by Jessie Roberts
Here’s the good news from Kurzban, if you can call it that: we’re all hypocrites. We’re hard-wired for it, in much the same way we’re hard-wired for self-deception and other forms of cognitive dissonance. In his straightforward and elegant book, Kurzban explains how contemporary neuroscience regards the structure, psychology, and evolutionary benefits of hypocrisy. Briefly, the self, as Nietzsche once helpfully described it, is a kind of oligarchy wherein different sets of beliefs can be entertained (and even committed to, cherished, defended) depending on the needs of the self in different situations. A brutal tyrant can still be a loving father, because those roles require different and incompatible belief sets.
How on earth does this work? Well, the brain — and thus, on Kurzban’s account, the self — is partitioned. The coordinated brain structures that function to “govern strangers well” or to “hunt deer well,” let’s say, are not fully accessible — and are sometimes completely inaccessible — to the brain structures that function to “raise one’s children well” or “love one’s spouse” or (in contrast with the deer-hunting example) “care for one’s beloved deer hounds.” This partitioning develops not merely because the brain can only focus on and master certain kinds of tasks at particular times, though that’s part of the account. It’s also because the evolved human brain has to become skilled at activities that require incompatible sets of beliefs. To be a brutal warrior demands beliefs and attitudes that are fundamentally different from the beliefs and attitudes needed to be a loving parent.