Nietzschean evolutionary psychology

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.

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63 Responses to Nietzschean evolutionary psychology

  1. Persse says:

    It is a fascinating topic, after all the study of evolution has to examine why generals cover themselves in gold lace, bower birds collect blue coloured objects and why some people have sickle cell anaemia.It is a big topic.
    You are wrong about taking a long time to read. When you remove the sentences that don’t make any sense, the assertions and declarations that just appear from nowhere, the logic fallacies and the straw men.
    It should only take a few minutes.

  2. Avi says:

    The Mating Mind is excellent. His follow up, Spent: Sex, evolution, and consumer behaviour, is pretty good too. Geoffrey Miller is cutting edge Evolutionary Psychology done right.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks for the tip. I stay away from most Evo Psych as it seems so reductionist and arbitrary. This book shows that it can be the opposite – opening up things very powerfully rather than closing them down with the repackaging of priors with a little help from uncle Charles Darwin. A review of this book by Dennis Dutton led me to think that his book on ‘The Art Instinct’ might likewise be interesting. I had imagined it would be pretty awful previously because I figured it would be the usual evo stuff applied to art.

  3. paul walter says:

    I suppose it eventually leads to the Economy of Excess, situational bads and goods and civilisational control by naked apes. I agree with the Nietzsche comments which fit in quite well with what Jung, Freud a stack of sociologists and and even Marx were questioning, it’s not just the Enlightenment nineteenth century were chipping at, but universal vanities also subscribed to by authoritarians, to do with the Rational Individual (against the subjective ) and the possibilities for improvement of the human lot through the developing momentum of rationality over time.

  4. Patrick says:

    wow. I am not a very social scientist kinda guy but I had always assumed that the point of survival of the fittest was sexual selection.

    What else is it supposed to mean??

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      I think you’ve just conflated two things there Patrick. Selection for survival (fitness in one’s ecological niche) and sexual selection (fitness among the girls or boys of one’s own species). We didn’t evolve the opposable thumb to wow the girls (boys) – well we probably didn’t.

      • Patrick says:

        yep well and truly conflated. Why the hell else did we put all those resources into opposable thumbs if not to promote our progeny’s prospects? And if that really is different to developing the ability to sing so as to attract the best mothers/Fathers for our progeny, well I don’t think I get the distinction.

        • john Walker says:

          Traits that increase your chances of being selected by the opposite sex, need not be the same as traits that improve your chances of surviving long enough to get to reproductive age – for example the lyrebirds tail does not make it fly better or improve its chances of getting food or evading predators. And the same is true of the birds of paradise.

    • Mel says:

      ” … I had always assumed that the point of survival of the fittest was sexual selection.”

      That comment doesn’t make the least bit of sense. You might want to learn what sexual selection actually means.

  5. paul frijters says:

    Evolutionary psychology is fascinating and clearly important for economists who like to have ‘foundations’ for their psychological assumptions. The main problem is that we have such very sketchy information on the competitive circumstances in which the human traits we take for granted arose. We just dont know what the typical interactions were in which the human proclivities supporting art, religion, abstractions, etc., evolved, forcing us into educated guesswork about those interactions.
    Nietzsche is a bit too dour and angry for me.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Angry perhaps. Dour? He seems to be having a whale of a time to me. Still – I guess things went downhill after he kissed the horse.

      • paul frijters says:

        Nietzsche is very good at seeing through the human facade, the lies we tell others and ourselves on a minute by minute basis. But instead of taking his facade-free vista as a source of unusual data almost untouched by others, yielding curiosa that are in themselves neither good nor bad, his treatises are heavy with negativity and despair about what he sees, as if he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. The quote you give above only shows hints of that, such as when he uses the phrase ‘woe to the calamitous curiosity’, but it so drenched his other writings that I never managed to wade through more than a few pages of him at a time.

  6. Persse says:

    Simple persistence through reproduction, survival, an unbroken thread, that is evolution. Sexual selection, for sexual reproducing organisms, is immanent in the phenomenon. Not subsumed, not a subsection but indivisible.
    My aged grandmother tells me that woman choose the men that choose them. So does a woman choose a go-getter wild boy to ensure her genes persist or a solid reliable family raiser type guy. I don’t know. I do know that to answer these questions requires scientific thinking and methodology. I adore Nietzsche and I enjoyed reading the Mating Mind but it is rhetoric not science.

