Excerpt from The Mating Mind by Geoffrey F. Miller, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Mating Mind

How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature

by Geoffrey F. Miller

The Mating Mind
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2000, 520 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2001, 520 pages

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Some critics believe that evolutionary psychology goes too far and attempts to explain too much. I think it does not go far enough. It has not taken some of our most impressive and distinctive abilities as seriously as it should. For example, in his book How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker argued that human art, music, humor, fiction, religion, and philosophy are not real adaptations, but biological side-effects of other evolved abilities. As a cognitive scientist, Pinker was inclined to describe the human mind as a pragmatic problem-solver, not a magnificent sexual ornament: "The mind is a neural computer, fitted by natural selection with combinational algorithms for causal and probabilistic reasoning about plants, animals, objects and people."

Although he knows that reproductive success is evolution's bottom line, he overlooked the possible role of sexual selection in shaping conspicuous display behaviors such as art and music. He asked, for example, "If music confers no survival advantage, where does it come from and why does it work?" Lacking any manifest survival function, he concluded that art and music must be like cheesecake and pornography--cultural inventions that stimulate our tastes in evolutionarily novel ways, without improving our evolutionary success. His views that the arts are "biologically frivolous" has upset many performing artists sympathetic to evolutionary psychology. In a televised BBC debate following the publication of How the Mind Works, the theatrical director and intellectual polymath Jonathan Miller took Pinker to task for dismissing the arts as non-adaptations without considering all their possible functions. One of my goals in writing this book has been to see whether evolutionary psychology could prove as satisfying to a performing artist as to a cognitive scientist. It may be economically important to consider how the mind works, but it is also important to consider how the mind mates.

The view of the mind as a pragmatic, problem-solving survivalist has also inhibited research on the evolution of human creativity, morality, and language. Some primate researchers have suggested that human creative intelligence evolved as nothing more than a way to invent Machiavellian tricks to deceive and manipulate others. Human morality has been reduced to a tit-for-tat accountant that keeps track of who owes what to whom. Theories of language evolution have neglected human storytelling, poetry, wit, and song. You have probably read accounts of evolutionary psychology in the popular press, and felt the same unease that it is missing something important. Theories based on the survival of the fittest can nibble away at the edges of human nature, but they do not take us to the heart of the mind.

Moreover, the ritual celibacy of these survivalist doctrines seems artificial. Why omit sexual desire and sexual choice from the pantheon of evolutionary forces that could have shaped the human mind, when biologists routinely use sexual choice to explain behavioral abilities in other animals? Certainly, evolutionary psychology is concerned with sex. Researchers such as David Buss and Randy Thornhill have gathered impressive evidence that we have evolved sexual preferences that favor pretty faces, fertile bodies, and high social status. But evolutionary psychology in general still views sexual preferences more often as outcomes of evolution than as causes of evolution. Even where the sexual preferences of our ancestors have been credited with the power to shape mental evolution, their effects have been largely viewed as restricted to sexual and social emotions--to explain, for example, higher male motivations to take risks, attain social status, and demonstrate athletic prowess. Sexual choice has not been seen as reaching very deep into human cognition and communication, and sexuality is typically viewed as irrelevant to the serious business of evolving human intelligence and language.

Excerpted from The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller Copyright© 2000 by Geoffrey Miller. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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