Geoffrey Miller’s Spent"/>
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Evolving into Consumerism—and Beyond It:
Geoffrey Miller’s Spent

2,042 words

Geoffrey Miller
Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior
New York: Viking, 2009

When I was asked to review this book, I half groaned because I was sure of what to expect and I also knew it was not going to broaden my knowledge in a significant way. From my earlier reading up on other, but tangentially related subject areas (e.g., advertising), I already knew, and it seemed more than obvious to me, that consumer behavior had an evolutionary basis. Therefore, I expected this book would not make me look at the world in an entirely different way, but, rather, would reaffirm, maybe clarify, and hopefully deepen by a micron or two, my existing knowledge on the topic. The book is written for a popular audience, so my expectations were met. Fortunately, however, reading it proved not to be a chore: the style is very readable, the information is well-organized, and there are a number of unexpected surprises along the way to keep the reader engaged.

Coming from a humanities educational background, I was familiar with Jean Baudrillard’s treatment of consumerism through his early works: The System of Objects (1968), The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (1970), and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972). Baudrillard believed that there were four ways an object acquired value: through its functional value (similar to the Marxian use-value); through its exchange, or economic value; through its symbolic value (the object’s relationship to a subject, or individual, such as an engagement ring to a young lady or a medal to an Olympic athlete); and, finally, through its sign value (the object’s value within a system of objects, whereby a Montblanc fountain-pen may signify higher socioeconomic status than a Bic ball-pen, or a Fair Trade organic chicken may signify certain social values in relation to a chicken that has been intensively farmed). Baudrillard focused most of his energy on the latter forms of value. Writing at the juncture between evolutionary psychology and marketing, Geoffrey Miller (an evolutionary psychologist) does the same here, except from a purely biological perspective.

The are three core ideas in Spent: firstly, conspicuous consumption is essentially a narcissistic process being used by humans to signal their biological fitness to others while also pleasuring themselves; secondly, this processes is unreliable, as humans cheat by broadcasting fraudulent signals in an effort to flatter themselves and achieve higher social status; and thirdly, this process is also inefficient, as the need for continuous economic growth has led capitalists since the 1950s to manufacture products with built-in obsolescence, thus fueling a wasteful process of continuous substandard production and continuous consumption and rubbish generation. In other words, we live in a world where insatiable and amoral capitalists constantly make flimsy products with ever-changing designs and ever-higher specifications so that they break quickly and/or cause embarrassment after a year, and humans, motivated by primordial mating and hedonistic urges that have evolved biological bases, are thus compelled to frequently replace their consumer goods with newer and better models — usually the most expensive ones they can afford — so that they can delude themselves and others into thinking that they are higher-quality humans than they really are.

Miller tells us that levels of fitness are advertised by humans along six independent dimensions, comprised of general intelligence, and the five dimensions that define the human personality: openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, and extraversion. Extending or drawing from theories expounded by Thorstein Veblen and Amotz Zahavi (the latter’s are not mainstream), Miller also tells us that, because fraudulent fitness signaling is part and parcel of animal behavior, humans, like other animals, will attempt to prove the authenticity of their signals by making their signaling a costly endeavor that is beyond the means of a faker. Signaling can be rendered costly through its being conspicuously wasteful (getting an MA at Oxford), conspicuously precise (getting an MIT PhD), or a conspicuous badge of reputation (getting a Harvard MBA) that requires effort to achieve, is difficult to maintain, and entails severe punishment if forged. Miller attempts to highlight the degree to which these strategies are wasteful when he points out that, in as much as university credentials are a proxy for general intelligence, both job seekers and prospective employers could much more efficiently determine a job seeker’s general intelligence with a simple, quick, and cheap IQ test.

As expected, we are told here that signaling behavior becomes, according to experimental data, exaggerated when humans are what Miller calls “mating-primed” (on the pull). Also as expected, men and women exhibit different proclivities: males emphasizing aggression and openness to experience by performing impressive and unexpected feats in front of desirable females, and females emphasizing agreeableness through participation in, for example, charitable events. And again as expected, Miller tells us that while dumb, young humans engaging in fitness signaling will tend to emphasize body-enhancing consumption (e.g., breast implants, muscle-building powders, platform shoes), older, more intelligent humans, educated by experience on the futility of such strategies, instead emphasize their general intelligence, conscientiousness, and stability through effective maintenance of their appearance, via regular exercise, sensible diet, careful grooming, and tasteful fashion. Still, this strategy follows biologically-determined patters: as women’s physiognomic indicators of fertility (eye size; sclera whiteness; lip coloration, fullness, and eversion; breast size; etc.) peak in their mid twenties, older women will apply make-up and opt for sartorial strategies that compensate for the progressive fading of these traits, in a subconscious effort to indicate genetic quality and stability, as well as — as mentioned above — conscientiousness.