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Rhetoric not science – hmm. A big topic you’ve picked out there.

    For mine it’s both. Like Keynes General Theory is both. Disciplined thinking about a difficult subject, full of conjectures and potential refutations. I didn’t mean to conjure up the ghost of Karl Popper so starkly with my choice of words since his quest for a clear demarcation between science and nonsense never quite succeeded, but given this dichotomy you pose, I fear you are in search of scientism, not science.

  8. Persse says:

    Well, thinking more Kuhn than Popper, you are completely right, searching for a boundary between discussion, conjecture, comment, informed and authoritative exposition and sciency science is a little unhelpful. My problem was that much of what I was reading in the pdf version I strenuously differed about something in every second line.
    But then if you put Nietzsche, evolutionary psychology and economics together that is inevitable I suppose.,
    Great post

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Persse,

      I’m fairly easy to persuade when I’m reading someone who strikes me as ‘on the level’. I like the author’s preparedness to admit weaknesses in his own theory. But you I expect know much more about the field, so I’d be all ears (eyes actually) if you’d document some of the things you think are wrong or slipshod about his arguments.

  9. desipis says:

    the startling and thoroughly arbitrary outcome of a runaway process of positive feedback

    What an apt description of evolutionary psychology…

    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.

    I think Miller might be overselling the idea just a wee little bit. It seems a bit of a stretch to claim it is the only hypothesis explaining such outcomes and that it is sufficient to completely explain them.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Hmm, I didn’t notice he was claiming that.

      Srsly that’s a pretty crappy way to argue.

      He is arguing that the disciplines he mentions had (and many still have) huge blind spots. And that if the kind of idea he is promoting had more influence those blind spots wdn’t be there. Seems fine to me. Seems true. Where does he say his thesis is the only argument that could explain those things?

      I mean he’d be a fair nit-wit if he argued that. So why would you assume that?

  10. O6 says:

    R. A. Fisher pointed out briefly how these runaway processes might develop in his extensive discussion of sexual selection on great Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930). J B S Haldane pointed out the importance of Fisher’s ideas when he reviewed the book. W D Hamilton built on Fisher in his quantification of sexual selection starting in the 1960s. I suppose all this had to be rediscovered by psychologists for it to become interesting in the 21st century.

  11. O6 says:

    ‘on’ should be ‘in his’.

  12. Chris Lloyd says:

    I thought this was a bit odd: “No biologist has ever offered a credible theory explaining how exclusive homosexuality could evolve in a sexually reproducing species”

    I am aware of two theories. One is that, on the herd level, there is some advantage to the alpha males sex-bonding. And this gene is carried by the rest of the herd. The other is that the gene for homosexuality is associated with other traits that are attractive to women. I recall hearing of research that heterosexual brothers of homosexual males have more mates than average. Obviously the gene has to be recessive in both these stories to prevail.

  13. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I’ve never known why it’s in such desperate need of explanation (I think I’m wrong here, but there you go). Evolution is a simple idea and it can fit the facts loosely which is to say that it may not provide an explanation for everything. One can ask why we have belly buttons, or why they get fluff in them – when it would be better if they didn’t. So why didn’t nature evolve a fluff free belly button. Well it could have, it should have in some sense, but it wasn’t an important enough problem to work on, so it didn’t work on it.

    Is 10% of the population getting their sexual cues ‘wrong’ a big problem for species health? Maybe it is. I guess they’d be more efficient reproducers without it.

    • john Walker says:

      Mmmm , A possible alternative is that sexual orientation is not, in itself, strictly a inheritable genetic level trait. If it was simply genetic then pairing for life with a same sex partner should get a ‘Darwin award’ for those two individuals.

      • conrad says:

        If it was inheritable and of a meaningful strength, it would it also predict that identical twins would generally show the same behavior, but that’s not what you find either. So whatever the genetic contribution to whatever might underly it, it isn’t very thrilling.

        • Mel says:

          Twin studies of homosexuality have shown that identical twins are about twice as likely to both be gay compared to fraternal twins. This means that being gay is partly genetic and not simply something that a person learns or chooses to be.

          There is one important thing to note, though. If the DNA sequence is the only thing determining whether someone is gay or not, we would expect that if one identical twin were gay, then the other would be too 100% of the time.

          But this is not what scientists have found – the rate is actually closer to 50%. So while we know that genetics is involved, it doesn’t tell us the whole story. This is where environment comes in.

          Sounds thrilling to me.

