Liars Tale: A History of Falsehood

Liars Tale: A History of Falsehood

by Jeremy Campbell

"A book too disturbing to be ignored."—Booklist, boxed review
Lies are often so subtle, so deftly woven into easily acceptable truths, that we can fail to recognize them. Turning Sisela Bok's defense of truth in her book Lying on its head, Jeremy Campbell argues that deception should no longer be seen as artificial or deviant, but as a natural part of our

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"A book too disturbing to be ignored."—Booklist, boxed review
Lies are often so subtle, so deftly woven into easily acceptable truths, that we can fail to recognize them. Turning Sisela Bok's defense of truth in her book Lying on its head, Jeremy Campbell argues that deception should no longer be seen as artificial or deviant, but as a natural part of our world. Beginning with a study of evolutionary biology and the necessity (and ultimate value) of deceit in the animal kingdom, Campbell asks the difficult question of whether falsehood might, in fact, be instinctual. Guiding the reader through classical philosophy to more contemporary thinkers such as Freud and Nietzsche, Campbell links a multitude of disciplines and ideas in lucid and engaging prose. Unsettling some of our most firmly held beliefs about truth and ethics, The Liar's Tale is a riveting work of intellectual history. "This challenging romp through the underbelly of intellectual fascinating and troublesome."—New York Times Book Review "[A] beautifully written book....a crisp and remarkably readable discussion."—John Frohnmayer, The Wilson Quarterly

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Editorial Reviews

John Frohnmayer
[A] beautifully written book....a crisp and remarkably readable discussion.
Spring 2002
New York Times Book Review
This challenging romp through the underbelly of intellectual fascinating and troublesome.
Note that there are two books being reviewed; The Concise Book of Lying and The Liar's Tale

If there were a college for aspiring prevaricators, where budding pupils could be introduced to the kinds of lies that humans tell, The Concise Book of Lying would be their freshman text. The Liar's Tale, on the other hand, would be a graduate-level survey, concentrating on the history of philosophy, on both its assault and perpetration of lies. Because I'm a novelist and, therefore, a professional liar, I found both books often fascinating. Those professionally or personally concerned with the truth have much to learn from and enjoy in each.

The Concise Book of Lying begins with a fine analysis of the different attitudes toward lying found in the Old Testament and in ancient Greek literature. Sullivan says that humans identify with trickster figures, such as the crooked messenger Hermes (one of the sons of Zeus in Greek mythology), because they use underhanded methods—such as blatant lying and deception—to combat authority. The historical information that Sullivan provides is engaging, but when she moves on to a contemporary discussion of the nature, motives, techniques and effects of lies, she introduces material that is often brutally obvious and illustrated with banal examples from television and film.

Sullivan regains her rigor in a section called "The Lying Mind," where she describes types of pathological liars and provides psychiatric analyses of each. One of the most picturesque is the "pseudologue," who mixes fact and fantasy to create a dramatic and flamboyant past. Also featured is a handy list of fifteen ways that humans can lie tothemselves according to Freudian psychology, including displacing one's feelings onto less dangerous objects than those that aroused the emotions, and sublimating one's sexual desires "by substituting for them nonsexual activities socially accepted by one's culture."

Probably the most purely informative section of this book deals with lie detection. Sullivan tells the history of the polygraph, its critics and those who foil it. Even more interesting is her research into earlier days of lie-detecting or truth-demonstrating. In medieval times, for example, those accused of lying could choose to deliver grandiose oaths to prove their sincerity or undergo a battery of tests, such as grasping a burning iron.

Sullivan closes by illustrating the important role deceit plays in the world of plants and animals, and some of her examples shame the inventions of most novelists. A variety of organisms can employ "aggressive disguise" and "tactical deception." The digger wasp, for instance, builds two or three false burrows after the real burrow is completed, while the Thecla togarna butterfly fakes out predators by positioning itself upside down, with its rear resembling its head.

