My last post (Besieged by Lies) was inspired by Daniel Dor’s interesting paper, “The Role of the Lie in the Evolution of Language.” That paper concludes, “Language would be much simpler had it evolved just for honest communication and we would be much less imaginative, suspicious and inquisitive and emotionally controlled. We would probably have very little symbolic culture, no myths, no propaganda, and we would also probably insult each other much more often.” The latter may be the most surprising claim as we live in an age with a leader who exults in both lies and insults.
Dor’s reasoning emerges from his unusual definition of language: “a collectively-designed communication technology specifically constructed for the instruction of imagination.” For example, a hunter may return to his band and report, “There are impala beyond the second creek over there.” He finishes his remark with a gesture indicating the location of “over there.” This truthful communication is understood by evoking thoughts of impala in the listeners’ imaginations. If they are familiar with the general area they may be able to picture the creek and impala beside it. According to Dor, language works by directing attention to things evoked in the listener’s imagination.
Suppose this hunter’s report is true. Then, all the hunter has to do to give his report is remember what he saw.
Suppose, however, for some reason he is lying. Then he must imagine what he reports rather than simply remember it. Thus, says Dor, a side-effect of generations of lying is that we are a more imaginative species. If we always told the truth, we would need only our memories.
Suppose we were a truthful species, the listeners to the report would believe without doubt that there were impalas across that second creek. On the other hand, if the speaker were known to sometimes lie, the listeners might be suspicious. Why is he sending us so far away from the women? They might wonder. One of them might say I thought you were only going as far as the baobab tree, which is on this side of the second creek.
Societies of liars are forced by history to treat statements with some suspicion and to be inquisitive enough to test the credibility of a remark.
We see a co-evolution: lies lead to suspicion which leads to more imaginative lies which leads to more critical thought about plausibility. Dor calls it an “arms race” between liars and lie detectors.
At some point in that co-evolution the imagination became strong enough to refer to invisible qualities like justice or fairness. These names have no counterpart in the real world and are more likely to be imagined if there is some symbol such as a blindfolded goddess holding scales. The introduction of symbols radically changed the whole of human existence. As Dor says, if we only communicated facts “symbolic culture as we know it would not evolve. There would be no myths, no collective lies, no symbolic performances, no fairy tales, no jokes.” So thank heaven for a history of lies.
Of course, as the product of generations of lies, I wonder if all this is true. Looking back on the lying twentieth century, I cannot say that the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, and the many other regimes of lies produced much symbolic progress, although they did encourage a notable gallows humor. As Stalin in supposed to have said, “Jokes are serious, and when they are not, they are just laughable.”
Let’s look at the primal distinction Dor makes between remembering and imagining. Many years ago, I wrote a book on memory that opened with the sentence, “Remembering is an act of imagination,” so I am tilted toward skepticism about the assumption that only lying gives imagination a good exercise. My point was that we are not just pulling memories out of a database tucked away in the brain. We are recreating the information. So, even if we are trying to tell the truth, we may be mistaken. Error does not require a deliberate attempt to mislead. Thus, even if our ancestors had only uttered what they thought to be true, there would still be good reason to evolve critical thinking.
When I began this blog, I assumed that language had evolved in individuals and selection had somehow favored the better speakers. But years ago I gave up on that line of inquiry and came to favor group selection (or, as it is known technically, multi-level selection). This approach makes it easy to account for the great variety in abilities distributed throughout a population. Not every person has to be a critical thinker, but the groups that engage in critical thinking will have an advantage over those that do not. Similarly, groups that can think about abstractions like justice will have a competitive advantage over groups that only talk about concrete things. Over time, all groups of humans should engage in critical and symbolic thinking.
In short, I am not persuaded that lies are a necessary precursor to the creation of the modern human, although there can be no doubt that liars have been with us for countless thousands of years. I doubt that many myths began as deliberate lies, although they surely began as acts of imagination. Sometimes you can say something new and yet believe it because it sounds so true. It takes special training to be a good scientist and doubt the validity of your own inspirations.
At the same time, I do not want to dismiss Dor’s work. He writes at the very end, “There is no doubt that the major story in human evolution is that of the emergence of inter-subjective co-operation as a new organizing principle, but the story is not as simple and linear as the literature often assumes. It is dialectic… humans are contingent, judicious and wary cooperators. Every advance in the collective capacity for sharing… brought with it new opportunities for free-riding, manipulation and coercion. Humanity as we know it evolved from the never-ending struggle between these two foundational forces.” These points should be kept in mind at all times and I thank Dr. Dor for spelling them out.
Note: Dor is also the author of a recent book on language origins and I will discuss that contribution in my next few posts.