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Authors: Ian Leslie

Born Liars

BOOK: Born Liars
Why We Can't Live Without Deceit
Ian Leslie

For Alice

Copyright © 2011 Ian Leslie

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This edition published in 2011 by
House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina
Avenue, Suite 801
Tel. 416-363-4343
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Leslie, Ian
Born liars / Ian Leslie.

eISBN 978-1-77089-028-2

1. Truthfulness and falsehood. 2. Deception. I. Title.
BJ1421.L44 2011     177'.3     C2010-906481-X

Cover design: Alysia Shewchuk
Cover photograph: Doris Kindersley / Getty Images

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing
program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the
Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.

By a lie a human being throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a human being.

Immanuel Kant,
Metaphysics of Morals

Without lies, humanity would perish of despair and boredom.

Anatole France,
La vie en fleur

Just remember – it's not a lie if you believe it.

George Costanza,


The serpent deceived me, and I ate.


The Bible tells us that it led to the fall of man. Philosophers from Kant to Oprah have condemned it unequivocally. We teach our children never to do it. It's a perversion, an aberration, a scourge. There are few things we hate more than lying.

Of course, liars are always other people. Lovers who have fallen out accuse each other of deceit; voters declare all politicians liars; the religious accuse the godless of hating the truth, while atheists accuse churchgoers of perpetuating the biggest lie of all. It doesn't matter which side you're on in these arguments, the basic grammar is always the same:
am a truth-teller,
try to bamboozle me with a self-serving fiction.

What's strange is that, unlike stealing, sexual abuse or murder, lying is a moral crime we all commit – and on a regular basis. The psychologist Bella DePaulo asked 147 people to keep a diary of their social interactions for one week and to note the number of times they intentionally misled someone. Her subjects reported that they lied, on average, 1.5 times a day. That is probably conservative. Another researcher, Robert Feldman, found that strangers meeting face-to-face for the first time will tell lies three times within ten minutes.

We lie by saying ‘I'm fine, thanks' when we're feeling miserable. We lie when we say ‘What a beautiful baby' while inwardly marvelling at its resemblance to an alien life form. We prepare our face to lie even as we're tearing off the paper Aunt Moira has lovingly wrapped around a china figurine of Princess Diana. Most of us have simulated anger, sadness, affection, or said ‘I love you' when we don't mean it. Just about everyone has faked enthusiasm for somebody else's cooking. We tell our own children to smile and look grateful for the soap-on-a-rope grandma has given them for their birthday – and perhaps we add that, if they don't, Father Christmas won't come this year. ‘Everybody lies,' said Mark Twain. ‘Every day; every hour; awake; asleep; in his dreams; in his joy; in his mourning.'

Not only do we make exceptions to the prohibition against lying; sometimes we enthusiastically approve of it. If a doctor tells a bereaved husband that his wife died instantly in the crash, rather than the truth – that she spent her last hours in horrific pain – we applaud the doctor's compassion. When a football manager convinces his team of his complete confidence in their ability to recover from two goals down at half-time, even though he is inwardly despairing, we call it inspirational leadership (at least we do if the team goes on to win). We also encourage the lies that allow us to rub along with one another. Saying thank you to someone towards whom you feel genuine gratitude isn't good manners so much as self-expression; we need manners precisely for those moments when it's necessary to say something we don't feel. We call the lies we like ‘white lies' – but asked to define precisely what makes a lie white we soon get lost in qualifications and contradictions.

Lying is anything but straightforward, and in recent years a growing number of scholars from different disciplines have been investigating its complex role in our lives. They have observed the lying behaviour of children, watched what happens to a person's brain when they lie, and compared our deceptive behaviour with those of our closest animal relations. What they have found turns our everyday assumptions about lying on their head. When I started to research this topic I imagined that the human tendency to lie was a design flaw that would one day be ironed out; instead, I discovered that it has driven the evolution of our species. I thought I knew how to spot a liar; I was mistaken. I took lying to be a sign of mental instability, but I discovered that good liars tend to be better balanced people than the rest of us. I believed I was always honest with myself; none of us is. I learnt that self-deception is a necessity rather than a problem, and that it leads to success at work, better health and happier relationships. I learnt that when we are stripped of our lies, we become sick, depressed or mad.