Less expected were some of the explanations for some human consumer choices: when a human purchases a top-of-the-line, fully featured piece of electronic equipment, be it a stereo or a sewing machine, the features are less important than the opportunity the equipment provides its owner to talk about them, and thus signal his/her intelligence through their detailed, jargon-laden enumeration and description. This makes perfect sense, of course, and reading it provided theoretical confirmation of the correctness of my decision in the 1990s, when, after noticing that I only ever used a fraction of all available features and functions in any piece of electronic equipment, I decided to build a recording studio with the simplest justifiable models by the best possible brands.

Even less expected for me where some of the facts outside the topic of this book. Miller, conscious of the disrepute into which the evolutionary sciences have fallen due to foaming-at-the-mouth Marxist activists — Stephen Jay Gould, Leon Kamin, Steven Rose, and Richard Lewontin — and ultra-orthodox nurture bigots in modern academia, makes sure to precede his discussion by describing himself as a liberal, and by enumerating a horripilating catalogue of liberal credentials (he classes himself as a “feminist,” for example). He also goes on to cite survey data that shows most evolutionary psychologists in contemporary academia are socially liberal, like him. It is a sad state of affairs when a scientist feels obligated to asseverate his political correctness in order to avoid ostracism.

Unusually, however, Miller seems an honest liberal (even if he contradicts himself, as in pp. 297-8), and is critical in the first chapters as well as in the later chapters of the Marxist death-grip on academic freedom of inquiry and expression and of the cult of diversity and multiculturalism. The latter occurs in the context of a discussion on the various possible alternatives to a society based on conspicuous consumption, which occupies the final four chapters of this book. Miller believes that the multiculturalist ideology is an obstacle to overcoming the consumer society because it prevents the expression of individuality and the formation of communities with alternative norms and forms of social display. This is because humans, when left to freely associate, tend to cluster in communities with shared traits, while multiculturalist legislation is designed to prevent freedom of association. Moreover, and citing Robert Putnam’s research (but also making sure to clarify he does not think diversity is bad), Miller argues that “[t]here is increasing evidence that communities with a chaotic diversity of social norms do not function very well” (p. 297). Since the only loophole in anti-discrimination laws is income, the result is that people are then motivated to escape multiculturalism is through economic stratification, by renting or buying at higher price points, thus causing the formation of

low-income ghettos, working-class tract houses, professional exurbs: a form of assortative living by income, which correlates only moderately with intelligence and conscientiousness.

. . .

[W]hen economic stratification is the only basis for choosing where to live, wealth becomes reified as the central form of status in every community — the lowest common denominator of human virtue, the only trait-display game in town. Since you end up living next to people who might well respect wildly different intellectual, political, social, and moral values, the only way to compete for status is through conspicuous consumption. Grow a greener lawn, buy a bigger car, add a media room . . . (p. 300)

This is a very interesting and valid argument, linking the evils of multiculturalism with the consumer society in a way that I had not come across before.

Miller’s exploration of the various possible ways we could explode the consumer society does get rather silly at times (at one point, Miller considers the idea of tattooing genetic trait levels on people’s faces; and elsewhere he weighs requiring consumers to qualify to purchase certain products, on the basis of how these products reflect their actual genetic endowments). However, when he eventually reaches a serious recommendation, it is one I can agree with: promoting product longevity. In other words, shifting production away from the contemporary profit-oriented paradigm of cheap, rapidly-obsolescing, throwaway products and towards the manufacture of high quality, long-lasting ones, that can be easily serviced and repaired. This suggests a return to the manufacturing standards we last saw during the Victorian era, which never fails to put a smile on my face. Miller believes that this can be achieved using the tax system, and he proposes abolishing the income tax and instituting a progressive consumption tax designed to make cheap, throwaway products more expensive than sturdy ones.

