Deception in Animals & in Us
One of my earliest and most vivid memories is of spying a phasmida or walking stick on the path down to Atwater Beach from the bluff above Lake Michigan. I know I was very young when this happened because there were still little trams you could take from the bluff down to the beach — Goldilocks & Twinkle Toes, I think the trams were called. It was a perfect, sunny July Wisconsin day and seeing it, I could not believe such a miraculous creature existed. I didn’t have the language at the time, but the insect struck me as uncanny. It looked just like a twig, but it wasn’t — it was ambulatory. Partially, I found the creature unsettling — perhaps because it seemed to be neither one thing or the other and my mind rejected this. Perhaps because this was one of my first encounters with deception.
Like so many oddities and wonders in nature, deception evolved as a survival strategy. In this case: Blend in with the shrubbery to avoid being consumed by birds. I learned how chameleons change colors to hide themselves and how certain rabbits change their fur to white during winter to evade predators. I learned that mammals “play dead” to confuse a predator and to buy time. I even learned how to cup my hands into a wind instrument and dialogue with loons across the lake in northern Wisconsin. (Maybe I was deceiving the loons to make them think I was a fellow loon or maybe they knew I was a human but just appreciated my efforts at communication).
Unfortunately, our species has a habit of taking characteristics developed through evolution for survival needs and using them for destructive ends. The creative capacity to build little vessels that can float on or across rivers and lakes aided humans in fishing and in traveling to reach more distant food sources. However, post-Neolithic humans eventually started building boats and ships to use for raids, pillaging and plunder, and later, for colonization and even vast enterprises of human trafficking. Similarly, the capacity to make fire and burn it persistently using animal fat proved to be handy for illumination while living in caves and for other nocturnal activities. However, the whaling industry — depicted with equal parts of horror and rhapsody by Herman Melville in Moby Dick — chased many species of whale to the brink of extinction in a matter of decades. The industry was driven largely by a desire to market and sell whale oil.
History teaches us that cultures which persist over time understand this inherent human pitfall. These cultures recognize that our brilliant array of capacities is always in danger of being used for wicked purposes. Many indigenous cultures possess wisdom traditions which take into account this most serious of human vulnerabilities and they evolve habits, stories, rites and rituals to avoid the abuse of our capacities. Lamentably, we do not live in such a culture.
This brings us back to the question of deception. While disguises are fun in spy novels and costumes are essential in theater and film, humans greatest capacity for deception resides in what may be our most beautiful asset, our language. It seems like, in my late 40’s, just as I was getting to the point of really understanding how marketing indoctrinates us into self-destructive consumption habits, fascism and far right rhetoric began to surge across the world — most memorably in the US in the form of master bullshit artist and pathological liar, Donald Trump. Alas, Donald is just one of many far-right wing actors active in the global media political landscape that are masters in the art of deception. Predominantly, fascism arose in Europe in the 1930s through the vehicle of oratory. We must never underestimate the destructive capacity of an energetic man willing to manipulate language in order to achieve power and to carry out or justify mass scale crimes.
What Tim Pool, Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, the deceased Rush Limbaugh, the disgraced Bill O’Reilly and even Glenn Greenwald all possess is a great and ever-evolving ability to deceive. This skill, coupled with amorality and a bottomless cynicism, is enabling them almost unfathomable influence over the way people think. Somewhere along the way, the West largely lost its ability to spot a bullshit artist and keep him or her and check and we are now paying the heaviest of prices for this.
We could learn from walking sticks. They aren’t evolving to pose as benign electric poles, so that they may pummel humans and rule the planet. They are content to dwell in their beauty, mystery and elegance.