Is there another group of animals that lies as persistently, as deliberately, as primates? Other animals and plants certainly use deception: the non-toxic Viceroy butterfly mimics the toxic monarch, anglerfish use bait and leopards’ coats fool the observer into thinking the cat is just another patch of dappled sunlight in the rainforest. But I’m not talking about involuntary trickery, or taking advantage of camouflage. I’m talking about deception as a deliberate tactical ploy to make your way in the world.
Canids sometimes use deceptive tactics. Coyotes hunt in groups: sometimes one will make a lot of racket in, say, a prairie dog town, causing the intended prey animals to all look in that direction while a stealthy compatriot coyote quietly pads up behind them. Killdeer will fake an injury to distract predators from their nests. Is that conscious deception? Mere instinctive reaction? Something in between? We don’t know. There are other examples of non-primate dissembling. But we primates take the prize for just flat-out bald-faced lying. In their book Lucy’s Child; The Discovery of a Human Ancestor, Donald Johanson and James Shreeve spend a few paragraphs listing random examples of primate disingenuousness observed by primatologists. They include:
- A young chacma baboon watches a mature female as she finds a tasty grass root. Though the female has done nothing to him, he howls as if attacked. His mother runs onto the scene and chases the other female, who drops the root as she runs away. The young baboon walks casually over to the root and eats it.
- A chimpanzee with a low rank in his troop, aroused by a female in estrus, sports an erection. A high-ranking male wanders past and the subordinate, ostensibly to avoid a beatdown by the Big Man, hides his penis with his hand.
- Another chimp facing down a rival pulls the corners of his lips down with his hands. A broad chimpanzee smile can connote fear, and this chimp literally tries to put on his game face.
- A female Hamadryas baboon wanders past the “harem male” in her troop nonchalantly foraging, all the while desultorily heading for a large rock. The harem male cannot see the baboon hiding behind the rock — a subordinate male, a favorite of the female. She grooms him, all the while appearing to the harem male to be foraging.
A story found elsewhere that I can’t resist leaving out: Koko the gorilla, confronted by her handlers after she’d ripped a steel sink from the wall in her enclosure, blamed the vandalism on her kitten.
All these strategies have something in common: they are based on a theory of mind: a recognition that the liar has awareness, that the target of the lie likewise has awareness, and that that target’s awareness can be manipulated if you just put yourself in the target’s head for a bit and anticipate likely responses to a range of actions on your part.
It just makes sense, given game theory and natural selection and all: if you have a smart enough species with a social structure complex enough that gaming that system might pose some advantage, that species will evolve a capacity for lying. The more complex the society, the more opportunities for gaming. Keeping track of that social structure offers some selective pressure for more powerful brains all by itself, of course, but that old saw about lies being a lot harder to remember than the truth IS the truth. Once our forebears started practicing to deceive, those that had a bit more smarts were better able to keep track of the resulting tangled webs. They were thus more likely to game the rules of society, and thus more likely to succeed, reproduce, and protect their own offspring until those offspring were old enough to reproduce themselves: the textbook definition of evolutionary fitness.
A species evolves in response to the conditions in its environment. The course of that evolution changes when those conditions change. As society gets more complex and the lies necessary to maintain one’s standing get harder to keep track of, primates evolve upgraded brains. More smarts mean craftier lies, more complex societies, subtler social signals and fractally complicated ties of obligation and alliance. And having the smarts to suss out the subtlest of lies, to detect those “tells,” to raise an eyebrow at the female whistling non-chalantly as she forages past you heading for that rock or to ask yourself why that one chimp always has his hand over his crotch, that kind of intelligence makes gaming society even easier and more profitable. Whole taxonomies of lies evolve: slander, excuse, tact, politeness, prudence, politic, pleasantries, folklore, myth, the Noble Lie, theater, fiction, propaganda, euphemism, the poker face. Certainly not every one of them is malign. Some are compassionate, some wise, some blatant but for entertainment purposes only. As is said of manners, such lies are often the lubricant that allows social machinery to operate smoothly and effectively.
