Do Christians get a humorectomy at confirmation?

There’s a rather unsurprising study that shows babies can “lie” at a very early age, deceiving their parents with fake cries as early as six months (any parents out there? You know this is trivial—kids pop out of the birth canal as greedy, selfish little beasts who will do anything to cajole their way into your heart.) Now look at how a fundie blog spins the story: it’s sin! It confirms what the Bible tells us, that we are born into sin! And then the author asks, “What stories (humorous, preferably) can you share about how your children demonstrate they, too, are sinful from birth?”

It will make you groan with boredom. There follows a discussion of whether Jesus would have faked a cry to get Mommy’s attention (no, apparently not) and the most boring anecdotes about kids ever. It’s pathetic and tedious and clueless all at once.

I recommend you read these stories instead. The heathen are much, much more entertaining.


  1. llewelly says

    Babies are only evil after they are born.

    Of course. During birth, they pass through the vagina, source of all evilness. Jesus was born via C-section.

  2. Russell says

    I think that is the purpose of baptism: any Christian who laughs at that rite is damned to hell. And the only way they can refrain from laughing is by putting a permanent psychological clamp on their sense of humor. ;-)

  3. Mike says

    I saw this doing the rounds the other day, and didn’t really understand the claim it was making. What’s a “fake” cry in this context? If a sprog wants attention, and has learned that crying gets attention, why would you want or need to posit anything deeper, such as the notion that said sprog has intuited and is exploiting “parent’s belief that sprog is in distress” as an intermediate causal step?

  4. says

    It’s funny – yesterday we had a whole bunch of people in the house for the SO’s birthday. One of the guests brought her two year old son with here. He’s a total cutie – and yes, you can tell that he can turn tears on/off at the drop of a hat to get what he wanted.

    Then there was Jayden. We babysat him from the time he was a couple of week old until he was almost a year and a half old. That was a fascinating experience though, since I learned how to tell a real cry from a faker cry. Never knew about THAT.

  5. says

    During birth, they pass through the vagina, source of all evilness. Jesus was born via C-section.

    So do all the people born by c-section escape original sin? Shall we make c-sections mandatory?

  6. says

    “The heathen are much, much more entertaining.”

    That reminds me of a Bill Hicks bit where a child is bemoaning that he was adopted by a christian family and not the satanic family down the street. Where they have the better albums.

  7. Clootie says

    Puppies and kitties, born unseeing, cry as well. Are they sinners, too?

    All of this thinking is psychotic and evil. How so? It is evil by design and by choice.

  8. George says

    The research itself is presented in a sketchy way:

    Following studies of more than 50 children and interviews with parents, Dr Vasudevi Reddy, of the University of Portsmouth’s psychology department, says she has identified seven categories of deception used between six months and three-years-old.

    Can we even call it “deception” if these kids lack a theory of mind?

    If you give your dog a treat whenever he barks on command, would you say that your dog is “deceiving” you by barking on command (since there is clearly no threat that warrants barking)?

    Shoddy shoddy shoddy.

  9. says

    There definitely can’t be any other explanation for this. Nope, especially not the evolution of manipulative behavior because infants who utilize this tend to live longer due to increased attention from their mothers…

    Whoops. I mean, God did it.

  10. says

    The presence of either fundamentalist religion or humor almost totally excludes the presence of the other. Anyone who can tell the Genesis creation myth followed by the Pauline doctrine of redemption through Christ and a thundering threat of eternal damnation in hell with a straight face lacks, by definition, the most basic humorous sensibilites.

  11. irmi says

    the ‘other’ link is very entertaining. by the time i reached the story of churn and fuck i was laughing tears.

  12. RamblinDude says

    Hey, what about “suffer the little children come unto me” and “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Huh?

    Geez, who do you believe anymore…

    Makes me wonder though, do the souls of all those aborted fetuses go to hell, now?

  13. RamblinDude says

    Or is the kingdom of God destined to be over run by evil sinners?

    Or is it all a cruel joke and no one gets into heaven?!


  14. says

    “Makes me wonder though, do the souls of all those aborted fetuses go to hell, now?”

    I think it was clearly and scientifically established earlier that a child is infected with sin only after passing through the vagina (known to christian scientists the world over as the Sin Clam). Thus, aborted fetuses go directly to heaven, which is exactly what Jesus was talking about.