In short, lying isn't a perversion of our nature; it's central to it. The ability knowingly to deceive, and to detect deception, is uniquely human, and it plays a part in every relationship we have. It's impossible to understand human society, or even to understand yourself, without first understanding deceit.

Earlier I quoted Eve as she points the finger of blame in the Garden of Eden. But who is the deceiver in that story? Not the serpent. He just encourages the nice young couple to eat the fruit. If there's anyone who actually tells a lie, it's Him. God tells Adam and Eve that the day they eat the apple, they will die. They do it anyway, but they don't drop dead. God was being disingenuous, to say the least. And if God can't do without deceit, which of us can?

The Lying Animal

What our intelligence owes to deceit

The relevant framework is not one of morality but of survival.

George Steiner,
After Babel

Robinson Crusoe
, Daniel Defoe's novel of 1719, a man finds himself alone on a desert island. His survival depends on his ability to learn some technological skills very quickly. He has to build shelter, gather food, and make himself safe from external dangers. Crusoe excavates a cave. He fashions tools from stone and wood. He hunts, raises goats, grows corn, and even learns to make pottery. Throughout these first months and years on the island his only companion is a parrot. About fifteen years into his stay Crusoe is joined by Man Friday, whom he helps escape from a group of visiting savages. He teaches Man Friday English and converts him to Christianity. Together they save other prisoners and begin to build a small society.

Until relatively recently, scientists looking to explain human intelligence told a story resembling the Crusoe myth. In this version, we grew strong and smart by mastering our natural environment, putting familiar objects like stones to new uses, crafting tools, and using our bodies in new ways. Over time, evolution selected for those best able to cope with such tasks, our brains grew more powerful. You can see why this story exerts such a pull: it makes humanity appear noble, skilful and strong. Being human, we can't help but like that. But it isn't an entirely satisfactory explanation for our inordinate mental powers.

The human brain might be evolution's most impressive achievement – and its most mysterious. At some point, between one and a half and two million years ago, our ancestors' brains started to expand, and at quite a rate; our hominid ancestors had brains about a third of the size they are now. Scientists have never been quite sure why. Brains are hugely demanding: they make up a small fraction of a body's mass but devour a fifth of its energy. Big brains need more food and more food means more risk, so our higher intelligence would appear to be a dangerous luxury. That our brains grew even bigger than those of apes is particularly hard to explain. We lived in similar environments and shared 98 per cent of our DNA with apes, yet at some point we left them behind. It's as if Toby and Sarah, two siblings of similar abilities, match each other's achievements in the first few years at school. Then one term Toby starts racing ahead, answering incredibly difficult questions and aceing every exam. You'd have to wonder if he wasn't cheating.

In recent decades, a new explanation for our higher intelligence has emerged, and at the heart of it is the drive to deceive. The seed of this theory was sown when one scientist concluded that the Crusoe narrative left out something rather important: other people.

Nicholas Humphrey is that rare thing in modern academia: a generalist. Although his abiding interest is the functioning of the human brain, he is deliberately careless of the boundaries that mark off one discipline from another and tends not to pursue the grinding, painstaking work of empirical research. His
modus operandi
is to make a visionary intervention in a particular field of study, reframe the question its inhabitants thought they were asking, and propose a daring new answer. Then he moves on, happy for others to spend years sifting through the evidence before concluding, as they usually do, that Humphrey had it right.

In 1976 Humphrey made one of his characteristic interventions into the debate over human evolution. In a paper called ‘The Social Function of Intellect', he challenged the conventional view that human intelligence evolved in our ancestors' battle with nature. One way of looking at it, he said, is that we've been reading
Robinson Crusoe
the wrong way. We tend to think that the difficult time for Crusoe was the years he spent alone, fending for himself. But perhaps it's the arrival of Man Friday that really stretches him. Crusoe has to learn (or relearn) to cope with another human being: to communicate and co-operate with a creature as smart as he is. Man Friday was famously loyal to Crusoe – but what if Crusoe hadn't been able to trust his companion? Then he'd
have needed to have his wits about him. And what if Men Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday had turned up at the same time – not to mention Woman Thursday?

