SEX, PSYCHOLOGY AND EVOLUTION; A New Book States That Ferocious Marketing Is Distorting Our Natural Human Impulses. David Sexton Finds the Argument Convincing

The Evening Standard (London, England), June 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

SEX, PSYCHOLOGY AND EVOLUTION; A New Book States That Ferocious Marketing Is Distorting Our Natural Human Impulses. David Sexton Finds the Argument Convincing


Byline: David Sexton

EVOLUTIONARY psychology is the provisional wing of Darwinism. It's a new and controversial discipline, and while to its growing number of adherents it is providing some telling insights into why we do what we do, some critics see it as barely a discipline at all, extrapolating from the present to make inferences about the distant past rather than the other way around, with most of its results unverifiable.

Even if there's some truth to that, it's certainly one of the most interesting forms of writing to have emerged in the past decade or two -- and increasingly popular. And it needn't be, as the people who mistrust it allege, just a way of justifying the worst aspects of the status quo, "a pernicious Right-wing conspiracy, with the hidden ideological agenda of reviving biological determinism, sexism, racism and elitism".

Geoffrey Miller, one of the punchiest evolutionary psychologists now publishing, says these critics couldn't be more wrong. In fact, "holding an evolutionary psychology world view is actually an indicator of liberalism, agreeableness and altruism", he insists, in his new book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and the Secrets of Consumerism. And to prove it, in Spent, he has launched a full-out attack on the excesses of consumerism, portraying it as a snare and a delusion.

Miller, now 44 and a professor at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, made his name with a book called The Mating Mind, published in 2000, when he was teaching in London. There he argued that, in addition to straightforward Darwinian natural selection, the other great force that has shaped our evolution is sexual selection through mate choice, favouring traits that are attractive to the opposite sex, even when they have no other survival value. Thus we have the peacock's tail -- and much of the richness of human culture. For our ancestors were attracted not just to pretty faces and healthy bodies but to displays of inventiveness, kindness and intelligence, too.

In Spent, he denounces the way that marketing exploits and perverts these drives in a manner difficult for us to resist. It's not materialism per se that's the problem with consumption, he says. "Many products are signals first and material objects second."

Of course we have always bought many goods to display our wealth and status to others but Miller says it's more complicated than that. What we are trying to signal is our desirable traits, our "fitness" -- even though it never works well.

Consumerism tricks us into believing that "above-average products can compensate for below-average traits" when one is trying to build relationships, he observes. Armed with these tenets, he rips into consumer culture all round. One of his great bugbears is ostentatious cars. "Nature produced peacock tails: large, symmetrical, colourful, costly, awkward, high-maintenance, hard-to-fakfitness indicators. Human culture produced ... the Hummer H1, which is also large, symmetrical, colourful, costly, awkward and high-maintenance."

Buying a Corvette or a Porsche doesn't actually deliver a worthwhile percentage of "spontaneous sexual encounters with admiring female pedestrians", he sneers. Nonetheless, beneath most product pitches, there remains persistent "sexual caterwauling". A Vogue ad for a L'Oreal lipstick called Glam Shine Dazzling Plumping Lipcolour claimed that its "moisture-drenched formula with nonsticky texture delivers full, healthy lips with dazzling dimension and incredible shine". Miller retorts that this "breathless techno-sensualism" could more honestly be rendered as "this lipstick will signal your libidinous desperation and immi-nenovulation not only to your sexually jaded husband but to your male neighbours and household servants". …

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