April 26, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Another Human Distinctive: Lying

Here’s another evolutionary conundrum: animals usually don’t tell lies.  Why is lying such a well-documented human trait, but rare in the animal kingdom?  Animals signal their own and their enemies in many complex ways.  It would seem that lying would have evolved as a useful strategy many times in the animal kingdom, yet apparently it has not.  In a book review of Animal Signals by John Maynard Smith and David Harper (Oxford, 2003) published in the April 23 issue of Science,1 Nils Stenseth and Glenn-Peter S�tre describe the puzzle:

A central problem for evolutionary biologists interested in animal communication is to explain why animal signalers generally are truthful.  A male nightingale advertising for a mate reliably signals properties of his qualities through his beautiful song.  By dressing in screaming black and yellow colors, the wasp reliably warns approaching predators (and us) of her painful sting.  The trivial answer to the honesty problem is that it would not pay animals to respond to a signal unless they by and large benefited.  If wasps never stung, no one would bother to notice their striking colors.  The color pattern would cease to be a signal.  However, the more interesting question–the main theme of John Maynard Smith and David Harper’s Animal Signals–is what keeps signalers from cheating?  What prevents, say, a poor-quality male nightingale from claiming that he is of higher quality than he actually is?

It’s not that evolutionists never thought about this before.  One explanation, for instance, is called the handicap theory: “signals are reliable because they are costly to produce or have costly consequences.”  Ideas about indices vs. amplifiers and evolving signals vs. equilibrium signals are discussed in the review, along with this puzzler:

The problem of honest signaling seems especially challenging to our intuition when we consider contests, situations in which the contestants prefer different outcomes.  In their chapter on signaling during contests, Maynard Smith and Harper explore some consequences of the contestantsְ shared interest in avoiding an escalated fight.  They discuss badges of status, minimal-cost signals that indicate need, and aspects such as extended interactions, punishment, and the effects of the divisibility of a resource.

All this seems to beg the question of why humans are such inveterate liars, if their behavior evolved, too.  The authors provide some “suggestions” –

In the final chapter, the authors discuss signaling in primates and some other social vertebrates.  Here we find several topics that border on other fields such as psychology and the evolution of language.  The chapter provides some of the book’s most entertaining examples and most thought-provoking suggestions.  These include the evolution, through natural selection, of animal signaling into human language; that is, the transition in our past where genetic change was eclipsed by cultural change and history began.

With that tantalizing impression, they leave us hanging; the reviewers probably expect us to buy the book to hear the suggestions.  Are they suggesting that cultural change and history do not evolve by natural selection?


1Nils Chr. Stenseth and Glenn-Peter S�tre, “Behavioral Ecology: Why Animals Don’t Lie,” Science, Vol 304, Issue 5670, 519-520, 23 April 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1097384].

Interesting that they do not mention mimicry, which seems to be a form of deceit: “don’t eat me–I’m a stick!”  But mimicry is not really lying.  The animal can’t help the way it was born.  Anyway, in terms of vocalizations or behavioral traits, it is striking that animals don’t lie to each other like humans do, except in The Far Side comic strips.
    So here again, another phenomenon is found that seems counterintuitive to evolutionary expectations, and Darwinians are left employing just-so stories to explain it.  How many exceptions to the rule are required before the rules must be changed?
    With glittering generalities, evolutionists exercise their fertile imaginations to dream of monkey screeches evolving into Shakespearean soliloquies.  Prove it, we say.  Interestingly, though human beings can be shown to all have a single genetic ancestor (like Adam), their languages cannot.  Dr. Joseph Kickasola, a linguist at Regent University, has shown that all the thousands of human languages and dialects can be reduced to 17 families, but no further.  Could this fact be an echo of Babel?
    The cynic says, “Everybody lies, but it doesn’t matter, because nobody listens.”  What if enough people stop listening to Darwinian just-so stories?  After all, it is a form of deceit to pretend to have an answer when you don’t.  It would be more honest for a naturalistic researcher to say, “I don’t know why humans are liars but animals are not.”  Maybe this and maybe that doesn’t cut it in science.  This is an area where science is limited, but there are other sources of information, such as history and eyewitnesses.
    The One who cannot lie told us about a father of lies, the devil, who was a liar from the beginning, and that it is not surprising that his followers would follow in his ways.  He also commanded us not to bear false witness, and warned that all liars shall have their part in the lake of fire.  If you don’t like to hear such things, don’t ignore the credibility of the source of that information.  Don’t lie to yourself.
    Postscript: Science Now reported a week ago that John Maynard Smith, co-author of the book Animal Signals and one who “revolutionized the way biologists think about behavioral evolution” died on April 19.  This is the fate to which we all are racing.  Are you ready?  Choose carefully whose words you trust.  At the end of your life, it will not matter how entertaining the just-so stories you told or believed.  But you can know the Truth, and the truth can set you free.

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