Geoffrey Miller’s “The Mating Mind”

Miller makes many very good points and I had not been previously convinced how important sexual selection was. I now grant his point that it can hardly be ignored.

I think that he has found some pieces of a bigger puzzle of how mind arose, but certainly not the whole thing. He has not explained how sexual selection just happened to produce so many truly useful mind attributes. The insights of evolutionary epistemology indicate to me the broad outlines of how intelligence arose. Those insights need to be integrated with Miller’s to satisfy me.

Miller notes that Darwin failed to speculate on how female preferences developed and he fills in much of what Darwin neglected. He fails on the same point, however, on how human female sexual selection developed to favor intelligence, except by itself being intelligent. A bit circular, which is OK but to be circular and lucky is too much. I don’t buy the note that peacocks berate our runaway intelligence as we do their fancy tails. They won’t fly to the stars with their fancy tails.

When I see the arcane tangents that a few academic disciplines have fallen into, I think that nature has somehow managed some sort of influence beneficial towards useful intelligence. I suppose making a living on the savanna does provide some adaptive rewards for real intelligence.

Miller’s most interesting point, for me, is how important people’s preferences are in evolution.

To hear Miller one might conclude that adaptation can never win against sexual selection. He cites the Irish elks who died out as their antlers became too large. He must also explain all those species that do not die out. The roaches were old when the dinosaurs were new and they seem not to have been sidetracked from adaptive evolution. How is this balance struck? Perhaps a female elk with a mutation to prefer smaller antlers might have had many successful great grand children.

His notes on language are right on, I think, but I would have described over elaborate language as a status symbol. This is a minor point and Miller would deny a difference. Is is not an important difference. I have noticed that every natural language of which I know anything, has some substantial nucleus of arbitrary obscure rules. This is above and beyond the large vocabulary for which English is infamous.

Miller suggests that “theory of mind” is used exclusively against others, or at least that is what I gather he means when he terms it Machiavellian. That may be the primary purpose, but what of:

He downplays reciprocity but I don’t buy it. He mentions the instinct to detect cheaters and it still seems to me that a group of 20 to 50 people sharing wealth but punishing cheaters is a form of reciprocity even if it is not bilateral.

His note on autistics being unable to play penny matching well is fascinating!

I have recently reread some of his material on our apparent urge to recount what we have learned. He attributes it directly to the advantage of attracting mates. I am skeptical. The vast amount of useful information available on the Internet by people with nothing to gain but a bit of nearly anonymous prestige, makes me think that we have evolved to recount what we have learned to achieve status in the community—this status stemming from the utility to our colleagues of what we say. If knowledge is valuable then shared knowledge is valuable.