The Sting: Social Biomimicry and The Role of Fraud in Nature

Nature is sending us extravagant distress signals these days. We'd better get really good really fast at reading her mind. The stakes are too high to keep drinking the collective Kool-Aid.
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Biomimicry, the design science of "innovation inspired by nature," is unearthing untold treasures from nature's playbook that we can mimic for our technological and industrial recipe book. But naturally, as human beings we're meaning-making creatures who are suckers for a good story or metaphor. It's seductive to search the biomimicry database for lessons we can apply to human social relations. Some call it "social biomimicry."

After all, who can resist the metaphor of geese that fly in a V formation and rotate the lead goose to lighten the load of bucking the most severe wind resistance?

Or the Seven Sisters oak trees in Louisiana that can withstand fierce hurricanes because their roots grow together to make an entire community of resilience.

These natural-world metaphors are "megaphors" -- ecological parables for how we might better organize ourselves as societies and with each other.

The problem is, every species is unique and uniquely fitted to its context, place and time. People are not geese or oak trees. And frankly, even as seriously weird species go, human beings are -- well... special.

Yet we are amazing mimics, and surely we can learn a riff or two from the symphony of life. But looking around at the wretched state of the world, you have to wonder: Is there some deeper form of social biomimicry already in play that we're not seeing? Indeed, it's cannily hiding in plain sight. You might call it the role of fraud in nature.

Nature wrote the playbook on deceit. From viruses to Wall Street, nature is a hall of mirrors of lying, cheating, and camouflaging. After all, if force doesn't work, trickery can do the trick. Shady practices can give any organism a winning edge in the ruthless struggle for survival and reproduction that powers evolution and adaptation.

As David Livingstone Smith observed in his book Why We Lie, "Lying is a natural phenomenon. The biosphere teems with mendacity. Deception is widespread among nonhuman species, perfectly normal and expectable." Human beings, says Smith, evolved to be "natural born liars."

Among our closest cousins the monkeys and apes, deceit is pervasive. Their brains grew in direct correlation with the size of their groups. Smith suggests "double dealing and suspicion might have been the driving forces behind the explosion of brainpower." In turn, the prized neocortex of the Homo sapiens brain -- our much vaunted thinking capability -- also grew in direct correlation with the size and social complexity of our groups. Then came language.

Nonhuman primates use extensive grooming rituals to establish stable social bonds, cliques and power structures. With Homo sapiens, language replaced public grooming with private gossip. As Merlin Donald suggests, we may have developed language because we "needed to gossip, forge alliances, win friends and neutralize enemies." We spend 80-90 percent of our conversations talking about other people, two thirds of that about our immediate social networks. The war of words exponentially escalated the arsenal of deceit, espionage and manipulation. Evolution has favored these traits.

As Smith observes, "From the fairy tales our parents told us to the propaganda our governments feed us, human beings spend their lives surrounded by pretense... The founding myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the story of Adam and Eve, revolves around a lie... Eve told God, 'The serpent deceived me and I ate.'"

From faked orgasms to infidelity, breast enhancements to financial fraud, the white lies of social graces to political spin, Homo sapiens -- Wise Man -- might more accurately be dubbed Wise Guy in a Tony Soprano kind of way. After all, humans are a predatory species, and our main prey is our own kind -- for the usual suspects of sex, food, survival or status.

Mimicry is one of the best tricks in the book, and perhaps we're hard-wired to mimic nature's bag of tricks without even knowing it. So let's go back to nature for some master classes on the sting.

If you want to observe one classic sting in nature, check out bee orchids. To attract male wasps to pollinate them, the orchids not only look like an insect Marilyn Monroe, they exude a fragrance even more bewitching than the real sexual attractant of the females they're mimicking. The male wasps, which mature a month before the females, lurch from orchid to orchid, looking for love in all the wrong places. Meanwhile they spread the wily orchids' pollen in fruitless grand rounds of "pseudocopulation" that don't get no satisfaction, at least not for them.

That pseudocopulation brings to mind those supposedly triple A-rated bundled mortgage CDOs packaged by Wall Street to look like the sexiest investment on the Street. Then they turned out to be pseudo-investments that spread the nectar of wealth only among the rarefied orchids of high finance.

Back a little closer to home with our nearest primate cousins, Smith observes, "Nonhuman species have their own version of fire and brimstone preaching." Called "ritualized signals of displays," we seem to be aping our ape kin to manipulate others. We use the same techniques of "redundancy, rhythmic repetition, bright packaging and supernormal stimuli" -- rerunning a relentless sensory overload of brassy ads for cars, toothpaste, and political candidates.