        • conrad says:

          Not that I want to quote WIkipedia on you Mel, but the 50% figure is far away from truth — that’s from a clearly discredited study.

      • desipis says:

        Like all things behavioural, sexuality is likely going to be a aggregation of many different factors (preference for facial shape, preference for smell, preference for macro body shape, preference for genitalia, preference for partner behaviour etc). It’s not going to be just a single on/off genetic switch. Considering our biology often fails to get the physical part right, it’s not that surprising that it will fail get the behaviour part right even more often.

        Each of these factors could have it’s own set of genetic, developmental and environmental dependencies. Having a range of factors with diverse requirements would provide resilience of sexual required to sustain a population across time and environments.

        Homosexual attraction would be caused by combinations of “failures” of these factors; there may be many different combinations of “failures” and hence many different forms for what we commonly categorise under the single concept of homosexuality. From an evolutionary perspective, each individual factor contributes to the probability success.

        Presumably, increasing the success rate would require the development of additional factors that have a higher probability of success. Adding more factors would just blur the line more. More successful factors would likely require greater gender dimorphism (effectively pea-cocking) which could result in being less evolutionarily competitive in some other aspect (as the body would spend more energy on being more male/female rather than being stronger/faster/smart/etc).

        There’s also the fact that increasing the chance of being gender selective in sexual attraction may come at the cost of being less sexually active. (i.e. negative factors that successfully trigger on same-sex identification may partially trigger on other-sex identification, lowering overall sex drive). It may be more beneficial to simply evolve with a stronger a sex drive in general, even at the cost of a higher incidence of homosexuality. Evolution is a pragmatic drive towards the optimum balance of outcomes rather than a search for a simplistic idea of perfection.

        • Mel says:

          Evolution is a pragmatic drive towards the optimum balance of outcomes rather than a search for a simplistic idea of perfection.

          Actually if you wrote that on your college term paper you’d fail because you’ve reified evolution and given it a goal.

          It is difficult not to reify when thinking about big complex thingies like “evolution”, “society” etc… We probably all do it but we should be aware that it leads to sloppy reasoning.

        • desipis says:

          It is difficult not to reify when thinking about big complex thingies like “evolution”, “society” etc…

          Well if you want to get technical, we need to stop reifying individual people. Our brains, after all, just a collection of neurons, biochemicals and electrical impulses, each doing their own thing…

          That said, I’m not convinced my language is that problematic. For example, I could describe gravity as a simplistic drive for two objects to minimise the distance between themselves. I’m using the word “drive” as an analogy to a mechanical force, not as an analogy to a psychological desire.

  14. john Walker says:

    Evolution, is 9 letters of the western alphabet.

  15. Mike Pepperday says:

    I think, Nicholas, that evolution does have to explain everything. What else? If the thing is incidental, like the navel, or the creases in the palm of your hands, or the colour of blood, it’s just incidental so forget it. But if it is something to which costs are attached, such as homosexuality, it has to be explained. As for homosexuality I see no great problem. Even if it were 100% inherited and gays did not reproduce whatsoever, it could still prosper. That is the situation with haemophilia.

    I read Miller’s book on my new tablet. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. He is a clear thinker, writes genially and the history of sexual selection research was most informative. I didn’t find myself disagreeing with much though there were moments when I could see some justification for the complaint of rhetoric.

    I missed three things I have wondered about for years: prudery, male maturity, and female adornment.

    He mentions that prudery held up progress into research into sexual selection. But what is the explanation for prudery? Why is the human species so furtive about sex? Other creatures copulate in public but all human cultures are reticent and pretend-secretive. This nudge-wink embarrassment is obviously built-in so what’s the ev-psych explanation?

    He mentions in the context of neotony that humans have a long childhood. Cows mature in three years, apes in six and humans much longer. I never see a discussion as to why it takes about two years longer for boys to become men than for girls to become women. Sexual selection is Miller’s game; he should have tackled it.

    Overall his thesis is that females select males. In humans it is not quite so one-way but somewhere—I can’t actually find it again now—he mentions that around the world, it is males who adorn themselves (like peacocks) for females to select from. Well, it won’t wash. Yes, the warriors paint themselves and dance and all that but I reckon women display for male selection. It is not only, as he mentions, that women have breasts and buttocks but the effort put in. The evidence in my culture is so obvious and so extreme that I cannot believe that it is merely my culture. I am thinking of the expenditure in time and money on cosmetics, jewellery, flowers, clothes, high heels and hair styling, all of which have no natural selection (in his strict Darwinian sense) function.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes, it’s interesting. I haven’t got as far as you, but have been wondering what he’ll say about female adornment and apparent display for selection by males within our species (though at least in our culture the women seem to be a stricter police force on codes of dress amongst women than men are).

