THE BLOG
03/11/2008 11:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Client 9: What was he Thinking?

How could a man with seemingly unlimited career prospects squander so much for so little?

I'm not of course talking about the $4,300, which, at the time, may have seem liked a good deal. Powerful men, as the saying goes, don't pay prostitutes for sex, they pay them to go away afterwards. $4,300 for a tryst in a DC hotel room might seem higher than the market rate, but the escort in question was, so far as anybody knows, discreet.

What really makes the transaction so surprising is that "Client 9" must have known that to get caught would be political suicide. As a prominent political figure his personal affairs were of de facto personal interest -- and as a former attorney general he was well-aware of the methods of crime enforcement.

Yet proceed he did; what's more, the act in question wasn't -- at least not entirely -- a crime of a passion, in the traditional legal sense of the phrase. Rather, we can infer (from the financial subterfuges used to cover the transactions) that his decision to take the risk was likely premeditated. It would appear that Client 9 knew perfectly well that what was he doing was something he didn't want anybody to know about, and took elaborate measures to try make sure nobody found out.

This is not just a case of a man being led about his hormones, to the exclusion of the rest of his brain, but something more complicated: a case in which an extraordinarily intelligent man used all of his rational capacities to form a track-covering plan -- yet seemingly focused none of his cognitive wherewithal on evaluating whether that plan was worth pursuing in the first place.

Freud, wrong about so much else, was certainly right that the mind is forever locked in internal conflict; where he talked about "id" and "ego", modern scholars see something slightly different, a clash between "ancestral systems" and more modern "deliberative cognition", but for present purposes the point is much the same. Id beat ego, just as it has so many times before.

Why does this happen so often? The answer, in a nutshell, is this; evolution blew it. When our fancy new deliberative reasoning systems evolved, evolution, which lacks foresight, took what amounts to the lazy way out, crudely grafting the new capabilities onto the older ancestral systems, with nary a thought as to how the two would work together. The ancestral mate seeking systems that led Client 9 by the nose thus still receive extremely high priority, whether or not their actions are in the interests of our minds as a whole.

Was Spitzer's philandering a victory for his selfish genes, as some evolutionary psychologists might have it? Well, yes, and no. His genes, in some very crude sense, made him do it, but his actions weren't in his own genetic self-interest.

Ultimately, our genes can only take us so far: they help guide the development of our brains (and hence our minds) -- but they can't anticipate the complexities of the real world; instead our genes then largely cede control of our day-to-day actions, leaving our somewhat clumsy brains in charge.

It's up to us to keep that conjunction of genes and clumsy engineering from getting us into trouble.

Gary Marcus, author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind