Three cheers for crass consumerism!

by Roger Koppl

Over an Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen quotes approvingly a new book by Geoffrey Miller.

From my perspective as an evolutionary psychologist, this is how consumerist capitalism really works: it makes us forget our natural adaptations for showing off desirable fitness-related traits. It deludes us into thinking that artificial products work much better than they really do for showing off these traits. It confuses us about the traits we are trying to display by harping on vague terms at the wrong levels of description (wealth, status, taste), and by obfuscating the most stable, heritable, and predictive traits discovered by individual differences research. It hints coyly at the possible status and sexual payoffs for buying and displaying premium products, but refuses to make such claims explicit, lest consumer watchdogs find those claims empirically false, and lest significant others get upset by the personal motives they reveal. The net result could be called the fundamental consumerist delusion — that other people care more about the artificial products you display through consumerist spending than about the natural traits you display through normal conversation, cooperation, and cuddling.

At least one commenter took the  passage as a slam on capitalism. I don’t think we should see it that way. Some of us do think that designer labels will save our souls. That’s bad. But it’s a whole lot better than thinking that, say, the Führer will save your soul, or a crusade against the infidels, or nationalism, or a host of other collective salvations. When the inevitable disappointment from consumerism comes, it’s a private tragedy.  When the inevitable disappointment from a collective salvation comes, it’s a national crisis inviting some new, possibly worse, collective salvation. Until humans learn the wisdom of angels, I will remain a great supporter of crass consumerism and conspicuous consumption.

32 thoughts on “Three cheers for crass consumerism!

  1. I think you’re onto something here. Haidt (another psychologist) points out the importance of us/them distinctions to constituting cooperation among large groups. Maybe capitalism deflects us/them distinctions into the bandying about of cultural flair. Perhaps some peoples’ aesthetic sensibilities are offended by that. But those folks can listen to Wagner and goosestep their way through Skokie if they want so long as they don’t interfere with others’ rights to do the same, right?

  2. Well, I should read the book before I speak, but what the heck. What is all this biological evolution stuff doing here? Civilization is a cultural product. Thanks to cultural products we live a lot longer that is strictly biologically necessary (reproduction and all that).Whatever the merits or demerits of consumerism for human happiness, evolution doesn’t care about our happiness except insofar as it leads to reproduction. So I think there is something missing here.

  3. How can culture be anything but organic? Culture cannot be more than the sum of our social interactions, although the calculus may be messy indeed. Evolutionary biology has fairly obvious relevance to our understanding of both individual and social behavior.

    It’s true that one can develop a good approximation of social behavior with resort to biology and evolution. I think the rational hypothesis and neoclassical models were a revelation for lawyers and politicians when they became widely available as tools for reasoning several decades ago. What tools were available to forecast the effect of changes before that?

    Although people like Dawkins might disagree, there is no biological basis for the claim that individuals maximize utility taking only their preferences as arguments to their utility function. Individual utility functions are often a function of both individual desires and desires to benefit the group. E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson have lots of evidence and arguments to back this up.

    So where does that leave economics? Economists have to get used to the idea of being quantitative about group behavior without resort to the rational hypothesis in scenarios where preferences are rapidly evolving either in response to the physical or social environment. The rational hypothesis will only obtain when those preferences are stable enough to make static supply and demand curves a reasonable approximation.

  4. I don’t see how these consideration affect my point.If evolution doesn’t select for happiness, then it is at least possible that cultural products (like consumerism) might actually benefit me in some sense that I care about. I am agnostic on whether this is true or not. However, a biological analysis seems insufficient to tell us.

  5. Mario,

    Maybe I’m not understanding what you mean by “happiness.” In some sense of the word at least, the variations in biology or culture that fit better within their environment are also “happier” fits. Nobody is happiest dead.

  6. Also, in case it wasn’t clear from the first comment, I think there is some reason to believe that crass consumerism is more fit from an evolutionary standpoint. So we’re not really arguing about the means, just the ends.

