The role of the lie in the evolution of human language

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The literature on language evolution treats the fact that language allows for lying as a major obstacle to the emergence and development of language, and thus looks for theoretical means to constrain the lie. In this paper, I claim that this general formulation of the issue at hand misses out on the fact that lying made an enormous contribution to the evolution of language. Without the lie, language would not be as complex as it is, linguistic communication would be much simpler, the cognitive requirement of language would not be so heavy, and its role in society would be radically different. The argument is based on Dor's (2015) theory of language as a social communication technology, collectively-designed for the instruction of imagination. The theory re-thinks the essence of lying, and suggests that the emergence of language did more to enhance the human capacity for deception than it did to enhance the human capacity for honest communication. Lying, then, could not be constrained, but language did not collapse. The conception of lying as a threat to language, as it is formulated in the literature, is based on a series of unrealistic assumptions. Most importantly, the cognitive, emotional and social capacities required for lying, lie-detection and moral enforcement are never equally spread within communities: they are highly variable. Lying and language came to be entangled in a never-ending co-evolutionary spiral, which changed the map of communicative relationships within communities, and participated in shaping our languages, societies, cognitions and emotions. We evolved for lying, and because of lying, just as much as we evolved for and because of honest communication.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)44-59
Number of pages16
JournalLanguage Sciences
StatePublished - Sep 2017


  • Autism
  • Co-evolution
  • Co-operation
  • Communication
  • Deception
  • Human evolution
  • Imagination
  • Language
  • Language evolution
  • Lie-detection
  • Lying
  • Mimesis
  • The handicap principle
  • The social brain hypothesis
  • Variability


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