Golden Lies: How Sex and Deception Drove Human Evolution, Civilization, and the 2016 Presidential Election
Lying, especially sex and lying, has never been a topic of polite conversation, much less academic research. But this year lying is on the cover of major magazines, such as the National Geographic. Contrary to what well-brought-up people believe, lying is the foundation of human intelligence and civilization.
The story of lying has five eras. In prehistory, as far back as 2.5 million years, our ancestral mothers and fathers engaged in an “arms race” of lying and catching liars to gain reproductive advantages. This evolved a brain for conceiving new ideas, because old lies don’t deceive anyone. And this drove the evolution of language, because language is the most effective way to lie. And it drove our concept of “other minds,” because catching liars requires figuring out what another person is thinking.
In the second era, beginning 70,000 years ago, our ancestors chose to believe “golden lies” that induced co-operative behavior and fostered communities. These “golden lies” include respecting your elders, not using violence against other community members, respecting other community members’ marriages and property, and (ironically) being honest to other community members; and, if you don’t do these things, invisible beings will punish you, perhaps in an imaginary afterlife. The “arms race” of the second era was the choice between self-interest and the rules of the community, e.g., should you steal a loaf of bread to feed your family?
In the third era, beginning two or three hundred years ago, secular ideals including democracy, equality, and liberty, as well as money, law, and science, supplanted religious “golden lies.” Nationalism is another “golden lie” that enabled communities to grow from thousands to millions of individuals. The “arms race” of this third era was between religion and secular ideals, and between competing secular ideals, e.g., should you fight in a war against a neighboring country or overthrow the elite class that started the war?
Mass communication beginning in the 1930s enabled a few individuals to communicate “golden lies” to millions of people. Demagogues such as Adolf Hitler mastered radio and other new technologies. The “arms race” of the modern era has been between demagogues and their masses, and between advertisers and consumers. The few with the microphones have had to continually innovate to stay ahead as the millions figure out their lies.
The Internet changed the one-to-many model of mass media into a many-to-many model of social media. Anyone can communicate “golden lies” to anyone. We have myriad choices of “golden lies” to believe. Past generations believed in the same “golden lies”; the Internet has enabled different groups to believe in different “golden lies.” In the past, “golden lies” helped people to co-operate and create communities and nations. Today, the Internet and social media enable us to form tribes that too often have difficulty understanding other tribes. The current “arms race” is what we pay attention to, in particular the choice between paying attention to technology or politics.
I: Human Evolution
Large brains are humans’ most distinctive anatomical feature. Our brains are four times bigger than chimpanzees’ and gorillas’ brains.
Brains use twenty times the calories of muscles at rest. Brains require maintaining a constant temperature. Large brains are easily injured, and make childbirth difﬁcult. Intelligence has many costs, yet doesn’t directly help an animal survive, e.g., a big brain doesn’t make you run faster or survive cold winters.
Our ancestors’ brains began to enlarge about two million years ago. In evolutionary time, two million years is short. Why our ancestors rapidly evolved large brains — speciﬁcally, a large, uniquely human cerebral cortex — is unknown, according to Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. For example, the “man the toolmaker” hypothesis is unsupported by archeological evidence.
The cerebral cortex learns new things. Animals without a cerebral cortex act only as their genes programmed them to act. Animals with a cerebral cortex can ﬁnd new foods, survive in new environments, or change their mating tactics to improve reproductive success.
In The Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin wrote that species evolve via random mutations. Environmental changes — e.g., changing food sources, predation, climate — favor one mutation over another. He called this process natural selection.
In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin proposed an second theory of evolution. Species evolve when males and females select each other for certain qualities. He called this sexual selection. Biologists ignored this idea for over a century.
Females choose males with features that make the males less able to survive. E.g., a peacock’s bright colors make him visible to predators, and his huge tail slows his escapes. His beautiful tail communicates to peahens that he’s an especially ﬁt individual, i.e., he’s so fast that he can escape predators despite his heavy tail. Sexual selection is, in general, the opposite of natural selection.
Natural selection advances via slow environmental change. Natural selection advances evolution in harsh environments (e.g., predation, climate change). Natural selection produces animals better able to survive — usually smaller, more efﬁcient, and less conspicuous.