    So the real problem here is the fundamentalist resistance to the holy and redemptive nature of abortion. If they were true christians, they’ed open a Planned Parenthood.

  15. RamblinDude says

    Well, it wasn’t scientifically established as much as just thrown out there and picked up on and then believed, but as this is religion we’re talking about, that seems perfectly appropriate.

  16. says

    RamblinDude: I think a bit of sarchasm has fallen between us.

    Definition of sarchasm :.


    1. (n.) The abyss between the creator of witticisms and the intended recipient who does not find the humor in it.

  17. thwaite says

    It’s been thought for some time for evolutionary reasons (since at least Trivers) that kids’ screaming involves some level of deception, if not lying involving TOM (theory of mind). Parents and offspring generally have somewhat competing interests – any particular offspring wants to get fed as much as possible, even to the detriment of its sibs, while parents may not want to feed it so much, and generally are equitable. Screaming signals can manipulate this to the kid’s favor; so parents have to appraise the signal accuracy. (And then there’s also the increased predation risk from screaming loudly…)

    A typical current discussion focusing on primates is here (and in .pdf format)

  18. Steve_C says

    Wait I thought anal sex was more sinful than vaginal sex…

    Now I’m confused. Where’s Falwell to clear this all up? Teehee.

  19. RamblinDude says

    I remember reading an anecdote about how this guy’s elderly dog came out of the house one day and started barking at him as if he was a total stranger. When the dog, whose eyes had started to go bad, finally recognized that it was his owner approaching, he started to pretend that he was barking at something across the street. Animals can lie too.

    sigh…everything’s evil.

  20. says

    Oh, I don’t know. I’d be willing to entertain the possibility that my twins were prenatally evil.

    Don’t you wish some days you could just reach through the computer and give some of these people a stupid check?

  21. Meret says

    Ok, I’m confused.

    Since when are manipulation and lying the same thing? Babies may be “manipulating” their parents into paying attention to them through crying. They may not need food or to be changed, but they certainly want attention and cry in order to get it. They want attention, they cry, they get attention. So….how exactly is that “lying”, again?

  22. RavenT says

    Animals can lie too.

    ‘Tis true–I have 2 favorite examples of that, one feline, and one avian.

    Our cat Daphne is usually pretty dominant and aggressive, but when she thinks she might con Mr. Raven into opening up a can of the highly-valued stinky canned wet food (as opposed to the ordinary dry kibble), she assumes this cloyingly sweet femmy “Mew?”, as she follows him around and gazes up adoringly. Also, you can see the struggle on her face as she forces her facial muscles into what she thinks resembles a “sweet” expression. Pretty transparent.

    Sometimes I bird-sit for an African gray parrot, who absolutely worships his owner, Eleni. Me, on the other hand, he tolerates–we have this bargain, where if I give him an almond before I put his food bowl in his cage, he won’t bite me–not that he doesn’t still want to, mind you, but he can’t both bite me and hold on to his almond, and it’s just not worth it to miss out on the nut. So basically, I have to bribe him to let me feed him, and we both understand that.

    However, when Eleni comes home, he decides to teach her a lesson for going away by making her jealous. The same bird who earlier almost made me draw back a nub now stands on one leg, leaning toward me, fluffing and cooing, all “I wuv Raven so much!”—and all the while, watching Eleni intently to make sure she’s getting the message loud and clear, that feathered fraud.

  23. moioci says

    “Do Christians get a humorectomy at confirmation?”

    No, it’s at baptism, and they just excise the evil humors.

  24. RamblinDude says

    Raven: good animal stories.

    You got me to thinking about deceit in the animal world and I came upon this pretty good article about how all kinds of animals deceive and manipulate in order to survive, mate, dominate, etc.

  25. Evan says

    Well, if babies are born to sin, why then that proves that James Dobson was totally right all along when he advocated beating children with sticks. (Not to mention those sinful, wicked dachshunds.)

  26. Unstable Isotope says

    Thanks for that second link, PZ. Tears are still running down my face. The “pocket” story and the “vulva” story are too funny.

