Review: Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

6a00d8345230d269e2011570915b6a970b-550wiGeoffrey Miller, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, New York: Viking, 2009.

Reviewed by Ben Parker

Sex, Darwin, capitalism. Geoffrey Miller’s second book certainly ticks off some major search terms. His first, The Mating Mind, put forward the case for sexual choice as a major driving force in our evolution, and demonstrated the huge influence this had on human nature. Spent picks up where that book left off, applying evolutionary psychology to consumerism.

At the heart of the book is a simple idea: we have evolved extremely efficient methods for signaling our fitness to potential mates. Intelligence, health, fertility, beauty, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to novelty, to name a few, can all be assessed remarkably quickly through conversation and observation. However, instead of trusting that we already have everything we need to impress our fellow humans, we have become convinced that something beyond our naked bodies and minds is required to be socially acceptable and sexually attractive.

This idea may be simple, but the power of Spent comes from its exhaustive examination of its causes and consequences. Miller is an erudite, amusing, and fascinating guide through the world of conspicuous consumption, personality traits, marketing, and advertising. He possesses the keen eye of a scientist combined with the prose style of a great essayist.

As he explains early on, he has two aims. Firstly, to describe human culture with a biological context and, secondly, to suggest ways we could change it so it “combines the best natural features of prehistoric life and the best inventions of modern life.” There is something radical even in this. The idea that ‘ought’ statements should not be derived from ‘is’ statements has long been leveled against evolutionary psychologists. It is argued that because a given behavior in humans has been explained, it has been condoned. This accusation is almost always inaccurate and stems from either willful or genuine misunderstanding, and evolutionary psychologists are quick to point out the mistake. Geoffrey Miller, however, is boldly taking this supposedly prohibited step. He hopes that by improving our understanding of human behavior, and particularly human trait display, we can foster the conditions that most suit it. His ‘is’ is trait display, and his ‘ought’ is a world where money and objects no longer act as ersatz fitness indicators, and where we are free from the ‘consumerist treadmill’.

In the first half of the book Miller demonstrates with painful clarity the true nature of our conspicuous consumption: we strive for the best-paid job we can get and use the money we earn to buy goods and services at full price despite the existence of cheaper substitutes. We have become convinced that these are required in order to impress a desired mate, yet as a self-display strategy it is inefficient: our evolved fitness-indicators have been tried and tested over millions of years. In the second half he offers an alternative: develop social norms which allow us to express our fitness through methods both more efficient and more suited to our individual talents and desires. His two suggestions for achieving this are, firstly, communities differentiated by intellectual, political and social values rather than by income and, secondly, consumption tax to compensate for the side effects of our spending. The chapter in which most of these reforms are laid out, “Legalizing Freedom”, deserves to be published as a pamphlet in its own right, so neat and so revolutionary are the ideas it contains.

The foundations on which Miller builds in Spent are Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, and he also name-checks writers of philosophy, psychology, marketing, and pop-culture. Yet one of the many strengths of Miller’s book is that his research and extensive reading never slow down the pace, and the prose is unencumbered by footnotes or references. Even the bibliography reflects this relaxed style, organised as it is by theme rather than page number, and including not just academic works, but films and novels such as The Matrix and Fight Club.

If Spent is read carefully and with an open mind, it will improve your understanding of human nature and leave you with the tools to cast a cynical eye on the near-ubiquitous conspicuous consumption of the Western world. And if enough people read Spent the changes Miller hopes for may start to take effect. In the meantime, if you are looking for a portable, cheap, intelligence indicator, you couldn’t do better than a copy of this thought-provoking book.

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5 Responses to Review: Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

  1. If Spent is read carefully and with an open mind, it will improve your understanding of human nature and leave you with the tools to cast a cynical eye on the near-ubiquitous conspicuous consumption of the Western world.

    It sounds like a fascinating read but unnecessary for seeing Western consumerism with a cynical eye. I would agree if the reviewer had said “even MORE tools. . .”

  2. Actually, I believe that any attempt to reduce human behavior to simplistic patterns misses the mark and promotes gross materialism. Anybody who thinks that looking for a mate is all about physical sex is deeply illusioned. While biological sex drive is undoubtedly a big part of such a search there are much more important factors in it as well. The same can be said about consumerism or evolutionary development.

    While we are seated on the machine of the material body we are indeed spirit, and thus our activities result from the interaction of the material and spiritual vectors. Cynicism leads to materialism and there is no need to promote it among the devotees.

    • It is not highlighted as much in this review as it is in others, but Miller actually talks about how simplistic models don’t work. Sexual lure is not his only point, just his main one. He also talks about humans’ desire to be seen in certain ways, such as compassionate, intelligent, etc. (and these not simply as a means to a sexual end). He has hope that society could re-train its values so that the unbridled quest for material objects, for example, becomes an unattractive quality.

      At the same time, a simplistic view of all this has its place. There are many levels from which to discuss human nature, and some of them are rather simple: Suffering is a result of desire. Our personalities are shaped largely by our anarthas. These are simplistic statements and more can be said, but they remain true.

      • “We believe that there are two fundamental ways of living, and thus two fundamental types of society based upon these two ways. There is the material way of living, with individuals striving for, or pursuing, “happiness”, material comfort and wealth. Then there is the way of excellence, of idealism (or nobility) with individuals striving for an idealistic goal. We believe that the material way is decadent – a waste of our lives, a waste of the evolutionary potential which we possess.

        Furthermore, we believe that the life of an individual is better, more fulfilling, if the idealistic goal that is pursued is in accord with the will of Nature. That is, if this idealistic goal aids Nature, and continues the evolutionary work of Nature. This stems from our assertion that we, as human beings, are part of Nature, and subject to the laws of Nature. All other philosophies, political beliefs or religions assert that we, as human beings, are somehow “above”, different or separate from, Nature and her laws.”

        This is actually an excerpt from a (much maligned today) movement which swept Europe during the first part of the 20th century. I bet quite a few devotees can identify with these principles. 🙂

  3. I saw an interesting documentary about marketing in which a critic pointed out that the one message never heard in advertising is, “You’re ok. You’re fine the way you are.” In other words, marketing is all about creating anxiety and doubt (“Is your brand of paper towel working hard enough?”) and offering solutions to resolve that anxiety (in this case, ultra-absorbent two-ply).

    Even though we may identify these manipulations and skip out on the latest in basketball shoe technology or deodorant, in a bigger sense the entire material experience is defined by the misperception that by adding to our lives (relationships, products, influence) we will somehow become more whole, more secure, and more happy. Yet precisely the opposite occurs. So I find discussions of consumerism such as Miller’s and the like lead very naturally to spiritual considerations — if the implications are played out.

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