Book Review: The Mating Mind

I once heard someone say that we evolved ears so that we could wear earrings. No joke. The more classic statement that follows that line of reasoning is the claim that we evolved noses in order to wear glasses. I know, it sounds pretty silly. Evolution is a highly controversial topic and our vague understanding of it has left many important questions unanswered. Darwinian concepts such as “natural selection” and the “survival of the fittest” are certainly relevant when discussing evolution, but they give us a rather incomplete picture of the process. I’ve long been fascinated by evolution, but I was always left to ruminate about countless deep questions, some of which include: Why do male peacocks have extravagant tails? Why did humans develop language, but other apes didn’t? How did a human taste for art evolve? How did the human mind evolve?

If you believe in evolution, then, by implication, you must realize that the human mind evolved somehow. In The Mating Mind the brilliant psychologist, Geoffrey Miller, argues that evolution has two distinct components: natural selection and sexual selection. Most people are familiar with natural selection, but sexual selection theory has long been neglected. Sexual selection is a concept that was introduced by Darwin in 1871. Darwin defined sexual selection as the “struggle between the individuals of one sex, generally the males, for the possession of the other sex.”

It’s interesting to note that the Darwinian ideas of natural selection and neoclassical economics share many theoretical applications. Natural selection behaves rationally and should thus be theoretically compatible with rational choice theory. In other words, evolution should behave rationally by avoiding costs that do not produce any survival advantage. We know, however, that is simply not true in reality. For a good laugh, ask an economist why male peacocks carry such large tails which are clearly an economic cost hindrance. So how would an evolutionary psychologist, like Miller, explain the male peacocks tail feathers? He believes that they can be explained by female sexual choice; however, throughout the book he argues that sexual choice goes both ways.

The central argument of the book is that the human mind evolved not just as a survival machine (as depicted through natural selection), but rather, as a courtship machine. If you think about it, every one of us comes from ancestors who managed to do more than just survive; our ancestors were able to sexually seduce at least one partner at some point in history. It doesn’t matter how good they might have been at surviving if they weren’t able to appear sexually attractive to the opposite sex. Miller claims that Darwin was the first to realize this. Ultimately, Miller argues that the most distinctive aspects of our minds evolved largely through the sexual choices our ancestors made. The human capacities for art, music, sports, religion, self-consciousness, and moral virtue are all a product of sexual choice.

Modernity, unlike Pleistocene life, allows all of us to benefit greatly from the courtship efforts of strangers we don’t even know. Strange as it sounds, users of Facebook have benefitted greatly from Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to appear sexually attractive to females. Miller argues that we will never cure, nor should we, these innate sexual drives. The great challenge of modernity is learning to channel human sexual competitiveness into ventures that create a more humane and ethical world. Imagine a world in which conspicuous consumption was replaced with “conspicuous charity”. In the end, Miller argues that we are free to decide which is more respected in our society.

[click the following for and copies of the book]


2 Comments on “Book Review: The Mating Mind”

  1. […] the Mating Mind, there was one section titled “Creative Ideologies Versus Reliable Knowledge” that I […]

  2. […] often neglected is that Darwinian evolution depends on more than just natural selection (see Geoffrey Miller’s book The Mating Mind). For Darwin, there is another process that drives evolution and it’s called sexual […]

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