Science be praised, please cure me of my Yoda Complex

By EcoEvo@TCD • Research • 22 May 2013
My former PhD student, Luke McNally and I authored a paper published recently showing how “Cooperation creates selection for tactical deception”. Using a combination of mathematical models and analysis of empirical data from 24 primate species, we show that acts of deception are more likely to occur when the individuals in the group show greater cooperation. In other words, deception and cooperation go hand-in-hand. Perhaps not a surprising result, as Rob Brooks recently pointed out in a very accurate and nice blog post on our paper, but the evolutionary forces that might maintain deception in society have not been previously described.

We have enjoyed some media coverage with this paper, including some international science slots, a bit of national radio and Rob’s blog post. I take some mixed pleasure in the fact that a creationist website picked up on both our paper and Rob’s post. Its something of a tongue-in-cheek achievement to have caught their eye given my total opposition to creationism in all its forms. I’m also quite proud to have earned a “Darwin baloney” award (which I might add to my website as a badge of honour assuming I’m not infringing copyright). Im also intrigued to have the mental disorder “Yoda Complex” bestowed upon me by this group, even if it is not the Urban Dictionary definition but rather their own invention because “because we thought of it independently” (Editor’s comment in So happy with this flattery than I now tweet under @yodacomplex.

Ordinarily I would steer clear of getting sucked into arguing with such groups, but their article just annoys me. I’m even more annoyed that I can’t reply to their post on their site without signing into their site, and registering with them is a bridge too far. Equally frustrating is their anonymity which makes directing my counter-arguments somewhat indirect.

The consequence of their argument is that “if lying evolved… how are readers to know who is telling the truth?”  which leads them to the title “evolutionists confess to lying”  (

The basis of their argument goes:

“Imagine a liar so skilled, he convinces his listeners that he is 100% against the worst dishonesties in politics, public relations and propaganda.  He tells you he wants to achieve enormous social good to provide a better understanding of how lying evolves.  Now, add to it that he is self-deceived.  Doesn’t his credibility implode?  How could one possibly believe a word he says?”

How can one believe what a person says? This is exactly why we have science. Our results are open for all to examine and check. The results might be incorrect (but we are confident in our analyses), but until someone shows us exactly where we have gone wrong, then we can take them as being a true and fair reflection of our study system. Our mathematical model shows under what circumstances deception (lying) can be sustained in an evolutionary sense in any society subject to a cooperative based reward system (in this case a system governed by the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma). The prediction from the model is that mechanisms that might enforce cooperation (such as only cooperating with other co-operators and spurning those who cheat) create a niche where lying can profit and proliferate. Our analysis of data from 24 primate species backs up our theoretical model, showing that the more likely a species is to engage in cooperative acts, the more likely deception is to occur in their society.

The creationist author goes on to make a major error in interpreting the whole basis of the study of the evolution of social behaviour.

“In the evolutionary world, there is no essential difference between cooperation and deception.  It’s only a matter of which side is in the majority at the moment.”

This is just plain incorrect, and is the entire basis for their spurious argument. In the study of social behaviour (irrespective of evolution) there is indeed a fundamental difference between cooperation and deception (although I think they really mean defection here, with deception being a means to hide ones defection in the wording of the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma). In the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, and related games like the Snowdrift Game, cooperation is the act of assisting another individual so as to share a reward. Defection on the other hand is the act of cheating on the other person in the game so as to walk away with the entire reward for themselves. It is absolutely not a “majority” based definition. Deceivers in our model try to trick co-operators so as to walk away with their share too by convincing them that they intend to cooperate. The kool-aid scenario that follows in that blog post is just not relevant since it invokes a semantic argument about how the players choose to define cooperation and defection that is simply not present in these evolutionary models of social behaviour. All the author has done is to flip the labels of co-operators and defectors. The outcome of their scenario would be that the poisoners (who are actually the defectors as per any sensible definition of their behaviour in cooperative game) would kill all the co-operators leaving only themselves. Indeed, this matches the fundamental prediction of the evolutionary models which offer “defect all the time” as a consistent stable end-game scenario. It is the goal of most evolutionary studies of social behaviour to learn what mechanisms exist in societies that mean we don’t get stuck here, since it is clear that many primates, including humans, have a much more cooperative society than that depressing outlook.

“Since all these evolutionists believe that lying evolved as a fitness strategy, and since they are unable to distinguish between truth and lies, they essentially confess to lying themselves.  Their readers are therefore justified in considering them deceivers, and dismissing everything they say, including the notion that lying evolved.”

This is the rather annoying consequence of their incorrect logical arguments. We can and do distinguish very clearly in our models and reasoning between truth and lies – at least in these models we do. Also, just because we point out that lying can have an evolutionary selective advantage (which is hardly surprising), surely doesn’t make us liars? I can’t see what the mechanism there could possibly be.

