September 21, 2000
I am embarrassed when people compliment me. I don’t feel right being told that I am especially smart, or uncommonly clever, or wise, or learned. If I were truly smarter than most people, I would see it in our relative behaviors. But in fact, every person I know has surprised me with some mental operation exceeding my own natural abilities. I realize that every other brain out there has impressive strengths of its own. Why then does my brain come up with so many good ideas? What’s the real basis of my advantage?
In younger, more egotistical days I attributed that advantage to my superior effort. My brain was always working, always churning through ideas, while other brains were lazily vegging out in front of televisions. I was the ant to their grasshoppers. The answer felt good because it was intrinsically egalitarian -- anybody else could do just as well as I did, if only they applied themselves as energetically as I did. Of course, the effort must start at an early age, as it did with me, so in reality, few adults would ever be able to catch up with me. Nevertheless, I liked that theory because it didn’t look down on others.
Nowadays I don’t let false modesty get in my way. I retain the certainty that I was not born with any greater intelligence than anybody else. But now I attribute my success to an altogether different factor: integrity.
I am often taken aback by comments assuming that integrity is a martyr’s virtue, a saintly trait that must often be compromised by self-interest. The implication is that a certain amount of lying is necessary to get along in the world, and the line is drawn only at fairly serious deceptions that explicitly injure somebody else.
Those who hold this view (the great majority of people) earn a mixture of pity and contempt from me -- they injure themselves with their own stupidity. The notion that lies, if small enough, are necessary peccadilloes is foolish and self-destructive.
I owe all my mental talents to the integrity my father imbued me with. By embracing integrity as a way of life, rather than a bendable guideline, I developed a thinking style that puts me far ahead of most others. My neurons are no bigger or more numerous than anybody else’s; they just happen to work better in the realm of ideas.
Here’s another thread that I’ll be weaving into the overall theme of this essay: I learned a wonderful lesson from a book entitled "The Moral Animal". It’s about the evolutionary roots of human behavior. The author made a shattering point about our sense of identity, arising quite naturally out of human sexual behavior. The story begins with early simians. The male’s best reproductive strategy had previously been to impregnate as many women as possible, and hope that a few of them survived to reproduce. The female’s best reproductive strategy had previously been to select the best male, so as to increase her chances of getting a good strong child likely to reproduce further. But somewhere along the line some group hit upon a system of gender-specialization in food gathering. The women with their bulky, powerless infants would form the core group, fixed in position and foraging close to camp. The men would range further, seeking food more sparsely distributed. The women provided a steady supply of dull but adequate food; the men would occasionally hit it big and bring home many pounds of meat. The system worked well, but it dramatically changed gender relationships. The female’s best reproductive strategy was to obtain the support of a male who would bring home lots of bacon. The male’s best reproductive strategy had two paths: a) bring home lots and lots of bacon to attract lots of females and feed lots of children; or b) sneakily impregnate women so that other men would end up supporting the sneak’s children. Thus arose the world-changing question that females HAD to ask: will you still respect me in the morning? To put it more bluntly, if I allow you to impregnate me now, will you support me and the children in the years to come? Of course, from the male’s point of view, there is only one answer to this question: Sure! But that runs counter to the male’s best reproductive strategy of impregnating lots of females. Thus was born the first lie.
As males started lying, females responded by developing falsehood-detector algorithms. The males upped the ante by developing ever-more convincing lies. And I’m sure that the females were practicing their own little deceptions, mating with genetically well-endowed males while enjoying the support of more calorifically productive males. This arms race of lying led to the invention of identity. The best way to convincingly tell a lie is to believe it to be true. Of course, you can’t believe something you know to be untrue. But what if you didn’t know?
This trick is accomplished by creating a separate identity. The real you is all those selfish genes who have every intention of cheating the first chance they get. That you concocts an artificial you, the one you think you are, who looks and plays the part of the honest mate. Thus, the artificial you can look deep into the eyes of your spouse and say with all sincerity, "I will love you for the rest of my life and I will never cheat on you." That poor sucker actually believes that goody-two-shoes drivel! Meanwhile, the real you has his own intentions, never revealed to the civilized-facade you until the last moment. "Honey, I just don’t know what came over me! It just kind of happened."
But this is only the prototype for all sorts of other lies. The basic principle of lying by shifting personalities can be extended to many other spheres of life. Indeed, we can even do this consciously: the facade-you deliberately creates a facade-identity so as to fool another person. We end up with layer upon layer of false identities. Like the movie "The Matrix", we don’t know that the reality in which we live is a falsehood created for our own benefit -- only we ourselves are the creators of that false reality.
Here we come back to the theme of this essay. All those layers of identity don’t come for free. They cost something in mental energy, consuming brain resources that could be used for other tasks. Moreover, those identities exist for the explicit purpose of compartmentalizing truth, isolating one identity from truths it should not know. Any child can see that a fragmented, compartmentalized brain is not going to think as freely, as smoothly, and as well as a more unified brain. Here then is the basis of my advantage over others: I hold my integrity dear, and by doing so have inadvertently keep my mind free of the obstacles others must clamber over as they think. Thanks, dad.