Our Tales are Our Tails:
Miller Revives Darwin's "Other" Dangerous Idea

Timothy Horvath
May 2000
For CogWeb: Cognitive Cultural Studies

Geoffrey F. Miller
The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature
New York: Doubleday. April 18, 2000

As evolutionary psychology treks across the disciplines, offering insight and theory, fiction, literature, and the arts prove slippery, unreliable footholds. Whereas behaviors as strange and counterintuitive as infanticide turn out to be plainly illuminated by evolutionary explanations, and in fact appear to require them, the arts tend to resist such explanatory complementarity. In the Mating Mind, Geoffrey Miller has a go at the conundrum of why people devote massive amounts of time, energy, and emotion to endeavors with little obvious survival value. He argues that the explanation has been woefully overlooked: sexual selection theory, the idea that ultimately it doesn't matter who survives; the only survival worth anything in evolutionary time is that which lasts long enough for procreation, and wherein procreation takes place . It is not surprising that our theories of the arts are impoverished, argues Miller, because our theories of the mind are impoverished by metaphors designating the mind as primarily an information-processing computer. The better model for the mind is an entertainment center, and the arts are its natural output. Certainly, natural selection shapes our bodies and minds, but sexual selection is equally influential, and much more visible in the array of artistic productions. The novel, the film, the quip, and the code of conduct are the human equivalents of the peacock's tail, elaborate examples of ornamentation that advertise fitness through their very excess and flagrant lack of utility.

Miller's arguments are compelling, and must be reckoned with by any scholar trying to bring evolutionary explanations to bear on the arts. In the breadth of subject matter, the rollicking tone, and the breezy self-confidence, Miller's book resembles Pinker's How the Mind Works, even while attempting to turn the negative space of that book into its very canvas. The book might be subtitled, How the Mind Plays, or more aptly still, How the Mind Shows Off. Its greatest flaw may be that in reviving sexual selection from its status as second fiddle to natural selection, it drives the remainder of the orchestra cowering into the aisles; unfortunately, Beethoven's Ninth does not sound particularly profound on the solo fiddle. (Actually, Miller avoids talking about music, instead referring to it in the Epilogue as a promising topic on which he has many ideas for future work). Yet although the Mating Mind may overstate the case in terms of the pervasiveness of sexual selection, it adds analytical terms to the conversation that will prove indispensable to future discussions of evolution and the arts.

Miller begins by stating three knotty problems inherent in strictly survivalist explanations: they cannot account for the rarity of large-brained creatures, for the "lag between the brain's expansion and its apparent survival payoffs," and the uniquely human activities that we are best at, ranging from storytelling to humor. He proposes that the mind is a "courtship machine" as much as one built for survival. Inviting evolutionary psychologists to "go Dionysian," he favors Nietzsche over Kant as the heroic thinker par excellence in terms of insight into the arts. The figure of Dionysian revelry affords Miller one of many memorable lines, as he writes, "In poetic terms, I wondered whether the mind evolved by moonlight."

Miller credits sexual selection theory to Darwin himself, and argues that it was the ideological close-mindedness of Darwin's contemporaries, rather than any strictly scientific flaw, that kept this branch of Darwin's theory relatively obscure. In successive chapters, Miller adduces a number of theories for how sexual selection itself takes place, each of which he finds to be necessary but not sufficient for a complete account. Thus, the chapter entitled "The Runaway Brain" describes how positive feedback processes can be used to model theories of how the brain grew in size and complexity, and produced pronounced differences between males and females. But "pure" runaway theory is rejected, its shortcomings pinpointed: it cannot account for the consistency of brain evolution over time, nor for the overall similarity between male and female minds; runaway theory would predict males with superintelligence and unintelligent, dependent females. But this section seems only prefatory to the real essence of Miller's claims. The next theories he explicates, about the emergence of ornamentation, and fitness indicators, are much more persuasive in Miller's hands. Here, the primary reference point is Zahavi, who demonstrated the sense in which the animal ornamentation operates under a "handicap principle," wherein "they advertise true fitness by handicapping an individual with a survival cost." Thus the peacock's tail announces, through its "prodigious waste," that the accompanying genotype and phenotype alike are fit, and worthy of being sexually selected. This theory is then combined with a concept of how ornamentation develops. Here, sensory biases, along with a pleasure system which is interconnected, rather than domain specific, causes the "consumer" of the advertised fitness to come to favor certain types of ornament, and which in turn leads to further and more complex ornamentation.