      One thing that’s struck me, that I’ve’ not thought about before, is how difficult finding a suitable mate is in human society. That seems a very strong support for his theory of sexual selection as presumably it wouldn’t be so if it was selection for survival. It doesn’t bother me that he hasn’t tackled some things I might like him to. I think it’s a very powerful theory he’s got going. Very provocative.

    • Paul frijters says:


      Prudity is not universal through human cultures and periods. In fact, it is pretty new. Check out Pompey or go to any old Indian temple if you want visual evidence of the lewdness that is our normal state. Or read a decent anthropology book, that would help too. It’s a puzzle for sure, but not one of genetic selection.

      The story of slow emotional maturation of boys whilst their bodies develop more quickly has been given the explanation that you need to be a bit gung-ho to challenge the status quo: the risk taking behaviour of immature boys is a means for them to overcome fears and challenge the older men who are hoarding the girls.

      Adornment is conspicuous consumption. Not necessarily female either, as you would realise from any decent anthropology book. You thus confuse your own culture with universal human traits. I mean it: you will learn more about the things that are universal by picking up some anthropology textbooks and some no nonsense historical books.

      • conrad says:

        You could look across species too — prudity allows animals that arn’t alpha males to have children without any consequences (although this is probably stretching things a bit far — it’s probably just the act that counts and the consequences, as apparently alpha males don’t like gay animals having sex either!). So there could be something genetic to it, and you can imagine traits that are not vital hanging on for a long time across evolution too so the origin of it may be far away.

        The problem with adornment and consumption for males is that at least in mammals, when males/females differ in terms of investment in appearance, it’s usually the males that are more flashy. I doubt, however, say, a peacock is too worried about conspicuous consumption and the wealth and power it is supposed to show. So perhaps these things happen for much lower-level reasons.

        As for the male/female difference, any other evidence there? Everyone wants nice stories, but it reminds me of the history of why men have nipples and what the final explanation by SJ Gould was. There’s so much confirmation bias in the evolutionary psych literature it’s astounding.

  16. Mike Pepperday says:


    Pompei mosaics and Indian sculptures no more demonstrate those cultures’ openness than erotic literature does ours. I should think they were as salacious then as they are now. Show me a culture where people copulate in public as other animals do.

    Not emotional maturation. Sexual maturity. Girls lead boys by a couple of years. Why the difference? Cows take 3 years, apes 6, but we take 13 for females and 15 for males.

    Thank you for the advice to read a decent anthropology book. Would the all-time anthro best-seller by the world’s most famous anthro qualify? That was Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa.” And it was very much about what we used to call “free love.” Eye-popping stuff. At one point Mead records a young buck calling out in public: “Ho, maiden, wait for me in your bed tonight!” This was crap, but even there, note that he didn’t bowl up and do her in the street. I was sixteen when I read it so you can see why it impressed itself on my mind. Forty-odd years later, the anthro literature showed that “Coming of Age” was 100% twaddle.

    So you can keep your pompous advice. My advice to you is to curb that ad hominem reflex. It may be effective in academe but it is inappropriate and this is not the first time it has backfired on you with me. Stick to the subject. If you know of a society that routinely copulates in public, you should tell the world. As far as I am aware none are known to anthropology. (And therefore there must be an ev psych explanation for the phenomenon.)


    Well, other animals aren’t prudish. The alpha males have their wicked way in public. Likewise the subordinate males who will be in like Flynn the moment Alpha’s back is turned. I have read that of the offspring of “monogamous” birds, 30% are not genetically related to the male who feeds them. Apparently, Mrs Seagull waits till hubby is away dutifully catching food and then has it off with the hunk two nests away. In broad daylight.

    Which, I think, is a clue. Mrs H. Sapiens can’t hook up with Mr Handsome in broad daylight because someone might report it to Mr Sap. Unlike seagulls and all other animals, humans can talk. Adultery has to be kept secret from the cheated one. How to be adulterous? It seems the only way is if ALL sex is in doubt.

