Manipulative communication surrounds us. With misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic, “cheap” and “deep” fakes of elected officials, and targeted ads and emotionally exploitative social media algorithms, it can begin to feel like all communication is manipulation.
Well, as it turns out, this is the thesis of an influential paper by evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins and John Krebs. The cynicism behind this statement can make many people uncomfortable. When we think about communicating, we tend to think about our own thoughts and feelings rather than how we might be influencing others. One major reason an evolutionary perspective on our own behavior can be so confronting is that it doesn’t take our word for why we do things. It looks at how what we do influences the two core currencies of life on earth, survival and reproduction.
One of the major selection pressures on humans was to outsmart each other, otherwise known as the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis. Niccolò Machiavelli, perhaps the most famous political thinker, endorsed using any strategies available—including cooperation, corruption, and deception—to gain status and maintain political control. According to the hypothesis, figuring out other minds is one of the most complicated things that minds can do. Look at most of the smartest animals on the planet, like monkeys, elephants, parrots, and hyenas, and you’ll see that they live in complex, rather than simple, social systems. In a herd of deer, for example, there are no shifting alliances, no outsiders coming and going from the group, and no dominance hierarchies.
We have evolution to thank for shielding us from complete self-knowledge.
For most animals living in complex social systems, including humans, eating calorie-dense food, like fruit and meat, both made the stakes of competition much higher and made us able to afford the calorically expensive brains we needed—and of course still need—for social scheming. In small human societies, for thousands of years, there were shifting alliances and status hierarchies, people who were good to cooperate with and people who most people ostracized. Now we have different sorts of status hierarchies for each identity—related to, for example, class or occupation—and a fire hose of social information layered on top of our personal relationships. And because social information was the most important possible information throughout our deep history, we cannot today pull ourselves away from it, or diminish its salience, online or off.
When minds start to figure out other minds, a lot of cognitive power gets built up that can be used for other things. Consider one of the groundbreaking insights in evolution in the last few decades, the idea of the “extended phenotype.” Evolution isn’t just acting on an individual’s characteristics but the way it interacts with the environment—including other minds. Evolution is selecting not just on the teeth and tail and claws of a beaver, but also on how well its dam keeps out water. Not just the bees’ wings and bodies but also the structure of their hive.
The extended phenotype is especially noticeable when we look at parasites. The cordyceps fungus is incredibly simple on its own, but it can control the brains of ants, making them into vehicles to climb up high and spread spores. The rabies virus is just a simple packet of DNA, but its complex psychological extended phenotype influences hosts to bite and to be afraid of water, both of which help spread rabies more effectively.
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The extended phenotype doesn’t just extend into the environment and into the minds of other species but, importantly, into the minds of members of the same species. When a pregnant female mouse smells an unfamiliar male mouse, her body terminates the pregnancy, and she becomes able to conceive with the new male relatively quickly. This is known as the “Bruce Effect.” You can view this as an adaptation in the female mouse, an ability to cut her losses when there’s the scent of a new male in town. But, importantly, Dawkins argues, you can also see it as an adaptation on the part of the male mouse, a way that his phenotype is manipulating the female’s reproductive timing. You could view the male mouse’s pheromones as merely communicative, or look deeper and see them as manipulative.
The Bruce effect works because it’s in the best interests of both the male and the female mouse. If you want someone else’s behavior to work for your best interests—if you want to extend your phenotype into someone else—it’s often a lot more complicated than just letting them sniff you.
When the stakes are high, and the gatekeepers of reproduction and survival are other minds, competition and manipulation become central. This mental competition sets up an arms race—a scenario in which competition causes each side to accumulate potential to damage the other. There are many different arms races in nature. Some of the most innovative, beautiful, and horrific characteristics of plants and animals have also been shaped by arms races in nature. Trees get taller to reach the sunlight until they can’t reach any further up into the sky. Gazelles and cheetahs try to outrun each other. In our case, minds outran each other until they became as fast as possible.
Hold on a minute you might be saying to yourself—you evolutionary people are so cynical—didn’t we also get smart to cooperate? Perhaps, to some degree. But research suggests intelligence has been a lot more important, especially for theory of mind for competition, than for cooperation. Evolutionary models, for example, have shown that competition promotes the ability to think about other minds more strongly than cooperation. And studies have shown that areas of the brain related to thinking about other minds are activated more by competition than cooperation.
But even if you consider it objectively, if someone is trying to cooperate with you, and you are working towards mutual benefit, your intelligence is additive. If you’re cooperating, the people you’re cooperating with make it easy to guess what they want. The most cooperative organisms like ants, bees, termites—or, if you want to compare mammals to mammals, the beautiful naked mole rats—aren’t renowned for their brilliance. In all of these cases, each individual doesn’t have to decide whether they will cooperate or defect, they simply have to play their part in the greater whole.
Human intelligence is incredibly useful but it doesn’t safeguard you against having false beliefs, because that’s not what intelligence is for. Intelligence is associated with coming up with more convincing bullshit and with being a better liar, but not associated with a better ability to recognize one’s own bias. Unfortunately, intelligence has very little influence on your ability to rationally evaluate your own beliefs, or undermine what’s called “myside bias.”
The dark side of smart is that whenever we do good works, and cooperate, we draw from our manipulative past. The even darker side of smart is that competition doesn’t just select an ability to manipulate but also an adaptive ability to be unpredictable. And one of the best ways to be unpredictable is to not know yourself. So we have evolution to thank for shielding us from complete self-knowledge. As a result, most of our own minds are shrouded in darkness. Perhaps that’s for the best. We might not like what we’d see.
Diana Fleischman is an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Portsmouth, writing and living while on sabbatical in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Follow her on Twitter @sentientist.