Deception and Greed

A century or so ago, and certainly earlier, the general consensus, both among the public and the scientific community was that homo sapiens was the only tool-using creature, and certainly the only one who had self-consciousness. But recent studies of various primates, Caledonian jays, and other species have proved that mankind is not the only tool-user, merely the most advanced of tool-users. More recent studies also suggest that some primates and jays, and possibly even elephants, have at least a form of self-consciousness.

What led to this conclusion? Experiments in the use of deception and self-imagery. In essence, certain species hide food and deceive others as to where they’re hiding the food. The way in which they used deception, and the varying levels of deception, depending on the closeness and relationship of those nearby, suggests that they are aware of themselves as individuals, and are also aware of others as individuals.

What I find intriguing about these studies is that there appears to be a link between intelligence and greed and deception. Now… a wide range of species accumulate food and other items, but only a handful exhibit what might be called “greed.” Greed can be defined as the drive to acquire and maintain possession of more physical goods or other assets than the individual or his family/clan could possibly ever physically utilize, often to the detriment of others.

One thing that’s interesting about human beings is that we also possess the greatest degree of concentrated greed and deception of any species. No other species comes close. This raises an intriguing question: To what degree is intelligence linked to greed and deception?

Are greed and deception by-products of intelligence, or are they the driving force to develop intelligence?

While the evolutionary/historical record suggests that species capable of greed and deception tend to be more successful in attaining control of their environment, what happens next? Intelligence develops tools, and individuals with greed and deception put those tools to use in varying ways to enhance their own power to the detriment of other members of the species. As the tools become more powerful, their use by those who possess them also tends to concentrate power and wealth, yet almost every successful society has also incorporated deception of some sort into its social framework.

Kurt Vonnegut made the observation in Slaughterhouse Five — through a Nazi character, of course — that the greatest deception perpetrated by the American system was that it was easy to make money. Because it was then thought to be so, income inequality was justified, because anyone who wanted to work hard could “obviously” become wealthy.

Historical institutional “deceptions” include the divine right of kings, the caste system of India, Aryan racial supremacy, the communist “equality of all” myth, and on and on.

But what does this bode in an increasingly technological information age, where hacking, phishing, and all other manner of informational deception has increased, involving not just the criminal element, but industry, politics, and entertainment on all levels? Does it mean that the survivors will have to be even more intelligent, or that social structures will come crashing down because no one can trust anyone about anything? Or will we manage to muddle through? Will survival of deception be the ultimate Darwinian test of the fittest? Maybe… there’s an idea for a book…