    Consider newly-weds. Since everyone knows (nudge, wink) what they are going to do, it seems peculiar that they’ll only do it tonight, after dark, in private. No one ever actually sees it. However, if sex were normally open and public then any togetherness that was not public would obviously be adultery—which would be reported hence can’t occur. Ergo, all sex has to be furtive.

    Adultery is another human universal (possibly even more universal than marriage) but must it be so? Maybe yes. At least polygyny seems to be needed if there is to be rapid evolution—as occurred with our ancestors. Wherever there is polygyny there will be edgy rejected males looking for an opportunity.

    The upshot seems to be that if an animal can talk, then in order to be adulterous it has to be reticent about sex. Language requires prudery!!

    Your comment about the peacock is somewhat wide of the mark. Not so much conspicuous consumption as conspicuous beauty and conspicuous handicapping. Darwin figured out the evolution of the peacock’s tail and that understanding is now mainstream biology. I recommend Miller’s book as a good read. Nicholas had thought ev psych was reductionist but has changed his mind. You might too.

    Ev psych is an experimental science. That is, there is theory to be tested. For example, it can be shown that female fruit flies do choose the healthy males to mate with. You say it suffers from confirmatory bias. I do not see how you could know that. There are theories, there are corroborations and there are refutations. Since the late 1970s it has become a very lively field. It meets resistance—like yours—as it has done since Darwin, though nowadays that resistance is no longer within biology. The critique is in the social sciences which biology has been nibbling at ever since 1859.

    Their problem is that they don’t have any theory.

    • conrad says:

      Mike, I don’t see why you assume you can evolve particularly specific things for specific purposes. That might be true of physical characteristic that have direct pressure on them, but seems entirely unlikely for higher level things that are hard to define define (e.g., gender preference and how you display it). It seems likely that these things are complex and would be caused by any number of factors and interactions between them, and they just appear somewhat categorizable to us at the top level. If this is the case, we wouldn’t expect perfectly optimal behavior — indeed it may be quite sub-optimal. So, for example, it might generally be worthwhile being prudish in many circumstances, and that might be the best you can get to (or at least where we are now), and this tendency may simply conquer other tendencies and hence we get what looks like unoptimal behavior in particular contexts. Of course, this is just a conjecture — the causal chain may be far longer, and the ultimate reason may be due things which appear unrelated unless you can somehow solve how the chain works.

      You might like to look at our brain here. We didn’t evolve big frontal lobes to do any specific thing, we evolved them because they’re good general purpose mechanisms for solving any number of problems that occur in many different contexts. A hazard of being a general problem solver, however, is that you can’t do many specific things as good as you might like in certain contexts, and you can get unoptimal behavior in many circumstances.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:


        When you say “We didn’t evolve big frontal lobes to do any specific thing, we evolved them because they’re good general purpose mechanisms for solving any number of problems that occur in many different contexts.” you know that Miller would disagree with you – that his book is dedicated to challenging that idea? As I press on reading the book I think he makes a pretty good case.

    • Mel says:

      Mike to Paul: “Show me a culture where people copulate in public as other animals do.”

      From just one source about group of related cultures:

      Cook (1773, Vol. 1, p. 128) reported copulation in public in Hawai‘i between an adult male and a female estimated to be 11 or 12 “without the least sense of it being indecent or improper.”

      Suggs (1966, pp. 51-53) cited many cases of full heterosexual intercourse in public between adults and prepubertal individuals in Polynesia. The crews of the visiting ships showed no compunction against the activities, and the natives assisted in the efforts. Cunnilingus with young females was recorded without accompanying remarks that this kind of behavior was unusual or disapproved of for the participants. Occasions were recorded of elders assisting youngsters in having sex with other elders.

      There are plenty of other examples of public sex that well known to anyone interested in anthropology- for instance Sambia boys in PNG publicly fellating as many males as possible in order to ingest sufficient semen to become real men.

      The world was a very different place before the spread of the sexually repressive Abrahamic religions.

      Mike also says:

      Forty-odd years later, the anthro literature showed that “Coming of Age” was 100% twaddle.

      Actually that is also a false claim.

    • Julie Thomas says:

      ” If you know of a society that routinely copulates in public, you should tell the world. As far as I am aware none are known to anthropology. (And therefore there must be an ev psych explanation for the phenomenon.)”

      Perhaps, but this assumption very much depends on what you mean by ‘copulating’? There are one or two other animals that copulate face to face and in which the female has concealed ovulation, but this is a feature of homo sapiens and makes copulation different from just impregnating the female.