In contrast, sexual selection advances with each generation. Sexual selection produces rapid evolutionary changes. Sexual selection advances evolution in stable environments. Sexual selection produces animals (especially males) less able to survive, with bigger, more colorful, or exaggerated features.
What’s striking about the cerebral cortex is how much of it is not dedicated to speciﬁc behaviors. The human cerebral cortex has billions of general-purpose neurons, capable of learning any new idea. If our cerebral cortex evolved via sexual selection, why were our ancestral mothers and fathers — unlike any other animals — sexually attracted to partners who could learn new ideas?
Paternal care is found in only 6% of mammal species, compared to 80% of birds. In other words, humans are among the few mammals in which fathers help raise their offspring. Among hunter-gatherers, children without fathers are more than twice as likely to die during childhood. Today children without fathers are also less likely to prosper and reproduce.
But two-parent families introduce a dilemma. If a woman chooses a man desired by other women, who might have wealth, power, athleticism, or good looks, he may leave her for other women. If a woman chooses a man who’ll stick around for the next twenty years, he likely isn’t a man whom other women desire.
This dilemma gave reproductive advantages to individuals who could deceive. Women’s fundamental lie is to mate with a “cad” but tell her “dad” partner that the child is his. Men’s fundamental lie is to tell a woman that he’ll stay with her “forever,” and then start a second family with another woman.
Catching lies also gives reproductive advantages. A woman who recognizes men’s lies can avoid “cads” and choose a faithful partner. A “dad” who figures out that he isn’t the father can leave his lying partner and start a family with a more honest woman.
Catching lies also evolved our concept of “other minds,” because catching lies requires conceiving that another person might be thinking something other than what he or she is telling us.
The result was an “arms race” between lying and catching lies that rapidly advanced cerebral cortex evolution.
The Origin of Language
The origin of language was the argument against Darwin’s ideas. Everything else about humans has an analogue in other animals and can be explained in evolutionary terms. Speech and language are unique to humans. The Gospel of John begins,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Genesis says that “God created mankind in his own image.” If God was speech and language, and God made mankind in his own image, then speech and language is the divine spark that seperates humans from animals, and disproves Darwinian evolution. Darwin and his followers tried and failed to explain how speech and language originated and evolved. In 1872 the Philological Society of London stopped accepting papers on the subject, and the topic was abandoned by scientists until the 1950s, when a charismatic young linguist named Noam Chomsky made linguistics a hot field. Chomsky has written more than a 150 books and I can’t count how many articles, yet has never answered Darwin’s critics about the origin of language. In 2014, eight eminent scientists, including Noam Chomsky, published a paper entitled “The Mystery of Language Evolution” in which they conclude,
The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever. (Frontiers in Psychology, May 7, 2014)
In other words, science today can’t rebut Darwin’s critics and explain how language evolved.
But you accept that lying drove human evolution, speech and language fall right into place. Language evolved for our ancestors to lie, and to catch liars, to gain reproductive advantages. Speech isn’t the only way we lie to attract mates — women wear makeup and men drive cars they can’t afford — but speech is the most effective way to lie.
II: Lies We Choose to Believe
A “golden lie” is a false belief that induces co-operative behavior and fosters communities. “Golden lies” can also induce emotions, including fear, anger, empathy, and inspiration, when nothing in our physical environment is threatening or inspiring us. We choose to believe “golden lies” because we derive benefits from these false beliefs.
Religion is a “golden lie” that says that if you join a community, respect your elders, are not violent to other community members, respect other community members’ marriages and property, and (ironically) are honest to other community members, good things will happen to you. Conversely, if you don’t join the community, are violent or adulterous, steal property, and are dishonest, bad things will happen to you. Anyone can see the truth that some bad people are rewarded and bad things sometimes happen to good people. Religions create a “golden lie” that invisible beings punish and reward, usually in an imaginary afterlife.
Religions evolved. God evolved in the Old and New Testament, and is evolving today. Religions universally support marital fidelity. Men prefer to marry religious women, because they’re more likely to be sexually faithful. Women prefer to marry religious men, because they’re more likely to support their families. In many cultures men and women aren’t allowed to marry outside of religion. Some religions encourage large families, especially among the most religious members such as rabbis. Religious men and women have reproductive advantages over non-believers.