  27. thwaite says

    Since when are manipulation and lying the same thing? -Meret

    As Trivers (1974) puts it:

    Both parents and offspring benefit from this system of communication [crying,etc]. But once such a system has evolved, the offspring can begin to employ it out of context. The offspring can cry not only when it is famished but also when it merely wants more food than the parent is selected to give. Likewise, it can begin to withhold its smile until it has gotten its way. Selection will then of course favor parental ability to discriminate the two uses of the signals, but still subtler mimicry and deception by the offspring are always possible.

    Trivers’ current interest on the psychology of self-deception still incorporates p/o conflict. For example, from Trivers (2000):

    …social processes, such as parent-offspring conflict in a species with a long period of juvenile dependency –or, a more general group-individual conflict- may generate conflicting internal voices, representing parental and own self-interests (or group and self), with consequent reality-distortion within the individual. For example, the parental view may be overstated internally (for example, via parental manipulation), requiring careful devaluation or counter-assertion.

  28. thwaite says

    Raven, you may know already, that intense social jealousy in African Grays is the basis for the “model/rival training” methodology used by Irene Pepperberg to teach Alex to demonstrate his cognitive skills. She’s done a popularized guide: Training Your Parrot the Alex Way.

  29. J-Dog says

    Just Fundies het the Humorectomy, Catholics have a GREAT sense of hummor. When the Pope wears his dick-head hat on formal occasions, it’s always good for a laugh. Then there are all those priest & nun jokes, although the fundies MAY be catching up, cuz Hovind in jail and Ted Haggard catching Teh Gay are pretty damn funny too.

  30. khan says

    The heathen are much, much more entertaining.

    The sinners are much more fun
    You know that only the good die young

  31. Justin Moretti says

    I think for the raving fundies, it’s a matter of the state of mind they bring to their religion having already performed the humorectomy.

    The kids, of course, have it excised as they grow up under the tutelage of parents who were somewhat disturbed before they became Christians. And would probably have brough their children up humorless anyway.

  32. pablo says

    “There follows a discussion of whether Jesus would have faked a cry to get Mommy’s attention”

    Did they decide whether baby Jesus ever took a dump in his swaddling clothes?

  33. John Emerson says

    I clearly remember my son’s first lie, before he was a year old. He woke up from his lap and was doing happy baby things when I made a noise which clued him that I was there. He immediately started crying.

  34. Doc Bill says

    Behe and a monkey go into a bar.

    The bartender looks at the monkey and pointing to Behe asks, “Is he with you?”

    The monkey replies, “No relation.”

  35. says

    “There follows a discussion of whether Jesus would have faked a cry to get Mommy’s attention (no, apparently not)”

    A more interesting discussion would be to provide examples where Jesus misbehaves or “sins” in the Bible.

    A few examples:

    > curses an innocent tree for bearing no fruit when he wanted it – the tree withers and dies
    > violence in turning over the money-changers tables
    > rudely telling his mother to run off since he was busy about “His Father’s business”
    > encouraging his followers to leave their families to follow him

    Any more examples? Discuss among yourselves …

  36. Hairhead says

    Look, rather than talk ABOUT humour, here’s my embarrassing child story: I’m a dad, and I have my four year old son with me and I’m taking him to see Finding Nemo. So before the show begins I take him to the bathroom to pee. I ask, “Do you need to go?”

    “No, daddy.” I think Good!, I can just have a quick one at the urinal instead of going into a stall with him.

    So I move to a urinal and unzip. As I am peeing, my son sidles up, takes a good look and says in that announcing-to-the-world voice that four year olds have, “OH MY GOD, DADDDY, YOU HAVE A *BIG* *LONG* PENIS.”

    I zip up and mutter, “Thanks for the advertising,” and leave the bathroom accompanied by the silently shaking shoulders of all of the other guys at the urinals and sinks.

    Now here’s a question for PZ: any stories about Connlann, Skatje, et al?

  37. JJR says

    I recall reading a letter from an old High School friend once, talking about her 4 year old. This friend had married, then divorced, a mutual high school friend who turned out to be a total womanizer and cheater, so her divorce was completely the right thing to do.

    Anyway, what’s a little ironic is that shortly before all this came out, before they got divorced, they both turned into major Jesus freaks.

    Sadly, the female friend, who got custody of the kids, thank goodness, stayed deeply religious despite all that had happened.

    Anyway, in her letter, she jovially expressed finding a new church, how wonderful all that was, and how she was delighting in taking her 4 year old daughter to church and teaching her about how “Jesus died for her sins, too”. I remember putting the letter down for a moment and saying out loud…”how many f*cking sins can a 4 year old have racked up by now?” What a thing to put on such a young mind…awful, just awful.

