Lies, Leopards, and Cool Hand Luke

Truth-telling is rarer than you think (and that's true!).

Posted Feb 07, 2020

I’ve been writing about why and how communication is filled with lies, starting with inter-species communication: that is, between different species. Let’s start looking at it intra-specifically, including human beings.

First, don’t be misled by thinking that lies must be intentional. Intent to deceive—or, for that matter, to be honest and straight-forward—is simply not a necessary or even a likely part of the evolutionary process, at least when it comes to creatures with small brains or (in the case of plants) no brains at all.

But when it comes to smart creatures, presumably including Homo sapiens, intentionality can certainly be part of the mix. Even then, however, mindfulness doesn’t always lead to mutual understanding. And even the smartest people don’t always know what they are communicating, for reasons to be explored shortly.

One possibility is that “What we’ve got here is [a] failure to communicate,” as notably stated by a brutal prison warden in the movie "Cool Hand Luke," when “Luke” (played by Paul Newman) had been recaptured following an unsuccessful escape attempt, and just after he was viciously beaten. More likely, what we’ve got—not just “here” or “there” in one notable movie, but all over the place—is an effort, presumably quite intentional, by the sender to manipulate the receiver. And in the case of the warden, fury when the attempt fails.

In some cases, such as those marvelous dancing bees, no deception is expected because genetic interests are closely shared. But bees (ditto for ants and wasps) are unusual in that their peculiar chromosomal arrangement results in an exceptionally close overlap among the DNA of individual workers. Most living things—including human beings—are not biologically concerned with the success or failure of other, unrelated individuals. Add to this the fact that individuals and their genes are selected to maximize their own benefit, not that of others, and we can expect that their interest in honesty and accuracy is rather limited. What does interest them is making the most of their evolutionary situation, which typically includes using as little energy and running as little risk as possible—all the while accomplishing whatever is to their genetic benefit.

“When an animal seeks to manipulate an inanimate object,” write biologists Richard Dawkins and John Krebs,[i]

“ has only one recourse—physical power. A dung beetle can move a ball of dung only by forcibly pushing it. But when the object it seeks to manipulate is itself another live animal, there is an alternative way. It can exploit the senses and muscles of the animal it is trying to control, sense organs and behavioural machinery which are themselves designed to preserve the genes of that other animal. A male cricket does not physically roll a female along the ground and in to his burrow. He sits and sings, and the female comes to him under her own power.”

In short, communication may be indistinguishable from manipulation. It is a stunning, cynical and distressing insight—especially for those of us who make our living by communicating!

“I feel that if a person can't communicate,” observed Tom Lehrer, “the very least he can do is to shut up.” Fair enough. But Mr. Lehrer was speaking as a brilliant satirist. What about the fact that no one—except perhaps the most committed hermit—lives without communicating, at least on occasion? Not only is it difficult to shut up, but the reason most of us find it difficult is that we have “skin in the game,” payoffs either obtained or foregone as a consequence of whether we succeed in communicating. Which is to say, whether we succeed in getting something from the transaction, which is often less an exchange than a competition.

Maybe the issue is more whether people (and certain animals), can or cannot succeed in communicating what they want—i.e., whether they are able to manipulate their “partners” in this particular and surprisingly complex interaction. And an important contributor to the success or failure of would-be communicators—which is to say, all of us—is the extent to which the recipients are able to decode, evaluate, and often, to resist, the messages being sent.

It isn’t easy, at least in part because human beings may well have been primed by natural selection to believe what we are told, or what we perceive, especially if the information in question relates to matters of well-being or survival. Imagine that you are an early proto-human striding through the African savannah. You hear a faint whispering sound; it might be the wind... or the exhalation of a crouching leopard. In neither case is the sound intended for your ears, but it is certainly information, with a sender and a receiver.

If you, the receiver, conclude that the sender is merely the wind whereas it is actually a dangerous predator, there is a good chance that you won’t make this mistake a second time, and your error-prone genes will be that much less likely to be promoted into future generations. On the other hand, making the opposite error—mistaking the wind for a leopard—might cause some wasted time and unnecessary anxiety, but the outcome will be much less dire.

More generally, the outcome is likely to be selection for credulousness, a tendency to be trusting and to take information seriously, even to the point of gullibility. On the other hand, insofar as many of the signals we receive are generated by other biological entities with a particular interest in manipulating us, inducing us to do things in their interest (the senders’), selection would call a halt to outrageous naivety, just as it would operate against being so jumpy and distrustful that our ancestors couldn’t go for a stroll, gather roots or hunt gazelles without panicking at every natural but inconsequential sound, sight, or smell.

Ideally, we are not only open to new and potentially important information (“there’s a leopard nearby”) but also able to disregard signals that are irrelevant (wind in the grass), and also to identify misrepresentation (as when a perfectly edible berry resembles a poisonous one, or when a gazelle’s coloration help it blend into its surroundings). Along with the capacity to misrepresent, evolution has bequeathed us a parallel capability to decode the misrepresentations of others. The result is an unending arms race, with senders sending and receivers assessing.

More to come.


[i] Dawkins, R., & Krebs, J. R. 1978. Animal signals: information or manipulation. Behavioural ecology: An evolutionary approach, 2, 282-309.