WHY WE LIE by David Livingstone Smith


The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind
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A leap beyond mainstream science proposes how the unconscious mind could drive our everyday mastery of the art of deceit, both of others and ourselves.

Smith (Dir., Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology & Professor of Philosophy/Univ. of New England) is candid about speculative assumptions—primarily his—that adorn an array of studies and conclusions, nicely interpreted for lay readers, from eminent and respected scientists pointing toward the premise: not only are we all born liars but we wouldn’t have prospered as a species otherwise. First of all, there’s nothing controversial about the application of elemental deceit, as a succeeding evolutionary principle, in nature. A plant, for instance, develops parts or patterns that provide a false sexual lure for pollinating insects; it thrives while others die out. It’s not too terrifying a leap from there to the idea that primates (easily demonstrable) and their heirs, human beings, are steeped in myriad deceptive tricks of survival, including efficient predation. Where it begins to get Freudian-creepy is in Smith’s skillfully buttressed assertion that, in order to lie skillfully, to be macho and Machiavellian enough to get along under the moral codes that provide the fabric of society, we need to tell the biggest lie—that we’re not really lying—to ourselves. And things really go topsy-turvy when the author reports that “research suggests that ‘normality’ . . . may rest on a foundation of self-deception.” Nut cases, in other words, are actually suffering from a lack of delusions. Smith finally asks us to go the final mile and accept the possibility that we have long since buried in our subconscious minds the facility to arbitrate and comfortably fabricate—while cleverly plumbing the mendacious intentions of others—our everyday dialogues as a kind of “poetry” of untruth.

Deliciously tantalizing, with morality as the Grandest Deceit of them all.

Pub Date: July 7th, 2004
ISBN: 0-312-31039-0
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2004


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