Love’s Labors and Costs

Lead Review / by Jonathan Gottschall /

"Spent" looks at why, when scientific research shows that more stuff doesn’t lead to more happiness, humans are driven to endlessly acquire.

Why do some people pay a 100,000 percent premium for a Rolex when a Timex is such a sleek and efficient timepiece? Why do others kill themselves at work just so they can get there in a Lexus? Why do we pay 1,000 times more for designer bottles of water when the stuff that gushes from our taps is safer (because it’s more regulated), often tastier, and better for the planet? And how do we convince ourselves that more stuff equals more happiness, when all the research shows that it doesn’t?

In Spent, University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller contends that marketing—the jet fuel of unrestrained consumerism—“is the most dominant force in human culture,” and thus the most powerful shaper of life on Earth. Using vivid, evocative language, Miller suggests that consumerism is the sea of modern life and we are the plankton—helplessly tumbled and swirled by forces we can feel but not understand. Miller aims to penetrate to the evolutionary wellsprings of consumerist mania, and to show how it is possible to live lives that are more sustainable, more sane, and more satisfying.

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior
By Geoffrey Miller; Viking
Out May 14 | Buy

Spent is about “display” consumerism. It leaves aside strictly utilitarian purchases like baloney or tampons. Understanding display consumerism, according to Miller, requires adding one part Thorstein Veblen to one part Darwin. From Veblen’s classic Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Miller appropriates the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” whereby people live and spend wastefully just to flaunt the fact that they can. From Darwin, Miller appropriates sexual selection theory—“costly signaling theory” in modern parlance—whereby animals compete by sending signals of their underlying genetic quality. As with the gaudy displays of peacocks, purchasing decisions frequently represent attempts to advertise “fundamental biological virtues” like “bodily traits of health, fitness, fertility, youth, and attractiveness, and mental traits of intelligence and personality.” Why spend $160,000 on a prestigious university degree? To make a “narcissistic self-display” of one’s intelligence and diligence. Why stuff yourself into a push-up bra and smear pigment across your lips and cheekbones? To try to enhance—or fake—your fertility signals.

Miller is an entertaining and charming guide, moving with a nimble insouciance across domains of science, popular culture, and high and low art. And there is an undeniable power in his analogy between the way that animals—including humans—market themselves via sexually selected traits, and the way that people try to send exaggerated signals of their personal merits through the products they display. For Miller the process of runaway sexual selection that gave rise to energetically wasteful ornaments like the peacock’s tail and antlers of the Irish Elk is precisely what gives rise to Hummers and McMansions.

Critically, Miller’s point is that the human urge to put on a show is biologically inevitable—consumerist culture is not. By changing the way we display, we can reduce the high individual, societal, and planetary costs of rampant consumerism. Miller offers suggestions for modifying social norms to stigmatize crass consumerism, along with sensible, though unoriginal, advice about resisting the consumerist urge (“just don’t get it”). More boldly, he proposes tax reform that would inhibit, rather than promote, the impulse to consume—rendering unto Caesar as money leaves the wallet (a consumption tax) rather than as money enters the wallet (the current system of income taxation). Unfortunately, Spent was clearly wrapped up before the economy pancaked, for Miller writes in the context of boom times. It would have been interesting to hear his take on a society that is schizophrenically limiting its flourishes—CEOs ditching their corporate jets, the new First Family proudly sporting J.Crew—while doing everything in its power to goose consumption via colossal government spending bills.

Spent is, effectively, the sequel to Miller’s The Mating Mind (2000), in which he argued that many of the most salient features of human behavior are rooted in sexual selection. Spent simply extends the premise to marketing and consumerism. And, like its prequel, Spent’s almost monomaniacal focus on sexual selection to the exclusion of other evolutionary processes is its greatest weakness.

For example, the book unaccountably neglects exciting developments in the field of evolutionary economics, which have helped retrieve the concept of group selection (or “selfless genes”) from the dustbin of scientific history. Why do students on college campuses dress in their indistinguishable Abercrombie and Hollister uniforms (accessorized with obligatory iPhones and iPod Shuffles, Ugg boots for the girls, and low, tattered caps for the boys)? Is this best explained as a biological trait display that is meant to distinguish young people from their sexual rivals? Or, on the contrary, is this a conformity display, which advertises in-group membership? Doesn’t so much consumer behavior reflect our evolved groupishness—our fear of being left off the bandwagon? Because Miller has evolutionary tunnel vision—examining his subject only in terms of one of several possible evolutionary concepts—he doesn’t ask questions like this, much less try to answer them. And can Miller be serious when he speculates that sinking $50,000 into a glittery stainless-steel kitchen is less about flaunting wealth—as Veblen and most other evolutionary psychologists would argue—and more about flaunting the partially heritable personality trait of conscientiousness (serious diligence is required to keep the spots off of all that steel)?

Illustration by Ana Benaroya

But even if Miller, like many a marketer who came before him, flogs his product too hard, his broadest point is well taken: We are awash in an ocean of consumerism, and we can’t fully understand that ocean (much less struggle out of it) until we recognize that it wells up from evolved biology as well as culture. We live in a turbulence of signals and counter-signals, with every human madly displaying his personal qualities, tribal affiliations, and social position at all times.

In fact, Miller may have made this final point a bit too well. I was not many pages into Spent before I found myself helplessly attuned to Miller’s own “narcissistic self-displays.” Miller reminds us frequently of his elite education, tells us that he owns several thousand books, lets on about his sophisticated taste in avant-garde art, makes offhand displays of his mastery of musical jargon (“timbral richness,” “isorhythmic motets,” “polyphony”), stresses his impeccable liberal credentials, and shows off his authentic verbal flair, his cosmopolitanism, and his soaring IQ (he argues —tendentiously —that elite university degrees function as covert IQ guarantees). So Spent functions not only as an attempt to popularize a vein of scientific research, but also as a means of selling the audience on the virtues of its creator: Geoffrey Miller—a smart guy, a bit of a Renaissance man.

There are two things to say about this. First, it is Geoffrey Miller, Renaissance man, who gives Spent so much of its winning personality, its narrative tang, and its consistent good humor. Second, Spent cued me in not only to its author’s self-marketing, but also to my own. For what is a book review if not—at least in part—a narcissistic self-display? What am I doing now, if not flaunting my penetration, my learning, my tough-minded yet charitable judgment, and—most narcissistically of all—my ability to take a decade of Miller’s life as a scholar, scientist, and close observer of American pop culture, and wrap it up neatly in a 1,200-word package—complete with an artful, preening flourish at the close?  —Jonathan Gottschall is co-editor of The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative.

Originally published May 15, 2009

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