It’s very easy for some of us to jump on the anti-consumerism bandwagon. We look at soccer moms driving their 1.7 kids 2.4 miles to school in their Ford Excessives, and we smugly note that there is not so much as a deep pothole to test their off-road capability. We rail against the excesses of the rich and famous, and decry the salaries of professional athletes. Environmentalists warn that we are literally killing ourselves and our children. Dieticians inform us that we are eating ourselves into early graves.
Yet, we still eat too much, and we still buy a new car every time we can afford it. We still want a bigger house even though the one we have is big enough. Is it a failing of human morality that we are greedy to our own detriment? Are we singular in the animal kingdom in our apparent insatiability? It turns out the answer to both questions is a resounding no. In fact, we are behaving exactly like every other animal. It is not a weakness of will or a “flaw” in our nature. We are behaving exactly as evolutionary theory predicts.
In humans — and in most animals, as it turns out — females are the selectors. This means that males must compete for the attention of females who then choose which one they prefer as a mate. This may sound somewhat counter-intuitive at first. After all, human history is filled with examples to the contrary. Powerful men have often had their choice of mates as well as the privilege of having as many mates as they wanted. Women have been betrothed in marriage by their fathers for much, if not most, of the history of civilization. Doesn’t that make men the selectors?
Actually, no. It doesn’t. When we talk of a selector in a biological sense, we must be careful just how much stock we put into the notion of “choice.” Human culture is a very complicated phenomenon, and as we will soon see, it often produces seemingly paradoxical situations. The fact that individual human males sometimes get to choose their mate does not change the fact that as animals go, we still fit within the broad category of female selectors. This will become more apparent as we go on, so I won’t belabor the point here.
As we survey the animal kingdom, we discover that in many species, the males have very elaborate decorations and the females are rather drab. The most common example of this is the peacock, whose massive and gaudy tail was a puzzle before the discovery of sexual selection as an evolutionary process. Perhaps, it was thought, animals tended to beauty but the need for females to be discrete during birth and childrearing necessitated that nature “tone down” females while males were allowed to shine forth with as much natural beauty as they wanted. (A somewhat sexist view, in retrospect…) Perhaps the beauty of nature was proof that God loves humans enough to surround us with beauty.
It turns out, the answer is much more simple than that. Peahens like big gaudy tails. That’s it. Peahens like big tails, so they mate with peacocks who have big tails. The offspring tend to have big tails. Peacocks without big tails don’t get to mate, so soon all that’s left are peacocks with big tails.
Variation produces something analogous to an arms race. Trees tend to get taller. Cheetahs tend to get faster. Natural selection doesn’t tend towards efficiency. It tends toward rewarding those who can outdo their peers. The trees that get the most sunlight will reproduce the most effectively, as will cheetahs who catch more gazelles.
This leads to an obvious question, though. If it’s all about survival, what possible reason could there be for a peacock’s tail to get so huge? It’s an energy hog, and it serves no apparent function besides alerting potential predators to its presence. Why would peahens select a mate who metaphorically begs to be eaten by any predator with eyes? The answer, it turns out, is that big tails are lie detectors!
For a female, choosing a mate is a very risky proposition. Pick a weak, sickly male and you’re likely to have weak, sickly babies that will tend not to reproduce as successfully as healthy babies. It’s in a female’s best interest to be able to spot the most healthy males. This much is obvious. What isn’t so obvious is that it’s in a male’s best interest to look as healthy as possible, regardless of his actual health! From the perspective of a gene, the goal is reproduction. So, as females become more discerning of male health, males become better at looking healthy. It’s deception, to be sure, but it’s also the most logical thing to do, if the choices are to be honest and not mate or be dishonest and mate.
This is where conspicuous consumption comes into the picture. Let’s imagine that there is a room full of men, and our job is to guess, just by looking at them, which one has the most money. There will be a lot of clues. Some will be wearing more expensive clothes and jewelry than others. Some will have manicured nails or professionally styled hair. Some will have the signs of hard labor on their hands and bodies. Others’ soft hands will betray their lives of ease. In principle, we ought to be able to look at any group of men and tell who’s got the most money, right?
No. Of course not. As we all know, men lie with their appearance. We’re all familiar with the cliche of a corvette parked in front of a mobile home. We’re familiar with it because it happens. Even very poor men can save their pennies and spend virtually everything they have on a nice suit, a haircut, and a manicure. By looks alone, we simply can’t tell. Or can we? Some signs of wealth really are beyond most men. It’s one thing to own a corvette, but it’s another to own twenty. A man can lie to a certain extent, but past that, the rich really are separated from the poor. The rich can afford to throw money around like it grows on trees. Does a man need to buy a million dollar house, ten cars, a yacht, and a private jet? No. But if he does so, he is definitively setting himself apart from all the men who can’t. And women notice.
