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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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I don't know of groups in the wild with members that lie about the presence of leopards, but would that kind of lie be necessary to peg the society as full of liars? In this post, there's a jump from the emergence of non-sender-benefitting communication to lying, but that does not imply to me that lying is chiefly about the presence of predators. If a lie about this could benefit a sender (for example, everyone else clears out and leaves you with the ripe berries), we might expect it to occur, but the dangers of being alone and attracting attention with noise are great enough that this behavior, having low benefits to the sender, would be selected against. I would look elsewhere for liars among social organisms.

You slide between the terms "liar" and "cheater" and that seems a key to the problem. Instead of limiting ourselves to dishonest verbal communication, we can include all actions which involve the split attention you describe. Perhaps non-human liars would hide superior food and ostentatiously share inferior food? Or lead others to an inferior gathering spot, then scarper to the juciest berries?

My lack of knowledge of evolution leaves me wondering if we should expect to find this transitional society at all. If communication really became useless for generations, was it still present? And if the population's fitness was decreased enough, wouldn't it die out? I'm having trouble imagining a real situation in which constant lying could benefit the liar, once communication breaks down entirely. Seems like the waves are shorter in real societies, where organisms adapt to lying with defenses--as you note, it is unreliable signals that listeners ignore, and they raise their filters. After all, 99% of my email is misrepresentation, but it's still a useful form of communication.
BLOGGER: These comments are sounds, but the post reports on a very focused simulation that tested for the emergence of communication in situations where the signal producer gets no immediate gain. The simulation uses an artificial task unlike anything I know in nature, but the task is analogous to something like making an alarm cry. That too helps the receiver but does nothing immediate for the producer. The narrowness of the focus is why the comment's meditations are a bit off point. The simulation is important (in my mind) mainly because of the unexpected observation that communication comes back. The price of dishonesty caught me (and the researchers) by surprise.

Gavin Robinson

I vaguely remember a previous post where you mentioned evidence that monkeys (or some other animal?) have mental concepts of the predators signified by alarm calls and don't necessarily respond automatically to the stimulus of an alarm call.

If that's the case, could it be that monkeys can easily detect lies by looking around and seeing that there isn't a predator? That might be why there are no known examples of the dishonest phase in the wild.

Do more sophisticated lies require a more sophisticated communication system that most species don't have?
BLOGGER: This comment may have spotted something where the analogy between the simulation and the reality doesn't work.


In ecology and pop gen I think cyclic dynamics have sort of gone out of fashion as a description of the real world (a few classic examples aside). Other factors which wouldn't likely make it into a simulation (such as correlations between mean truthfulness in a population and migration or changes in population size; or evolution of lie-detection mechanisms, and punishment of liars/cheaters) are likely to either dampen oscillations (making intermediate levels of lying plausible and stable) or amplify oscillations (making it likely that a population settles on a single strategy). But, I think the point here isn't the fact that oscillations were found, but that dishonesty has an implicit cost in certain kinds of social interactions.


Thank you for the post - it explains a lot about how the Discovery Institute in Seattle WA operates.

We can only hope that as your paper indicates, that the "Listeners quit responding to such unreliable signals."


I commented recently on a related issue in a philosophical context (see link to a post with my commentary among others). Here I take issue with the assumption that lying is the more cognitively complex maneuver. It is more complex than plain truth-telling, OK, but it immediately raises the issue of telling the liars from the non-liars - which is an even more complex cognitive move. That is, the ones who see throught the liars, or engage in higher-order reflexive (and machiavellian) calculations are exercising their sign-reading abilities and gaining (one would assume) an evolutionary advantage.
BLOGGER: The advantage of spotting liars is important in the work of JL Dessalles, but it doesn't do away with the argument that lying has its intellectual costs.


Costs—and benefits. The advantage of being a liar is that you needn't be a liar all the time. And the intellectual acumen needed to know when to collaborate truthfully with others and when to lie is an important aspect of reflexive intelligence (reading other minds, anticipating their moves, etc.).
BLOGGER: The problem of lying is a serious one in the evolution of communication, and the smarter the liar the more challenging the problem of evolution.

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