Religious leaders with new ideas, almost always men, attract women as their most devoted followers. A recurring problem with new religions is that the founder’s polygyny (multiple wives) conflicts with the needs of his male followers. New religions typically fall apart or switch to monogamy in the second or third generation.
The definition of faith is, “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” The definition of lie is, “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive.” Faith is lying to one’s self and lying is lying to someone else. For example, when your children are hungry, believing that if you don’t steal your neighbor’s chicken an invisible being will feed your family is faith. Telling your hungry neighbor that invisible beings will punish him or her in an imaginary afterlife if he or she steals your chicken is a lie.
Women are attracted to male entertainers, especially men who are gifted with language, acting, or music. Acting is deception, e.g., a poor man pretends to be a king. Music, poetry, and storytelling (literature) induce emotional experiences in listeners, even if there’s no physical reason to feel an emotion. Theater, novels, and movies are “golden lies” in which we suspend our disbelief to experience emotions. E.g., seeing a rainbow after surviving a storm lifts our spirits. Talking about seeing a rainbow after a storm can invoke the same emotions. Emotions can be especially strong when we experience them in a group, which makes a community stronger.
For our ancestors, music, poetry, and feasting were experienced in religious contexts, along with rules for men and women about mating. Today men take women on dates where they pay talented men (chefs, actors, musicians) to entertain but not mate with the women, and increase the women’s interest in mating with their dates.
The “Arms Race” Between the Individual and the Community
If the “arms race” of our prehistoric ancestors was between men and women, in the religious era the “arms race” was between the individual and the community. Stealing bread was the most common crime of the pre-modern era, as readers of Les Misérables know. If your children are starving, should you steal bread and risk harsh punishment? Or should you trust that invisible beings will feed your children if you don’t steal? Should an individual consume alcohol or go fishing on the Sabbath? And which gods should you worship? These were life-or-death questions, but today seem like minor issues.
III: Secular Ideals
The revolutions of the eighteenth century, including the Industrial Revolution, transformed societies from religious “golden lies” to secular “golden lies.” Secular “golden lies” include liberty, democracy, and equality. The enslavement of blacks, women’s lack of voting rights, and “one man, one vote” equality masking inequalities of wealth and power belie these ideals, i.e., show that these concepts are “golden lies” that we aspire to, not truths about our secular societies.
The monetary and legal systems are secular “golden lies.” Money may be the root of all evil, but individuals around the world who believe in different religions and political systems all believe in the American dollar.
Secular “golden lies” also include nationalism, which increased the size of communities to millions of individuals. For example, Germany unified into a nation in the period 1850–1871, and Italy unified in 1861. Nationalism benefits citizens, for example, by increasing trade and migration between what had been independent duchies or counties. But nationalism also increased the scale of wars. Nations founded on similar secular ideals have nevertheless tried to destroy each other.
Science is also a “golden lie.” Science is a method or process in which groups of individuals arrive at a consensus approximating the truth. As Thomas Kuhn wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), no scientific fact is true; any scientist can discover new evidence or propose a new theory that overturns any established fact. Like any social group with hierarchies of power, scientists resist truth as well as seek truth.
The “arms race” of secular society is between liberals who dream of a future that never will be, and conservatives who long for a past that never was.
Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” We prefer to believe lies to truths, if a liar tells us what we want to hear.
IV: Mass Media
In 1927, mass production enabled millions of people to own black Ford Model A automobiles. Millions of Americans were swinging to big band jazz, live or on the radio. Founded in 1923, by 1930 White Castle had a half-dozen mini-restaurants serving the same 5¢ hamburgers to thousands of customers, pioneering the systems and practices that enabled Richard and Maurice McDonald and Ray Kroc to serve hamburgers to millions of customers.
Mass media — radio, newspapers, the microphones and amplifiers of mass rallies, and later television — enabled a few people to communicate “golden lies” to millions of people at the same time. The “golden lies” of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were characterized by:
• Nationalism (“we are superior to our neighbors”) eclipsed democracy, liberty, equality, and religious “golden lies.” To paraphrase Jonathan Swift, nationalism flies, and democracy, liberty, and equality come limping after them.
• The demagogues’ “golden lies” were compulsory. German and Soviet citizens had no choice but to believe. All aspects of society were controlled by the great dictators.
