The Sting: The Role of Fraud in Nature

The following talk was delivered by Bioneers Co-Founder Kenny Ausubel at the 2021 Bioneers Conference.

The Sting

Biomimicry, the design science of “innovation inspired by nature,” is unearthing untold treasures from nature’s playbook that we can emulate for our technological and industrial operating instructions. But naturally, as human beings, we’re meaning-making creatures who are suckers for a good story or metaphor.

Kenny Ausubel

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 underground community of resilience.

These natural-world metaphors are “megaphors”—archetypal 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 dreadful 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 slyly hiding in plain sight. You might call it the role of fraud in nature.

Nature wrote the playbook on deceit. From horny toads 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 that “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. The rest is hearsay.

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 the psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald suggests, we may have developed language because we “needed to gossip, forge alliances, win friends and neutralize enemies.” We spend 80 to 90 percent of our conversations talking about other people. Two-thirds of that is 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 laugh tracks, from bots to financial fraud, from 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.

And of course here in the US, we are legend as a nation of hustlers. So says historian Walter A. McDougall, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Freedom Just Around the Corner. Of course, he says, being hustlers has a positive side—a nation of “builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organizers, engineers and a people supremely generous.”

But, McDougall points out, “Americans have enjoyed more opportunity to pursue their ambitions, by foul means or fair, than any other people in history. No wonder American English is uniquely endowed with words connoting a swindle.”

Here’s just a sample of some of the verbs he lists, starting with the Bs and Cs: “Bait, bamboozle, bilk, bite, blackmail, bleed, blindside, bluff, buffalo, burn…  caboodle, cheat, chisel, clip, con, connive, conspire . . . ”

Now, the list goes on—and on—but it looks to me as if he missed one of the supreme swindling Cs: corporation. Because, if you’re looking to defraud, delude, double-cross, dupe, embezzle, fleece, gouge, hoodwink, hornswoggle, mislead, mug, rig, rip off, sandbag, scam, screw, shaft, shortchange, snooker, or just plain sucker the public in the Grand American Tradition, you’ve got to have a corporation.

Mimicry is one of the best tricks in the book, and perhaps we’re hardwired 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 impersonate an insect sex goddess, 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 aptly called “pseudocopulation” that don’t get no satisfaction, at least not for them.

That pseudocopulation brings to mind the CARES Act. Designed to look like one of the sexiest government programs ever conceived, the $2.3 trillion legislation was actually packaged by the financial masters of the universe to spread the nectar of wealth mightily among the rarefied orchids of high finance. Led by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, aka the King of Foreclosures, the Act leveraged $454 billion dollars in free business-rescue cash by ten-fold through the Federal Reserve.

While the average American got a stingy $1,200 handout, the Fed appointed BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and “shadow bank,” to dole out somewhere between $4 to $6 trillion to bail out really Big Business from a foul portfolio of toxic assets, including Blackrock’s own. Meanwhile they ferociously capitalized on a fire sale of distressed Main Street businesses left to twist in the wind.

As Matt Taibbi put it, “The financial economy is a fantasy casino where the winnings are real, but free chips cover the losses. For a rarified segment of society, failure is being written out of the capitalist bargain.” Pseudocopulation indeed.

Back a little closer to home with our nearest primate cousins, David Livingstone Smith observes this: “Nonhuman species have their own version of fire and brimstone preaching.” Using these “ritualized signals of displays,” we seem to be aping our ape kin to manipulate others.

We deploy the same techniques of “redundancy, rhythmic repetition, bright packaging and supernormal stimuli”—running a relentless sensory overload loop of brassy ads for cars, phones, political candidates, and ideologies.

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. They imitate its colors and patterns in a kind of visual identity theft.

Signal extravagance brings to mind Agent Orange, aka Trump L’Oeil. He has flaunted his technicolor toxicity to deter countless lawsuits against his chem trail of criminality. His conspicuous political extravagance has attracted a coterie of troll models. Republican imposters and Foxy media hacks have adopted the predator-proof poisonous colors of the too-mean-to-fail defense.

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

Crypsis is the name of the game for Dark Money gone gonzo. As much as $36 trillion dollars of dark money is stashed in offshore black holes. Corporations use them to dodge an estimated $245 billion to $600 billion a year in taxes. The kleptocrat laundromat casts a cloak of invisibility around buried treasures that now exceed 10% of global GDP.