Although Sullivan attempts to unify her scattered materials with a consistently moral tone, the liars she gathers seem to have the best lines, as they so often do in literature. There are very interesting pages, for example, on the Jesuits' invention of equivocation (or wordplay), a perceptive point about a defendant's "right" to lie under oath, a wonderful story about the spread of disinformation during World War II and remarkable data on fireflies (incidentally, much of the blinking that humans find charming is actually done to deceive potential predators).

Jeremy Campbell is a science journalist whose two other books, Grammatical Man and The Improbable Machine, provide excellent introductions to information theory and cognitive science. In The Liar's Tale, Darwin's evolutionary theories are the bases from which Campbell analyzes philosophers from the pre-Christian Greek Parmenides to the contemporary Frenchman Michel Foucault, continually searching those thinkers whose ideas correspond with Darwin's notions of mental development and mimicry in nature. Within the grand abstract sweep of his book, Campbell inserts biographical facts that show truth-seeking philosophers were often all-too-human subjects, whether they liked it or not: While laying bare the history of sexuality, for example, Foucault kept his own sexual secrets.

After Campbell cites some of Sullivan's million-year-old biological evidence on lying, he launches into discussions of pre-Socratic philosophers and of the Sophists, early Greek thinkers and rhetoric teachers. Some prior knowledge of these figures, as well as others, would be helpful in Campbell's works but is not necessary. This dense list probably makes The Liar's Tale sound daunting, but Campbell provides many ample, well-paced explanations to support his findings.

Although Jacques Derrida, the contemporary French philosopher who deconstructs every assumption about certainty, comes to be the villain of The Liar's Tale, Campbell, like Derrida, looks for the philosophical loopholes where language seems to necessitate lies. Campbell thus points to a number of skeptics in the history of Western thought, including the medieval nominalists who argued that philosophy was just another set of random words.

About half of The Liar's Tale is devoted to the twentieth century, which Campbell calls the century of suspicion. He discusses giant and familiar figures—Nietzsche, Freud and Wittgenstein, all doubtful about humans' ability to desire, know or express truth—and influential thinkers not so well known. The French sociologist Georges Sorel proposed that we must live by "social myths," while the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure argued the arbitrariness of all language systems.

The Liar's Tale possesses a unity, as well as a profundity, that Sullivan's book lacks. And while Campbell often works from secondary sources, his original accounts of modern philosophers are interesting and admirably free of jargon, particularly considering the specialized language of much recent philosophical discourse. If there is a weakness to The Liar's Tale, it's Campbell's desire to connect his high-powered historical commentary to the contemporary environment of Sullivan's book—as if Derrida's deconstructive impulse theory directly influenced Bill Clinton's personal and political lies.

Numerous curiosities abound in both books. Campbell recalls a theologian's theory that God was the master deceiver preoccupied with testing humans (Sullivan's book also suggests that God told the first lie), and he offers vivid examples (even more than Sullivan) of nature's ingenuity. Beware the male ten-spined stickleback fish, by the way, which pretends to be female while fertilizing a female's eggs.

About a third of Sullivan's book is unnecessary for anyone who knows what a white lie is, and perhaps a third of Campbell's book will interest only students of philosophy. But taken together, they provide an impressive "History of Falsehood," as the subtitle of Campbell's book truthfully promises.
—Tom LeClair

(Excerpted Review)