Frankly, I detest the idea of any kind of tax, since I see it today as a forced asset confiscation practiced by governments who are intent in destroying me and anyone like me; but if there has to be tax, if that is the only way to clear the world out of the perpetual inundation of tacky rubbish, and if that is the only way to obliterate the miserable businesses that pump it out day after day by the centillions, then let it mercilessly punish low quality — let it sadistically flog manufacturers of low-quality products with the scourging whip of fiscal law until they squeal with pain, rip their hair out, and rend their garments as they see their profits plummet at the speed of light and completely and forever disappear into the black hole of categorical bankruptcy.

If you are looking for a deadly serious, arid text of hard-core science, Spent is not for you: the same information can be presented in a more detailed, programmatic, and reliable manner than it is here; this book is written to entertain as much as it is to educate a popular audience. If you are looking for a readable overview, a refresher, or an update on how evolved biology interacts with marketing and consumption, and would appreciate a few key insights as a prelude to further study, Spent is an easy basic text. It should be noted, however, that his area of research is still in relative infancy, and there is here a certain amount of speculation laced with proper science. Therefore, if you are interested in this topic, and are an activist or businessman interested in developing more effective ways to market your message or products, you may want to adopt an interdisciplinary approach and read this alongside Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jean Baudrillard’s early works on consumerism, and some of the texts in Miller’s own bibliography, which include — surprise, surprise! — The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, and The Global Bell Curve: Race, IQ, and Inequality Worldwide, by Richard Lynn, among others.

TOQ Online, August 14, 2009

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4 Comments

  1. JJ
    Posted December 25, 2010 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    I can’t think of anything more dangerous than the social sciences. What makes anyone think that they can observe human behavior as if they themselves were not human? And it’s always the same formula, some measure by the state that will tweak society into better behaving farm animals. We have countless disasters from these experiments, yet the methodology is never questioned.

  2. White Republican
    Posted December 25, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    A tax on shoddy goods would be a good thing, but it is doubtful that this would be enough. Shoddy people make shoddy goods. As Anthony M. Ludovici wrote:

    “I never have believed that Man can express what he is not. This expression, whether in Art, or any other individual utterances, is always the externalization of what is in him. If there is not quality in him, therefore, it is futile to expect quality in what he expresses. To recover or re-establish quality in Man’s expressions of himself, he must first be re-born as a psycho-physical organism possessing quality. Thus I ascribe the Brummagem wares of Western industry, so deeply offensive to [Ananda K.] Coomaraswamy, not to any extraneous influences, whether economic, scientific, moral or political, but to the fact that Western mankind long ago became biological Brummagem; therefore, that their natural expression could not, in any case, be other than shoddy and devoid of the quality Coomaraswamy sought for in vain.” (http://www.anthonymludovici.com/ananda.htm)

    Ludovici also wrote:

    “In every expression of modern Man, the lack of a sense of order and quality is palpable. Shoddy and Brummagem are enthroned, because modern men are themselves biological Brummagem. . . .

    “This lack of a sense of order and quality is seen in high and low, workman and ruler, in the pecuniary yardstick by which all indiscriminately measure their fellows. It is exhibited in the awe felt for occupants of high office, when nothing but the emoluments of high office remain. It appears in the widespread absence of any critical faculty, whether among the educated or uneducated.

    “There are exceptions, of course, and one of these is machine production. This still exacts and receives a certain amount of good workmanship. But only because in the machine an irreducible minimum of quality and order, both of material and fashioning, is of the nature of the product. Without that minimum it will not work.

    “But even here, we understand from both engineers and habitual users of machinery, that the requirements of the irreducible minimum are not everywhere met.

    “One further exception must be noted. Whilst workmanship has shown a decline in quality in almost every article of use, the quality of salesmanship has advanced by leaps and bounds. There are schools for training in this art. At the time of writing, its refinements and their complexity could hardly be exceeded even if they aimed at turning out expert scientists; the test being, not the extent to which the finished salesman can merely increase his market, but the extent to which he can do so whilst his employers increase the shoddiness of their goods. But only the fewest resent the insult concealed beneath the salesmanship racket. The rest, having forgotten what quality means, no longer know how it recommends itself. Had they remembered, had they in their hands a splinter of the yardstick by which quality is measured, they could not, as we have seen, be cozened to play their part in present-day so-called ‘Democracy.’ But, seeing that civilized mankind have lost the feeling for quality in themselves and one another, they cannot be expected to know, or produce, quality in the world about them.” (http://www.anthonymludovici.com/qh_05.htm)

    • Andrew
      Posted December 28, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      Mr. Kurtagic’s words:

      “‘Frankly, I detest the idea of any kind of tax, since I see it today as a forced asset confiscation practiced by governments who are intent in destroying me and anyone like me;”

      Well, you should! I do not “see” taxes as a “forced asset confiscation.” I know them to be so. Taxes are indeed confiscation, and confiscation, by definition, is forced, as in backed by guns. Taxes are armed robbery – pure and simple.

