[Paleopsych] Geoffrey Miller: Cultural production and political ideology as courtship displays

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Cultural production and political ideology as courtship displays

[He's the author of The Mating Mind, a highly original book arguing how 
sexual selection made men AND women human. This article came out before he 
finished the book. This article should interest transhumanists, too, as 
they contemplate post-humans. They should come in at least two sexes!]

    Political peacocks
    by Geoffrey F. Miller

    published as:
    Miller, G. F. (1996).  Political peacocks. Demos Quarterly, 10
    (Special issue on evolutionary psychology), pp. 9-11.

    The puzzle

    Suddenly, in the spring of 1986 in New York, hundreds of Columbia
    University students took over the campus adminstration building and
    demanded that the university sell off all of its stocks in companies
    that do business in South Africa.  As a psychology undergraduate at
    Columbia, I was puzzled by the spontaneity, ardour, and near-unanimity
    of the student demands for divestment.  Why would mostly white, mostly
    middle-class North Americans miss classes, risk jail, and occupy a
    drab office building for two weeks, in support of political freedom
    for poor blacks living in a country six thousand miles away?   The
    campus conservative newspaper ran a cartoon depicting the protest as
    an annual springtime mating ritual, with Dionysian revels punctuated
    by political sloganeering about this year's arbitrary cause.    At the
    time, I thought the cartoon tasteless and patronizing.  Now, I wonder
    if it contained a grain of truth.  Although the protests achieved
    their political aims only inefficiently and indirectly, they did
    function very effectively to bring together young men and women who
    claimed to share similar political ideologies.  Everyone I knew was
    dating someone they'd met at the sit-in.  In many cases, the
    ideological commitment was paper-thin, and the protest ended just in
    time to study for semester exams. Yet the sexual relationships
    facilitated by the protest sometimes lasted for years.

    The hypothesis that loud public advertisements of one's political
    ideology function as some sort of courtship display designed to
    attract sexual mates, analogous to the peacock's tail or the
    nightingale's song, seems dangerous.  It risks trivializing all of
    political discourse, just as the conservative cartoon lampooned the
    Columbia anti-apartheid protests.  The best way to avoid this pitfall
    is not to ignore the sexual undertones to human political behavior,
    but to analyze them seriously and respectfully using the strongest and
    most relevant theory we have from evolutionary biology: Darwin's
    theory of sexual selection through mate choice.

    The history

    Most people think of Darwinian evolution as a blind, haphazard,
    unguided process in which physical environments impose capricious
    selection pressures on species, which must adapt or die.  True, for
    natural selection itself.  But Darwin himself seems to have become
    rather bored with natural selection by the inanimate environment after
    he published The Origin of Species in 1859.  He turned to much more
    interesting question of how animal and human minds can shape
    evolution.  In his 1862 book On the various contrivances by which
    British and foreign orchids are fertilized by insects he outlined how
    the perceptual and behavioral capacities of pollinators shape the
    evolution of flower color and form.  In his massive two-volume work of
    1868, The variation of animals and plants under domestication, he
    detailed how human needs and tastes have shaped the evolution of
    useful and ornamental features in domesticates.  Further works on
    animal emotions in 1872 and the behavior of climbing plants in 1875
    continued the trend towards an evolutionary psychology.  Most
    provocatively, Darwin combined the frisson of sex with the spookiness
    of mind and the enigma of human evolution in his two-volume
    masterpiece of 1871, The descent of man, and Selection in relation to

    Darwin observed that many animals, especially females, are rather
    picky about their sexual partners.  But why would it ever pay to
    reject a suitor?  Being choosy requires time, energy, and intelligence
    - costs that can impair survival.  The basic rationale for mate choice
    is that random mating is stupid mating.  It pays to be choosy because
    in a sexually reproducing species, the genetic quality of your mate
    will determine half the genetic quality of your offspring.  Ugly,
    unhealthy mates usually lead to ugly,  unhealthy offspring.  By
    forming a joint genetic venture with an attractive, high-quality mate,
    one's genes are much more likely to be passed on.  Mate choice is
    simply the best eugenics and genetic screening that female animals are
    capable of carrying out under field conditions, with no equipment
    other than their senses and their brains.

