Darwin’s “Other” Dangerous Idea

Timothy Horvath reviewed (some time ago) The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature by Geoffrey F. Miller, in Cognitive Cultural Studies:

Mating_mindAs 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.

More here.