Kirkus Reviews
An unusual and boldly compelling history of deception and the decline of truth. Simply put, Campbell claims that lying is part of our true nature: "for better or worse, lying, untruth, is not an artificial, deviant, or dispensable feature of life." In fact, human beings, as supremely conniving as we may like to think ourselves to be, are hardly alone when it comes to the ability to deceive. Taking us back to Darwin, Campbell offers numerous examples of creepy crawlers and fireflies capable of duping would-be predators or foes with a deft change of color or imitation of another species' flashing signal. If such proclivity to deceive is the norm in survival at the lower end of the animal kingdom, is it not naïve of us to think ourselves as having evolved beyond it? After all, the author points out, some of western culture's archetypal heroes (like Odysseus and Machiavelli's Prince) have been deemed such because of their exceptional guile. The argument moves in and out of literal nature and art to chart philosophical trends in truth and deception across the centuries. Starting with Socrates and notions of absolute truth, Campbell examines an impressive array of philosophers (Descartes, Hume, Newton, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein) who helped an avoidance of untruth evolve into suspicion, distrust, and falsehood becoming valued for the possibilities they open the mind to. He enlivens the heady theoretical discussion with pointed biographical tidbits from the lives of his subjects, as well as pertinent vignettes plucked from the current of human affairs—from Clinton's survival of the Lewinsky affair to Liberace's denial of his homosexuality to win a libel suit. Throughout, theprose is as sumptuously engaging as the argument is provocative. A wonderfully accessible philosophic tour de force—lying's never seemed so virtuous. (For more on the subject, see Evelin Sullivan, below.)

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Chapter One

The Horrid Doubt

If, as Western ethics and theology purport, the existence of some creatures serves solely to benefit others, and honesty and altruism are always the best policy, how are we to explain the occurrence and ubiquitousness of selfishness and deception? —Emil Wenzel

Is nature a liar? A deliberately provocative opening. Yet Charles Darwin, decidedly not a provocative person by temperament or inclination, suggested it might be helpful when trying to understand how nature keeps the enterprise of life in business and engineers her new and wonderful productions, to think of her, not as the embodiment of a Creator's truth, but as partly insincere, as harboring a propensity for cheating.

    Evolution theory can accommodate the idea of cooperation, in which like tells the truth to like, but it must also face up to the harsher facts of competition, where rules of fair play and honesty need not apply, or of actual war, in which fraud is a positive asset. The spider is not obliged to warn its insect victims of possible health hazards if they make contact with its web, nor need the fox feel badly about shamming dead when it is really very much alive, and hungry. When winning is the important factor, deceitfulness is a kind of ethic, small lies serving nature's larger truth, the "grandeur" that Darwin saw when "from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows."

    In the world of life, even fairly primitive life,Darwin recognized that falsehoods and chicanery are part of the game of survival. Writing in the Descent of Man, he commended as "admirable" a paper by the entomologist Henry Walter Bates on mimicry in nature, published in 1862. Bates had accompanied Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution, on his first trip to South America, making a special study of the brightly colored insects of the Amazon forests. The paper, Darwin said, threw "a flood of light on many obscure problems," giving new support to his theory of natural selection. Mimicry in effect was a pretense, a form of lying, a means of gaining an edge on survival by deceiving predators as to the "real" character of their potential victims, though of course no intelligence would be involved. Darwin was struck by the "marvelously deceptive appearance" of certain butterflies observed by Bates, which imitate the markings of the Helicondae, a species which protects itself by secreting a noxious substance, disgusting to predators. The stripes and shades of color on the wings of the impersonators are amazingly realistic forgeries, resembling those of the Helicondae so closely that only an experienced entomologist like Bates could tell them apart. Though perfectly edible, they dupe birds into avoiding them under the misconception that they are thoroughly unappetizing.

    Cheating, seen as an evolutionary strategy, helped Darwin to solve the puzzle of why some male butterflies of the order of the Leptalides have wings of which the upper half is a pure white, while the rest is barred with black, red, and yellow, in imitation of another species. The answer is that this butterfly usually hides the white patch by covering it with the upper wing, except when it is courting a female, who finds the "genuine" markings of her order more alluring than the spurious ones proclaiming the male to be something he is not.

    Adaptation to the conditions of life, which Darwin's theoretician-philosopher colleague Herbert Spencer considered basic to all ethical progress, can and does involve deception. That is a major theme of evolutionary studies today. Certain species flourishing now might be extinct if they had depended on truthfulness to increase and multiply. Mock shows are part of evolution's stock in trade. Orchids mimic the look of female insects, and thus invite pollination by males. Pied flycatchers masquerade as bachelors by keeping a mate in a secret place, thereby seducing unsuspecting females into supposing them single, and therefore mate material. There is a tropical fish called a blenny, a confidence trickster which impersonates fish known as cleaners; these perform a service to larger fish by removing parasites from their bodies. The true cleaner and the host fish are attuned to each other as part of natural selection. The impostor adopts vivid stripes on the lateral surfaces of its body, resembling the cleaner. Lurking in the crevices of rocks, it does not clean passing fish, but instead rips off pieces of their flesh.

