09/12/2012 12:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Can Primates Teach Us How to Do Politics Right?

As crazy as politics seems to us these days, politics actually has its evolutionary roots in the primate use of "tactical deception."

Anthropologists have studied "tactical deception" in primates, which is just as it sounds: the use of deception to manipulate your fellows into giving you what you want. A 2004 study by Richard Byrne and Nadia Corp, psychologists at St. Andrews University in the UK, found that the sneakiest monkey and apes are those with the biggest brains, because it takes a lot of processing power to invent and carry out deceptions.

These sneaky primate behaviors were observed by scientists: To avoid a beating from the dominant silverback, a female gorilla hides in the bushes to mate with her boyfriend. As his mother is about to swat him, a juvenile baboon stands up and hoots, "Lion on the horizon!" fooling everyone, including mom. A lucky chimp spots a cluster of ripe fruit and covers his face to hide his delight; he'll come back later when no one is around so he won't have to share.

To a human primate, these are all familiar types of behaviors, but the human carries them much further. Humans are masters at deceiving ourselves as well as others. Here's an example from history: The feudal lord has taken half the peasant's grain, underpaid him for his wife's weaving, and raped his daughter. The peasant tells himself that all is well: The lord is protecting him from the bigger, meaner lord next door, and besides, the lord supports the church, and the church has told him that he will find his reward in heaven.

This mixture of justification (the mean guy protects me from the bigger, meaner guys next door) and self-deception (my reward will be found in heaven) enables the primary system of deception (taking your grain and raping your daughter are sanctioned by God). And thus it has been for much of human history. We call it politics.

But there are countervailing primate characteristics that turn the tables on the manipulators when conditions are right. One of these is a strong emotion of empathy for the downtrodden. There are many examples of apes and monkeys who extend a hand to help a fellow or comfort the loser of a fight, whether or not it is a close relative. Primates stand up for themselves, too. Primatologist Frans de Waal has studied "inequity aversion" among primates. In one study, capuchin monkeys received either a grape or a piece of cucumber for a simple task. Grapes were preferred, but if both monkeys got the cucumber instead of the grape, there was never a problem. If the monkeys were rewarded differently, though, the one who did not get a grape would shake the bars of its cage and pelt the researcher with rejected cucumber pieces.

In humanity's case, this primal moral sense of justice is confounded by the complex, ever-shifting web of deceit so expertly constructed by Machiavellian powermongers. As in the feudal system, it is the combination of the power structure's physical-force advantage and the individual's habit of self-preserving self-deception that binds the system of oppression in place. But no matter how papered over or concealed, humans never lose this moral sense completely, because it is genetically encoded. And when they have the opportunity -- when a physical advantage opens up, and when some new cultural innovation lifts the fog of deception -- humans rebel.

In this fashion humans have made history -- a spiraling arms race of deceptions, revelations, and the establishment of new orders with their own new tricks and traps. Myths and legends of every time and place both celebrate and revile the deceptive "trickster" personality. Joseph Campbell describes the trickster as "[a] fool, and a cruel and lecherous cheat, an epitome of the principle of disorder, he is nevertheless the culture-bringer also." It was the trickster who stole fire from the gods for the benefit of humanity and who invented agriculture, thus enabling the growth of civilization and its inequalities. It is the trickster also who leads rebellions against the established order. Barack Obama and Julian Assange both have aspects of the trickster figure -- the quintessential mixed bag of tricks.

According to legend, it was the trickster who initiated human culture. The story has a beginning, but does it have an end? The primary deception that keeps the powerful in place is the management of perceptions around rewards. In feudal times the rewards came after death, in heaven. Under capitalism, the trickle-down rewards are more immediate but less glorious. Walmart or Fifth Avenue, it's all just stuff that we are destroying the planet to manufacture. And as the developing world catches up in consumerism, the true price of stuff is felt more acutely: All the coal burned in China to make cheap goods, and all the gas burned in America for cheap joy rides, are heating the atmosphere and drying up the corn crop that tricksters have told us will fuel the joy rides after the oil in the ground is all used up. But the corn is also our food, so where does that leave us?

We are left with a new opportunity for truth. The deceptions of 200 years of industrial capitalism are dissolving. There is no such thing as limitless economic growth. Humans will cling to these deceptions anyway, just as they have clung to the idea of heaven and the divine ordination of oppressive regimes, but such fantasies are becoming harder and harder to maintain. Sooner or later, the truth will out, and the rebels will ascend.

The questions that humans should ask themselves now are: What are the deceptions and self-deceptions that are most crucial to reveal, and what are the physical advantages and technologies that the benevolent and compassionate tricksters among us can use to promote equality?

The impossibility of endless economic growth is the primary truth that must be revealed. The Ponzi-scheme economy that has been sold to us is no more real than pie in the sky. Once that delusion is gone, we can begin to imagine and build a sustainable economy.

What technologies can promote equality? The Internet is often touted as a leveling technology that promotes equality, but there are others, as well. Our feudal forbears lived in a solar-powered society, but they did not have photovoltaic panels. Any human with a few hundred dollars can purchase a self-sufficient power system that will keep their personal Internet portal up and humming, along with a few lights so that they can read books at night, should the grid go down. The industrial economy has also supported an amazing expansion of human knowledge in every field, including new ideas in agriculture, energy, and health that can be put to use to build more self-sufficient and egalitarian agricultural communities.

We have heard a lot about the tipping points of complex systems like economies, and we fear what can happen when climate-change tipping points are reached, but human moral outrage also has its tipping point. The Occupy movement is one sign that the tipping point is here.

It is clear that we are entering a time of primal moral outrage at the depredations and deceptions of the power elite. Let's embrace all our primate strong points -- our creative inventiveness and our deep sense of empathy -- as we pursue moral justice.