    What makes me so sad about this particular friend is that she graduated with honors from our local major public university, with a BA degree in a very difficult Slavic language, even did a semester abroad there. She was a national merit scholar in High School. Her husband was kind of a loser who failed out of UT-Austin, but was self-educated in computers and I.T. work, and managed to make a decent living.

    But partly because of this marriage–and ESPECIALLY once she turned religious–I watched a first-rate mind deteriorate into childish mush before my very eyes.

    My friend’s overpoweringly insipid letter saddened me so much, that by way of reply I sent her one of my favorite recorded speeches of Robert Green Ingersoll on audio-cassette (as read by Michael Earl). Needless to say we haven’t communicated since. I guess naively I was hoping those wise, humanistic words would smack some sense into her, but alas…I feel really sorry for the kids…the ultra-religious upbringing, for one, plus the abandonment issues with their natural father–and the WAY it happened, too.

  38. CortxVortx says

    At 3.5 years old, my darling fair-haired girl-child was angry at her brother’s teasing, and in the front yard screamed at the top of her lungs, “FUCKING ASSHOLE!”

    I tell everyone that I work all day, and the kids are home with their mother. Draw your own conclusion.

    — CV

  39. prismatic, so prismatic says

    re #43:


    Hell, now I want to have a kid, so I can tell that same story… :)


  40. Interrobang says

    Hell, now I want to have a kid, so I can tell that same story… :)

    Funny, being the antisocial misanthrope I am, I thought pretty much the opposite — “Thank goodness I don’t want kids; nothing like that’ll ever happen to me!” Suppose you could sum it up as “Nice place to visit, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there…”

  41. Sonja says

    I’ve made this point before, but I’ll make it again in this context.

    Both religious right-wingers and atheist left-wingers will claim the high ground on caring the most about life. The difference:

    Right-wingers value INNOCENT life.

    Left-wingers value human CONSCIOUSNESS.

    Right-wingers will do anything to protect an unborn child or a brain-dead adult because they are clearly without sin. Once a child is born or an adult has awareness, they are SINNERS!

    Atheist left-wingers know that this life is it and that the greatest accomplishments of humankind are achieved through intellectual processes.

  42. says

    It seems like parents in the U.S. are very easily embarrassed. In America the definition of responsible parenting appears to be to prevent your child from being exposed to anything related to sex whatsoever. In Australia the definition of responsible parenting is not letting the kids rewind the puppet sex scene in the movie Team America so they can watch it again.

  43. says

    I won’t even mention the stories my parents have told about me. Let’s just say that the Swedish language has some rather steep, sexually orientated pitfalls for a 4-year old kid who pronounces every “L” as an “R”.

  44. Flaky says

    I wonder if this will lead the wonderful people at Focus on Family and other such instructional institutions to lower the age at which children’s wills should be broken by corporeal punishment in order to submit them to Jesus. A lying 6 month old should be beaten with plastic piping and glue sticks just like older kids, right? (Or maybe babies of that age need microwaving?)

  45. Janine says

    Evan (#31), the image of the man with the belt swinging at a dachshund just boggles the mind. Yeah, that is a control freak. Even the name he gave the dog shows how he is trying to control what he does not like. (Teaching Mr Freud a lesson?)

    But reading about the evil dachshund started me thinking of a hungry little dachshund.

    Marie Provost

    Marie Provost did not look her best
    The day the cops bust into her loneiy nest
    In the cheap hotel up
    on Hollywood West July 29
    She’d been lyin’ there
    for two or three weeks
    The neighbors said
    they never heard a squeak
    For hungry eyes that could not speak
    Said even little doggie’s have got to eat

    She was winner
    The became the doggie’s dinner
    She never meant that much to me
    (But now I see) Oh poor Marie

    Marie Provost was a movie queen
    Mysterious angel of the silent screen
    And run like the wind
    the nation’s young men steam
    When Marie crossed the silent screen
    Oh she came out west from New York
    But when the talkies came
    Marie just couldn’t cope
    Her public said Marie take a walk
    All the way back to New York

    Those twin balms didn’t help her sleep
    As her nights grew long
    and her days grew bleak

    It’s all downhill
    once you’ve passed your peak
    Marie got ready for that last big sleep

    The cops came in
    and they looked around
    Throwing up everywhere over
    what they found
    The handywork of Marie’s little dachshund
    That hungry little dachshund

    Poor Marie, poor Marie, poor poor Marie
    Poor Marie

    I know, off topic. But I love that song.