      “… but if there has to be tax, if that is the only way to clear the world out of the perpetual inundation of tacky rubbish, and if that is the only way to obliterate the miserable businesses that pump it out day after day by the centillions, then let it mercilessly punish low quality…”

      Tacky rubbish is most certainly not a sufficient justification for punishment via taxation. It would be immoral, the premise is arrogant, and it would not work.

      White Republican’s words:

      “A tax on shoddy goods would be a good thing, but it is doubtful that this would be enough. Shoddy people make shoddy goods.”

      Who would identify and then report the offenders? Snitches from among the neighboring serfs? The local cops? A bought-and-paid-for armed agent of an agency like the FDA?

      Who would define “shoddy”? Who would set the standard? Some idiot IRS agent? A Department of Commerce bureaucrat with nary a day’s experience in the real workaday world?

      What if I am willing to forgo some quality for immediate affordability – say a cheap bicycle that will last two years rather than ten?

      And why would you, a Republican, want to make it in the rational self-interest of tax-feeders for higher and higher quantities of shoddy products to exist?

      Has the ongoing, colossal, banker-perpetrated crisis taught us nothing? The last thing we White Folk need is bigger, more powerful government – nosier, more intrusive regulatory agencies, a more stifling tax regime, more socioeconomic “engineering” programs , more tyranny of any stripe.

      When will we White Folk stop begging centralized authority to live our lives for us – to make us all safer and better subjects in exchange for our freedom and dignity?

      We of all races should understand that the best – really, the only – long-term way toward prosperity and cultural richness is freedom of choice, especially in the market place, including by the way freedom to use honest, stable commodity-backed money such as gold and silver.

      If government would simply butt out and leave us the hell alone, the laws of free market dynamics and resource allocation through unfettered price discovery would quickly sort out these issues. We White Folk could then do what we naturally do best – take responsibility for ourselves and our families, learn from our errors (although lately I am not sure about this), educate our children how and where we choose, plan for future contingencies, innovate, start new ventures, take calculated risks, hire and fire as we see fit, produce, create, work hard, serve our customers and clients, and take deep pride in the fruits of our labor.

      • White Republican
        Posted December 29, 2010 at 3:20 am | Permalink

        I don’t mind my comments being used as a springboard by others to make their own comments on particular topics, but I do mind when people read things into my comments that aren’t there, or who set up and attack straw men because they are too impatient to ask me to elaborate or clarify my comments. (Cardinal Richelieu once said: “Give me six lines written by the most innocent man, and I can something on which to hang him.” He was clearly an amateur: people on the internet routinely do this with far fewer lines.) I admittedly should not been so curt or flippant when commenting on these things. I was expressing a viewpoint rather than a policy. I realise that there are no quick, simple, and easy solutions to the problems involved here, namely the profusion of shoddy goods and shoddy people.

        Contrary to what you seem to think, I don’t worship the state, and I don’t think much of the motto “everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” But I don’t worship the market either. I concur with Alain de Benoist: yes to the market economy, but no to the market society. (Wilhelm Röpke’s A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market is worth reading in this context.) If you’re a libertarian, you might argue that you are either for the market or the state, but I think is a false dichotomy. Both the state and the market have their place in a well-ordered polity. The idea of a stateless society is nothing more than an idle fantasy of anarchists and libertarians.

        If there is a solution to the racial problems of our time, it will be political rather than economic, collectivistic rather than individualistic, and authoritarian rather than liberal. To put it crudely, I favour the clenched fist of the state, whereas you favour the invisible hand of the market, judging from your concluding comments. In terms of bourgeois values of profit-maximisation, individualism, hedonism, and presentism, the struggle for White survival and White sovereignty is extremely “uneconomical,” “wicked,” and “unreasonable.” This struggle is definitely “bad for business.” It definitely demands measures that are hardly “nice,” “fair,” or “administered with due process.” It is definitely “extravagant” to think of overthrowing the government or of securing White living space on a national or a continental scale. It would be more “economical” to conform, to retreat, to surrender, to die. It’s cheaper!

        I shouldn’t need to state that I use the term “White Republican” in the sense that Michael O’Meara uses it in Toward the White Republic.

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