who do not know they are deceiving, and will
not display any signs of intentional deception, will have
an edge over conscious liars who might get nervous.
Though some conspiricists (axiomatic conspiracy
theorists who tend to make Type I Errors of false positives)
can go overboard in making wild conjectures, conspiracy-detection
is still a very useful faculty to counter the tendency of
some groups to exploit other groups in a devious manner
(there are plenty of true positives). Some (maybe many)
conspire; others try to detect their plans; then the conspirators
try to improve the secrecy of their plans, or, at least,
even when found out, they will try to keep the plan going
and reap the benefits. Many strategies and counter-strategies
are possible (see Hamlet). So, of course, when found out,
one strategy to keep a conspiracy from getting derailed,
is by denying its existence and debunking those who uncovered
the plan (or just getting rid of them, though that might
fuel the suspicion).
Another strategy is to have others, driven by their own
genetically coded desires, do the debunking for you, preferably
while not knowing what service they render (this will make
them more believable). It is possible that Griffin and other
skpeticists (axiomatic skeptics who tend to
make Type II Errors of false negatives) fall in the latter
category, though Griffin, in the end, promotes the age-old
maxim better safe than sorry, because true positives
in conspiracy-detection are still possible:
The truths they [conspiracy theorists] find may be
heavily debated, but in this world of the unknowna
world in which evolution has taught us that caution equals
survivalthe truth might just save your life someday.
What is needed is an evolutionary epistemology by which
conjectures can mutate till they reasonably fit the data
and survive good faith attempts at refutation (Popper).
Then we can discuss 1) what constitutes a reasonable conjecture;
2) which data need explanation; and 3) if refutations are
lethal or can be absorbed by ad hoc mutations of the original
Another element which has to be further developed in the
big debate between conspiracy theorists and the skeptics
is the use and abuse of divergent epistemic standards, when
theorists easily refute their opponents by setting very
high epistemic standards for them, but let their own reasoning
slip by by setting lower standards for themselves.
Meanwhile we have to monitor ourselves for our evolved tendencies
to deceive, counter-deceive and self-deceive. Hopefully,
in the end, truth is more fit than its opposite (Gandhi).
Naperville, December 14, 2013
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York City:
Oxford University Press, 1976.
de Waal, Frans. Chimpanzee Politics: Sex and Power among
Apes. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
Griffin, Christopher. "The
Perks of Paranoia". The Skeptic. 6 May 2013. A
Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource. Web. 9 Dec 2013.
Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown
of the Bicameral Mind. Print. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. London:
Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: Norton;
London: Penguin, 1997.
Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery.
London: Hutchinson, 1959.
Scott, Peter Dale. Deep Politics and the Death of JFK.
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,