This is the principle behind a peacock’s tail. Any old bird can grow an ordinary tail, but a big plume with lots of bright colors and lots of extra weight to carry around? Only a particularly strong bird can do that… at least, that’s the message of fitness indicators. “Look at me,” they cry. “I am so fit that I can afford this garish display of extra strength and stamina and still manage to avoid being eaten by predators!”
It’s the same message as “Look at me! I can afford a luxury home in the Caribbean, a yacht, a private jet, and twenty sports cars, and still manage to provide for the children we shall bear!”
Yes, I’m afraid rampant consumerism is built into us by the same kinds of evolutionary pressures that created peacock tails. Fortunately, it’s not the only way we choose mates. It turns out that most creatures don’t just have one sexual fitness indicator. As we move higher and higher on the continuum of intelligence and social complexity, we discover that females often have very complex instinctive mechanisms for choosing their mates. Humans, as the most intelligent and arguably most socially complex creatures on the planet, have perhaps hundreds of sexual fitness indicators. Pick up any womens’ magazine and you will see this to be true. Every issue seems to have some article or another on how to judge whether a man will be faithful or if he will be successful in business. Women are supposed to look at how he keeps his home, how he interacts with his mother, how he treats kittens, how he invests his money, whether he cooks for himself, and a hundred other criteria. We’ve certainly evolved past the point of picking the strongest guy in a room and running back to the cave to procreate. Nevertheless, as with all things, the evolutionary principle remains the same. Whatever the criteria we’re looking for, we want to know that we’re getting an honest picture of the other person.
This is the same principle that gives us the engagement ring, as it turns out. We are not the only species in which males give the female gifts to try to win sexual congress. In fact, it’s quite common. It’s just another way of saying, “See, I have so many resources that I can afford to give you this valuable gift and still have enough resources left over.” In fact, it turns out that the more useless a gift is, the more it demonstrates the ability to conspicuously consume! If you think about it, diamonds are only valuable as jewelry because we think they are. They don’t actually “do” anything. Do you think it’s coincidence that women get angry when they are given practical gifts on anniversaries? No, it is not coincidence. Useless tokens of admiration mean more than practical gifts because they demonstrate the man’s ability to literally throw away money on something with no pragmatic application.
It works the other way, too. Push up bras, makeup, jewelry, high heeled shoes, girdles, pantyhose, and body-enhancing shampoo aren’t just “enhancements.” Biologically speaking, they’re lies.
Here’s where we get back to what I mentioned earlier about females not being the obvious selectors in humans. There’s a very simple principle that will make the whole thing make more sense: One cannot select unless one has been given options. Put another way, females only get to choose between the males that want to mate with them, so the savvy female does what she can to attract as many potential suitors as possible. This, in a nutshell, is why you don’t see in humans the same huge differences between the sexes in many other species. Our society is such that females don’t get to choose from all the available males. They have to do some work themselves and attract the best potential mates.
In lekking species, females do not monopolize males. Instead, all the females watch as all the males dance or perform some other courtship ritual. Once the courting is finished, the most desirable male, or perhaps a few of the most desirable males, mate with all the females. In these kinds of societies, the females literally don’t have to do any work to attract males. However, when it’s one male to one female (or something close), it becomes important to the female to get the best male she can out of the available pool, which means that she is going to have to do two things. First, she must accurately assess her own desirability as a mate, and second, she must do everything within her power to attract the best possible mate within her available “mating pool.” Thus, she has the same incentive to lie as a male. Thus, both men and women are driven to be conspicuous consumers.
In the article on competition and arms races, I asked pointedly whether or not humans are capable of overcoming their instincts enough to come to an agreement on escalation of energy usage. Today, I must ask the same question about conspicuous consumption. In some ways, they are the same question, for the same evolutionary drives fuel both our seemingly insatiable appetite for energy and our tendency to always own more than we need. So, again I am forced to admit that I don’t know if it’s possible. I suppose it’s a question we should all ask ourselves as individuals.
Does knowing the evolutionary explanation for our behavior help us to overcome it? Perhaps. If anything, it helps us to put our behavior in perspective and understand that it’s neither a moral failing nor an inevitability. Knowing where our desires come from, we can make the informed choice to alter our behavior. Perhaps it will mean that our lives will be substantially different, and perhaps we will decide that we owe it to the rest of the world, and more importantly, to our children and to their children, to put self imposed limits on our displays of conspicuous consumption. Maybe, just maybe, we can decide individually and collectively that our reach exceeds our grasp, and that “good enough” really is good enough.