I have a strange habit of looking for bargain books. Why is this a strange habit? Because it looks awfully like a false economy. After all, even if you don’t read a book through, just reading a few chapters might take you an afternoon, the full book a few days. So it’s looking pretty silly to economise on the buying price of the book – and save, say $20 when the constraint that matters is one’s endowment of time not money. Ben Franklin rightly said that time was money, but it doesn’t work the other way round.
In any event, the thing is, it’s not working out too badly. Normal bookshops peddle the Latest Thing at high prices for a few months, then it disappears. And in the remainders bookshops like the Book Grocer – where everything is $10 or a tad over $8 if you buy five at a time – while there are quite a lot of duds (lots of the biographies are dreadful) there are some real gems, often about a decade old but which are no longer cool and recent enough to make it into the higher margin bookshops.
Recent highlights from this style of buying include, Non-Zero, Building Jerusalem, Paul and Jesus, Roads to Modernity. All really interesting reads. But right now I’m reading a great book written in around 2000 called The Mating Mind. It’s thesis is adequately summed up in this review:
Evolutionary psychology has been called the “new black” of science fashion, though at its most controversial, it more resembles the emperor’s new clothes. Geoffrey Miller is one of the Young Turks trying to give the phenomenon a better spin. In The Mating Mind, he takes Darwin’s “other” evolutionary theory – of sexual rather than natural selection – and uses it to build a theory about how the human mind has developed the sophistication of a peacock’s tail to encourage sexual choice and the refining of art, morality, music, and literature.
Where many evolutionary psychologists see the mind as a Swiss army knife, and cognitive science sees it as a computer, Miller compares it to an entertainment system, evolved to stimulate [attract] other brains.
As I was reading the first chapter outlining his approach – which I find very persuasive, and more to the point pregnant with insight into all manner of things, not least how impoverished much contemporary social science is, I found myself thinking of Nietzsche. The word “Nietzsche” is typically associated with mad ‘superman’ theories of history. But what I’m thinking of is Nietzsche’s conviction of the ponderousness and self-importance of much enlightenment thinking: The lack of irony and self-reflection with which people imagine they are on a search for Truth. Of course the idea that human intelligence and its cultural accoutrements are not adaptations to the wild, an increasingly clever Swiss Army Knife, but rather the startling and thoroughly arbitrary outcome of a runaway process of positive feedback – peahens picked fancy tails and women picked humour, musical and story-telling smarts as markers for fitness? Well that’s a bit of a comedown.
As Nietzsche puts it in the brilliant opening of Beyond Good and Evil:
Supposing truth to be a woman – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have hitherto been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench?
Or as he put it in less allusive terms early in his career:
In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of “world history”—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.
One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. . . . For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. It is human, rather, and only its owner and producer gives it such importance, as if the world pivoted around it. But if we could communicate with the mosquito, then we would learn that he floats through the air with the same self-importance, feeling within itself the flying center of the world. There is nothing in nature so despicable or insignificant that it cannot immediately be blown up like a bag by a slight breath of this power of knowledge . . . .
It is strange that this should be the effect of the intellect, for after all it was given only as an aid to the most unfortunate, most delicate, most evanescent beings in order to hold them for a minute in existence, from which otherwise, without this gift, they would have every reason to flee . . . That haughtiness which goes with knowledge and feeling, which shrouds the eyes and senses of man in a blinding fog, therefore deceives him about the value of existence by carrying in itself the most flattering evaluation of knowledge itself. Its most universal effect is deception. . . .
The intellect, as a means for the preservation of the individual, unfolds its chief powers in simulation . . . In man this art of simulation reaches its peak: here deception, flattering, lying and cheating, talking behind the back, posing, living in borrowed splendor, being masked, the disguise of convention, acting a role before others and before oneself—in short, the constant fluttering around the single flame of vanity is so much the rule and the law that almost nothing is more incomprehensible than how an honest and pure urge for truth could make its appearance among men. They are deeply immersed in illusions and dream images . . .
What, indeed, does man know of himself! Can he even once perceive himself completely, laid out as if in an illuminated glass case? Does not nature keep much the most from him, even about his body, to spellbind and confine him in a proud, deceptive consciousness, far from the coils of the intestines, the quick current of the blood stream, and the involved tremors of the fibers? She threw away the key; and woe to the calamitous curiosity which might peer just once through a crack in the chamber of consciousness and look down, and sense that man rests upon the merciless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous, in the indifference of his ignorance—hanging in dreams, as it were, upon the back of a tiger. In view of this, whence in all the world comes the urge for truth?
Anyway, I hope you follow what I mean by the Nietzschean character of this proposal that human intelligence and culture are the glorious product of one of natures many epicycles of runaway positive feedback – as arbitrary as the beauty of the peacock’s tail or the ugliness of a chimp’s bum.
So, only three chapters into it, I wholeheartedly recommend it. And offer this extract from the end of Chapter Two as some cashing out of the ideas in the book. Fortunately enough, it can be downloaded in pdf form here, or here though it’s better value as a paperback for $8.40 from the Book Grocer!
What Sexual Selection’s Exile Costs the Human Sciences
Sexual selection’s century of exile from biology had substantial costs for other sciences. Anthropologists paid little attention to human mate choice in the tribal peoples they studied for most of this century. By the time mate choice was accepted as an important evolutionary factor, most of those tribal peoples had been exterminated or assimilated. Psychologists had little evolutionary insight into human sexuality and their discipline was dominated for decades by Freudianism.
Almost all of 20th century psychology developed without considering the possibility that sexual selection through mate choice might have played a role in the evolution of human behavior, the human mind, human culture, or human society Following Marx, the social sciences saw a culture’s mode of production as more important than its mode of reproduction. Economists had no explanation for the importance of “positional goods” that advertise one’s wealth and rank in comparison to sexual rivals. In the other human sciences as well—archeology, political science, sociology, linguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience, education, and social policy—there was a blind spot where the theory of sexual selection should have been.
When these sciences did try to trace the evolutionary roots of human behavior, they have usually come up with theories based on “survival of the fittest” and “the goods of the species.” Mate choice was simply not on the intellectual map as an evolutionary force. Darwin’s broader vision, in which most of nature’s ornamentation arises through sexual courtship, was never used to explain the ornamental aspects of human behavior and culture.
For example, without sexual selection theory, 20th-century science had great difficulty in explaining the aspects of human nature most concerned with display status, and image. Economists could not explain our thirst for luxury goods and conspicuous consumption. Sociologists could not explain why men seek wealth and power more avidly than women. Educational psychologists could not explain why students became so rebellious and fashion-conscious after puberty Cognitive scientists could not fathom why human creativity evolved. In each case, apparent lack of “survival value” made human behavior appear irrational and maladaptive.
More generally, the sciences concerned with human nature have often lamented their incompleteness, fragmentation, and isolation. People are certainly complicated entities to study, but other sciences such as organic chemistry climate modeling, and computer science have coped with high degrees of complexity. The limited success of the human sciences may not have resulted from the complexity of human behavior, but from overlooking Darwin’s crucial insight about the importance of sexual competition, courtship, and mate choice in human affairs.
Today, evolutionary biology is proclaiming that the old map of evolution was wrong. It put too much weight on the survival of the fittest and, until the 1980s, virtually ignored sexual selection through mate choice. Yet in the human sciences we are still using the old map, and we still do not know where we came from, or where we are going. The next few chapters offer a new map of evolution to help us find our way.