    Often, sexual selection through mate choice can lead to spectacular
    results: the bowerbird's elaborate nest, the riflebird's riveting
    dance, the nightingale's haunting song, and the peacock's iridescent
    tail, for example.  Such features are complex adaptations that evolved
    through mate choice, to function both as advertisements of the male's
    health and as aesthetic displays that excite female senses.  One can
    recognize these courtship displays by certain biological criteria:
    they are expensive to produce and hard to maintain, they have survival
    costs but reproductive benefits, they are loud, bright, rhythmic,
    complex, and creative to stimulate the senses, they occur more often
    after reproductive maturity, more often during the breeding season,
    more often in males than in females, and more often when potential
    mates are present than absent.  Also, they tend to evolve according to
    unpredictable fashion cycles that change the detailed structure and
    content of the displays while maintaining their complexity, extremity,
    and cost.  By these criteria, most human behaviors that we call
    cultural, ideological, and political would count as courtship

    Victorian skeptics objected to Darwin's theory of sexual selection by
    pointing out that in contemporary European society, women tended to
    display more physical ornamentation than men, contrary to the
    men-display-more hypothesis.  This is true only if courtship display
    is artificially restricted to physical artefacts worn on the body.
    Whereas Victorian women ornamented themselves with mere jewelry and
    clothing, men ornamented themselves with the books they wrote,
    pictures they painted, symphonies they composed, country estates they
    bought, honors they won, and vast political and economic empires they

    Although Darwin presented overwhelming evidence for his ingenious
    sexual selection theory, it fell into disrepute for over a century.
    Even Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection,
    preferred to view male ornaments as outlets for a surplus of male
    energy, rather than as adaptations evolved through female choice. Even
    now, we hear echoes of Wallace's fallacious surplus-of-energy argument
    in most psychological and anthropological theories about the
    "self-expressive" functions of human art, music, language, and
    culture.  The Modern Synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinism in
    the 1930s continued to reject female choice, assuming that sexual
    ornaments simply intimidate other males or keep animals from mating
    with the wrong species.  Only in the 1980s, with a confluence of
    support from mathematical models, computer simulations, and
    experiments in animal and human mate choice, has Darwin's sexual
    selection theory been re-established as a major part of evolutionary
    biology.  Unfortunately, almost everything written about the
    evolutionary origins of the human mind, language, culture, ideology,
    and politics, has ignored the power of sexual selection through mate
    choice as a force that creates exactly these sorts of elaborate
    display behaviors.

    The hypothesis

    Humans are ideological animals.  We show strong motivations and
    incredible capacities to learn, create, recombine, and disseminate
    ideas.  Despite the evidence that these idea-processing systems are
    complex biological adaptations that must have evolved through
    Darwinian selection, even the most ardent modern Darwinians such as
    Stephen Jay Gould, Richards Dawkins, and Dan Dennett tend to treat
    culture as an evolutionary arena separate from biology.  One reason
    for this failure of nerve is that it is so difficult to think of any
    form of natural selection that would favor such extreme, costly, and
    obsessive ideological behavior.  Until the last 40,000 years of human
    evolution, the pace of technological and social change was so slow
    that it's hard to believe there was much of a survival payoff to
    becoming such an ideological animal.  My hypothesis, developed in a
    long Ph.D. dissertation, several recent papers, and a forthcoming
    book, is that the payoffs to ideological behavior were largely
    reproductive.  The heritable mental capacities that underpin human
    language, culture, music, art, and myth-making evolved through sexual
    selection operating on both men and women, through mutual mate
    choice.  Whatever technological benefits those capacities happen to
    have produced in recent centuries are unanticipated side-effects of
    adaptations originally designed for courtship.