The “Arms Race” Between Advertisers and Consumers
Advertisers had to constantly innovate to break through the “tuning out” that consumers learned to do. Post-Stalin Soviet leaders were increasing challenged to maintain the illusion that their system was superior to the west.
The Flynn Effect is the increase in intelligence in each generation since the 1930s. One study estimated that population IQ increases about three points per decade; another study estimated that the average IQ in 1932 was 80, on the same scale that the average IQ in 1997 was 100, i.e., people gained twenty IQ points in two or three generations. Many explanations have been proposed for the Flynn Effect, including better schooling, nutrition, and fewer infectious diseases. I propose that the arms race between advertisers and consumers contributed to the Flynn Effect.
There’s never been another Hitler or Stalin in countries that have mass media. The great dictators unleashed mass media on populations unvaccinated against mass lying. Late twentieth-century dictators were stuck in remote, isolated countries. With the Internet and video, oppression will be even harder for future dictators. Just try to get a wi-fi connection in Havana or Pyongyang!
Mass Media Effects on Women’s Self-Image
Our grandparents saw relatively few people. They saw even fewer beautiful people. In contrast, today we turn on a television and see nothing but attractive people made up to look their best.
Recent research has found that advertising negatively effects women’s self-esteem, and mass media appears to affect women more than men. Since the 1930s — the beginning of mass advertising and fashion magazines — men have increased the importance of “good looks” in a wife by 40%. Women have increased the importance of a good-looking husband almost 80%. Women in 1996 valued “good looks” in husbands more than men in 1939 valued “good looks” in wives. Yet more people are obese than at any time in history. Dressing “sloppy” is the norm.
V: The Internet and Social Media
The Internet and social media change the few-to-many model of mass media into a many-to-many model, in which anyone can post their own “golden lies,” and anyone can broadcast content by clicking “like”. There are YouTube stars with audiences Hitler would have envied, who are just a woman in Nevada putting on make-up or a man in Nebraska pretending to be a two-year-old. Social media enables audiences to choose from a plethora of “golden lies” to believe. The “arms race” of the present era is choosing what we pay attention to.
Terrorists get mass media. A small number of media-savvy terrorists can get the attention of millions of people. Sending armies to fight terrorists is difficult, because armies don’t understand mass media.
The Internet and social media have given us near-infinite choices of online dating, “gender fluidity,” and “pick-up artists.” But more options can make it harder to find a partner, and we have an increasing dissonance between our media-driven expectations and the real men and women we meet.
James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, was recently asked what worried him the most. He didn’t mention ISIS or Russia. Instead, he said,
The lack of political unity in America. The lack of fundamental friendliness. It seems like an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether it be from organized religion or from local community school districts or from their governments….If you lose any sense of being part of something bigger, then why should you care about your fellow-man? (The New Yorker, May 29, 2017, page 38)
“Golden lies” enabled our ancestors to co-operate and create communities and nations. The Internet and social media enable us to divide into our preferred tribes, based on what we pay attention to. I’m happy to live in a university town with other people who drive Subarus, run on mountain trails, and shop at Whole Foods. But the downside is that the tribes have difficulty co-operating with and understanding each other. The lies that each tribe believes to form a cohesive group look to outsiders like, well, lies.
We need political leaders like Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor and the de facto President of European Union. Merkel has no policies or agendas (or ego) of her own; instead, she builds relationships, listens to each side of a dispute, and helps them to find solutions acceptable to all.
I expect that in the next four years states will become more independent from the federal government on issues such as cannabis, gay marriage, and universal healthcare. 87% of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider. If these counties voted to outlaw abortion, it would make zero difference in the availability of abortions. I’d be happy to see this country become a patchwork of states and counties with different laws, if this made people feel comfortable living with their tribes and active in their communities, instead of alienated and apathetic.
The “Arms Race” of Attention: Tech vs. Politics
Tech-focused individuals aren’t paying attention to politics. Politics-focused individuals don’t realize that technology affects their lives more than politics.
The tech-focused class is younger, better educated, more urban, and has better jobs and better health. They see technology solving their problems. They don’t believe that government solves problems. When was the last time the federal government solved a problem in your life? Maybe the creation of the National Do Not Call Registry, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2003, which stops telemarketers from calling you during dinner? In contrast, figuring out technological change is pretty much what I do all day. The tech-focused class has little time for or interest in politics.