It was hard to believe, said Humphrey, that our ancestors evolved their superior intelligence just because they had to cope with the practical problems of surviving in their environment. Certainly, making a tool demands a certain level of intelligence, as does remembering to clamber up a tree when a predator arrives, but these don't necessarily require inventiveness. One member of the species might discover such a technique, perhaps by accident, then all the others have to do is copy it. But a few species, including and especially our own, have an amazing capacity for foresight and innovative reasoning – what Humphrey termed ‘the creative intellect'. We can imagine novel scenarios and plan our responses to them; we can ‘see' things before they've happened, and then – if we're lucky – make them happen. Where did this capacity for imagination come from? Perhaps, suggested Humphrey, it came from the challenges of Palaeolithic social life.

The groups in which human beings and their immediate ancestors lived were larger and more complex than those of the other primates. Larger groups bring more security and better gossip, but they also bring competition. Each group member relies on the others to help him or her survive and prosper. But each must also learn how to exploit and out-manoeuvre the group's other members – or at least how to avoid the same happening to them – in the competition for food and mates. In such an environment, survival becomes a game of tactics in which you have to think ahead, as well as remember what's already happened. That means having a good memory for faces: you have to know who did what to you this morning or last week, who your friends are and who your enemies. It means calculating the consequences of your behaviour on others, and the effects of theirs on you. And you must do all that in an ambiguous, constantly shifting situation.

Humphrey's insight was that social living demands far more intellectual sophistication than dealing with nature does. After all, trees don't move around; rocks don't plot to trick you out of your food. When our ancestors moved out of the forests and on to the open savannah, the demands of their complex social lives combined with the challenges of this new environment to put rocket boosters on their mental evolution. Thus
Homo Sapiens
was born.

That was Humphrey's idea, anyway. For years, the ‘social intelligence' hypothesis was just a controversial theory in search of evidence. Humphrey's paper was like a gauntlet thrown down to biologists, but it lay on the floor until the 1980s when Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten decided to take it up. Byrne and Whiten were young primatologists at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, looking to make a name for themselves. What if they could be the ones who proved or disproved Humphrey's hypothesis? To this end, they zeroed in on a particular aspect of social behaviour: deception. They'd read examples of chimpanzee trickery in the works of Jane Goodall and, during their own fieldwork in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa, they had noticed the facility of baboons for deceptive behaviour. When they asked around amongst colleagues engaged in fieldwork they were regaled with similar anecdotes.

A young baboon gets in trouble with several elders, including his mother, for attacking another member of the group. When he hears them coming over the hill, grunting aggressively, he stands on hind legs and stares into the distance across the valley. The newcomers, thinking that a predator or rival troop must be approaching, stop and look in that direction too. There is no threat. But the elders are distracted enough to forget why they came running over.

Two young chimps are observed digging furiously away at the ground to reach some buried food. When they hear a senior chimp approaching they back away from the spot, scratching their heads and acting as if they're just hanging around with nothing in particular to do. When the senior chimp moves on, they return to the spot and dig up the food.

An adult male baboon shoves a female out of her feeding patch. Rather than protest or retreat, she appears to enlist the male in a new plan, using flicks of her gaze to propose a joint attack on a younger male, innocently feeding himself nearby. The first male charges over to the younger one and chases him away. The female, meanwhile, returns to her patch and resumes feeding.