  7. I’m not sure I understand the issue, Mario. Evolution and biology are plenty related to culture, though not always in simple ways. Take sex as a clear example. You might note the differences in sexual practices across time and space and conclude that sex is “cultural.” OTOH, those “cultural” practices depend on our biology and are thus “natural” is some sense. In all times and places physical beauty counts for both sexes, men look for cues indicating fecundity, women respond to status, and so on. There is an evolved psychology of sex that not only makes sex pleasurable, but also produces universal features of human sexual practice, including “marriage.” In a comment on a ThinkMarkets post from January I said,

    Wilson and Daly say, “Marriage is a cross-culturally ubiquitous feature of human societies, notwithstanding variations in social and cultural details . . . . What this means is that men and women everywhere enter into individualized reproductive alliances in which there is some sort of mutual obligation and biparental investment in their joint progeny and that the alliance is recognized by people other than the marital partners” (“The man who mistook his wife for a chattel,” in Barkow, Cosmides, and Toody edited, _The Adaptive Mind_, 1992, p. 309).


    As it is with sex, so it is with most of social life. We have an evolved psychology governing how we respond to the world. The evolved psychology was “designed” for life in band-level society out on the African Savannah. But here we are in “the great society” where that evolved psychology interacts with an environment very different from the ancestral environment. Thus, we may not act like cavemen, but we still have a Stone Age mind in our modern skulls. (See:

    Is that getting at the issue?

  8. Roger,

    What I mean is, I think, very simple. I am not denying that cultural institutions must, in part, be products of our biological constitution. But they are much more than that. They can enable us to surpass the limits placed on us by strict selection according to reproductive success. For example, most people are “happy” to live beyond their useful age for reproduction. If indeed, as you say, that some of our evolutionary endowment is for a different environment than we now inhabit, we might be able to “overrule” those behaviors toward which we have an “inappropriate” propensity. Therefore, I am not impressed by the argument that consumerism (however that is defined exactly)is “artificial” and cuddling is “natural.”

  9. I see. You want a theory of evolution that’s big enough to accommodate features of culture that are otherwise nearly impossible to explain.

    I would start with Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity. See, in particular, the chapter entitled, “The Making of Culture.”

  10. Ah! Thanks for that clarification, Mario. Yes, civilization is a work-around circumventing nature.

  11. You chaps should read some of Matt Ridley’s books about evolution and evolutionary psychology.

    Especially “The Red Queen” and “The Origin of Virtue”.

  12. Can you elaborate, Current? I’m afraid your comment is too cryptic for me.

  13. “Yes, civilization is a work-around circumventing nature.”

    This doesn’t really make sense. Imagine a Newtonian, in response to the puzzle over Mercury’s perihelion, saying “Oh, Newton’s laws are fine — Mercury just found a work-around circumventing them!”

    But Darwinists regularly have made just such a move in response to the obvious embarrassment that human civilization presents to the Darwinian theory of evolution. The scientific response should be “There’s something missing in our theory” — no surprise or shame there, as the history of science indicates that Darwinism *will* be supplanted one day but the actual response usually is “There’s something missing in nature that allowed human civilization to do an end run around it!”

  14. “the obvious embarrassment that human civilization presents to the Darwinian theory of evolution”

    What obvious embarrassment? Seriously, I see no conflict between the basic axioms of evolution (namely, inheritable variation and selection) and the emergence of human civilization. I get the worry that people have here is that such claims will lead to fascism of one sort or another as different groups claim to be “more evolved.” We’ve been through that and it was horrible. But can’t we finally put some of this behind us and acknowledge that culture, like psychology, must emerge from biology? We can be careful not to forget the lessons of the past at the same time that we forge our way ahead into the future.

    Culture evolves the same way we learn, which is the same way our genes evolve. The same basic processes of “blind variation and selective retention” describe all of these phenomena.

  15. “What obvious embarrassment?”

    For instance, the fact that we go to great lengths to keep alive people with serious health problems who will never reproduce? The kind of things described in David Stove’s Darwinian Fairytales? The kind of things that lead Darwinists to say all the time that human civilization “circumvents” nature or that “we alone can escape our geenetic programming” (Dawkins, I quote from memory).