By Chapter 6, then, the bulk of the claim, this convergence of runaway, fitness indicator, and ornamentation theory, has been established, leaving the remainder of the book to work through the consequences and nuances. Miller tends to jump--sometimes annoyingly, generally entertainingly, from topic to topic. He takes us back into the Pleistocene to imagine what courtship must have been like, and it turns out to be more familiar than trying to imagine most quotidian endeavors in that epoch. He zooms in for some close-ups on the body, including a section entitled "Size Mattered," which is roughly about what it sounds as though it's about. From there it is on to sports, and then, at last, to the arts in general, ethics, and finally back to art, focusing more specifically on language as an art and the literary arts, delivering on the promises made early on in the book. Can Miller's bold proposals offer wisdom?

In his first, broad discussion of art, he provides the panoramic view: runaway theory and sensory bias theory, as earlier, are insufficient explanatory criteria in themselves, and art must be seen as a fitness indicator. Our tales (to make tales metonymical for all art productions) are our versions of the peacock's tails. It should be noted that Miller's understanding of art is sophisticated, and he does not dismiss modern art, but rather sheds light on why so many people do dismiss it, based on savvy evolutionary considerations. The analysis of morality as a display, mainly evolved because it is appealing in choosing a mate, is less successful, perhaps because Miller downplays reciprocity theory by construing it too narrowly, and attempting to replace it with sexual selection. In the chapter, he only mentions Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue once, seeing it as insufficient to explain phenomena such as "leadership, romantic generosity, sympathy, sexual fidelity, or sportsmanship." Ridley's own work, however, does not necessarily have the shortcomings attributed to it by Miller; Miller dismisses it as largely limited to kinship theory and strict reciprocity, and therefore missing the full spectrum of moral spheres. In contrast, Ridley's work, particularly because it locates proto-moral behavior along a species continuum, down to the slime mold and the vampire bat, to my mind seems to be the better "tool" for getting at moral behaviors. Although debates remain lively as ever over whether altruism at the level of simpler organisms is either homologous or analogous to that in more complex creatures, it is at least somewhat plausible that natural selection has instilled algorithms for coordinating behaviors both cooperative and exploitative. If so, these would be atomic elements of morality worth scrutinizing, rather than the acts of conspicuous charity that Miller cites as evidence, as attractive as the latter may be. For morality, then, perhaps Miller's caveat in the book about the necessity of choosing the proper tools, invoked earlier to convince us to apply sexual selection to certain human capacities, should take precedence over consistency.

The chapter "Cyrano and Scheherezade" deserves to be singled out as one of the strongest in the volume, and factored into the larger ongoing debates about the origins of language itself. Here, Miller elevates the role of language in courtship to a position as prominent as the role language is already presumed to have had in jump-starting and improving information-processing, hunting, culture-building, society-building, etc. The author pegs various phenomena as mysteries--the sheer plenitude of language, which far exceeds merely-pragmatic constraints, the disproportionate amount that people (men in particular) speak during courtship compared with their relative reticence at a later, more secure but mundane juncture in a relationship. These mysteries dissipate as soon as we grasp the idea that language evolved as a courtship device, rather than merely as an efficiency-increasing information-distribution system. By invoking the paradigmatic figures of Cyrano for his "verbal panache," and Scheherezade for her life-preserving gift of captivating others through narrative, Miller works admirably from within the literary canon in order to open up important territory in literary analysis.

But the most glaring vulnerability in the argument actually lurks much earlier in the book, when Miller first addresses the arts as a general phenomenon. Miller states outright there, "Beauty conveys truth, but not the way we thought. Aesthetic significance does not deliver truth about the human condition in general: it delivers truth about the condition of a particular human, the artist." This either/or reasoning is uncharacteristic of the author--he generally steers clear of binary thinking, making room under his own umbrella for the many contributing forces of sexual selection cited earlier, alternative views of sexual selection, and for other umbrellas altogether--art criticism and GOFEP (good old-fashioned evolutionary psychology), which reverse engineers the mind in search of practical survival function in the form of adaptations. But here, by excising "truth about the human condition" entirely from the source of the value of art, Miller forces a false choice. As he perceptively phrases it later in the book, in a subchapter entitled "Form and Content," "what we say is generally more important than how we say it." Indeed, if one is swayed by this latter claim, and pushed to dwell on "content," it will not take long to recognize that the content of much art, certainly much literary art, precisely is the probing examination or scathing critique of the "human condition." Such mimetic, thematic qualities of literature--in short, its content--have been explored in Robert Storey's Mimesis and the Human Animal in an evolutionary framework, which therefore might make a valuable contrapuntal companion to this volume.

After all, given more distance than the vizier who listened, riveted by Scheherezade's stories, we can locate in the tales commentary on our own lives, on distant times, and on the nature of life and death. We can read past dawn, unlike the vizier, and therefore stray momentarily past death, contemplating both the horizon of mortality, and ourselves in the act of doing so. Unlike the peacock's tail, our tales are about more than the talebearer.




Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles