Gene Expression


i-969b6ff91caa3b6a4bc1891c700732d4-31--B9alQzL._SS500_.png

In the wake of Predictably Irrational, check out Tyler Cowen’s endorsement of Geoffrey Miller’s new book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. Miller is a good writer, so I’m assuming it will be a page-turner, but he does tend to be “provocative” in all the best & worst ways when it comes to popular science. Evolutionary psychologists have a tendency to make everything about sex & status, but within the field it seems Miller does come off as the “pimp daddy” always talking about the “bling” and “b**tches” as the raison d’ĂȘtre.

Comments

  1. #1 Colugo
    April 29, 2009

    For Miller even 9/11 was ultimately about consumerism:

    http://www.edge.org/documents/whatnow_print.html#miller

    The saying is hackneyed as hell, but applies to Miller: When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    Aside: The cover of the book makes it look like a Geico caveman spinoff.

  2. #2 agnostic
    April 29, 2009

    We’re in a new Victorian Age, as far as Darwinian thinking goes — there’s a lot of good stuff, and a lot of questionable fashionable stuff to meet the ravenous consumer demand. I just hope this isn’t like an irrational bubble — “everything is evolutionary psychology, and we can never be wrong!” — that will pop and result in an anti-Darwinian backlash, just like the bursting of the Victorian pro-Darwin bubble resulted in the void of evolutionary research in the early 20th C.

  3. #3 hmmm
    April 29, 2009

    The interesting thing about this book by Miller is that he seems to do the impossible, namely to fashion evolutionary psychology into a weapon *for the left* against capitalism.

    I generally don’t like Miller’s POV too much. The exchange he had with Satoshi Kanazawa a few years back was instructive. He frequently gives a pro forma nod of acknowledgement to (say) the heritability of IQ, but then gets right back to bashing Bush and capitalism as if it were somehow controversial or insightful to pile on — even if he’s jumping on the pile from a slightly different angle.

    For example, with regard to the snippet that Tyler excerpted, it’s not at all apparent to me that marketing and consumerism are net negatives.

    First: it is amusing that Miller is almost certainly engaging in a book tour for his work, and probably spent a lot of time picking out the cover and so on. Of course he wanted to bring his product to people’s attention and present it in the best possible light. The inherent contradictions here may have passed his notice, just as they most surely have passed Naomi Klein’s (aka “Capitalism sucks! Buy my book now!”).

    Second: marketing is a signal of quality if nothing else. Leaving aside mom’s home cooking for now, a product line which puts together a good marketing campaign is probably higher quality than one that can’t. It’s just like open source code — stuff that is documented and has a well designed website tends to be better, simply because the guys putting it together had more talent and resources. Compare the Rails website to sourceforge abandonware. First impressions matter.

    In other words, Miller as an evolutionary psychologist should realize that *beauty is more than skin deep*. A product which manages to appear “beautiful” often has many attractive properties. Of course there are optical illusions in marketing just as there is plastic surgery and makeup with beauty, but the basic principle is intact.

    Third: the people who decry capitalism tend to live in advanced capitalist societies. And the invisible hand of “consumerism” built those societies.

    For example:

    http://iowahawk.typepad.com/iowahawk/2005/03/college_profs_d.html

    College Profs Denounce Western Culture, Move to Caves

    Cambridge, MA – Two years ago this month, Alan Lowenstein, associate professor of philosophy at Harvard University, came to a fateful conclusion. “I suddenly realized that the oppression of western technology extended to my own life,” he explained. “That’s when I got rid of my computer, threw away my Brooks Brothers suits, changed my name to Grok and moved into a cave.”

    Basically, Miller’s whole oeuvre rubs me the wrong way because he seems to get off on being seen as an iconoclast while (in practice) refusing to take on the real sacred cows.

  4. #4 gcochran
    April 29, 2009

    “Miller is almost certainly engaging in a book tour for his work”

    Last I heard he was spending this semester in Australia.

  5. #5 agnostic
    April 29, 2009

    I’m told that part of the downfall of Postmodernism was the critique, which I first heard from Chomsky but which caught on among the Po-Mos themselves, that all this deconstructing of the enslaving metanarratives, etc., didn’t actually result in poor or oppressed people living better lives.

    If you wanted to do that, you volunteered in West Africa to administer shots against common but easily treated infections, or you organized a community, or whatever. Academic gobbledygook contributed nothing.

