Most people believe that animals are noble beasts, living their lives by their instincts, uncorrupted by the moral failings that plague humans. Those are the people you should target as buyers for that swamp land in Florida. It’s a good act, but don’t think they wouldn’t sell it to you if they weren’t so preoccupied trying to make a living on just about the only land they have left.
Most animals think nothing of lying, or anything else for that matter. It’s just second nature. First nature is honesty, and while that remains a popular option, it isn’t for everyone. Camouflage, bluffing, mimicry, and other forms of deception proved just as useful if you wanted to survive and mate another day, and who didn’t? Surviving to mate was enough for most animals, at least those who didn’t have the capacity to ponder the meaning of it all.
Scientists like myself do ponder the meaning of it all, which is why it’s a shame we weren’t born with any significant ability to deceive, or we might get some interest on our dating site profiles. For scientists who want more action, they might practice what they research and imitate the male Giant Australian Cuttlefish, who disguises himself as a female to sneak by the alpha male who has won a female’s attention and is now guarding her from other would-be suitors. While female impersonation can open up some new avenues to romance, it does make date night more unpredictable, which might not be for those scientists looking for predictability in their work.
For female scientists who are stuck in the lab more than they should be, they might consider emulating the Mantis family and send out pheromone invitations for a romantic evening, dinner included, to the smaller, shy males. The males are sure to lose their heads over such invitations, as long as they aren’t told the truth that you’re really a cannibal and that sex makes you hungry. Some things are better left unsaid.
Aesop gave us “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” and other fabled examples of animal deception. In 1883, George Romanes gave us “Mental Evolution in Animals,” which detailed the hypocrisy of the King Charles spaniel. The dog’s name comes from King Charles II of England, the Cavalier King, who believed his dogs were more interesting than his kingdom, and treated them royally. The dogs believed the Cavalier King was an idiot, and Romanes has apparently documented how the breed has been living a pampered lie ever since. In 1984, animal lying took a giant leap forward when researchers recorded Koko the Gorilla using sign language to say “The cat did it,” after she tore a steel sink from the wall. The cat was not pleased, but could not retaliate as the researchers knew better than to leave any weapons around a cat, among the most untrustworthy of all animals.
As these and other examples show, it takes a certain amount of intelligence to lie, which is why humans had long believed they had the market cornered. It took the animals to show us that we can lie to ourselves as well as the next person. There are many animals besides us that can also recognize situations, consider another’s perspective, and evaluate the likely outcomes of different actions, and thus how and when to lie convincingly. In truth, as politicians, marketers, golfers, and fishermen clearly show, liars only need to be more intelligent than their victims to be successful. The bar may be low, but you have to admire their market awareness.
The drongo, a South African bird, earns the trust of meerkats by sounding an alarm when danger is near. But when food is hard to get, the drongo chirps falsely to send the gullible meerkats scurrying to the safety of their burrows, whereupon it swoops down to feast on the food they were eating. The smarter Eastern Gray Squirrels know that other squirrels are watching them, and go to great lengths to pretend to hide their nuts before burying them in a safer place. The female killdeer knows that predators think with their stomachs, and finds it easy to lure them away from a nest by pretending to have a broken wing. And the Virginia opossum will play dead whenever a potential predator comes around. This may not seem like such a great sign of intelligence, but for an opossum it’s virtual brain science. Without the brain.
Animals have as many reasons to lie as humans do, and the intelligence to do it. I, for one, wish that more humans would adopt the play dead strategy when they lied under pressure, if for no other reason than to give the victim class a visual clue to aid them in detecting a lie. However I don’t think many would stand for this.