Geoffrey Miller:
THE MATING MIND (Doubleday, 2000)

Home | The whole bibliography | My book on Consciousness

(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

The American evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller believes that natural selection per se could not account for the sophistication of the human mind. He thinks that a extra force is needed. That force is the combined effect of sexual choices that our ancestors made. They helped design us as we are today.

Miller views the human mind not as a problem solver, but as a "sexual ornament". Miller points to the fact that the human brain's creative intelligence must exist for a purpose, and that purpose is not obvious. Survival in the environment does not quite require the sophistication of Einstein's science or Michelangelo's paintings or Beethoven's symphonies. On the other hand, these are precisely the kind of things that the human brain does a lot better than other animal brains. The human brain is much more powerful than it needs to be. Miller explains the emergence of art, science and philosophy by thinking not in terms of survival benefits but in terms of reproductive benefits. Miller basically separates (as Darwin originally did) natural selection (competition for survival) and sexual selection (competition for reproduction). Then Miller argues that sexual selection is much more efficient and intelligent, because it is not driven by random environmental events but by a deliberate strategy to improve the "genetic quality of the offspring". Sexual selection is as intelligent as we are, whereas natural selection (from the viewpoint of human self-interest) is hardly intelligent at all (it does not intentionally reward humans over other species, or one individual over other individuals). Sexual selection is a form of positive feedback (as Ronald Fisher had already showed in 1930), the kind of process that can explain the explosive growth of the human brain.

Miller argues that a fundamental function of the human mind is to display one's fitness to the other sex. As Darwin originally proposed, sexual selection originated from two parallel and interacting processes: men compete for women, women choose men. Thus bulls have horns (to fight other bulls) and peacocks have tails (to attract women): these are organs that serve no other function. They evolved because of sexual selection. As Ronald Fisher had already showed, sexual selection can rapidly lead to evolution of sexually-relevant traits in animals: as females get pickier, they pick more attractive males, thus making children that are more attractive and that will therefore make more children. Evolution favors both pickier females and more attractive males. Thus the ornaments of several male animals. This cycle continues until the ornaments become counterproductive to the other selection process, natural selection.

Men had to be accepted by women in order to make children. We are the descendants of those who were "sexually selected". Miller believes that the sexual selection was based on activities such as painting, singing and dancing (which, in turn, explains why humans paint, sing and dance). Miller shows that each of these activities turns out to be a good indicator of physical and mental fitness, that women recognize, evaluate and reward with sex. Birds do the same when they sing complex melodies, and fruitflies do the same when they perform complex dances. These are all activities that appear to serve no survival purpose but appear to contribute to reproductive success. Males need to advertise their genes, and this need drives innovation.

Artistic activities developed because they contributed to sexual selection. When language appeared, it allowed thought itself to be used for sexual selection. The growing importance of thought for sexual selection drove, in turn, the evolution of language. Sexual selection has slowly shifted from body to mind.

The evolution of language itself was driven by sexual selection. Darwin had already speculated that language may have evolved through sexual selection. Miller agrees, finding that the usual explanation (that language helps a group trade key information) is only a small piece of the puzzle (individuals, unless they are kins, have no motivation to share key information since they are supposed to compete. Even more powerful is the evidence that comes from observing the behavior of today's humans: they compete to be heard, they compete to utter the most sensational sentences, they are dying to talk. Miller also mentions anatomical evidence: what has evolved dramatically in the human brain is not the hearing apparatus but the speaking apparatus. Miller believes that language, whose intended or unintended effect is to deliver knowledge to competitors, must also have a selfish function, otherwise it would not have developed: individuals who simply delivered knowledge to competitors would not have survived. Thus he argues that language is a form of sexual display, and it evolved rapidly just like any other organ (bull horns or peacock tails) that served that function. It is unique to humans the same way that the peacock tail is unique to peacocks. It is pointless to try and teach language to a chimpanzee.

Miller does not quite say it, but a consequence of his theory is that art and music and poetry are "male" activities. It is not a male-dominated society that kept women from becoming artists and musicians, but it is a society dominated by male values that today prompts women to mimic a tyical male sexual behavior such as art or music.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi