26 March 2007

The evolution of dishonesty

In dealing with external physical reality, it would seem that all the evolutionary forces must be on the side of honesty and realism. It will do a farmer little good to pretend he has not noticed the signs of an approaching storm. But when living beings are dealing with others, even with those of their own species, there are many ways in which it can be useful to mislead other life forms about the true state of affairs, including your disposition and intentions. Transparent plankton could be said to be pretending not to be there, although they are, and by the time one arrives at something so complex as a normal plant, one finds the most elaborate reproductions and imitations being offered in order to induce insects to behave in the way that will best disseminate the plant's pollen.

Simple forms of dishonesty in animal life are well-known; for example, the bird that feigns an injured wing in order to lure a predator away from its nest. But clearly by far the greatest opportunities for dishonesty must be found in the social interactions of human beings, whose social forms are so much more complex and varied than those of other animals. We must suppose that a high degree of social dishonesty can greatly enhance the organism's chance of survival and successful reproduction, to the extent that the evolutionary pressures upon it depend on competition and successful interaction with its own kind rather than on attempts to overcome the difficulties presented by the physical world around it. Such a favourable strategy will probably become, as there is every reason to think it has become, a dominant mode of human behaviour and, like other successful strategies, it is likely to occur in association with a liking for this form of behaviour and a tendency in the direction of using it.

But since other people are aware of this strategy, a high degree of sophistication must be aimed at, and it may be that that will be best achieved if a person contrives to deceive himself concerning his own motives and intentions.

From the forthcoming book The Corpse and the Kingdom