    Cuckoos lay eggs that mimic those of the bird into whose nest they gatecrash. A reed warbler will accept and nurture a green egg planted there by a cuckoo, which specializes in fooling such a host into providing free accommodation and mothering; a meadow pipit is taken in by brown and spotted ones. Ingrates all, the chicks that hatch from these "counterfeit" eggs promptly throw the genuine eggs out of the nest. When fully fledged, they make off without so much as a thank you to join members of their own species; they have nothing further to do with the host parents, who never tumble to the fact that they have been duped.

    Quite recently, it has been found that a certain genus of beetle, Phyllobaenus, has found a way to trick a plant into feeding it, a privilege previously thought by biologists to be reserved exclusively for a single species of ant, Pheidole bicornis. The ants reside inside the small tropical tree of the genus Piper, which provides them with food and shelter. The inside surface of the tree produces food which ants take and give to their larvae. The food appears only when Pheidole ants are in residence, and disappears when they are absent. It is as if these preferred guests possess a code, a sort of membership number, which unlocks the source of nourishment. There is a good reason why they are persona grata. They provide their host with food in the form of dead ants and improve the health of the plant by stepping up the amount of carbon dioxide. Somehow, no one knows exactly how, the trickster beetles have found a way to break the code that admits ants to the feast. They have stolen the membership number and may freeload at will. If an ant objects, they simply crush its head. Such appreciation! And they do nothing to return hospitality to the plant they have inveigled.

    Fraud may be the reason why some animal behavior is more complex than it would otherwise be. The evolution of surprisingly intricate communications among American fireflies seems to be the result of chronic deception. Fireflies flash in distinct patterns to attract a suitable mate. Each species has its own unique code. Certain fireflies have become specialists in imitating the signals of others, so as to prey on them. The typical sexual communication sequence is an exchange of flashes between a flying male and a perched female and is so simple it can be copied by a human carrying a flashlight. Others are highly complex. Most intricate of all is the flashing of the firefly Photuris, whose females imitate the mating signals of females of other firefly species, lure males, and promptly eat them. These scheming and wily impostors will sometimes hide in tall grass, dim their flashes, and answer a signal only some of the time, so the occasional unsophisticated male cannot easily detect the trick. His fate is to be eaten.

    Some male fireflies are just as devious. They mimic a mimic, disguising themselves as a predator, thus frightening off rivals for the favors of a contested female. Some ingenious fakers will pretend to be both an available female and a nearby rival male, thereby enticing a competitive male to close in, making a meal of him. These deplorable ruses probably explain why the message system of fireflies is so elaborate in some species. The biologist James Lloyd thinks so. "I suspect that most of the coding and complexity that we read today in firefly signals has come about not because of selection in the context of reproductive isolation or even sexual selection, but because of selection by signal-tracking predators that culled out simpler, straight-forward signalers," Lloyd says. "In fact, complexity, including red tape, may be a universal countermeasure for, or consequence of, dealing with deceivers in all sorts of biological systems. This idea, after 'evolution by means of natural selection,' may be one of the most important generalizations that can be made about communication."

    Hugely ingenious too are the high-tech spinning skills of spiders, those master engineers and subtle predators. Some of them weave subtle intricate special effects, optical illusions that act as deathtraps for their unsuspecting victims. The cunning silver Argiope spider uses silks that are almost invisible and spins its webs in bright, sunlit places where they are more easily seen. All spiders produce silk, but this one uses highly evolved kinds of silk that are translucent. Devious as they come, the Argiope embroiders the web with striking, zigzag patterns that strongly reflect ultraviolet light. An insect is hoodwinked into mistaking them for the stripes and chevrons on the petals of flowers, their intended destination. The design is changed every night, like the key to a military cipher, to further confuse the insect prey. It may be that the silk tufts reflecting ultraviolet light that the Argiope weaves in its webs are a device to fool insects into "thinking" they are sailing into open space, since the sky is the only natural source of such light.