  46. Azkyroth says

    My observation had always suggested that Fundamentalism entailed a Headuprectumy instead. O.o

  47. Azkyroth says

    As for babies fake-crying, I’m not the slightest bit surprised; I’ve observed some of the “playing happily until she realizes someone’s listening and then crying frantically” behavior with my daughter when she’s supposed to be sleeping. And a LOT of pretend crying from my little brother, but that was a few years later. This study needs to be publicized, because my parents didn’t accept that his tears and howls of pain were completely affected until he was about 13… :/

  48. Ruth says

    “Shall we make c-sections mandatory?”

    I thought they practically were in the US these days?

    Isn’t it pushing 50% at the last count?

  49. Luna_the_cat says

    Babies are only evil after they are born.

    Are you joking? Try telling this to someone who has a prenatal lump the size and weight of a bowling ball sitting on top of her bladder, which insists on practicing football with her kidneys at 1am.

    Evilness develops right along with the ability to move.

  50. John Finkbiner says

    “Shall we make c-sections mandatory?”

    I thought they practically were in the US these days?

    Isn’t it pushing 50% at the last count?

    Approximately 30% according to That’s insane — I had no idea it was so high.

    — John

  51. the Mole of Production says

    Saint Augustine discusses babies-as-sinners in Book 1, Chapters 6 & 7 of his Confessions. I don’t have a copy of the translated version on hand, but here‘s a brief overview of the relevant chapters:

    Even as an infant, Augustine was not free from sin. Observing infants, he notes that they throw tantrums if they do not get their way, although they are too weak to cause actual harm.

    In the actual text he details the sins of babies. It’s kind of a funny read, actually.

    Anyway, the sining babies theme has been part of Christian doctrine from the get go.

  52. says

    I only read through a small subset of those “heathen” stories, but have to say that I was impressed with the percentage of stories that involved kids using correct anatomical language.

  53. says

    For Pete’s sake – infants under six months have pretty much one way of communicating – crying. When babies are uncomfortable, they cry to get an adult to help them. I swear, some people seem to think that all kids need is food, warmth, and diaper changes, but in truth, holding, comfort, help to get to sleep, etc. are all NEEDS as well. So will an infant cry when they’re not having a physical need, “just” to get held or rocked, to nurse for comfort, or because they need help falling asleep? Sure. But if that’s “deception” than so is any straightforward request an adult might make for something they want or need.

    All we need is more ammunition for the fuckhead Ezzos, so we can have more babies starving and failing to thrive, who probably turn into adults with deep trust issues.

  54. GregK says

    Everybody loses their sense of humor over things they think are serious. That’s why people say, “that’s not funny.”

    Of course it’s funny, it’s just funny at the expense of something they value.

    Fundamentalists are no more guilty of this than liberals or pagans or anybody else. You just need to offend the right holy cow to get the evil eye.

  55. says

    Holy crap, by definition it seems that everything a human being does by instinct for survival is sinful. Too much. Now, you want to talk about sinful babies manipulating their parents. . .this is typical, and becomes really funny as it goes on:

    I loved the funny stories. Even added one. I couldn’t read all the way through the first link, because by the time the xians were asserting that babies were sinful from the moment sperm meets egg, the stupid was making my head hurt. I think I’m a-gonna turn it into a blogrant of my own because there’s soooooo much wrongness on soooo many levels.

  56. mikmik's mom says

    when I think back to when mikmik was born, and although he is in his 146th trimester, I still want an abortion. He was evil incarnate from get go.
    When he first came out he was refusin’ to breath and when the doc smacked him he was so slicked up from birthin’ muck he slipped outta the doc’s hand unto the floor an’ done smash his head all up when landin’. A nurse, she done run over to grabs him up but when she stepped close she done kicked mikmik in the head and set him to spinnin’ on his butt. We laughed and laughed at thet scene but when all was dun, mikmik had started breathin’. Dang!
    Anyways, I new right from the get out that he was devil’s spawn (like all newborns, them bein’ evil and all) and recently decided to have him aborted like. I tries ta sneak up on him but he sees me a-comin with the knife and runs and hides under the shed and I caint have my abortion!

