You’re a Liar. I’m a Liar. We’re All Liars! Why? It’s Evolution, Man.

A man covering his eyes, his mouth taped shut, “Don’t lie” written on his face
Photo by Taras Chernus on Unsplash, cropped by the author in GIMP

Deceit is “not, as popular opinion would have it, reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Human society is a network of lies and deceptions that would collapse under too much honesty.” On the other hand, “self-deception is the handmaiden of deceit; in hiding the truth from ourselves, we are able to hide it more fully from others. Therefore, like deceit, self-deception lies at the core of our humanity. Far from being a sign of emotional disturbance…it is probably vital for psychological equilibrium.” So says director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England, David Livingstone Smith, in his Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind. According to Smith and contrary to Freud, self-deception did not arise to inwardly protect ourselves from stressful experiences or thoughts but for the outward application of social manipulation. While lying all the time would get us labeled as liars, “Self-deception helps us ensnare others more effectively. It enables us to lie sincerely, to lie without knowing we are lying…cleverly weaving useful illusions out of biased perceptions, tendentious memories, and fallacious logic.”

It’s a bipolar arrangement in our head. Deception runs in two different directions. “A savvy social operator,” says Smith, “needs to have an excellent grasp of human self-interests because it’s impossible to beguile others unless you understand what makes them tick. However, self-deception, which is also essential for competent social manipulation, pulls us in the opposite direction, leading us to disavow knowledge about human self-interest, encouraging a rather naïve conception of human nature.” Excluding professional liars, most of the time, we don’t actually know we’re doing this. To block our manipulations from ourselves is the task of the unconscious, completely at home with the idea that we are the only thing that matters. Something David Hume tried to capture when he said, “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Unlike professional liars — those people for whom their very livelihoods depend on lies — for the rest of us, this equilibrium by self-deception implies a major evolutionary development of the human brain: “In order to hide the truth about ourselves from ourselves, we needed to evolve an unconscious mind… There is a side of ourselves that we were evolved not to know.”

“Our minds, no less than our bodies,” writes Smith, “are products of the forces of nature operating on time frames of millions of years.” But when that mind evolved, humans lived in a very different world. With our present brain size fixed by about 150,000 years ago, we emerged from that environment “equipped with an array of passions, skills, and mental abilities specifically adapted to life in that primeval habitat.” That hasn’t changed in fifteen hundred centuries. “The mind you and I possess is, in its essentials, a Stone Age mind.” No wonder humans are such a mess; stuck in traffic, gagging on smog, crammed into crowded cities built for cars and buildings that just happen to be occupied by humans, and all with a Stone Age noodle.

But lies go further back than this. Smith provides an astounding case for the notion that lies underpin all life on the planet. From deceiving host immune systems by a virus — something we can’t even say for sure is alive or not — to mirror orchids that “produce insect pornography” with their flowers that look like fertile female wasps, to the Portia spider that knows the species-specific vibration codes of other prey spiders on their particular webs. Given the portia has excellent eyesight, while other spiders are almost blind, the portia taps out the proper code on the silk of target spiders and they come running, thinking it’s a meal. But the portia is small, its prey often large. If the portia sees it picked the wrong dude, it taps out the message for “leaf in the wind — never mind.” At the top of this animal deception pyramid are humans. We are more like Homo fallax (deceptive man) than Home sapiens (wise man), says Smith. “The biosphere teams with mendacity… With this lineage behind us, it is hardly surprising that human society is in large measure a densely woven fabric of trickery and dissimulation.”

This may make human knowledge a special case of the larger category of biological knowledge. For social animals, from ants and bees to primates and people, be they predator or prey, the outcome of decisions followed by actions depend on the internal motivations and pending behavior of other animals. “In other words,” says Smith, “animals must be able to predict the behavior of others.” This kind of “mind reading” facilitates deception, exploitation, manipulation. And the more individuals there are to deal with, the more complex this mind reading and manipulation gets. There’s a direct correlation between primate brain size and their particular group size, implying that intellectual horsepower evolved from demands of social life.