      From my point of view, if I just wanted some handsome man’s sperm to make a more handsome baby, I would copulate with him in public. But if I already had a baby in the womb or a child and wasn’t ready for another, I might want the handsome man just because I preferred him for some strange reason, and I thought he could make me happier than my unhandsome ‘husband’.

      I would not be interested in him as a source of sperm but as a source of pleasure and enjoyment. In this scenario, I would want more time and the lack of distractions that privacy brings, to really enjoy the exercise.

      I do believe that early ‘white male’ anthropologists had an inappropriate and prurient interest in female bodies rather than female intelligence, that did come from the sexually repressive western societies that nurtured those alpha male attitudes. They made films of Australian Aborigines copulating. The ‘subjects’ or ‘participants’ did not seem to be prudish about it.

      “Anthropologists such as Catherine Berndt, Phyllis Kaberry and Diane Bell have thrown a completely different light on the gender relations in Aboriginal societies. (7) Some of their conclusions, in particular Diane Bell’s, may be too categorical given that their studies were conducted after sustained contact with white settlement. Nevertheless, their work must be considered relevant in any assessment of the terms in which Europeans viewed Aboriginal societies.

      “In particular they highlight the difficulty for any male in understanding women’s lives and their contribution because they would simply have been excluded from much of women’s experience.”

      How could anyone in such an open and un-secretive society be prudish about a fundamental behaviour that is absolutely essential for maintaining the society, and how could they possible hide their ‘adultery’ even by doing it in private? There were no closed doors or showers or deodorant, and people can smell things like sex you know. Especially women can smell things and they smell things even better when they are ovulating, apparently.

      So I would be more scared of the other woman than of my un-handsome man. Have you not noticed that in Australian Aboriginal societies, the women as just as violent as men?

  17. Mike Pepperday says:

    Thanks Mel. There is an actual excerpt from Shankman’s book at

    So the Mead-Freeman debate rages on. It’s years since I looked into it. You have had me poking around revisiting it. I will stay with my assessment that “Coming of Age in Samoa” is 100% twaddle. Shankman attacks Freeman. God knows Freeman was a screwball (not helped by the ostracism of his colleagues) but that’s ad hominem. It goes on and on. Whatever Freeman’s deficiencies, Mead’s book is full of alleged facts which are wrong. That is what I concluded a long time ago. It is beautifully written rubbish.

    That paper on sex in Hawaii is most interesting. A very permissive society and surely not what I was thinking of as the manifestation of my theory that a pair-bonding animal which talks must be prudish in order to commit adultery. I wondered for a while if my theory needed tweaking but I don’t think so. The Hawaiian idea of marriage was very casual and apparently there was no concept of fornication or adultery. Still, as the paper’s opening words say: “…much of any sexual behavior is private and must be understood through reporting by others rather than through direct observation.” It seems even the Hawaiians did not ordinarily have sex in public.

    Special occasions of public sex are not the issue. There are even examples in our society (more confirming the prudery than refuting it—hats off to men who can perform on stage). In Hawaii there was more of this and less inhibited.

    Your comment about “sexually repressive Abrahamic religions” indicates a possible misunderstanding: by prudery I did not imply shame or guilt or sin—which is what those religions make of sex. Prudery is just furtiveness and secrecy in regard to sexual matters. (You could actually be secret and proud.) Sin does seem to be tied up with monotheism—that’s another matter.

    The first commenter at your link about the Shankman book says: “Why does anthropology always seem to come out looking bad after these public debates? The Tierney-Chagnon affair is another case of this. Alice Dreger’s paper on this episode, focusing on the role of the AAA, is going to make us look pretty bad.” He gives this link:
    and a head-shaking read it is too.

    AAA would stand for American Anthro Assn. You will be aware of its behaviour toward Freeman. I have never got my head into the Chagnon business. There was a lengthy documentary on SBS maybe six months ago on it. The background to it is practically bottomless.

    These anthro quarrels are extreme exemplifications of the Kulturkampf of our time: essentially the flakey left versus the vengeful right. Nurture versus nature. (One California uni has two mutually hating anthro departments!) That was the motivator for Mead and her advisor, “Vater Franz” Boas in the 1920s. He and his students, Mead and Benedict, were reacting to Galton and social Darwinism. Freeman set this out in his first book, trying to rationalise how Mead could cock it up so thoroughly. Poor Benedict: she was devoted to the project that everything was nurture but couldn’t escape the feeling that her lesbianism was inborn.

