More than the Moral Rationale for Honesty (and Vampire Bats) by John Gifford, Assistant Head of School; Head of Middle School
Evolutionary biology is fascinating. I know that researchers can attribute the inheritance of behaviors in a way that is probably over the top, but there are times when it makes intuitive sense to me. There is something nice about knowing that I get my hearty head of hair from my father and my attached earlobes from my mother. Those are the traits that are easy to see, but there are other better-veiled traits that humans have inherited – not only from their parents, but also from ancestors far further up the evolutionary path.
Some scientists believe that we have evolved into liars.
In the survival game, “fight or flight” is one of the most basic strategies. Our genes kick in when we are confronted with danger, and we quickly decide whether to attack or to get away. That makes sense when you come across a bear in the woods, but the same instinct kicks in when we do something wrong – even when it is an honest mistake. A middle school student, for example, throws a lacrosse ball in the Forum and it breaks a window. Their first instinct? Nine out of 10 times they will scan the room to see who witnessed the accident and then put as much distance between themselves and the scene of the crime as is possible. They’d run.
The instinct is not to get into trouble - by whatever means necessary. When you are anonymous – out in the “real” world, people quite literally run. Consider the despicable person who doesn’t leave a note when they dent your car in the parking lot. They literally “run” in that case because they believe they can get away with it. The “flight” from the mistake is unlikely to be caught. But in a community, and certainly the Nobles community, it isn’t so easy. You are not anonymous. When you mess up on Monday, you still have to come to school on Tuesday. Many of the mistakes that play out in a middle school are in plain sight of an adult. So what is the better strategy to “run away” from a mistake? You lie.
Cue the middle schoolers who are struggling with honesty: “This is great! It isn’t my fault, lying is an evolutionary adaptation. It is part of survival of the fittest!” But there is a big problem with that thinking. The evolutionary biology does make lying understandable, but it doesn’t make it acceptable. Even more important than that, it doesn’t make it a good strategy. Why? Because we have also evolved to rely on a far more important dependency on our community. Lying threatens our ability to get support from the people we desperately need. For community support to work, we need to establish interdependence and trust.
Let me tell you something about vampire bats. By our sensibilities, they are not the most beautiful creatures. We also might be a bit turned off by their culinary decisions; they eat the blood of sleeping warm-blooded animals. Tapirs are a popular choice. They make a small incision during the night and lap blood while it drip, drip, drips. The rainforest beast wakes up with a shaving knick and about a tablespoon less blood.
After the bat's meal, it goes back to the cave with its large community of other bats. This is why we care about them: When one bat has had a good night and has drunk its fill of blood and another bat has had a terrible night and returns to the cave with an empty stomach, the successful bat will often feed the unsuccessful bat. He’ll certainly do so if the hungry bat is a relative, but if all the siblings are fine, he’ll next feed a bat who fed him before. It’s payback! It is an acknowledgement that the only way for some species to survive is to work with each other, support each other and trust each other.
Rats, too, that have in the past been helped by other rats are more likely to support a rat-in-need. In communities of bees, ants and naked mole rats, good behaviors can be rewarded and bad behaviors are sometimes punished. These animals share a characteristic: true, the fact is that most people find them frightening or disgusting. But also (like humans!), they are communal animals. They survive because they live and work together. Their community provides them protection both from the elements and from predators. In the case of bees and ants, they have evolved into “super organisms” where the supply of food only comes through a selfless collaborative effort.
Humans, too, are communal animals. We have evolved that way and we wouldn’t survive without the involvement of many of our kin. As Hillary made famous: it takes a village.
At Nobles, the sustenance of choice is not honey or blood, it is knowledge. Learning facts and skills is why we are here. It is the food of the mind and, like the vampire bat, we share it daily. While I am the first to admit that I learn a great deal from students, the primary flow of knowledge runs from the adults to the students. Here (finally) is where I circle back to the evolutionary rationale to be honest.
People consciously and subconsciously want to support those in the community that they trust. The bat shares a meal only with the peer that she trusts. When members of this community lie, in small or significant ways, it can diminish the trust between individuals. Without trust, the optimal conditions for a willing exchange could be hindered.
That said; please know that teachers understand that being honest is a learned behavior. It must be learned (rather than being a human’s “default”) because of the times in our evolutionary past when “flight” was the best survival strategy. We are unfailingly forgiving and assume the best in all students. Teachers never write off a student who struggles to react appropriately when confronted. It is dealt with as an invaluable teachable moment.
I told the story of the vampire bat to the middle school last week. My goal was to gain their attention about a tired topic. They have been told many times about the ethical and moral implications of dishonesty, but never before did it include naked mole rats.That said, I think I saw only marginal success. While they certainly listened, the message that many took was that vampire bats drink a tablespoon of blood at one sitting.
Use my talk, and perhaps this piece, as a springboard for a conversation about honesty at home with your family. We’ll continue to talk about it at school but as the example of bees, rats and bats suggest, making progress can take a full community effort.