Usually, lying is spontaneous and unconscious. Aside from blatant self-serving lies like “Stop the Steal!” concocted by our right-wing lie factories or “micro-aggressions” fabricated by our college campus victim industry, the lion’s share of lying for amateurs is dominated by unconscious alliance forming, attitude testing, simple manipulations to get our way or “be right” about something. These all link back to the animal world and what we came from. Lying is a survival strategy that advances our opportunities for survival and reproduction. And while, as Smith notes, “There seems to be something inherently paradoxical about a person simultaneously deceiving himself and being a victim of his or her deception,” it turns out that we do it all the time.

That we fundamentally know this about ourselves can be seen in the stories that dominate scripture, literature, and today’s news. “The serpent deceived me, and I ate,” Eve tells God. King Lear, Little Red Riding Hood, Trump’s secret meetings with Putin, our obsession with lies and liars is everywhere. “Deception is a crucial dimension of all human associations,” Smith writes, “lurking in the background of relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, employers and employees, professionals and their patients, governments and their citizens… We are natural born liars.” And although we tout truth as a great value, we also know that too much honesty is antisocial behavior.

All lies, no matter the type, share commonalities. These deceptions must be “concealed behind a shroud of secrecy in order to work… Lying is obliged by its very nature to cover its traces, for in order to lie effectively, we must lie about lying.” Pause for a moment to consider all the cerebral complexities, the back-and-forth gamesmanship, and behavioral predictions going on in Trump’s head as he tries to divert, dismiss, and re-spin his theft of Top Secret intel. Intel which I know from personal experience is allowed only in its designated vault. Not even gum wrappers come out of those places without security inspection. As Trump tests one lie after another, he’s able to call Rupert Murdoch to heal as FOX is back in line defending Trump to his disciples who tune in, lifting ratings, raising ad revenues. At the same time, Murdoch’s new culture war darling, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, swings in the wind, forced to defend Trump to his base as Trump seals his 2024 bid and DeSantis is forgotten. And as all this unfolded, Trump sat for a deposition in New York concerning his bank/insurance/wire fraud, claiming 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination 450 times, 75-times an hour for 6 hours — something he once said is for liars and cowards (he was right). All as his “back to blue” “law and order” party demands defunding of the FBI.

It’s no wonder humans are the most dangerous creatures on earth. So far as we know, the most dangerous creatures in the universe.

As Smith claims, more than chess, this is poker, where conscious and unconscious feints and tells dominate the game more than rules of how to play it. “At that fateful moment when our species became its own main predator, these well-practiced cognitive routines swung into action in the social arena.”

The saddest part of this evolutionary stratagem is that it looks like the most honest people are the most miserable. Honest people who truthfully assess the world around them, especially themselves, are more often depressives, says Smith. For decades, health professionals assumed that such people were self-deceived and irrationally out of touch with reality. “Scientific research leads to the opposite conclusion that depressives seem to have a better grasp of reality than the ‘normal’ psychiatrists treating them….” Why? Because depressives “suffer a deficit in self-deception.”

But it gets worse. “Self-deception,” Smith writes, “was a splendid adaptation in a world populated by nomadic bands armed with sticks and stones. It’s no longer such a good option in a world stocked with nuclear and biological weapons. The problem is, we’re stuck with it… The most dangerous forms of self-deception are the collective ones. Patriotism, moral crusades, and religious fervor sweep across nations like plagues….”

So we’ve seen.

References:

Paragraph 1: David Livingstone Smith, Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004, pg. 2. “self-deception is…” Ibid. pg. 3. “Self-deception…” Ibid. pg. 76–77.

Paragraph 2: “A savvy…” Ibid. pg. 106. “this equilibrium…” Ibid. pg. 3–4.

Paragraph 3: “Our minds…” Ibid. pg. 11. “equipped with…” Ibid. pg. 11. “The mind…” Ibid. pg. 11.

Paragraph 4: “produce insect…” Ibid. pg. 33. “The biosphere…” pg. 29.

Paragraph 6: “There seems…” Ibid. pg. 22.

Paragraph 7: “Deception is…” Ibid. pg. 12–13.

Paragraph 8: “concealed behind…” Ibid. pg. 6,12.

Paragraph 10: “At that…” Ibid. pg. 105.

Paragraph 11: “Scientific research…” Ibid. pg. 27,28.

Paragraph 12: “Self-deception…” Ibid. pg. 196, 197.

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Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and TheFatherTrilogy.com

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Brett Alan Williams

Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and TheFatherTrilogy.com