Byrne and Whiten suspected that these stories weren't mere anomalies or interesting-but-insignificant anecdotes, which is how their peers tended to view them. Their hunch was that primates, especially the great apes – chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans – were practised, habitual deceivers. This, in turn, got them thinking about the evolution of
homo sapiens
. In the ancestral environment, the better you were at predicting the effects of your behaviour on others – and vice versa – the more likely you were to survive. It followed that those who were better at deception would have had a reproductive edge, because they would be better at, for instance, tricking others out of food. The same would go for those who were better at
deception, because they would be able to avoid being duped. As the evolutionary psychologist David Livingstone Smith puts it, ‘. . . in a world of liars, it is advantageous to possess a lie detector.' An evolutionary ‘arms race' would develop, as each new variation on the species became more adept at trickery, or at spotting trickery. The species would evolve to be better at remembering, and at thinking ahead, and at the subtle game of thinking about what others are going to do next and why.

Initially, Byrne and Whiten found it hard to get their ideas published. The role of deception in human evolution just wasn't a subject that many in their field took seriously. Scientists, like the rest of us, have their own prejudices and blind spots, and it's perhaps not surprising that there was such resistance to an idea so unflattering to our self-image. If you believe your species has evolved through technical ingenuity and honest toil, it's difficult to accept that it may owe more to double-dealing and deceit.

But natural selection doesn't necessarily reward honesty; many species practise deception as a survival strategy. The Eastern Hognose snake will, if threatened, fake its own death by rolling over on its back, emitting a foul stench, and letting its tongue loll out of its mouth. The Mimic Octopus, found in the waters off Bali in Indonesia, can disguise itself at will as one of at least fifteen different sea creatures, all the better to attract prey or defend itself from predators. The female plover will fly from her nest and feign a broken wing when a predator approaches, in order to lead the intruder away from her young. Even plants deceive. The Mirror Orchid of North Africa produces small flowers to attract potential pollinators. The flowers have no nectar, but the orchids have a special ruse to seduce the unwary: they impersonate female wasps of the species that pollinates them. The blue-violet centre of the flower resembles the wings of a female wasp at rest; a thick set of long, red hairs imitates the hairs on the insect's abdomen. It's bait: insect porn for horny male wasps.

In 1982, Byrne and Whiten's dangerous ideas gained impetus from a new book that captured the imagination of readers within and beyond their field. Frans de Waal's
Chimpanzee Politics
is a gripping portrayal of the shifting power relationships within a captive colony of chimpanzees in a Dutch zoo, and it reads like the script of a gangster movie. Alliances are formed, broken and re-formed, individuals are manipulated, violence is selectively employed, females are fought over and seduced. De Waal framed his account as a vision of human politics in the raw, sprinkling his book with references to Niccolo Machiavelli's
The Prince
, which famously advises that ‘since men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word', a ruler must know ‘how to be a great liar and deceiver'.

Byrne and Whiten were fascinated by De Waal's work, particularly by the scenes involving outright deception. For example, a chimp called Puist is chasing one of her female rivals when, outpaced, she gives up. A few minutes later, from a distance, she stretches out an open hand as if to indicate that she is ready to be friends. The younger female approaches her, though she is clearly unsure what to think, moving only hesitantly, glancing around at others and wearing a nervous grin. But Puist persists with her outstretched hand, and starts to pant softly – usually the prelude to an affectionate kiss – as the younger female gets closer. Suddenly, Puist lunges, grabs her rival, and bites her fiercely. De Waal termed this move the ‘deceptive reconciliation offer', and anyone who has been in a playground or watched
The Sopranos
will recognise it.

The success of
Chimpanzee Politics
gave the study of primate deceit a new legitimacy, and in 1988 Byrne and Whiten finally got to publish their work,
Machiavellian Intelligence
(the title inspired by De Waal). Byrne and Whiten collected all of the examples of deception that they had found and organised them into a taxonomy of Teasing, Pretending, Concealing and Distracting. The book's unsettling but powerful thesis was that our intelligence began in ‘social manipulation, deceit and cunning co-operation'. Its moment had come;
Machiavellian Intelligence
proved highly influential, not only in the field of evolutionary theory, but across the social sciences, from psychology to economics.

There was one more step to go, however. Although Byrne and Whiten had put together a convincing argument that there was a link between intelligence and the capacity to deceive, and had provided a wealth of anecdotes to support it, they still lacked hard evidence. The intervention of an anthropologist from Liverpool University called Robin Dunbar helped them find some.

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