    Re the ad hominem. There is a famous example: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” What has the sinfulness of the stone casters to do with the guilt of the adulteress? We do not require a jury to be without sin, do we? Yet we do expect the judge to be of exemplary character. It is an expression of the fundamental moral divide but in questions of fact—of science—ad hominem is not relevant.

  18. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Just getting into Chapter 9 on the virtues of Good Breeding (which you can read on the pdf file) – which is also very persuasive – portraying the demonstration of moral behaviour as an act of courtship is a much more psychologically persuasive an account of morality than altruism.

    • conrad says:

      Alternatively, I think it reasonable to suggest that there is an overwhelming large body of evidence suggesting that moral behavior comes from a number of low level things which are people are pretty much programmed to do from exceptionally early ages (i.e., altruism and fairness).

      Since some of these occur far before any courtship behavior is displayed (indeed, before children can talk), and exist to some extent across species with entirely different courtship arrangements, it would be surprising if some of the same sort of moral behavior emerged from different types of courtship behavior (chimpanzees, for example, exhibit altruistic behavior, albeit to a lesser extent than humans), unless doing difficult things causes higher intelligence, which has the side of effect of increasing the complexity of moral behavior. This is quite possible, but it would be just one factor in the millieu of probably more important ones (cheating and not being cheated being an obvious example where the bigger the brain you have, the better you are at both).

      I went to read the chapter out of interest but couldn’t get past the first sentence of the second paragraph: “Most evolutionary psychologists have viewed human morality
      as a question of altruism, and have tried to explain altruism as a side-effect of instincts for nepotism (kindness to blood relatives) or reciprocity (kindness to those who may reciprocate).”

      Leaving aside the authors own theory, if he thinks this is where moral psychology is at today, he’s basically destroying a strawman that was destroyed a decade ago.

  19. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Conrad,

    Firstly his book is written a decade and a half ago.

    Secondly, you may well be right – I’m no expert on the state of evolutionary psychology. But it certainly chimes with the little I’ve read (not academic stuff). Perhaps I have a bias against the way economists offer the polarity between self-seeking and altruism, whereas what mostly goes on, just from observation of myself and others is that people are driven by questions of identity and thinking of themselves as playing a role that might or might not be approved of. (This is of course the foundation of Adam Smith’s social psychology in the Theory of Moral Sentiments.)

    Thirdly, I’m not sure what significance to give your point about picking up culture before mating. I’m not sure why cultural or instinctive characteristics that end up getting their evolutionary reward in mating, should be expected not to emerge until mating.

    • conrad says:

      “Firstly his book is written a decade and a half ago.”

      This makes sense then :).

      “I’m not sure why cultural or instinctive characteristics that end up getting their evolutionary reward in mating, should be expected not to emerge until mating.”

      At least in the developmental literature, the basic idea of looking at when things emerge is important for a number of reason.

      One is that it is used as an argument to tell you something might be innate, and not (or only weakly) socially driven. For example, if I can provide evidence that children who are say, 24 months old, display non-reciprocal altruistic acts (which has been done), then this provides some evidence that I might have some sort of evolved algorithm in my head that causes me to do this, and it is neither just a cultural epiphenomena nor something that necessarily emerges only from more general capacities that are shaped by any number of things. If I waited until 20 to display behavior, this would be much harder to argue for with this sort of aged-based argument (indeed, you wouldn’t use it).

      The other reason is it is important is for the task itself. If I’m carrying around some behavior useful for only one thing for years and years before it gets used, then it’s harder to argue that it is for some specific behavior, rather than something that can be used for multiple things. For example, play is generally thought to be important because it basically allows us (and indeed many species) to practice a lot of rather different things before things get serious. That includes both motor learning as well as social things that could be related to mating behavior. But because the connection between what I’m playing about at 6 (e.g., playing with a doll; fighting) is so far away from the complex actual act (e.g., social courtship) even if there was truly a direct and strong relationship between something I did, it would be very hard to tell. Do I play about social things because I need to later be the master of social courtship, or is this just an outcome of something more general, like being a master of dealing with people and playing helps me learn it? Some of it might seem obvious (e.g., playing with dolls is to do with later parenthood), but this is fraught with self-confirmation bias (e.g., children playing with fake animals is fairly ubiquitous across cultures — but we don’t generally try and link this with animal husbandry).
      You might compare this to things we find in biology where there are maturational stages that do seem much more in line with when you need them. When you become a teenager, for example, you get lots of hormones and stuff that no-doubt are related to courtship behavior. And so the connection is simply tighter and hence more likely to be directly causal.