Take bright packaging. Recent research has identified conspicuousness as a key strategic defense against predators. It's called "signal extravagance." Flashy conspicuous prey are flaunting the fact they've survived encounters with predators, who therefore tend to avoid them. A bright butterfly that's toxic or distasteful to birds soon generates imposters among its kind who imitate its colors and patterns in a kind of visual identity theft. Perhaps it brings to mind toxic Lehman Brothers and AIG, and the opportunistic mimics from Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase and phenotypical bank fraudsters who assumed the poisonous colors of the too-big-to-fail defense.

Another popular form of mimicry in plants and animals is crypsis, the art of concealment. Keeping a low profile also has potent advantages. Many plants and creatures have evolved to blend in with their surroundings, mimicking a stone, piece of coral, branch, or bird droppings.

Perhaps it brings to mind the American Legislative Exchange Council, aka ALEC. Or perhaps it does not -- because the ploy was to keep ALEC invisible.

Funded by big corporations and the oil and chemical-dependent Koch brothers, this secretive shadow government of sorts brings together corporate chieftains and legislators to manufacture bills to rewrite state laws. ALEC bills undermine worker and consumer rights, roll back environmental regulations, privatize education, and deregulate major industries. This clandestine public-private partnership has helped pass stealth legislation across the country, including nearly identical resolutions now legislated in a dozen states to force the EPA to stop regulating carbon emissions.

Then again, going back to nature, you can also trick the tricksters, as does the highly intelligent octopus Thaumoctopus Mimicus. T. Mimicus is able to shape-shift and shade-shift into a Gaga wardrobe of disguises. It can disappear itself into the exact pattern and coloration of its surroundings. It can scare off predators by taking on the appearance of the highly toxic lionfish. If attacked by a damselfish, it morphs one of its arms into the visage of the fearsome sea snake that eats damselfish.

Which may bring to mind the Yes Men, those notorious shape-shifters who assume the identity of corporate predators for fun and social profit. This past year they spawned the Yes Lab to go forth and multiply in the inexorable Darwinian tradition.

The Yes Lab sent out a faux press release announcing that General Electric would repay the $3.2 billion dollar tax credit it got last year despite its huge profits. When the Associated Press took the bait, the market immediately carved $3.5 billion off GE's stock price before the hoax was discovered.

Meanwhile in Canada, a Yes Lab team of students and Greenpeace activists launched a humbug campaign that made folks briefly believe the huge new Hobbit movie was saving money on sulfurous scenes of infernal Mordor by filming them in the oil-ravaged Tar Sands.

Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, lying is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, self-deception is especially valuable when lying to others because we convincingly believe our own hokum. We also lie to ourselves to diminish stress. Inevitably, we're the heroes of our own stories, and we're all above average. Research on depressives has found they may suffer from a deficit of self-deception.

On the downside of self-deception, take the Fukishima nuclear catastrophe.

The tightly coupled Japanese government and nuclear industry colluded for decades to spin the myth that nuclear energy is safe as milk. After Chernobyl, they ramped up lush public relations buildings and tourist attractions to promote its safety, especially to resistant young mothers and women of childbearing age. In the elaborately tricked-out Alice in Nuclear Wonderland theme park, the White Rabbit moans, "It's terrible, just terrible. We're running out of energy, Alice," whereupon a Dodo robot chimes in that nuclear is an "ace" form of energy that's safe and renewable. For a hundred thousand visitors each year, the Caterpillar has pacified Alice about radiation dangers. In the land that coined the term "tsunami," the word never came up in Nuclear Wonderland. Until of course it happened. Then a famous Japanese singer wrote the anthem that swept the country, called "It Was Always a Lie."

The conundrum is that the Japanese nuclear establishment ultimately deceived itself by fatally believing its own press releases. Nature does not gladly suffer fools, errors and mistakes. Self-deception may prove to be our evolutionary Achilles heel.

Yet some part of our brain seems designed to act as an unconscious mind reader, picking up reality-based signals even as we up the ante in the escalating Olympics of deceit and self-deception. Deep inside, we all possess a bullshit detector, and that may be what saves us.

Nature is sending us extravagant distress signals these days. We'd better get really good really fast at reading her mind. The stakes are too high to keep drinking the collective Kool-Aid.

You can't fool Mother Nature. Trust me. That ain't no lie.

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