Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

By Razib Khan | April 29, 2009 5:42 pm

31--B9alQzL._SS500_.pngIn the wake of Predictably Irrational, check out Tyler Cowen’s endorsement of Geoffrey Miller’s new book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. Miller is a good writer, so I’m assuming it will be a page-turner, but he does tend to be “provocative” in all the best & worst ways when it comes to popular science. Evolutionary psychologists have a tendency to make everything about sex & status, but within the field it seems Miller does come off as the “pimp daddy” always talking about the “bling” and “b**tches” as the raison d’être.

  • Colugo

    For Miller even 9/11 was ultimately about consumerism:
    The saying is hackneyed as hell, but applies to Miller: When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
    Aside: The cover of the book makes it look like a Geico caveman spinoff.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    We’re in a new Victorian Age, as far as Darwinian thinking goes — there’s a lot of good stuff, and a lot of questionable fashionable stuff to meet the ravenous consumer demand. I just hope this isn’t like an irrational bubble — “everything is evolutionary psychology, and we can never be wrong!” — that will pop and result in an anti-Darwinian backlash, just like the bursting of the Victorian pro-Darwin bubble resulted in the void of evolutionary research in the early 20th C.

  • hmmm

    The interesting thing about this book by Miller is that he seems to do the impossible, namely to fashion evolutionary psychology into a weapon *for the left* against capitalism.
    I generally don’t like Miller’s POV too much. The exchange he had with Satoshi Kanazawa a few years back was instructive. He frequently gives a pro forma nod of acknowledgement to (say) the heritability of IQ, but then gets right back to bashing Bush and capitalism as if it were somehow controversial or insightful to pile on — even if he’s jumping on the pile from a slightly different angle.
    For example, with regard to the snippet that Tyler excerpted, it’s not at all apparent to me that marketing and consumerism are net negatives.
    First: it is amusing that Miller is almost certainly engaging in a book tour for his work, and probably spent a lot of time picking out the cover and so on. Of course he wanted to bring his product to people’s attention and present it in the best possible light. The inherent contradictions here may have passed his notice, just as they most surely have passed Naomi Klein’s (aka “Capitalism sucks! Buy my book now!”).
    Second: marketing is a signal of quality if nothing else. Leaving aside mom’s home cooking for now, a product line which puts together a good marketing campaign is probably higher quality than one that can’t. It’s just like open source code — stuff that is documented and has a well designed website tends to be better, simply because the guys putting it together had more talent and resources. Compare the Rails website to sourceforge abandonware. First impressions matter.
    In other words, Miller as an evolutionary psychologist should realize that *beauty is more than skin deep*. A product which manages to appear “beautiful” often has many attractive properties. Of course there are optical illusions in marketing just as there is plastic surgery and makeup with beauty, but the basic principle is intact.
    Third: the people who decry capitalism tend to live in advanced capitalist societies. And the invisible hand of “consumerism” built those societies.
    For example:

    College Profs Denounce Western Culture, Move to Caves
    Cambridge, MA – Two years ago this month, Alan Lowenstein, associate professor of philosophy at Harvard University, came to a fateful conclusion. “I suddenly realized that the oppression of western technology extended to my own life,” he explained. “That’s when I got rid of my computer, threw away my Brooks Brothers suits, changed my name to Grok and moved into a cave.”

    Basically, Miller’s whole oeuvre rubs me the wrong way because he seems to get off on being seen as an iconoclast while (in practice) refusing to take on the real sacred cows.

  • gcochran

    “Miller is almost certainly engaging in a book tour for his work”
    Last I heard he was spending this semester in Australia.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    I’m told that part of the downfall of Postmodernism was the critique, which I first heard from Chomsky but which caught on among the Po-Mos themselves, that all this deconstructing of the enslaving metanarratives, etc., didn’t actually result in poor or oppressed people living better lives.
    If you wanted to do that, you volunteered in West Africa to administer shots against common but easily treated infections, or you organized a community, or whatever. Academic gobbledygook contributed nothing.
    Might we see something similar with the railing against consumerism? If you don’t like it, do something about it. Don’t just sit there reading Ad Busters and made cute comments. Once people see how bogus a lot of the anti-consumerist stuff is, people will be OK with consumerism.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    The interesting thing about this book by Miller is that he seems to do the impossible, namely to fashion evolutionary psychology into a weapon *for the left* against capitalism.
    well, i know your opinions in regards to the necessary logical inferences that are made from the sciences of human nature, but it’s just not impossible as an empirical matter. on the contrary, there’s survey data that most promoters of ev psych lean left personally. i do agree that in his *popular* books miller squeezes as much social liberal juice as possible out of the work in a way that is atypically brazen, but not to be predictable, i think it’s a marketing ploy in terms of what sells to his intended audience (e.g., his argument in favor of polygyny implicitly supporting temporary pair bonds). in any case, it seems likely that the nature of the human beast is to rationalize arguments for our preheld views (which we hold for whatever reason) from the set of data on hand, and evolutionary psychologists are no different here (though obviously there’s an added irony that they’re trapped in their natures when it’s their putative discipline).

  • Colugo

    “the nature of the human beast is to rationalize arguments for our preheld views”
    I would go even further. Everyone tries to not just rationalize but sacralize their own lifestyles and worldviews. The religious do it through allegedly supernaturally derived texts and ritual. The scientifically minded – scientists, atheists, so-called “rationalists” – do it through invoking the authority of scientific Truth (which serves the same psychological and sociological function as divine infallibility). And within the scientific/rationalist/atheist community this behavior extends far beyond evolutionary psychology. In fact, outspoken anti-sociobiologists are among the most blatant.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    colugo, the tendency is weaker among those with some level of asperger’s don’t you think?

  • hmmmmm

    Miller definitely is doing a book tour. First hit on google for “Geoff Miller book tour”:
    I’m really excited about my new book ‘Spent’, and hope you find it engaging, funny, and provocative.
    If you want to find out more about my research, see my university web site:
    I’ll be doing a two-week book tour to promote Spent May 15 – June 1.
    Events scheduled so far:
    San Francisco May 18: Mechanic’s Institute
    Seattle May 19: Town Hall
    Portland May 20: Illahee Institute
    Los Angeles My 27-31: Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference.

  • Colugo

    Razib: That may well be the case.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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