    Might we see something similar with the railing against consumerism? If you don’t like it, do something about it. Don’t just sit there reading Ad Busters and made cute comments. Once people see how bogus a lot of the anti-consumerist stuff is, people will be OK with consumerism.

  6. #6 razib
    April 29, 2009

    The interesting thing about this book by Miller is that he seems to do the impossible, namely to fashion evolutionary psychology into a weapon *for the left* against capitalism.

    well, i know your opinions in regards to the necessary logical inferences that are made from the sciences of human nature, but it’s just not impossible as an empirical matter. on the contrary, there’s survey data that most promoters of ev psych lean left personally. i do agree that in his *popular* books miller squeezes as much social liberal juice as possible out of the work in a way that is atypically brazen, but not to be predictable, i think it’s a marketing ploy in terms of what sells to his intended audience (e.g., his argument in favor of polygyny implicitly supporting temporary pair bonds). in any case, it seems likely that the nature of the human beast is to rationalize arguments for our preheld views (which we hold for whatever reason) from the set of data on hand, and evolutionary psychologists are no different here (though obviously there’s an added irony that they’re trapped in their natures when it’s their putative discipline).

  7. #7 Colugo
    April 30, 2009

    “the nature of the human beast is to rationalize arguments for our preheld views”

    I would go even further. Everyone tries to not just rationalize but sacralize their own lifestyles and worldviews. The religious do it through allegedly supernaturally derived texts and ritual. The scientifically minded – scientists, atheists, so-called “rationalists” – do it through invoking the authority of scientific Truth (which serves the same psychological and sociological function as divine infallibility). And within the scientific/rationalist/atheist community this behavior extends far beyond evolutionary psychology. In fact, outspoken anti-sociobiologists are among the most blatant.

  8. #8 razib
    April 30, 2009

    colugo, the tendency is weaker among those with some level of asperger’s don’t you think?

  9. #9 hmmmmm
    April 30, 2009

    Miller definitely is doing a book tour. First hit on google for “Geoff Miller book tour”:

    http://www.amazon.com/Mating-Mind-Sexual-Choice-Evolution/dp/038549517X

    I’m really excited about my new book ‘Spent’, and hope you find it engaging, funny, and provocative.

    If you want to find out more about my research, see my university web site:
    http://www.unm.edu/~psych/faculty/lg_gmiller.html

    I’ll be doing a two-week book tour to promote Spent May 15 – June 1.
    Events scheduled so far:
    San Francisco May 18: Mechanic’s Institute
    Seattle May 19: Town Hall
    Portland May 20: Illahee Institute
    Los Angeles My 27-31: Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference.

  10. #10 Colugo
    April 30, 2009

    Razib: That may well be the case.

  11. #11 hmmmmmm
    April 30, 2009

    all this deconstructing of the enslaving metanarratives, etc., didn’t actually result in poor or oppressed people living better lives.

    Very interesting. It squares with a thought provoking essay I read recently (no endorsement implied by link mind you). And of course it’s one of Razib’s favorite MOs — use the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house, as it were.

    I can’t deny the effectiveness of the technique in tactical terms. Almost any idea can get a hearing if you pre-emptively blame the other side for being insufficiently leftist — “how dare you endanger X lives by not using iodine supplements to boost IQ”.

    I wonder whether puffing up the current God works in strategic terms, though. See my next comment.

    ——–

    well, i know your opinions in regards to the necessary logical inferences that are made from the sciences of human nature, but it’s just not impossible as an empirical matter.

    Hmmm. We might differ on what you think I think are necessary inferences :)

    To clarify: the human sciences mostly serve as impossibility proofs for me. Certain policies have extremely low probabilities of success. Ignoring these constraints or minimizing their importance leads to outcome predictions that are wrong in trivial ways.

    Now, it turns out that a lot of the things proven impossible are beloved of the broad left. But sure, you can emphasize aspects of the human sciences that are favorable to the left’s worldview. Usually said emphases are rhetorical rather than substantive, but sometimes they are even genuine.

    But I guess my view is that insofar as evolutionary psychology has any hard analytic results, an approach of this sort will tend to dilute the truth beyond recognition.

    My analogy #1: doing this kind of framing reminds me of how many scientists in ye olden days had to portray their results as supporting the “greater glory of God”. Well, ok, if that’s what you need to do to get it out there.