    ‘Culture evolves the same way we learn, which is the same way our genes evolve. The same basic processes of “blind variation and selective retention” describe all of these phenomena.’

    I regard this as mere assertion, and the assertion of something _largely_ false. Genes, presumably, never choose the variations they exhibit (although recent studies on E. Coli tend to question just how ‘blind’ this variation is). Humans, on the other hand, choose the actions that provide the “genetic variety” of cultural “evolution” — the terms are, in fact, only a shaky metaphors here — and money, for instance, “evolved” through people’s deliberate efforts to improve their well being.

    And the only “worry” that motivates these considerations is the “worry” of arriving at the truth.

  16. “Can you elaborate, Current? I’m afraid your comment is too cryptic for me.”

    I’m just mentioning a couple of popular science books that discusses these problems.

    I can’t summarize them here, it’s a long long time since I’ve read them. They are both very interesting book though.

    The discuss the relationships between the economists view of the world (sadly the neo-classical economists view) and that of evolutionary psychology.

    Geoffrey Miller’s comments are primitive compared with Matt Ridley’s discussions of these topics.

  17. If we’re going to argue about evolutionary theory narrowly construed as Dawkins does, then I’ll agree with you both. Dawkins’s theory does not provide an adequate account of how culture might evolve.

    But if we permit for a broader evolutionary theory — take the axioms I suggested above — then some of the phenomena you mention might still be explained by evolution. The key mechanism, which Dawkins has rejected but others (including Darwin) accepted is the possibility that certain variations might be selected because of their benefit to the individual as a member of some group. This “group selection theory” is incompatible with Dawkins’s reductionist theory of the selfish gene. Group selection theory is being picked up again by evolutionary biologists such as E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson, and it’s at least plausible as a mechanism for explaining how culture evolves features like the ones you point out.

    I’ll say it again. I agree with you both if the debate is about “the selfish gene.” For me at least, it’s about a more general theory of evolution.

  18. Also by “blind” I did not mean “random.” The phrase “blind variation and selective retention” is the late Donald T. Campbell’s. Karl Popper was rather fond of it because it brought out so much of what he viewed as the epistemological foundations of science — or should I say scientific culture? Are they not the same?

  19. Gene,

    I think we must have rather different ideas of what a Darwinian view of society is. Responding to the question, ““What obvious embarrassment?” you say, “For instance, the fact that we go to great lengths to keep alive people with serious health problems who will never reproduce?” How is this somehow an “embarrassment” for a Darwinian view of society??

    I suspect the idea is that somehow we should each do only what maximizes reproductive success, whether for the individual or for society as a whole. Such a view would *not* be Darwinian. As evolutionary psychologists Cosmides and Tooby point out, nature needs a mechanism. Evolution does its work through mechanisms. In the case of humans and other “higher” animals, those mechanisms include psychological mechanisms. When we put our evolved psychology in novel environments that are novel environments we get novel behaviors that may not promote biological fitness. For example we are programmed to like fat and protein, which were rare in the ancestral environment. They are abundant today and many of us overeat thereby shortening our lives.

  20. ‘How is this somehow an “embarrassment” for a Darwinian view of society??’

    You said it yourself, Roger, a few comments above: in the Darwinian view, these are ways in which human civilization “circumvents” nature. But, if Darwinism has described universal laws that characterize biological evolution, then such “circumvention” is not possible.

    If need be, I will find you a quote straight from Darwin that says that traits that do not “maximize reproductive success” will be “ruthlessly eliminated” — and yet, through thousands of years of human history, traits like these continually fail to be “ruthlessly eliminated.”

    And, I will note here, I am not advocating ID or creationism, merely pointing out, as did Stove (an atheist and hardcore materialist), that:

    1) Darwinism is the best theory of evolution we have so far; but

    2) It is obviously false as a complete description of evolution.

    As such, your ‘fat and protein’ example merely illustrates that Darwinism can explain some things — a proposition I never doubted!