  57. says

    Obviously, babies are utterly iniquitous.

    They sleep a lot. (Sloth.)
    They have to be fed frequently. (Gluttony.)
    They cry at night and wake up their parents. (Not honoring Mom and Dad.)
    They do all of these things seven days a week. (Not keeping the Lord’s day holy.)

    No wonder they have to sleep behind bars!

  58. chris y says

    Mole of Production: I’m not, thankfully, an expert on the theology of “original sin”, but I think it was in fact invented by Augustine, who was a couple of hundred years after the get go.

    As an atheist, I’m forced to remember that humans are actually animals, and that as such they inherit a lot of behavioural instincts from their rather more chimp like ancestors, which they have to be educated out of in order to function in complex societies. Darwin famously noted that it made a lot more sense to substitute “monkeys” for “prior existence” in speculating about innate behaviour. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that primate infant need to be socialised – any chimp will agree with you.

  59. fardels bear says

    I agree with Cogito up there on commment 68. Trivers really claims that an infant is lying or manipulating when it cries “not only when it is famished but also when it merely wants more food than the parent is selected to give”

    That is really, really outrageous and how an earth can it be considered “scientific?”

  60. Steve_C says

    How can a child that can’t even speak lie? Isn’t lying about using words?
    A child cries when it’s unhappy… it’s up to the parent to figure out what it needs.
    I understand that babies have different cries for different needs but please… lying?


    Waiting for a response means it’s being deceptive? How about effective.

    The writer of the article is a boob. The psychologist needs to explain himself more… probably a boob too.

  61. Kseniya says

    Yes, Steve, it’s so moronic it barely merits serious discussion. I see it as a manifestation of the little adult fallacy, taken to a ridiculous extreme. One might as well conclude that every child below the age of reason is psychotic (or, more aptly, possessed by demons).

    If judging the behavior (and underlying psychology) of a toddler in adult terms is a mistake, judging the verbal communications of a pre-verbal child (and applying a supposedly absolute moral standard to the underlying motives thereof) is… errr… even more mistakeful!

    Perhaps these folks are unaware of the concept of age-appropriate behavior?

  62. RamblinDude says

    Most Religious beliefs are so ‘play pretend’ that I often think of people of faith as having never grown up, which would imply learning something about how the world works and facing facts.

    These fundie bloggers are so immature and juvenile in their evaluation of children’s behavior that, in many ways, this is a case of ‘children’ judging children.
    They are condemning the behavior of their ‘peers’, and thus themselves.

    As JJR said above

    once she turned religious–I watched a first-rate mind deteriorate into childish mush before my very eyes.

  63. says

    Anyone who has had children can attest to the fact that they are EVIL. I wouldn’t trade them for anything, tho.

  64. says

    I don’t think it was only little Jesus who didn’t cry deceptively. The 6-month-old George Washington also couldn’t tell a lie.

  65. says

    When my first-born was about 3, we were in a restaurant and he pointed at a pre-teen boy at the next table and asked “Is he big enough to wear a condom?”

    I guess he is not particularly likely to become a citizen of Vatican City.

  66. says

    Oh, I dunno Bullfighter. I would’ve thought an interest in pre-teen boys was practically a requirement to get into the Vatican.

  67. windy says

    I agree with Cogito up there on comment 68. Trivers really claims that an infant is lying or manipulating when it cries “not only when it is famished but also when it merely wants more food than the parent is selected to give” That is really, really outrageous and how an earth can it be considered “scientific?”

    Crying until you get your way is manipulation, by definition. Why is that outrageous? And the Trivers argument does not require conscious choice by the baby. Whether the manipulation constitutes deception would depend on what the “meaning” of the signal is, but that is hard to study because the signal and interpretation are co-evolving.

  68. speedwell says

    I know my cats lie to me every day, in the most meaningful sense of the word, but I figure it’s all in a day’s work for a cat mom.

    My littlest one is fairly verbal; she and I have worked up a system where one sort of meow means she needs food, another sort means water, and a loud-ish one means she wants a treat. I trained her to use her scratching post to “earn” a treat (she also gets one at other, mostly random, times).

