Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism

Colin Tudge in Literary Review:

Around 1990 the marketing manager of an organisation of which I was a trustee assured me that her specialty was an exact science. She had an MSc in flogging stuff, she said, and knew exactly what she was doing. Since the organisation was on the point of bankruptcy I had my doubts. Twenty years later, Geoffrey Miller tells us that we were both right – and both wrong. Marketing could indeed be much more of a science than it is, but the science that is currently brought to bear on it is hopelessly wide of the mark. What's really needed is evolutionary psychology.

Evo psy has not had a good press, nor done itself many favours – but in principle Miller is surely right. As the Ukrainian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky commented in 1973, 'Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution' – and biology includes animal and human psychology.

For our behaviour is heavily influenced by experience but also, to a significant and measurable extent, it has a heritable, genetic base. Since all human beings partake of a common gene pool we all share some distinctively human traits – so there really is such a thing as 'human nature', as writers and philosophers since ancient times have agreed. Beneath our pretensions, too, we are beasts; and, like any beast, we are obliged in the end to behave in ways that help us to survive and pass on our genes. Whether or not there's an outside arbiter to enforce such behaviour is a matter for theologians. But it's clear that creatures that don't do the things that help them to live and reproduce, die out.

Evolutionary psychologists seek to identify what we really need to do to get by and produce offspring, and what states of mind we need, and to trace the selective forces, deep in our past, that have shaped our predilections and capabilities. Such thinking suggests that the Freudian and behaviourist psychology now applied to marketing and to the economy in general is too eccentric or crude by half.

More here.