Just to end, I have to say that it is really difficult not to ridicule this type of article. The reasoning is just so off-the-wall, based on a manipulation of what science is all about, and with a really nefarious motivation running through it of debunking science for the true believers. I did laugh, I did sneer, (and I did take @yodacomplex as a twitter account, and I love it); but, I have tried here to avoid sneering since they use that against us (see the comments under their article). In fairness though, giving us a “Darwin Baloney” logo, and administering a mental health disorder on us (even if they made it up themselves) is pretty much name calling and sneering in my book – even if I am rather flattered to have acquired their attention.


Andrew Jackson @yodacomplex

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2 Responses

  1. Andrew Jackson

    So… predictable as always, the mysterious anonymous Editor of the creationist website has responded with the deftness of a politician in evading the argument.

    I am only keeping this ruse going as its something of a cathartic exercise for me, but also to draw attention to the impossibility of holding a sensible argument, or even hold a train of thought for any length of time, with groups like this. Of course, they say the same about us, but hey… in the end you just have to pick a side.

    They conclude with : “We hope Brooks, Jackson, or McNally will provide a response, but our experience with evolutionists when confronted with this argument is that they give the silent treatment or run off with a string of ad hominems. Let’s see if one of these can do better.”

    I would reply to their argument, but I cant for the life of me see what it is. Yes, I am a materialist (or a physicalist as you like but I fail to see how that means that I have “no grounds to assume that evolution would produce logic or truth”. Whats the mechanism or process that leads to this conclusion? The “state of the world” or truth if you like, is independent of the existence of any living organism, so I cant see how accepting evolution (or religious beliefs) somehow taints that.

    “For all we know, therefore, he is lying to us–even about his model and the evidence for it. ”

    I guess i could be lying about my model, but its all open for them to check the maths, check the data we collected, and check the statistical analyses we applied. That is where science wins every time over un-testable and indefensible opinion-based arguments such as those made from a religious perspective.

    They still havent actually read our paper. They still havent challenged any single assumption, equation, analysis, finding, interpretation. The maths is right, the model stands, cooperation can beat defection, and deception can invade a society of cooperators. Whats the big deal?

    Why do they think some humans cooperate, some cheat, and some lie? Im not even sure i want an answer to this….

    But, against my better judgment, I’ve gone and been sucked into side-line arguments again. Duck and swerve, and throw another tangential argument my way, and then eventually when i get tired of it, i will get accused of giving them the silent treatment. Im already pretty bored at this stage.

  2. EcoEvo@TCD

    The editor of Creation Evolution Headlines has responded to the article over at that website. I reproduce his comment in full here:

    “In his blog post, Andrew L. Jackson (a.k.a. EcoEvo) made a better attempt than Brooks did at answering our claim that his thesis is self-refuting. He even took on @YodaComplex as his new Twitter name, wearing that mantle proudly as a kind of “sticks and stones” response. We are also glad he noted the difference in our definition from the one in the Urban Dictionary. The problem, though, is that he still does not see the point of the Yoda Complex label. He is happily engaging in logic, and speaking of truth, as if those concepts have any evolutionary meaning.

    Let us clarify it again: if Jackson is a materialist, and believes that all human behavior arrived by unguided processes of natural selection, he has no grounds to assume that evolution would produce logic or truth. If logic and truth are not tied to absolutes, they could evolve into their opposites by the same unguided processes that supposedly produced them. It is self-refuting, therefore, for Jackson to make arguments based on logic, and to appeal to “science” or “evidence” or “truth” (undefined terms in the Darwin dictionary), and expect his disciples to believe him.

    He cannot assume the correspondence theory of truth for the same reason. For all we know, therefore, he is lying to us–even about his model and the evidence for it. He cannot step out of his evolved skin onto an exalted plane with Yoda and speak wisdom to the earthlings. He evolved, too! Evolution provides no grounds for trusting in, or believing in, anything he said. Therefore our conclusion stands.

    We are glad he got a chuckle out of this so far, we regret his feeling annoyed, and we do thank him (not Brooks) for trying to avoid ridicule and ad hominem. Perhaps he would like to step off his exalted plane and tell us how his reasoning evolved such that we should assume he is telling the truth and not lying. This has nothing to do with majorities in his models. It has everything to do with justification of one’s assumptions. Since he cannot assume science and logic are immune to evolution, his arguments are self-refuting, which is another way of saying they are deceptions. Another way of saying this is that he uses logic because in his heart he knows logic has an immaterial reference frame that doesn’t evolve, so he is being inconsistent. But the moment he tries to be consistent, he will defeat evolution, because he will be using logic again without justifying it.

    We hope Brooks, Jackson, or McNally will provide a response, but our experience with evolutionists when confronted with this argument is that they give the silent treatment or run off with a string of ad hominems. Let’s see if one of these can do better.”

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