01-21-2013 | Late Evening

Donald D. Hoffman's response to the Edge.org question "Who Gets to Keep Secrets?"

Secrets shape our bodies and brains. The need to keep a secret, and to break that secret, powers a creative cycle through natural selection, leading to better encrypting bodies and better decrypting perceptual systems.

The Australian bird dropping spider, Celaenia excavata, has a secret to keep: I am food. The need to keep this secret has, through natural selection, creatively shaped its entire body to resemble a bird dropping. This secret has thus been encrypted to hide the secret from a specific audience that wants the information, viz., predatory birds. The method of encryption strikes us as clever, even humorous. The engine behind this cleverness was the need to keep a secret. The need was pressing. Those less adept at keeping the secret are more likely to die prematurely. Only those who can keep the secret long enough can pass on their encryption method to a new generation.

The creative process of encryption probably took time. A sequence of mutations was probably required, a sequence that led to greater and greater mimicry of bird dung. The secret gradually became more secure.

The secret was a creative force not just for the body of the spider encrypting it, but also for the perceptual systems of the predators. Each time the encryption became more secure, some predators were fooled. Their perceptual systems failed to decrypt the secret. But others were not fooled, others with perceptual systems better-adapted for the decryption. They reaped a better chance to pass on their decryption technology to a new generation. Secrets are a creative force of perceptual evolution.

Who gets to keep secrets? Those who survive. As long as the spider gets to keep its secret, it avoids predation.

Who does not get to keep secrets? Those who are about to be eaten. Once a predator has decrypted the spider's secret, chances are that the spider will soon perish along with its secret.

The metaphor of encryption does not capture the full extent of the spider's deceit. The spider actually disseminates false information. The truth is: I am food. The information disseminated is: I am inedible dung. Disinformation is key to survival of the secret and the spider. Predators must see through the dung to find the spider.

Secrets also shape our governments. When governments in the information age keep secrets, employ encryption and disseminate false information they are following a pattern ubiquitous in nature for millions of years. This is, of course, no blanket endorsement of these governmental activities, any more than tracing the biological roots of cancer is an endorsement of cancer.

One reason to understand government secrets within a biological context is to remove the element of shock and surprise. Why waste time being shocked and surprised at revelations of governmental abuse of secrets? Instead such abuses should be expected. Those government officials and clerks who perpetrate them are, like the rest of us, the offspring of those who more successfully kept their secrets.

A second reason to understand government secrets in a biological context is to provide a reservoir of methods for understanding and countering abuses. What innovative methods do biological systems use to hide secrets and disseminate false information? What innovative methods do they use to break the secrets and see through the falsehoods?

Understanding government secrets in this way can provide more effective tools for citizens to counter abuses. It can also provide the government more effective ways to perpetrate abuse.


  1. Which brings up the question: if the government is the spider in this allegory then who is the bird of prey that they wish to avoid?

    "The tiger will see you a hundred times before you see him once."

  2. I remember reading about how during WW2 the Allies had broken the Japanese naval codes. But if they just kept getting the pre-emptive jump on the Japanese fleet over and over again, the Japanese would soon figure out their codes were broken. There were Allied pilots who sole mission was to fly unarmed recon planes low over Japanese ships that the Allies knew about via code breaking IN ORDER TO BE SEEN to give the illusion that the ship/fleet had been spotted by a lucky recon plane. That's meta.