Review by William A. Spriggs, May 11, 2002
When the common person thinks about evolution, s/he usually thinks of Charles Darwin and the phrase "survival of the fittest" between human individuals (the phrase was actually coined by Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher, 1820 -1903, who suggested that progressive differentiation and the specialization of adaptation brought about the vast differences between humans that were seen in human society in his time -- his views thus gave rise to a negatively associated term that critics of sociobiology have called "Social Darwinism."). But that is the physical side of evolution; muscles and bones, along with the abilities of eyesight, hearing, smelling, touching all acting in unison, reacting to the physical particulars of the local environment. All these elements then strive to insure one's survival by "winning" some sort of physical competition with a similar individual to gain the "prize" of a resource or adaptive advantage. But this physical competition, which can escalate into violence, is not the way the vast majority of individual humans behave in 2002. Oh, sure, there are still physical competitive battles between individuals, but they are most likely no where near the frequency and finality of our hominoid ancestors.
But beyond the physical properties of our bodies that have propelled us through evolution and which make us so different for our animal relatives, Homo sapiens have evolved highly adaptive mental capabilities as well. The things that have evolved through our mental capabilities -- culture, language, poetry, fiction, art, music, sports, drama, comedy, philosophy, and political establishments -- have long been argued by scientists as "unnecessary" to survive in a competitive world. And so begins Miller's premise. "Ever since the Darwinian revolution, this survivalist view has seemed the only scientifically respectable possibility. Yet it remains unsatisfying. It leaves too many riddles unexplained. Human language evolved to be much more elaborate than necessary for basic survival functions. From a pragmatic biological view point, art and music seem like pointless wastes of energy. Human morality and humor seem irrelevant to the business of finding food and avoiding predators. Moreover, if human intelligence and creativity were so useful, it is puzzling that other apes did not evolve them." p. 2. This then leads us to his central argument: "I shall argue that the most distinctive aspects of our minds evolved, largely through the sexual choices our ancestors made." p.3.
And in fact, Miller argues in total that all these things "unnecessary for survival" that you see around you today such as symphony orchestras, sport utility vehicles, towering skyscrapers, etc., are really nothing more than the "peacock's tail" to attract a mate and then pass one's genes. The logic behind this point of view is that there are individuals (mostly males) who build those skyscrapers, composed symphonies, and the "bigness" of sport utility vehicles. Miller begins his convincing arguments that the courtship rituals that both male and females attend to in order to attract and copulate with the opposite sex are responsible for the articulate, creative, intelligent forces that have shaped modern Homo sapiens minds. Miller reminds us of the cardinal rule of evolution that in order to understand an adaptation one must understand its function. In the case of our two divergent means of evolution, adaptations can arise for survival advantages or reproductive advantages, and that's basically it. Recalling back that science had a difficult understanding why such abilities as witty conversations, decorative art, and morality evolved, Miller makes the case that "...sexual selection is unusually fast, powerful, intelligent, and unpredictable. This makes it a good candidate for explaining any adaptation that is highly developed in one species but not in other closely related species that share a similar environment." p.8.
This is important because sexual selection produces traits that are quite different from natural selection, because in a nutshell, nature (climate -- wind, temperatures, humidity, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc., doesn't give a damn what affect it has on the animal species that it effects, while sexual selection does. Sexual selection is your mental choice -- natural selection represents the cards you are dealt. Miller reinforces this simple direction of our mental abilities by teaching us: "As we shall see, one of the main reasons why mate choice evolves is the help animals choose sexual partners who carry good genes. By comparison, natural selection is a rank amateur. The evolutionary pressures that result from mate choice can therefore be much more consistent, accurate, efficient and creative than natural selection pressures...As a result of these incentives for sexual choice, many animals are sexually discriminating. They accept some suitors and reject others. They apply their faculties of perception, cognition, memory, and judgment to pick the best sexual partners they can. In particular, they go for any features of potential mates that signal their fitness and fertility." p. 9. Hence, Miller argues that sexual selection is the "thinking person's" natural selection. All the elements of nature formed the basic building blocks of ancestral past, but it was the "explosive" use of the "thinking cap" part of the human brain that has set humans apart from our primate cousins on our evolutionary voyage across the sea of time. "...sexual selection seems to have shifted its primary target from body to mind." p. 10.
It is at this point where creationists would chime in and state: "Hey, see -- there was an explosion in our mental abilities that separates human from animal -- doesn't that account for the presence of God creating man?" Well, at first glance, that might be the case. But at closer inspection, something else was occurring that helped to shape our mental capabilities, and that was group living and the behaviors that evolved to facilitate group living. Logic dictates that our ancestors formed "ghettos" of social groups (hunter-gatherers) for protection against predators, to assist in food foraging, and for a much larger mate population to choose from. Logic also dictates that a group of individuals can't be in a permanent state of physical violence in the competition for food, territory, and hierarchy positioning that leads to mate access -- violence is not healthy for living things nor the passage of genes. Hence, the evolution of display rules that dictate "normal behavior" within a group that puts the entire group in a state of semi-peaceful co-existence.