  21. Darwin was a pretty nuanced guy, Gene. He did not say that natural selection had somehow finished its work so that any traits that do not “maximize reproductive success” will have already been eliminated. I would be surprised to find him using the word “maximize” in that way, too.

    Anyway, you don’t seem to be responding to the point about mechanism. Natural selection cannot solve any problem except by creating a mechanism, which will always have its infirmities. And the mechanism always comes to exist in an environment distinct from that which generated the mechanism, adding to the infirmities. So you just never get the point where everything about an organism is perfectly crafted to “maximize reproductive success.” Indeed, how could that be when different species and different organisms within a species are in competition?

    I looked up David Stove, whom you cite. Apparently, his main targets are Darwin himself and Dawkins. I suspect his slams on Darwin are mistaken. But even if they hit their target, it would be a bit like slamming Adam Smith for upholding a cost of production theory of value: Not all “Smithian” economics carries around the original error. As I understand Dawkins (second hand), he goes straight from genes to behavior. He misses the need to identify mechanisms. In particular, he misses the need to identify psychological mechanism linking evolutionary problem to evolutionary solution. Okay, but Dawkins does not define what “Darwinian” means. We have “evolutionary psychology” precisely because Leda Cosmides and others recognized the need to identify the psychological mechanisms governing human behavior.

    Oh, and what’s this about e coli? Please give us a link; it sounds interesting.

  22. Roger,

    On E. coli, see Cairns, J., J. Overbaugh, and S. Miller. 1988. Nature 335: 142-145, and Foster, P. 2000. Sorting out mutation rates. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 96: 7617-7618.

    The conclusion seems to be some adverse conditions will increase mutation rates and produce specifically those mutations that handle the adverse conditions — we get a process called “adaptative mutagenesis”.

    On Darwin, I will find the relevant quotes for you.

  23. Now I’m really confused. If adaptation itself depends on the environment, then doesn’t that suggest the opposite of what you were suggesting above? I’m beginning to suspect that much of this argument may reduce to simple misunderstanding of terms.

    “Blind” =/= random, it actually permits for the rate (and probably also type) of variation and selection to depend on a local environment. Saying the mechanism is “blind” simply eliminates any teleological influence from the mechanism.

  24. Ah! But Cairns and Foster themselves say you don’t have “reverse information flow” with adaptive mutation.
    Thus, it’s perfectly blind. Indeed, consider your summary statement. Stress increases mutation rates. If mutations were really *directed*, why bother with all those superfluous mutations?

  25. Roger, what they say is that there is no reverse information flow from the proteins back to the DNA — a very narrow finding.

    “Stress increases mutation rates. If mutations were really *directed*, why bother with all those superfluous mutations?”

    First of all, stress increasing mutations rates *could* already be seen as a kind of direction. Secondly, if you read beyond the abstract, you’ll see that there is a puzzle: the mutations seen are not a random sample, but specifically a whole bunch of Lac+ (beneficial in this case) mutations. As far as I can follow the discussion, they are still puzzling over why this is so, contemplating several explanations.

    In the conclusion, you’ll see that it’s still an open question as to just what is going on here — as I said, it seems we’re seeing some sort of Lamarckian evolution, but it’s being researched still (as far as I know — I do not pretend to be the master of this literature!).

    In any case, I just made a passing remark that there is some ongoing research the *may* call into question the “blindness” axiom of NeoDarwinism — and there clearly is. It’s quite peripheral to the main discussion, and something I think we’re unlikely to resolve before the biologists researching the issue do!

  26. The “bad” parts of consumerist signaling only seem to apply to one group of consumer goods – high end luxury spending. But branding and signaling work for a nearly infinite number of subtle signals that achieve a lot of “good” things too. Yes the person who lives and dies by their Louis Vutton handbag, Lexus automobile, and Tiffanys jewlery is most likely a pretentious snob. But what she is doing is in essence no different from the granola eating vegan with hemp shoes driving a Volkswagen with a breast cancer awareness ribbon on the back.

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