    My analogy #2: framing evolutionary psychology as favorable to the left is kind of like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh calling a policy “racist”. Yeah, tactically that’s a win. Everyone will work to avoid the label of “racist”. But strategically it’s a loss. By adopting the discourse of the left they’re building up the taboos of the other team.

    On the other hand, my version of your position: framing evolutionary psychology as favorable to the left is similar to the Gramscian campaign waged over the 20th century to make diversity the pinnacle of Americanism. The left didn’t out-and-out state their hostility to America** when they were numerically weak. Instead they wrapped themselves in the flag and romanticized the Ellis Island period. (Ironically, if you read Woodrow Wilson or T. Roosevelt on Hyphenated Americans, the Ellis Island period wasn’t too romantic when it was contemporary).

    The result of this strategy: hilarious episodes, such as the one in which coalitional solidarity got PC Myers to admit an interest in the comparative ethnology of testicular volumes.

    ** Mencius has an interesting point — that these anti-Americans really *are* to be viewed as ultra-Americans, as the Constitution was structurally unstable from the get-go. As such, the pose that many of the more cynical among them think is a tactic (aka Alinsky’s Rule #4) is actually their historical strategy!

    on the contrary, there’s survey data that most promoters of ev psych lean left personally.

    Sure. Lots of scientist believe in god as well, though. People can compartmentalize, but maintaining referential integrity is nevertheless valuable. When one table is updated with a new fact, you should syllogistically propagate that through to other tables. Joe Schmoe is incapable of such propagation on any time horizon, but that doesn’t mean that it should be ruled as impossible. Teasing out the nontrivial implications of the current body of knowledge is what scientists do, after all.

    i do agree that in his *popular* books miller squeezes as much social liberal juice as possible out of the work in a way that is atypically brazen, but not to be predictable, i think it’s a marketing ploy in terms of what sells to his intended audience (e.g., his argument in favor of polygyny implicitly supporting temporary pair bonds). in any case, it seems likely that the nature of the human beast is to rationalize arguments for our preheld views (which we hold for whatever reason) from the set of data on hand, and evolutionary psychologists are no different here (though obviously there’s an added irony that they’re trapped in their natures when it’s their putative discipline).

    Sure. I guess there’s a balance here. There’s a certain set of ideas that I think are important and underappreciated. Miller has at least a glancing familiarity with some of them. He’s written a book. If his net effect is Pinkerish — to reduce some of the stigma around ev psych — great. If his net effect is Diamondish or Lewontonian — namely to furnish the left with half-understood *and wrong* arguments from genetics — then it’s bad.

    The latter is what I’m afraid of here.

    PS: One can’t fail to note that the political valence of said net effect is generally correlated with the biases of the author (Pinker is effectively a man of the right, Diamond on the left). So I don’t have high hopes.

    PSS: One might ask, “why do you care about the political effect rather than the science itself”? Well, the thing is that the political arena determines what science can be done in this area, so…

  12. #12 hmmmm
    April 30, 2009

    By the way, that link by Colugo really is amazing. The worst part of it is noticing just how unexceptional Miller is. Seemingly every voice in that thread calls for us to understand the terrorists, that violence is not the answer, and so on.

    Of course, no understanding was ever given to the Oklahoma City Bombers. No courses on the roots of rage, the “true meaning” of their jihad, the structural conditions that could have given rise to their anger, etc. etc. They were just crazy militia guys scared of black helicopters, end of story.

    That portrayal is the difference between a movement that the media is sympathetic to and one it utterly condemns.

    Additional digressive point: it’s often said that seeking to “understand” something is not the same as sympathizing with it. But of course if your goal is to utterly destroy a movement, is there much point in *really* understanding it *on its own terms*? As an example, Nazism was completely destroyed and is ostensibly much studied in school — but the first time I felt I understood their motives was when I saw ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’.

  13. #13 bioIgnoramus
    April 30, 2009

    “calls for us to understand the terrorists..”: so do I, in hopes that it will lead to their more rapid and thorough extermination.

  14. #14 hmmmmm
    May 1, 2009

    I take it back. Reading the excerpts of Miller on Sailer’s blog, I can see that he really doesn’t shrink away from pushing some controversial points. I’d only seen excerpts and talks by him where he stresses the “easy” stuff (capitalism sucks!). But since he’s actually going to bat for genetics and personality — i.e. calling out egalitarianism and nurturism by name for scorn — his book will *overall* be a win.