    Just today she came and sat by my computer desk and meowed for a treat. When did not get up, she asked again. I still did not get up. She slunk out of the room, then she came back in again a minute later. She sat down and meowed for food. I happened to not be busy just then, so I went to check her food dish. It was half full. She walked right past her food dish, right up to her scratching post, scratched in a sort of bored way, and then meowed for a treat. Brat.

  69. thwaite says

    For #70,71,73:

    Back at #10, George asked Can we even call it “deception” if these kids lack a theory of mind?
    …well yes. Broadening our horizons, we routinely call what’s going on with butterfly mimicry ‘deception’: big eye-spots on their wings definitely confuse their predators; copying the colors of noxious species exploits the learned aversions of predators who retched on the truly noxious species. But we don’t impute theory of mind (TOM) to the butterflies, nor intention – none is needed. Dennett explores the “intentional stance” in great detail, since so much in evolution happens without awareness but just as if intentionality guided it. His argument also applies to innate behavioral deceptions such as the ‘broken-wing’ display made by plovers to distract predators.

    So infant humans can definitely be said to be deceptive in this sense (which is what Trivers is discussing), prior to the emergence of conscious intent and TOM.

  70. Meret says

    Others have said it better than me, but I still really have a problem with linking learned behavior patterns to “lying.”

    In simplest terms it really seems to boil down to the child learning that a certain type of cry will get it attention, and then repeating that cry whenever it wants any form of attention.

    While originally it may be a cry specifically linked to food, it seems the underlying need is still purely attention (and as other have pointed out, attention isn’t just linked to bodily functions. Sometimes babies just want to be touched for frick’s sake), and that the child is successful in meeting that need.

    Calling this “lying” still seems like a hopeless muddling of terminology to me. Is the baby actually thinking “I’m not really hungry but I’ll say I am anyway to get attention”? It seems far more likely that it’s a matter of “this cry gets mom to show up, so this cry is what I’m gonna give.”

  71. says

    I don’t remember very many instances of my cat being deliberately deceitful, but it seemed to me that she was able to detect deception on my part.

    I was fond of sleeping late on weekends. My cat was not so fond of this practice of mine, as it resulted in her waiting a few hours later for her breakfast.* On these days she’d come into my room and try to wake me up. Being a lazy man, I’d do my best to ignore her and try to catch another half hour of sleep. Somehow it seemed that we both knew that the game was up as soon as I opened my eyes and could be considered ‘officially’ awake. Thus, she would come up with cleverer and cleverer tricks to get me to ‘admit’ I was awake, and I’d try to pretend I was still asleep until she’d give up, settle in, and join me in napping.

    This went on for a number of months, and for most of that time we remained evenly matched: some days I would give in, and others she would.

    She started off with gentle meowing at first, but that was fairly easy for me to tune out. Over the course of a few weeks she moved on to softly batting me across the face with a front paw. This too, I was able to ignore, thanks to the fact that she’d been declawed by her previous owners.

    Eventually she hit upon a guaranteed strategy: tickling the tip of my nose and nostrils with her whiskers. As hard as I might try, there was no way I could remain asleep or pretending to sleep with that madness-inducing itching going on. Of course, once she figured that out, she knew she had me in the palm of her paw, the little minx.

    Note: Lest I might be misconstrued as being exceptionally cruel, my cat always had a supply of dry cat food in her bowl. ‘Breakfast’ was the half can of wet cat food she got every morning to augment her regular fare.

  72. Jesus H. Mouse says

    It is pointless to discuss the moral character of cats. They’re all going to hell no matter what they do or how they meow.

  73. thwaite says

    it really seems to boil down to the child learning that a certain type of cry will get it attention

    …yes. But (you knew this was coming 8^P): the certain type of cry that works *best* for the kid (and not the parent) turns out on analysis to be a signal of exaggeration or downright deception of the child’s actual condition.

    A google on ‘infant crying deception trivers’ will get a few hundred hits, of which the first page included this promisingly discursive study: Babies’ cries: who’s listening? Who’s being fooled? (Truth-Telling, Lying and Self-Deception).

    And again, this needn’t involve any conscious intent by the infant.

  74. RamblinDude says

    I just came from reading some of the ‘Sinful by Nature’ blog comments and had to get out of the room with a bad case of the creeps.

