Why Communication Contains a Lot of Lies

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Do you think communication is an effort to share truth? It ain’t necessarily so!

One of the most provocative insights of today’s evolutionary biology is that animal communication isn’t as simple—or as honest—as had been thought. And more provocatively yet, the same is almost certainly true of people, too.

Evolutionary biologists sometimes appear to be cynics, focusing on the self-serving motivations behind even pro-social behaviors, whether of animals or people. Thus, “altruism” is seen as resulting from the impact of genes that are basically selfish. Courtship is viewed through the lens of competitive male-vs-female strategies. As it happens, biologists such as myself probably are cynics, and for good reason: the evolutionary process rewards behavior that benefits whoever does the behaving (actually, his or her genes), not the recipient.

This is especially the case when it comes to communication, something that non-biologists typically see as a benevolent, shared effort, whose goal is to convey information as accurately as possible. But is there truth behind this cheery, positive perspective?

Let’s begin at the beginning: What is communication? It won’t do in this case to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who, speaking of pornography, famously observed that he may not be able to define it, but he knows it when he sees it—because, in fact, people often do not know communication when they see it. Or rather, they are often deceived about it. And that is precisely the point.

The traditional understanding of “communication” is well captured by its Latin origin: Communist refers to sharing, the result being something that is held “in common.” Those who communicate are thus members of the same “community.” For a less pro-social and more stripped-down scientific definition, communication is simply the transfer of information from a sender to a receiver. It is widely assumed that during this transfer, the sender benefits by sending and the receiver by receiving. In the early days of so-called classical ethology, as pioneered by the biologists Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, this optimistic and naïve view of communication held sway. Sender and receiver were thought to be “on the same page,” with senders indicating, for instance, their internal state (aggressive, defensive, sexually aroused, etc.) by various postures and behavior, and receivers concerned only with decoding the messages as accurately as possible.

What gets in the way, according to this perspective, is mostly the physical space between different individuals, plain old distance that must be crossed by all signals – whether visual, auditory, chemical, and so forth – and that accordingly introduces unavoidable confusion and error. There is also the simple fact that sender and receiver are distinct creatures, each with its own sense organs and nervous systems, which introduces yet more opportunities for miscommunication.

In this dance of mutual benefit, the undisputed champion has been a dance itself: The celebrated “dance of the bees,” by which a foraging honeybee, having discovered a good food source, communicates its location—with remarkable accuracy—to others within a darkened hive. (This research was conducted by Karl von Frisch, who joined Lorenz and Tinbergen in being awarded a Nobel Prize in 1973.)

There is no reason to suspect a dancing scout bee of dishonesty, No biological payoff has yet been identified whereby a bee, having discovered a bunch of yummy flowers, would misrepresent its location to her sisters. But as evolutionary theorists eventually realized, other cases are likely to be much darker. For most creatures other than bees, communication is no bed of roses. The problem basically is that senders do not necessarily have any commitment to conveying the truth as such. Rather, they—or rather, their genes—are simply interested in maximizing their own evolutionary success. And they can often achieve this by influencing the behavior of someone else: In such cases, whatever the recipient is receiving, it isn’t necessarily benevolence. Or truth.

We are accustomed to deceit in animal communication when it operates between different species. That’s what camouflage, for example, is all about: a ptarmigan, white against the winter snow, says “I’m not here.” A stick insect says “I’m a stick, not an insect.” Other potential prey items claim to be a leaf or some bird droppings. Bright yellow circles inscribed on the wings of a moth, which – when they suddenly pop open – and deceive a would-be moth-eater by revealing what seems to be the eyes of an owl that preys upon whatever might otherwise be trying to prey upon the moth.

These examples should italicize the important fact that when it comes to the underlying biology of communication, neither honesty nor dishonesty implies anything about consciousness or intentionality. A moth whose wings possess owl-mimicking eye-spots has no need to know that this is the case or that deception is under way. The overwhelming likelihood, in fact, is that he or she has no such knowledge. Many flowers resemble bees or wasps, thereby inducing a foraging insect to copulate with them, in the process pollinating the next flower to be sexually accosted. It is highly unlikely that the plants in question are aware of the deception; rather, flowers that did a good job seducing insects left more descendants than others that were less sexually appealing.