Deception with Martin Stevens

4 min. read (or watch the video)

What is deception? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the act of hiding the truth, especially to get an advantage.” Okay, so, I like to drink beer that comes in cans with good looking labels. Yes, I like good beer, and sometimes such beer comes with poorly designed labels — or with none at all. But if the beer I got was bad, then at least the label may have been good! You may say, “Alex, you’re being fooled by the label.” You may also argue, I am knowingly being deceived, yet I am enjoying the deception. “What is wrong with you, Alex?”

Actually… people love the feeling of attraction, even if they know the promise can’t hold. Embracing a deceptive display for the joy of the act is not really new. In a way, anthropologist Rane Willerslev describes this in the context of Iukaghir hunting in Siberia. “Hunters say that the animal may be so pleased by what it sees [— that is, by the beautiful regalia of the hunter] that it ‘gives itself up’ […] to them” (Willerslev 2004:645). The animal doesn’t give itself up out of the goodness of its heart, but as a result of seduction. The hunter who dresses up in the ideal form of the prey animal becomes an object of desire to the prey. In spite of wanting to live, the prey throws itself at the hunter. And I would argue that it does so with pleasure.

But I want to touch on Martin Steven’s “Cheats and Deceits.” Stevens is associate professor of Sensory and Evolutionary Ecology at the University of Exeter — one of the nicest campuses I have been to. The whole university is enveloped in a botanical garden. Stevens provides detailed accounts of how animals and plants “create false, exaggerated, or misleading information” (2016:3) as a way of profiting from others. He sees nature as a non-harmonious place, where “selfishness and exploitation rule the day” (ibid.). Not sure I fully agree with such a pessimistic take on life. So often life taken is also life given.

But his examples are highly informative for anyone interested in how holders of different perspectives derive their own meanings from shared encounters, even if one party may seem to draw the shorter straw (whether they really do, may also be a matter of perspective). In the end, it seems to me, it’s about systems of classification. Living beings play at the intersection of these differing understandings of the world, spinning productive to them webs of meaning. Stevens, of course, weaves in the logic of evolution, which is a whole other fascinating story that I can’t touch on here.

I take Stevens’ (and his colleagues’) work as an inspiration to learn about how animals (including humans) make good use of situations in which more than one interpretation is possible — whether they are aware of it or not. Differences in perspective (so, not necessarily misunderstanding) can be essential in building life-giving networks. I largely agree with Stevens that we are dealing with a kind of deception here, but I also think we need to adjust our understandings of “deception” by examining the role of seduction in all communication.

Deception rings negative in our language. Maybe we should use it more creatively. There is a reason artists don’t like to explain their work. Take the ambiguity out of the painting, and it is no longer life-giving, or interesting, because it has been bereft of the many ways in which it could be understood! Or take music: a predictable melody will hardly hold your attention. On the other hand, a melody that leads us to think we know what comes next, but then changes unexpectedly, has the power to draw us in!

Sources cited:

Stevens, M., 2016. Cheats and deceits: how animals and plants exploit and mislead. Oxford University Press.

Willerslev, R., 2004. Not animal, not not‐animal: hunting, imitation and empathetic knowledge among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 10(3), pp.629-652.

By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.