The politics-focused class is older, less educated, more rural, with higher unemployment and worse health. They blame the government for their problems. Their problems are actually caused by technological change and resulting societal structural changes. They like politics because politicians blame their problems on things they can understand, such as immigrants. Or invisible beings are punishing them because the Supreme Court allowed gay marriage. Explaining to politics-focused people that their problems are caused by technological change doesn’t register.
The politics-focused class is able to gerrymander and rig elections because the tech-focused class doesn’t pay attention to politics.
Paying attention to politics is arguably a poor choice for your attention. Climate change is going to be solved by scientists and technologists, not by politicians negotiating for ten years to bring carbon emissions back to the levels of five years ago.
Bi-partisan gridlock is gridlock between two increasingly impotent forces. Technology flies, and politics comes limping after it.
“Fake news” and “post-truth” politics will go away. One hopes that the people who believe everything they read on the Internet will get a clue faster than the Germans figured out that they’re not the master race. If not, we have a long dozen years ahead of us.
Those who long for the past when we all believed in the same “golden lies” need to be reminded by blacks, women, or other less-than-equals what the golden past was like.
The 2016 Presidential Election
[Donald Trump] could be genuine while lying, [Hillary Clinton] came off as inauthentic even when she was telling the truth. — Jonathan Allen, Amie Parnes, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign
There are large individual differences in believability. Some people come off as honest. Other people are doubted more often. Honest demeanor has little to do with actual honesty. —Timothy R. Levine, “Truth-Default Theory,” Journal of Language and Social Psychology (August 11, 2014)
Hillary Clinton campaigned on a platform of “bringing Americans together,” missing the trend that we’re happily dividing into our preferred tribes. Difficulty between tribes understanding and communicating with each other resulted in lying becoming the central theme of the 2016 American Presidential election.
The 2016 Presidential election belied “golden lies” about how each party selects its Presidential candidate. The Democratic primaries are a complexity of “superdelegates” and pledged delegates weighted by how congressional districts voted in previous elections. Potential candidates were afraid to run against Hillary in fear of the power to punish that the Clintons have in the Democratic establishment, leaving only an outspoken 75-year-old socialist running against her. And the Republican establishment did everything it could to push other candidates ahead of Donald Trump, without success.
Donald Trump was the first Presidential candidate to get social media. Democrats in general, and Bernie Sanders’ hip young supporters in particular, were inoculated against social media lies. “Fake news” websites created stories aimed at Democrats without “viral” success. Young, urban voters were ahead in that “arms race.”
But Donald Trump’s older, less-educated, and more rural supporters believed “fake news” social media stories about Hillary Clinton and other Democrats. They may have won the election but they lost the “arms race” to see what’s fake and what’s real.
Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal revealed that she’s never used a computer and can only e-mail on an obsolete Blackberry model that her aides buy on eBay. There are tech-focused Republicans, e.g., Peter Thiel. Tech-focused doesn’t mean liberal or Democrat, and politics-focused doesn’t mean conservative or Republican.
Our increasing choice of communities and the “golden lies” we choose to believe isn’t going to result in a multi-party democracy because the tech-focused class isn’t going to give enough attention to form a new party. The politics-focused class has two parties — the Democrats are as clueless as the Republicans — and has the appearance of being in power, even if it isn’t.
VI: AI and the Future of “Golden Lies”
In the sixth era, artificial intelligence (AI) is creating algorithms that no human can understand. When AirBnB’s “Smart Pricing” drops the price of my guest bedroom to $13, I can’t call AirBnB and ask why the price is so low. The “arms race” is between believing the “golden lie” that the AI know what it’s doing, versus switching to manual price settings and trying to do better than the AI. So far, this year my AirBnB earnings are ahead of last year’s, so the AI seems to be smarter than me.
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.― Philip K. Dick
The three great mysteries of our species are what drove the evolution of the human brain, starting 2.5 million years ago; where speech and language came from; and what sparked the “cognitive revolution” that started 70,000 years ago. I believe that cognitive arms races drove all these revolutions, as well as more recent revolutions in secular society, mass culture, and social media.
Dor, Daniel. The role of the lie in the evolution of human language. Language Sciences, 8 February 2017.
Bolles, Edmund Blair. The Benefits of Generations of Liars.
Wolfe, Tom. The Kingdom of Speech (2016).