    Darwin appreciated the paradox that the very mechanisms of deception that one species uses to defraud another actually help the scientist to arrive at the immense hypothesis of natural selection. The small untruths of insects were a guide to the vast new truth of human origins. Often personifying nature with a feminine pronoun, Darwin regarded her, not as a moral agency, certainly, but as a sort of tricky text, more like a detective story or the Times crossword puzzle, in which certain clues were planted that should have tipped off alert investigators to the correct solution much earlier, if only they had been smart enough to spot them. One such clue was the existence of life forms that dissembled and bluffed their way to survival, in rivalry with others who were apt to bluff back.

    Nature, Darwin said, "may be said to have taken pains to reveal her scheme." Far from being a deliberate liar, the old girl actually went to some trouble to give away her secrets. How, for example, could naturalists have been so obtuse, so dense, as not to have drawn the momentous conclusion from the presence of archaic, now useless organs in certain species, such as embryonic teeth in the upper jaw of the unborn calf, that never cut through the gums, showing a close evolutionary link between ruminants and pachyderms? Or from the shriveled wings of beetles, clear evidence that they evolved from earlier creatures?

    Useless organs are so common throughout nature, said Darwin, it would be impossible to find one of the higher animals lacking a rudimentary or atrophied part of its anatomy. Male mammals, for example, possess worthless nipples. In snakes, one lobe of the lungs serves no purpose whatever. Birds have a "bastard" wing that is a rudimentary digit; in some species the entire wing is so underdeveloped it cannot be used for flight.

    These futile organs, Darwin speculated, are like superfluous letters in the words of a language which are nevertheless retained in the spelling. Such remnants serve no purpose; they are even misleading for the purpose of pronunciation, but they give a clue to the derivation of a word. Obsolete letters do not correspond to anything "real" in terms of sound or meaning, but suggest the way in which a word has altered over the course of time. They are informative as to history.

    That is the case, too, with obsolete anatomical features. They give the evolutionary game away. Darwin gently mocked Creation-minded historians who thought useless organs were there "for the sake of symmetry," or to "complete the scheme of nature," for that would involve some kind of deception or artifice on the part of the Creator. He refused to entertain such a hypothesis.

    Public opinion was in Darwin's corner on this matter, as became evident in the strange affair of Philip Gosse, who was in late middle age when the Origin of Species burst upon the scene. Gosse, a respected zoologist and member of the fundamentalist religious sect of Plymouth Brethren, was disconcerted, as were many of his peers, to notice that the new geological evidence showing the Earth to be millions of years old was in violent contradiction to the vastly briefer timetable given in the Bible, which Archbishop Ussher calculated to be a hair longer than four thousand years, the world having got underway on October 23, 4004 B.C. In an attempt to reconcile the two versions, Gosse advanced the thesis that the seemingly gradual evolution of organic life, an index of the Earth's much more venerable age, was actually an illusion, a fraud perpetrated by the Author of the World, who deceptively placed fossils in the rocks at the moment of creation to mimic the appearance of slow, eon-by-eon evolution. The intention was to test the faith of mortals weak-minded enough to entertain the heresy of a creationless cosmos. This did not sit well with Victorian readers, who expected God to play with a straight bat. "Lying," joked Thomas Carlyle, "is not permitted in this universe."

    The paradox was that nature's truthfulness about the origin of species revealed widespread fakery on the part of the products of that evolutionary process. The notion that guile, and its inseparable partner, suspicion, might be part of the normal order of things, became apparent as soon as nature was interpreted, not as reflecting the mind of a Creator, but as competition among species for the necessities of existence.

