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Is deception no longer an adaptive human strategy?

"A lie is as good as the truth if you can get somebody to believe it." So goes the cynical maxim. Naturally, it contradicts the accepted public morality embodied in the saying: "Honesty is the best policy." That saying is attributed to Miguel de Cervantes though it has been repeated by many others. I rather think that the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal had it right when he wrote: "Honesty is praised and starves."

The way to understand these contradictory statements is in the context of evolutionary success. Animals bear deceptive markings and patterns to camouflage themselves from predators. And, animals have been known to act out lies to deceive their fellow animals. William Catton Jr. relates such a story in his book Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse:

One of the chimpanzees at the Gombe Field station provided a modern demonstration of this. He had acquired an ability to open locked banana boxes. But he seemed to know it was unwise for him to do so in the presence of other more socially dominant apes who might attack him and take the bananas. To solve the problem this ape perfected the acted lie. By striding purposefully away from camp as if on his way to a good food source, he tricked other apes who would amble after him for a few hundred yards. By doubling back alone to the then deserted camp, he could open a banana box and peacefully enjoy its contents in the absence of the other chimps who, having seen there was no food in the camp other than what was confined to boxes they could not open, did not return with him.

It's no surprise that humans have also found deception to be a useful survival skill. Certainly, it is useful in hunting animals. Even today we use the duck blind to conceal the position of the hunter. But deception as an adaptive behavior finds its true test in relations between humans in warfare, in sports, and even in commercial activities. We are more likely to deceive those whom we consider part of the out-group since they represent a possible source of resources for the in-group to which we belong and whose survivability we want to enhance. My in-group, however, is constantly shifting. Is it my family? Does it include my friends? How about my community? My nation? Those whom we consider appropriate targets for our cons depend on what group we place ourselves in at any moment.

All of this was brought to mind by the recent failure of the Harper administration in Canada to overturn a law which prohibits lying on news broadcasts. The change was sought to enable a Canadian upstart cable news channel dubbed Sun TV News to adopt the same style as the Fox News Channel in the United States. Apparently, lying is part of the format and not being able to lie would prevent Sun TV News from fulfilling its proper role in the world of Canadian media.

Does that mean Canadians are getting the truth elsewhere? Well, not lying is not always the equivalent of telling the truth. If you lie, it means by definition that you are saying something you know to be false or at least should have known to be false. But if you are simply mistaken, then people don't call you a liar. They usually try to correct you.

So, there are two kinds of misinformation which we are subjected to every day in human affairs. The first is merely incorrect information. It may very well be the best estimate of the truth by the teller. If we detect the error, we call it an honest mistake. If we don't detect the error, it may have the same effect as a deliberate lie would have on our actions.

For example, it is passed off as more or less incontrovertible that the human economy can grow indefinitely without either running out of resources or destroying the climate. The argument is that high prices for any scarce resource will lead to the discovery of more of that resource or to substitutes for it. All of this will happen in time to avert any catastrophic collapse of human industrial society.

Even among some who accept the reality of climate change, there is a belief that the offending emissions can be brought under control through technology alone, that alternative carbon-free energy sources can be deployed rapidly and in sufficient capacity to replace our current level of energy production from fossil fuels, and that geoengineering projects can be constructed if need be to alter the incoming amount of sunlight or absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We will thereby save ourselves from civilization-destroying climate change while continuing to live pretty much as we do and with economic growth intact.

People who make these claims are, in my view, simply mistaken about the extent of the challenges. We cannot know for certain whether such people are wrong. But we can judge their chances of being right to be slight based on the evidence. The results of believing such information if it is false can be just as serious as believing intentional falsehoods.

This brings us to another kind of communication that is constructed of outright lies. Claims by industry-funded think tanks include that the Earth is not warming; that if it is, human activity is not responsible; and that such warming will somehow be beneficial to humans on balance. All these claims can and have been shown to be false by the actual scientific evidence. Another demonstrably false assertion is that there is no consensus among climate scientists that humans are changing the climate through their actions.

Catton explains in Bottleneck that the purpose of deception is to create a "false or misleading definition of the situation." The ability to deceive depends on two things, the skills of the deceiver and a situation in which the deceiver's words or actions will be interpreted as truthful. The generally rising prosperity of the last 150 years leads most people to conclude that the future will be more or less like the recent past, namely, continued economic growth with few constraints. So, claims of continuous growth fall on fertile ground.

Those who attempt to deceive the population about climate change also have experience as their ally. Catastrophic consequences tied definitively to climate change are difficult to demonstrate. And, most people have not been touched by frequently cited examples: Hurricane Katrina, the record 2010 floods in Pakistan, the shrinking Arctic icecap. Their experience tells them that at most climate change is benign.

The trends revealed by scientific research are far more troubling than the average person's experience. While the scientific community has endeavored mightily to communicate these trends, the task has proven difficult because of the abstract nature of much of the scientific knowledge which must be communicated. This has made it fairly easy for the fossil fuel industry to muddy the waters with misleading and outright false information skillfully planted in major media outlets.

In the past deception may have been an adaptive behavior for the human species. But, as with any trait, changed circumstances can render previously adaptive behaviors maladaptive. The changed circumstance is that humans are now so numerous and so powerful through their technology that they are are able to undermine the very biosphere which supports their survival.

And, since humans coordinate their activities primarily through language, it stands to reason that if that language is now used most effectively to create a false or misleading definition of the actual situation, then the human community will not be able to act appropriately to ensure its continued survival in the face of multiple threats such as climate change, fossil fuel depletion, soil erosion, water pollution and so on. The ability to deceive then has become so counterproductive that it threatens humans with extinction.

Could this trait be somehow moderated to allow a more realistic assessment of our situation? Partly this would require a new definition of who is included in our community. If the definition remains narrow--for example, my climate-change denying friends in the fossil fuel industry--then there is little hope for change. If the definition can expand to all of humanity, then the need for deception is diminished. I no longer consider people halfway across the globe as part of an out-group who can be regarded as enemies and may be deceived without moral concern.

But overcoming deception will also require the inclusion of scientific information and observations not normally incorporated into what most humans call their experience. Of the two tasks I've outlined, this second one seems the more difficult.

It is discouraging to conclude that a human behavior which has been selected for by nature to enhance our survival has now turned against us. But in this way, language--which is perhaps the highest achievement of humankind--could become our undoing.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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