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The Mendacious Ape


Explanations > Evolution > The Mendacious Ape

Cheating is good for you | The race for smarts | But deception is also bad The need for fair play and justice | So what?



A key reason that we lie, cheat and deceive one another is that we have learned over thousands of years that it can be rather helpful for our primary evolutionary purpose of staying alive long enough to have children and look after them until they can likewise procreate.

Cheating is good for you

Acting to ensure survival of the species is a fundamental force that is programmed into our genes and, whilst we have learned that living in tribes is helpful, we also have learned that deception, particularly if it goes undetected, can get us more of what we want and keep us out of trouble, even if we deserve it. How the guy gets the girl is less important than him being able to sow his seeds. Perhaps it is no surprise that homo sapiens has been called the ‘mendacious ape’.

Although we are probably the most tricky creature, we are not alone in our use of deception. Nature uses it all the time, from camouflage that hides prey from predators, to cuckoos who avoid the hassles of parenthood by laying their eggs in other birds' nests. Closest to us is probably chimpanzees where, for example, an inferior male will sit behind a dominant male displaying his erect member to a female in front of them, inviting her for a 'bit on the side'.

The race for smarts

As humans we have unusually large brains and one reason that has been proposed for this is to enable the thinking that lets us dream up our tricky deceptions. A larger, more complex brain enables us to think around the problem and project ideas into the future to guess whether they will work or not. We have even developed the Theory of Mind ability to help us with this, whereby we think about what others are thinking and so change our plans accordingly.

Paradoxically, alongside evolution of deceptive ability has been evolution of the ability to detect and counteract deception. Just as plants evolved to be taller and taller to reach the sun’s light, so there has been a competition of increasing intelligence that feeds this battle of deception versus detection.

But deception is also bad

Whilst many of us are mendacious in many ways, few of us are full psychopaths or narcissistics who callously manipulate others without any concern. Alongside deception we have also found that living in tribes is good for survival and so need others to like and trust us.

Perhaps as a result of the tribal needs, we have also developed empathy and conscience that leads to feelings of shame if we transgress social values (or even think of doing so). This compensation is necessary to allow us to live in relatively harmony with others, although there is a constant tension between mendacity and being 'good', with deception tending to have the upper hand when short-term benefits take priority.

The need for fair play and justice

An effect of deception and the counterbalancing social forces is that we have a need for fairness in our dealings with one another and will become very unhappy if we think we are not being treated fairly.

If we consider things are not fair then we will feel betrayed and will seek justice of some kind. A limited ability for informal social control translates into national systems of laws and a strict justice system that aims to help control the urges that we feel to give in to our mendacious tendencies.

It is perhaps notable that other animals do not have such developed concepts of fair play, trust, betrayal and justice, although they will react to abuse of trust and take what appears to be revenge, from the 'death penalty' to social isolation.

So what?

Understand the natural forces on you and also on other people. Realize that deception is natural, although the social penalties are also high. Make deliberate and thoughtful choices as to whether you will lie, even what seems like white lies.

See also

Theory of Mind, Values, Trust


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