    Some scientists question whether truth is a basic instinct among living things. Is fraud merely parasitical on truth? Or can we say that untruth is the more fundamental of the two? It certainly seems to have a life of its own in the long story of evolution. In many cases, deception may be more the rule than the exception. Fireflies are more apt to be signaled mendaciously than truthfully and some species of birds send out false alarm calls more often than genuine ones. There is a definite, built-in escalation of deceit even among lowly species. What happens is that the more often a swindle is practiced, the more intense is the selection for its detection, which in turn increases selection for more plausible kinds of deceit. Ultimately, a new sort of falsehood emerges by natural selection: self-deception, which, by concealing from the pretender the fact that it is pretending, makes the pretense seem all the more authentic to the individual being deceived.

    An argument has been made for the existence of an instinct for truth in the depths of human biology, based on the technology of the lie detector. According to this thesis, the brain may be a fluent perjurer, but the body gives the brain away. The medical scientist Lewis Thomas claims the polygraph shows that "a human being cannot tell a lie, even a small one, without setting off a kind of smoke alarm somewhere in a dark lobule of the brain, resulting in the sudden discharge of nerve impulses, or the sudden outpouring of neurohormones, or both." That means lying is stressful for us humans, whatever our motives, setting off warning alarms that something has gone wrong.

    It makes a kind of biological sense, Thomas thinks, to say that truth-telling is a genetic endowment, a birthright, as natural to human beings as feathers are to birds or scales to fish. The lie detector works because "we cannot even tell a plain untruth, betray a trust, without scaring some part of our own brains." After all, if truthfulness is merely a habit of upbringing and the rules of our culture, where is there a culture in which lying is practiced by all its members as a matter of course? Who has ever heard of such a community, except perhaps in the nightmare fantasy of an Orwell?

    The phrase "Machiavellian intelligence" has been used by scientists to describe the deceptive tactics of animals in the wild and in captivity. There may be more to this metaphor than meets the eye. Niccolo Machiavelli, the sixteenth-century Italian statesman and philosopher, founder of realpolitik, took a radically naturalistic view of human nature and society, cutting politics loose completely from the church and exploding the belief that the institutions that keep society in business are made in the image of and mirror the cosmic order established by God. Part of the shock effect of his magnum opus The Prince is due to the fact that in that work he highlights the animal character of human beings. Machiavelli looked at political bodies much as Darwin regarded species, not as timeless manifestations of mind, but as natural occurrences that evolve, flourish, and decay at the mercy of happenstance or "Fortune," in the Renaissance sense of an agency cunning, whimsical, unpredictable, and deserving of a feminine pronoun.

    In Machiavelli, as in Darwin, nature is set against nature. Fortuna, impersonal blind chance, the agency of floods, havoc-wreaking storms and plagues, confronts virtù, the power of mind to outwit the entropic, leveling tendencies of physical forces. The essence of virtù is to be clever and strong, and it is ethically neutral. A statesman must combine the qualities of lion and fox: the lion for brute force and the fox for guile, slyness, and double-dealing in the art of evading traps. A Prince must be "a great feigner and fraud." Neither Fortuna nor virtù is on the side of the angels. Opportunism rules, in Machiavelli as in Darwin, because all is unstable and impermanent. The state is not the handiwork of God and cannot be understood in terms of goals and ultimate reasons. Even the best constructed society, even Rome, could not escape decline and death. Likewise, species that once lorded it over the earth became extinct. Fortuna extinguished them.

    Machiavelli and Darwin had this in common: they both distrusted unworldly attitudes, all a priori principles aloof from actual observation. Machiavelli saw history as "an endless process of cut-throat competition" in which the only imperative is to succeed. Mankind does not possess an instinct for truth. Truth is what works in practice, verita effettuale, and Machiavelli blamed well-intentioned statesmen such as Savonarola for causing misery to his compatriots by trying to replace a successful falsehood with an ineffectual truth. Machiavelli talks about the "truth" of Christianity, but sees it as debilitating to the health and strength of the world. There is a truth that is "truer than every other truth," and that is worldly honor: men must be strong, armed and ready to defend their state. Error arises from weakness. The inference is that if Christianity has weakened humanity, it cannot be perfectly true.