However, this state of non violence is not without dynamic tensions and comes with a price: It creates a hierarchy, a pecking order, of social competition that some evolutionary psychologists say has created, what they call, "Machiavellian intelligence" (competition through deceptive and manipulative behaviors. Most importantly, all based upon attributing and projecting beliefs, desires, and information unto others -- which, as far as science can tell, is not present in most animal's thinking abilities). Once again, Miller in response to the question raised by creationists: "Scientists became excited about social competition because they realized that it could have become an endless arms race, requiring ever more sophisticated minds to understand and influence the minds of others. An arms race for social intelligence looks a promising way to explain the human brain's rapid expansion and the human mind's rapid evolution." p. 12.
This hierarchy of relative positioning and the maneuvers that go into these positionings are extremely important to our primate cousins of today; and as the evidence mounts, they also appear to be a major factor in the behaviors of Homo sapiens. The most important thing to understand about human nature today is that all behavior may start with the INDIVIDUAL, but to fully understand the full spectrum of that behavior one must take into consideration the GROUP that that individual is, or is not, a part of. Did our ancestors understand the concept that in order to live in a society where there is the absence of constant violence in order to maintain the advantages of access to easier foraging, better protection against predators, and better mate selection, that some form of social selection had to occur? And that in order to be picked to become part of the social group, one had to be socially aware of others and then had to understand the concept of being accepted? Whether or not our primate cousins of today understand the intricate behavioral mechanisms that they live in every day, is unimportant; what we as educated observers of human nature must understand that in order to be accepted, we must have the ability to belong and form what evolutionary psychologists call alliances. Here's the bottom-line payoff for forming alliances: They make access to desired mates easier. Once again, here is Miller: "Other forms of social selection are important, but mostly because they change the social scenery behind sexual selection. Social selection is like the political tension between the Montagues and the Capulets. It matters largely because it influences the sexual prospects of Romero and Juliet. ...Sexual selection is the premier example of social selection, and courtship is the premier example of social behavior." p. 13. Once again, students, it comes down to the passage of one's genes into the next generation.
It is at this point, that I am going to pull back from close inspection of Miller's book because of the depth that it entails; it would take over fifty pages to review the book at the detail presented above; besides, now that your appetite has been teased with the glorious taste of knowledge, you need some reason to run out and purchase the book as part of you permanent library. But here is what I will do for you for the rest of the review: I'll let you know that the book is divided into two parts: body and mind. During the first seven chapters Miller focuses on past theories of natural selection; primary on fitness indicators of our species. He discusses the problems that sexual selection has had convincing scientists of its importance; this has been known as "The Gang of Three." In chapter six, Miller presents his theories of what mating have been like in the Pleistocene; this may be his weakness chapter -- titled Courtship in the Pleistocene, Miller does seem to drift slightly towards speculation based on his own bias -- a very minor flaw in an otherwise flawless book. Here in particular are "sub-chapters" that Miller has given to chapter seven, Bodies of Evidence; hopefully these sub-chapter titles will tweak your interest even more: Which Body Traits Evolved as Sexual Ornaments?; The Evolution of the Penis; Size Mattered; Female Choice Continued After Copulation Began; The Penis and the Brain; The Clitoris and the Orgasm; Breasts; Buttocks and Waists; Bodies, Faces, People, and Brains; Weak Bodies, Strong Minds?; Good Condition as the Evolutionary Norm; Sports as Fitness Indicators; Sport Utility Vehicles?; In the final three chapters, Miller goes into detail about the "sexual ornamentations" that go beyond the body by devoting the rest of the book to four human traits: art, morality, language, and creativity. His views are most interesting and argued convincingly. If I had to create any criticism of the book, it would fall on his failure to emphasis that sexual selection is really FEMALE CHOICE and not just mate choice as the overall theme of the book suggests. Perhaps this was done on the “advice” of his editors, I do not know. But the theory that the females are running the evolutionary show, and have been doing so since the “explosion” of Homo sapiens’ mental capabilities is the message that I find hidden between the arguments.
I can not stress enough the importance of this book and its effect that it has had on the evolutionary community; I feel that it is as important as Darwin's Origin of Species. Miller has basically taken Darwin's natural selection, picked it up, polished it off, and has given us a diamond to marvel at. It all makes incredible sense. The idea that choice -- a mental decision -- is the true captain of the ship of our own fate for the human species can’t be emphasized enough. And the idea that sex is the vehicle in which ideas, hopes, dreams, and passions is the pivot point that turns into everything we see around us is just icing on the cake. As we rapidly approach our species' era of genetic self-selection, it is paramount that we understand where we came from, how our bodies and minds work together, and most importantly, how the dynamics of group behavior effects individual behavior. If we don't get the right message, we are doomed as a species and will head into extinction. At least Miller has set the compass in the right direction.
Although the book is written in non-academic popular style, the book is still moderately to difficult to read because of the depth that Miller has gone into. The difficult part comes from his reviewing past evolutionary theories and entwining them with his own; some newcomers to evolutionary theory will have difficultly with this due to a lack of knowledge of these past evolutionary arguments, but because of the logic and lineal manner of Miller's arguments, determined students of all levels will "get it." Everyone should just take their time and enjoy the logic as it flows by. Highly recommended.
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