    Listening to grown people argue about anything, while basing their arguments on religious beliefs, is kind of like visiting an insane asylum.

  75. says

    There follows a discussion of whether Jesus would have faked a cry to get Mommy’s attention (no, apparently not)….

    Of course he wouldn’t! Jesus would just turn water into breast milk!

  76. fardels bear says

    For all defenders of Trivers, I’ll tell ya what: y’all can come over to my house for dinner. I won’t feed you until you are “famished.” If you ask for more food than I “select” to give you, I’ll know you are manipulating/deceiving me.

    Because, you know, the only reason to give people food is to keep them from starving to death. The reason we have restaurants is ONLY because the human biology requires caloric intake to survive. The explains EVERYTHING you need to know about restaurants.

  77. monkeymind says


    I think that when scientists talk about butterflies practicing deception, they are using this language doohickey called a metaphor.

    When people talk about six month old babies “lying”, they are often doing this thing that psychologists call “projection.” Saddling a 6m old with a moral judgement is inappropriate.

  78. Stig says

    Holy crap, I couldn’t believe the shallow minds, the blinkered viewpoints, and the sheer lack of any critical thinking whatsoever demonstrated by the “christian” posters on that blog. They can actually sit there and go on about how loving their God or Jesus is and at the same time talk about how infants (even those in utero, for crying out loud!) will burn in hell if they die because they are all conceived and born in sin. Besides the incredible inhumanity of this view, it demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge about the basic facts of biology. An infant simply does not have the neurological development necessary to make “sinful” choices. Children are not even aware of themselves as beings separate from others until the age of about two. These stages of neurological development have been documented by study after study. Babies simply do what is necessary to get the attention they need to grow and thrive. Watch any baby animal and you’ll see the same attention-getting behavior. Does that mean that young animals are conceived and born “sinful”? Absolutely ridiculous.

  79. windy says

    Because, you know, the only reason to give people food is to keep them from starving to death. The reason we have restaurants is ONLY because the human biology requires caloric intake to survive. The explains EVERYTHING you need to know about restaurants.

    Good grief. Human parental care is an evolved response, restaurants aren’t.

  80. says

    Well, as Dr. House says, “everybody lies”. Humans, pre-humans (infants), and non-humans. And even warships and battle tanks are deceptively camouflaged.

    I concede that “lie” has such strong implications of conscious intent that it’s a poor word to use in that paper title I cited earlier, and I see they only used “lie” once in its text.

    But it’s not projection to impute deception to infants – even psychologists know that – nor is it a metaphor in biology. It’s really deception – the victim really is deceived. The word is apt, and the phenomenon is pervasive. No conscious intent is required, and this raises the rich philosophical (and biological!) issue of unconscious and non-human intention which Daniel Dennett so deftly discussed in his book The Intentional Stance”. This discussion eschews ‘folk psychology’, and quickly invokes qualia and philosophical zombies, so stay alert.

  81. monkeymind says

    Thwaite – I read the article by Trivers that you linked to above, and it was fascinating. The main point seemed to be that human infants cry to mimic respiratory distress, and that in the to be loud because in the EEA it was directed not only at the primary caretaker but at the entire social group and especially other lactating females. Anyone who has gotten embarassing wet spots on the front of her shirt in response to a stranger’s baby crying knows how effective this is.
    I don’t really see the relevance of the Intentional Stance article though – I mean I can see it would be relevant to researchers but in parenting I think it’s better to cultivate the habit of attributing positive, or at least neutral intent to children’s behavior – a six month old crying “just” to get your attention is doing something healthy and age appropriate. I think the original article PZ linked to was making a more specific point about deception with much stronger moral implications:

    Dr Reddy said: “Fake crying is one of the earliest forms of deception to emerge, and infants use it to get attention even though nothing is wrong. You can tell, as they will then pause while they wait to hear if their mother is responding, before crying again.

    There’s just a whole set of specific biases and assumptions there which I find to be a secular equivalent to the “original sin” comments that are so easy to deplore. The implication is that only the infant’s physical needs are legitimate -being bored or lonely is not a legitimate reason to seek a caregiver’s attention – it’s fake crying.

    Primate and human hunter-gatherer babies are in virtually continuous contact with caregivers, and cry much less. So, this so-called fake crying could be an attempt to elicit appropriate behavior from caregivers who just aren’t with the program, evolution-wise.