    Like Machiavelli, Darwin is a pivotal figure in the treatment of falsehood as an aspect of the world to be taken seriously. The focus of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, of which Darwin was in many respects an inheritor, had been on truth and reason, the two being virtually interchangeable, and on Nature as a source of truth. Reason had a natural affinity with veracity, with clarity, with the transparency of a mind lacking murky depths and obscure nether regions. Darwin recognized that there is an immense difference between evolution and decency—and he was an eminently decent person. He did not believe that human beings have an instinct to be truthful, any more than they have an inborn belief in God. "Many instances," he writes, "could be given of the noble fidelity of savages towards each other, but not to strangers; common experience justifies the maxim of the Spaniard, 'Never, never trust an Indian.'" The love of truth, he noted, is not uniform across humanity. Certain "savage tribes" adhere to it more than do others, and it has rarely been thought a sin to lie to strangers. In a corrosive aside, reminiscent of Machiavelli's comments on the ruthless and suspicious character of the diplomacy of his times, Darwin notes the useful role played by lying, adding: "as the history of modern diplomacy too plainly shows."

    In his writings, reason seems to merge with instinct, the engine of evolution. Darwin spent considerably more ink on instinct than on reason, and wrote expansively on the connection between instinct and truth. Both he and the eighteenth-century proto-Darwinist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck thought the existence of instincts made a theory of the origin of species more difficult to defend, since they seem to entail an intelligence in nature that plans ahead, that calculates. Yet it is the very essence of an instinct that a creature follows it regardless of reason. Lamarck's answer was that habits acquired in the lifetime of individuals become heritable in the form of an innate disposition. That was so commonsensical it was bound to be wrong. Lamarck made a point of saying that instinct, unlike intelligence, cannot deceive and is adapted directly to a goal. He made a clean separation between instinct, as inherently aboveboard and honest in its operations, not a liar or a cheat, and intelligence, reason, which is capable of all kinds of sham and artifice.

    In the 1830s, Darwin was a Lamarckian. He suggested that accidental alterations in the environment could produce new habits in animals, reorganizing their biological structure, and that the modifications were inherited by the next generations. In time, such structural innovations would result in a new species. As Darwin's thinking progressed, he came to regard instincts, not as paragons of nondeceitfulness, as Lamarck had believed, nor as instruments of truth in the sense that they enabled animals to harmonize perfectly with their surroundings, but more as analogues to parts of anatomy, which evolve to fit the organism to its habitat. When he came to write the Origin, he had given up the idea that species are completely adapted, with a sort of engineering precision. In that respect he had become a relativist. The fit between an individual and its milieu does not have to be exact for the creature to flourish. It only needs to be better adapted than its competitors. Natural selection was not a preserver of the status quo, a cybernetic force pushing and pulling species to keep them constant and stable, but a vehicle of novelty, sometimes producing life forms of startling, even bizarre originality.

    Abandoning his belief in a perfect match between biology and environment, Darwin grew increasingly intrigued by misfits, oddities, deviations, and incongruities. Where Lamarck had made much of the reasonableness and truthfulness of nature, Darwin savoured its eccentricities and quirks, even occasionally its silliness. He looked for the marginal, the out-of-kilter, to bolster his argument for natural selection.

    William Paley, the leading natural theologian of the day, conceded that some of the mechanisms of adaptation were extraordinarily ungainly and needlessly cumbersome. Why, for instance, is the eye such an intricate, rigged-up contrivance? Surely an all-powerful, all-wise God could have given his creatures the gift of sight at one stroke, by divine command. The explanation, said Paley, must be that intricacy in anatomy is a deliberate ruse on the part of the Creator to set up an analogy between reason in the workings of biology and reason in the thought processes of the human mind. We find nature intelligible because it is designed in ways that mimic our own clever machines.


Excerpted from The Liar's Tale by Jeremy Campbell. Copyright © 2001 by Jeremy Campbell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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