    Language, of course, is the key to ideological display.  Whereas
    songbirds can only toy with protean combinations of pitch, rhythm, and
    timbre, language gives humans the closest thing to telepathy in
    nature: the ability to transmit complex ideas from one head to
    another, through the tricks of syntax and semantics.  Language opens a
    window into other minds, expanding the arena of courtship display from
    the physical to the conceptual.  This has enormous implications for
    the way that sexual selection worked during the last few hundred
    thousand years of human evolution.  As human courtship relied more
    heavily on language, mate choice focused more on the ideas that
    language expresses.  The selection pressures that shaped the evolution
    of the human mind came increasingly not from the environment testing
    whether one's hunting skills were sufficient for survival, but from
    other minds testing whether one's ideas were interesting enough to
    provoke some sexual attraction.   Every ancestor of every human living
    today was successful in attracting someone to mate with them.
    Conversely, the millions of hominids and early humans who were too
    dull and uninspiring to become our ancestors carried genes for brains
    that were not as ideologically expressive as ours.  A wonderful effect
    of this runaway sexual selection was that brain size in our lineage
    has tripled over the last two million years, giving us biologically
    unprecedented capacities for creative thought, astonishing
    expressiveness, and intricate culture.  A more problematic effect is
    that our ideological capacities were under selection to be novel,
    interesting, and entertaining to other idea-infested minds, not to
    accurately represent the external world or their own transient and
    tangential place in it.  This general argument applies to many domains
    of human behaviour and culture, but for the remainder of the paper, I
    will focus on political ideology.

    The predictions and implications

    The vast majority of people in modern societies have almost no
    political power, yet have strong political convictions that they
    broadcast insistently, frequently, and loudly when social conditions
    are right.  This behavior is puzzling to economists, who see clear
    time and energy costs to ideological behavior, but little political
    benefit to the individual.  My point is that the individual benefits
    of expressing political ideology are usually not political at all, but
    social and sexual.  As such, political ideology is under strong social
    and sexual constraints that make little sense to political theorists
    and policy experts.  This simple idea may solve a number of old
    puzzles in political psychology.  Why do hundreds of questionnaires
    show that men more conservative, more authoritarian, more
    rights-oriented, and less empathy-oriented than women?  Why do people
    become more conservative as the move from young adulthood to middle
    age? Why do more men than women run for political office? Why are most
    ideological revolutions initiated by young single men?

    None of these phenomena make sense if political ideology is a rational
    reflection of political self-interest.  In political, economic, and
    psychological terms, everyone has equally strong self-interests, so
    everyone should produce equal amounts of ideological behavior, if that
    behavior functions to advance political self-interest.  However, we
    know from sexual selection theory that not everyone has equally strong
    reproductive interests.  Males have much more to gain from each act of
    intercourse than females, because, by definition, they invest less in
    each gamete.   Young males should be especially risk-seeking in their
    reproductive behavior, because they have the most to win and the least
    to lose from risky courtship behavior (such as becoming a political
    revolutionary).  These predictions are obvious to any sexual selection
    theorist.  Less obvious are the ways in which political ideology is
    used to advertise different aspects of one's personality across the

    In unpublished studies I ran at Stanford University with Felicia
    Pratto, we found that university students tend to treat each others'
    political orientations as proxies for personality traits.
    Conservatism is simply read off as indicating an ambitious,
    self-interested personality who will excel at protecting and
    provisioning his or her mate.  Liberalism is read as indicating a
    caring, empathetic personality who will excel at child care and
    relationship-building.  Given the well-documented, cross-culturally
    universal sex difference in human mate choice criteria, with men
    favoring younger, fertile women, and women favoring older,
    higher-status, richer men, the expression of more liberal ideologies
    by women and more conservative ideologies by men is not surprising.
    Men use political conservatism to (unconsciously) advertise their
    likely social and economic dominance; women use political liberalism
    to advertise their nurturing abilities.  The shift from liberal youth
    to conservative middle age reflects a mating-relevant increase in
    social dominance and earnings power, not just a rational shift in
    one's self-interest.