      On an entirely different note, I think lots of people got sick of the way people try and treat altruism: I always point to this paper: which has a really good discussion of some of the different positions. Unfortunately, there is no good summary of the developmental stuff I know of.

  20. Mike Pepperday says:

    I don’t see how perceiving morality as an altruism problem would ever have been a straw man. Be that as it may, whether we look at morality as a form of evolved altruism or as evolved to please a sex partner, we are assuming that it evolved, that it is a property of the brain. I think this is unwarranted.

    For one thing, we are both moral and amoral. Genghis Khan, Serbian war criminals, ISIS, etc, etc, ad nauseam, do not seem to have guilty consciences. If morality were built in, how could they so behave? Such behaviour is, in historic perspective, perfectly normal.

    Still, morality also exists. How to explain it?

    We are an animal which can talk. We are also social and it is not conceivable that any animal could have our power of speech and not be social.

    What, then, does a talking animal talk about? Social life, which is morality—what else? Who did what when, to whom for what reasons. We pass judgement saying they should have done this then with them for this or that other reason. We inquire into the justifications of others’ actions and we justify our own. We have been doing this for perhaps a couple of million years.

    Through that time we gave our children instruction and justified those instructions by saying they were right and proper. You dig for this root near that kind of tree because to dig elsewhere yields inferior results. You sharpen your spear like this because the spear god showed our ancestors that is the correct way to do it. This kind of dance is performed just before the full moon because that is when it has always been performed.

    Should you dig elsewhere, sharpen another way or propose a dance at another time, the gossips will say how you are insulting the gods, corrupting the young, causing a drought… and you will be ostracised, punished, or even killed—and that will be done because it is the just and proper thing to do to cope with your transgressions.

    In short, it suffices that speech evolved. No need to claim morality evolved since morality will arise unavoidably.

    • john Walker says:

      ” it suffices that speech evolved. No need to claim morality evolved since morality will arise unavoidably.” Exactly! This whole discussion involves a ‘grain level’ misunderstanding . Trying to use ‘evolution’ to understand morality (or Meaning) is like trying to use a microscope to read a billboard.

      • conrad says:

        It’s not necessarily so. It certainly wouldn’t be impossible that there are some major underlying factors (with potentially reasonably long and non-obvious causal chains), which is what a lot of the arguments have been about over history — of course everyone wants nice clean direct relationships (for everything!) but these are very few and far between when talking about complex behavior. Getting definitive evidence is also hard.

        If there were not, then you would basically be claiming that morality is an emergent property of a system with no real difference to most other aspects of human thought. That might be possible too and so we’ll never know the answer.

        • john Walker says:

          Without in anyway suggesting that ‘it’ is not solely grounded in evolution, neurons and gene code – no ghosts in the machine- Morality, while not quite the same as, is fairly similar to Meaning. Therefore I think that definite (or perhaps more correctly complete) answers to Morality (or meaning) are… more of an art, than a science.
          But I could be wrong.

  21. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Another highlight for me is the last sections of the chapter before the Epilogue. Wittily entitled “The Wit to Woo” it struts the stuff of sexual selection behind our systems of ideology and epistemology and it looks much more convincing than survival based explanations.

  22. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Persse, What became of you?

  23. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Robin Hanson has written quite a few posts on Miller, which I’m making a note here to return to in due course.

  24. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I just happened upon this passage of Carlyle – and the whole essay itself – which explores in his ponderous way – many of the themes in the Nietzsche quote above.

    So cunningly does Nature, the mother of all highest Art, which only apes her from afar, ‘body forth the Finite from the Infinite’; and guide man safe on his wondrous path, not more by endowing him with vision, than, at the right place, with blindness! Under all her works, chiefly under her noblest work, Life, lies a basis of Darkness, which she benignantly conceals; in Life too, the roots and inward circulations which stretch down fearfully to the regions of Death and Night, shall not hint of their existence, and only the fair stem with its leaves and flowers, shone on by the fair sun, shall disclose itself, and joyfully grow.

    • john Walker says:

      For some reason that reminds me of this:
      “It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order – and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order.”

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