Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Plants May Not Malinger, But They Do Prevaricate

David Livingstone Smith, Natural-Born Liars, Scientific American (online) (June 2005)
If [the] bald truth [that human beings systematically lie, that lying gives liars advantages, that "our primary aim is still to look out for ourselves above all," and that "lying to ourselves--a talent built into our brains--helps us accept our fraudulent behavior"] makes any one of us feel uncomfortable, we can take some solace in knowing we are not the only species to exploit the lie. Plants and animals communicate with one another by sounds, ritualistic displays, colors, airborne chemicals and other methods, and biologists once naively assumed that the sole function of these communication systems was to transmit accurate information. But the more we have learned, the more obvious it has become that nonhuman species put a lot of effort into sending inaccurate messages. 
The mirror orchid, for example, displays beautiful blue blossoms that are dead ringers for female wasps. The flower also manufactures a chemical cocktail that simulates the pheromones released by females to attract mates. These visual and olfactory cues keep hapless male wasps on the flower long enough to ensure that a hefty load of pollen is clinging to their bodies by the time they fly off to try their luck with another orchid in disguise. Of course, the orchid does not "intend" to deceive the wasp. Its fakery is built into its physical design, because over the course of history plants that had this capability were more readily able to pass on their genes than those that did not. ...

This account of the pervasiveness of lying -- or, in any event, of deception -- in the organic order is strong enough to warm the cockles of the hearts (and fan the anxieties) of people who believe in Original Sin. Indeed, this scientific account goes beyond the Bible -- since this account sees darkness (in the form of deception) in the very fiber (so to speak) of plant life as well as in the hearts (or in the genes, in any event) of human beings and non-human animals.

  • But my dog really loves me! She can't just be pretending, can she? Say it isn't so, Sam [or Jane]!)

  • N.B. In reality I do not own a dog. I have learned my lesson. (But is it better to have lied and lost than never to have lied at all? This is a deep philosophical and moral question that I will address on some other occasion.)
  • By the way [BTW], what is a "cockle"? Do hearts really have cockles? Does anyone know?
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