An estimated $1 trillion dollars a year exits the world’s developing countries in laundered money and tax avoidance. Untraceable shell companies are behind the majority of clandestine investment linked to Amazon deforestation, illegal fishing, and other high crimes against nature and humanity.

As the Pandora Papers revealed, the new American industry of impenetrable trusts rivals even the opacity of offshore shell companies. Alaska, Delaware, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Dakota are the new Cayman Islands Family Tax Vacation. There the trusts conceal and protect assets from creditors, taxing authorities and foreign governments. Best of all, the trusts can be passed down from generation to generation as a dynasty trust – a kind of a plutocratic seventh generation fund. It adds a whole new meaning to “Trust me.”

But of course, 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 Lady 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 brings to mind that ultimate shape-shifter and master of disguise. Like T. Mimicus, Big Tech has customized deceit. Their manipulation machines personalize information microtargeted just for you.

Perhaps it’s Amazon’s God’s-eye view of the economy that alters prices based on your purchase history by predicting the maximum you’re likely to pay.

Or perhaps, as Shoshana Zuboff puts it, “We thought we search Google, but it searches us.” Google has designed its business on predictive data extraction that it uses to glean and sway our thoughts, feelings and desires. As one data scientist put it, we write the music and people dance to it.

Or perhaps it’s Facebook’s algorithmic muscularity that prioritizes divisive, polarizing and hateful content to entrain our attention. It works especially well for demagogues, while marginalizing the voices of the marginalized.

As Barry Lynn puts it, “The problem with personalized discrimination is that, even as it empowers the masters of these corporations to atomize prices, it atomizes society at the same time.”

These wealthiest corporations in the history of the world are the overlords of surveillance capitalism. Their success, says Zuboff, “depends on one-way mirror operations engineered for our ignorance, and wrapped in a fog of misdirection, euphemism and mendacity. They exploit the widening inequity of knowledge for the sake of profits. They manipulate the economy, our society, and even our lives with impunity, endangering not only individual privacy, but democracy itself. We may have democracy, or we may have surveillance society, but we may not have both.”

As Jason Stanley, author of “How Fascism Works,” warns: “When you take away truth, and you can’t speak truth to power, all that remains is power.”

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 of course we all know that every one of us is above average. Then again, research on depressives has found they may suffer from a deficit of self-deception.

On the downside of self-deception, Big Oil is the slipperiest. Feigning ignorance may be the worst scam of all – gee, who knew?!

An internal 1988 memo from Royal Dutch Shell projected that climate impacts from burning fossil fuels could include “significant changes in sea level, ocean currents, precipitation patterns, regional temperature and weather.” The changes would impact “the human environment, future living standards and food supplies, and could have major social, economic and political consequences.”

Shell concluded this: “By the time the global warming becomes detectable, it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation.”

While raising the height of its offshore platforms against rising seas and bigger storms, Shell then joined with other fossil fuel companies who also knew. They formed the Global Climate Coalition, which powered up the most catastrophically successful disinformation campaign in history.

Today, the energy sector is ranked dead last among major sectors in the US economy. It knows it’s an industry with a vanishing future. As a result, fossil fuel propaganda pivoted from denial to delay. Hey, let’s talk 2050.

Its advertising is misdirecting us with five messages: Redirect responsibility – it’s consumers’ fault. Push non-transformative solutions. Emphasize the downside of action as too disruptive. And just plain surrender and adapt – it can’t be done quickly.

Oh, and by the way, it will adversely affect marginalized communities. Greenwashing has a new friend called “wokewashing.”

The conundrum is that nature does not gladly suffer fools, errors and delusions. 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. We pick up reality-based signals even as we up the ante in the Olympics of deceit and self-deception.

Deep inside, we all possess a bullshit detector. That may be what saves us.

Nature is sending us extravagant distress signals. Earth is a hot mess. From Covid to climate catastrophe to fascism, the perils of disinformation are a matter of life and death.

As Kim Stanley Robinson writes, “Pursuing profit as the ultimate goal of all our activities will lead to a mass-extinction event. We are operating a multi-generational Ponzi scheme.”

We’d better get really good, really fast at reading Nature’s mind. The stakes are too high to keep drinking the collective Kool-Aid.

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

This piece was adapted from a 2011 Huffington Post article by Kenny Ausubel.

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