    More subtley, because mating is a social game in which the
    attractiveness of a behavior depends on how many other people are
    already producing that behavior, political ideology evolves under the
    unstable dynamics of game theory, not as a process of simple
    optimization given a set of self-interests.  This explains why an
    entire student body at an American university can suddenly act as if
    they care deeply about the political fate of a country that they
    virtually ignored the year before.  The courtship arena simply
    shifted, capriciously, from one political issue to another, but once a
    sufficient number of students decided that attitudes towards apartheid
    were the acid test for whether one's heart was in the right place, it
    became impossible for anyone else to be apathetic about apartheid.
    This is called frequency-dependent selection in biology, and it is a
    hallmark of sexual selection processes.

    What can policy analysts do, if most people treat political ideas as
    courtship displays that reveal the proponent's personality traits,
    rather than as rational suggestions for improving the world?  The
    pragmatic, not to say cynical, solution is to work with the evolved
    grain of the human mind by recognizing that people respond to policy
    ideas first as big-brained, idea-infested, hypersexual primates, and
    only secondly as concerned citizens in a modern polity.  This view
    will not surprise political pollsters, spin doctors, and speech
    writers, who make their daily living by exploiting our lust for
    ideology, but it may surprise social scientists who take a more
    rationalistic view of human nature.    Fortunately, sexual selection
    was not the only force to shape our minds.  Other forms of social
    selection such as kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and even group
    selection seem to have favoured some instincts for political
    rationality and consensual egalitarianism.   Without the sexual
    selection, we would never have become such colourful ideological
    animals.  But without the other forms of social selection, we would
    have little hope of bringing our sexily protean ideologies into
    congruence with reality.

    Further Readings

    Andersson, M.  (1994).  Sexual selection.  Princeton U. Press.

    Betzig, L.  (1986).  Despotism and differential reproduction:  A
    Darwinian view of history.   Hawthorne,  NY: Aldine.

    Buss, D. M. (1994).  The evolution of desire:  Human mating
    strategies.  New York: Basic Books.

    Cronin, H. (1991).  The ant and the peacock:  Altruism and sexual
    selection from Darwin to today.  Cambridge U. Press.

    Darwin, C.  (1871).  The descent of man,  and selection in relation
    to sex (2 vols.).   London: John Murray.

    Fisher, H.  (1992).  Anatomy of love:  The natural history of
    monogamy, adultery, and divorce.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

    Miller, G. F.  (1993).  Evolution of the human brain  through runaway
    sexual selection:  The mind as a protean courtship device.  Ph.D.
    thesis, Stanford University Psychology Department.  (Available through
    UMI Microfilms; Book in preparation for MIT Press/Bradford Books).

    Miller, G. F. (in press). Sexual selection in human evolution: Review
    and prospects.  For C. Crawford & D. Krebs (Eds.), Evolution and Human
    Behavior: Ideas, Issues, and Applications. Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Miller, G. F., & Todd, P. M.  (1995). The role of mate choice in
    biocomputation:  Sexual selection as a process of search,
    optimization, and diversification.  In W. Banzaf & F. Eeckman  (Eds.),
    Evolution and biocomputation: Computational models of evolution.
    Lecture notes in computer science  899.  (pp. 169-204).

    Pomiankowski, A., & Moller, A. (1995).  A resolution of the lek
    paradox.  Proc. R. Soc. London B,  260(1357), 21-29.

    Ridley, M.  (1993).  The red queen:  Sex and the evolution of human
    nature.  New York: Viking.

    Wright, R.  (1994).  The moral animal:  Evolutionary psychology and
    everyday life.  New York: Pantheon Books.

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