[Paleopsych] Geoffrey F. Miller: Political peacocks

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Geoffrey F. Miller: Political peacocks
[Thanks to Alice Andrews for this.]

Miller, G. F. (1996).  Political
peacocks. Demos Quarterly, 10 (Special
issue on evolutionary psychology), pp.

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

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 sex.

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 built.

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

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

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 lifespan.

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

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),

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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