Why it seems only a few weeks back (because it was only a few weeks back) that we read Alan Jacobs' How to Think, in which he observed that books about thinking have a trait in common: "they're really depressing to read."
I don't find them depressing, but I get his point: such books concentrate on all the myriad ways our thinking can go seriously wrong.
Reader, beware: The Elephant in the Brain is one of those books. The authors, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, purport to report on why we act the way we do, specifically our motivations for our social behavior. Those motives are not as pure as they appear to be. Down deep, our brains are a product of millions of years of survival-of-the-fittest evolution, looking out for our own procreation and safety. But we've also evolved as a social animal, so our selfish motives are also channelled by the need to get along with others of our tribe. So we've adapted elaborate disguises for our motives, a network of deceptions that outwardly display as noble.
As an added feature, this often amounts to self-deception as well: we convince ourselves we're being nice and socially virtuous, ignoring the "elephant" of our baser instincts. Why? Because, as an evolutionary adaptive strategy, fooling ourselves makes it easier to fool others.
Their high-level picture (snipped from Amazon):
They could have stolen a title from Harlan Ellison: Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled.
Hanson and Simler develop this thesis in (what I've come to think of as) the standard way: accumulating evidence from psychological research, animal studies, evolutionary theory. They then show how this model plays out in various specific aspects of life, devoting one chapter to each of: Body Languuage; Laughter; Conversation; Consumption; Art; Charity; Education; Medicine; Religion; and Politics.
The book is accessible, insightful, and fun to read. And made me a tad uncomfortable in trying to find out about my own "hidden" motives. (Yup, there I am: page 302. And probably other places I glossed over.) All in all, recommended to anyone interested in stuff like this.
And yet, I kept telling myself: Hanson and Simler are telling a plausible story, but they are not telling the whole story. The very existence of the book confirms that while we can and do engage in fallacious self-deception about our motivations, we don't always do so. What's typical? Who's better, who's best? How do we improve? How would we measure such improvement? (The book, to its credit, does make a nod toward these issues in its "Conclusion" chapter.)
But I keep coming back to Deirdre McCloskey's "Great Fact": the amazing relatively-overnight improvement in human standards of living after millennia of relative stagnation. That's another real "elephant" that needs explaining. I think Hanson and Simler could have had something insightful to say here, but don't.