January 28, 2007

Original Prankster: Evolution of Trickery

Dishonesty has been documented in creatures ranging from birds to crustaceans to primates, including, of course, Homo sapiens. “When you think of human communication, it’s rife with deception,” said Stephen Nowicki, a biologist at Duke University
From Carl Zimmer's article, Devious Butterflies, Full-Throated Frogs and Other Liars. Carl takes a look at deception in the animal world. Deception, has for a while, been thought of as a useless, and even detrimental trait, why then would an evolving world, that selects towards success continually select for it.
Previous models examined only a single animal sending a signal to a single receiver. But real signals are rarely so private. “They’re not happening in a one-on-one situation,” Dr. Rowell said. “They’re really happening in public.”
...

To capture this extra layer of complexity, Dr. Rowell built a mathematical model with two receivers instead of one. The signaling animal could choose to be honest or dishonest. The receivers could respond to the signal as an honest one or a dishonest one.

Working with Dr. Ellner and Dr. Reeve, Dr. Rowell discovered that honesty and deception could reach a stable coexistence in the model. The signalers could sometimes be dishonest, and yet the receivers continued to believe the signals despite the deception.

Dr. Rowell and his colleagues published the details of their model in the December issue of The American Naturalist.

Organisms need to be crafty with their lies. They don't just continually lie, or risk demise along the lines of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. They must assess their situation, the signal, their target and their audience. Pranking is possibly a strong trait of fitness in the natural world, perhaps this is why humans continue to use it to impress their peers.

My friends often try to be clever an play jokes, but sometimes they can backfire. In the midst of carhopping to get each other to the airport on time in Brisbane, we also had to transfer luggage between various cars at various locations. My luggage was in my friend's girlfriend's car, but needed to end up in his car, I had ended up in yet another friends car and was relying on them to shift the luggage. I had talked to my friend's girlfriend and she said that she had given her boyfriend the keys to her boot. As we were returning to his car, I checked whether or not we were going to move my luggage. He tries to fool me by going "Oh, shit, Z, I don't have the keys to her car. Why do you always stuff things up?". I respond with, "No, I saw her give you the keys. Don't be stupid." This exchange goes for a while and our friends who are watching can't tell whether its me or him joking. Is he lying, he has the keys; or am I lying, my luggage is actually in my friend's car. Either way, I don't think either scenario gets us laid, so its not very relevant evolutionary wise. But its a story nonetheless.

In the end, deception can lead to selection towards and meme permeation of traits that would not be present in an otherwise honest ecosystem. Not only do we end up with pranksters, but we get creatures who utilise pranksters to their own ends.

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