HALL OF FAMEon 29 September 2005
When Darwin published The Descent of Man in 1872, he raised the issue of why so many species' males invest costly physical resources in sexual displays. His answer was the mating game. Peacock's tails are difficult to lug around, use material that might be better applied elsewhere in the body, and make the bird susceptible to predation. Darwin's answer was the cost was a mating investment - peahens clearly preferred males with the most outstanding displays. Monkeys in the forests and swamp frogs expend similar energy in calling over great distances seeking mates. The females of these species listen, weighing some unknown factor in deciding which male to select to bear their offspring. Can such a strategy be applied to human mating practices?
Geoffrey Miller's answer is a resounding "Yes!" Humans, however, are far more complex than peacocks. In this book, Miller contends that instead of garish tails or mating calls, it is the human brain that provides the mechanisms for mate selection. Like the peacock's tail, the human brain is a costly organ - using 20% of our resources even when resting. Why is the brain so demanding? It has many jobs to do, memory, vision, controlling motion and speech and directing other activities. The human mind's most impressive abilities, Miller states, are "courtship tools, evolved to attract and entertain sexual partners." These "tools" include such seemingly disparate practices as sports, poetry, art and literature. Many of these factors in our lives are the result of language development. Why did these talents evolve, and how do they affect our mate selection? Where some animals offer food as a mating incentive, men offer diamonds, songs or prose. Why not offer something to eat, like a potatoe, instead of a diamond, which lacks practical value?
Miller's argument focusses on "fitness factors" in mating strategies. In humans these are far more complex than in the rest of animal kingdom. In his view, the factors must be mainly expressed by the male, and by adults more than the young. They must be elements that can be judged by females before mating, and the more vivid the presentation, the more likely the mating will be. In human societies, the presentation may not even be displayed by the male, but may be "purchased" - hence, movies, concerts, art objects may be bought in the pursuit of females instead of actually created by the suitor.
And what of the suitor's object of his quest? Are human females simply gawking airheads waiting to see which male displays or buys the best offering in the mating game? Far from it, contends Miller. He makes the claim that will be hotly contested by feminazis, that historically, males predominate in literature, the arts and business. Recognizing that female cognitive skills match those of human males, he argues that the female mind had to evolve in parallel with that of males'. However, their skills reside in assessing the worth of what males are offering. They must make the judgement of which "fitness factors" are the most attractive. Hence, if men developed language ability to "show off" their creativity, women evolved the ability to evaluate how skillfully the men performed. Miller's analysis is not empty rhetoric. He reviews a broad range of behaviour patterns, attributing to each the evolutionary roots likely involved in developing them.
Miller's prose skills are outstanding in this valuable survey. His use of metaphor keeps you smiling as he presents his case. He transforms a Satin Bowerbird into an effete artist at one point. This comical account has the bird, expressing himself just as a Letterman guest might, explaining why the bower nest is under constant niggling attention by the male until its arrangement successfully attracts a mate. It's indicative of Miller's high quality imagination. Make no mistake, however, this book isn't just a frolic promoting Miller's abilities as a raconteur. His message is serious, and what he's proposed requires serious reflection. His thesis explains many facets of the human condition and must be considered earnestly. You may even find something of yourself in this book, which is as good a reason to buy it as any. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]