Eventually, that complex web of lies and politics becomes the environment in which your kind evolves. The predators are still there, of course, and they are an annoyance, sometimes a fatal one. But they’re less of a threat with each few millennia. Brains big enough to keep track of all those lies are big enough to notice that the worst predators still take easy prey. A leopard comes around and everyone gets up and screeches, throws rocks at it, and discouraged, it slinks off to find a kudu or something. Even if it nabs one of your troop once in a while, your big brain is increasingly capable of making sure someone else pays the Cat Tax. And then there’s a grieving widow to be comforted. Leopard shmeopard: the real threat is that big stupid troop leader’s big stupid youngest son who thinks he’s all that. He’ll cave your head in with a rock when your back is turned. The pressing threat, the omnipresent menace, now comes mainly from within your own kind. The environment becomes more and more just a prosecenium arch within which the real important stuff plays out.
And so it is completely and utterly natural, this predicament in which we find ourselves in the first millennium of the worst mass extinction in the earth’s history, that the vast majority of us pay only the minimum attention possible to the non-human environment. The ORV user crushing down desert plants he cannot name, preoccupied by a perceived threat to his dominance display by some weaselly environmentalists somewhere? Completely consistent with more than twenty million years of evolution in our line. The person who can identify a thousand different corporate logos but only three plant species? A rightful heir to our primate legacy. The urbanist who thinks of the city as the “real world”? The political activist who concentrates on the doings of a few hundred powerful human beings and considers the biosphere a mildly important and usually annoying “side issue”? The type specimen primate, every one of them.
The non-human world — to be precise I should say “the non-primate world,” but the terms are rapidly becoming synonymous — the non-human world is largely trustworthy, as far as that goes. A rattlesnake will tell you honestly that it will bite you. There is no subterfuge there. Poison oak advertises its threat. Even the example of coyote deception provided above does not involve the coyotes lying to each other. (Dogs may possess the capacity to lie to each other, but they’re far too smart to fall for the kind of lies they’d be able to tell. They game social systems, but they do so directly. If dogs could talk, they’d tell you that yes, you do indeed look fat in those pants and that’s great, and right now you should go out for hamburgers anyway, because OMG hamburgers! And you should totally get them one. Even Coyote the Trickster doesn’t really have the savoir faire to refrain from laughing at his own jokes.) There are mysteries in nature, and they appeal to our primate brains the same way an impassively sneaky gesture from a subordinate troop member appeals to our primate brains. Suddenly, we wonder desperately what’s going on there. Perhaps Science is a spandrel, an ironic exaptation resulting from the astonishing capacity for deception, and the detection thereof, bred into our species.The natural world doesn’t deceive us deliberately but our senses do by design. There’s plenty of truth to uncover beneath the inadvertent lies of our senses.
I wonder sometimes whether those of us who have been made especially sensitive to lies, or who have the most trouble negotiating them — the hypervigilant among us, the borderlines and post-traumatized, the embittered and the disillusioned, the autistic-spectrum residents — I wonder whether one of the attractions we find in the non-human world isn’t precisely that the lies end where the rest of the world begins. It may manifest in collecting and hoarding cats, or in obsessive cultivation of African violets; in scaling giant rock walls or in sitting with a cup of coffee ten miles off the pavement as the desert wakes up. It may be framed as a misanthropic retreat from fancy society and lace doilies, or in terms more suited to a group therapy session, a hermit or a dervish or a walking wounded, but I wonder if at its root it doesn’t all boil down to simply this: this rock, this dog, this Phalaenopsis orchid, this waterfall will not lie to me. It may be complex, it may reveal surprises the more I study it, it may have secrets I will never fathom. But it will not lie to me. It will not lie to me to spare my feelings. It will not lie to me to take advantage of me. It will not even lie to me out of fear, even now, in this age when we turn our shoulders to the world, and each day come closer to crowding it out of existence.