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The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature

br2002_15Miller, Geoffrey (2001)The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. London: Vintage.
Paperback edition. 538 pages. Price £8.99. ISBN 0-09-928824-9

Reviewed by Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, Nordfjord Psychiatric Center, N-6770 Nordfjordeid, Norway.

Very rarely does one come across a book as illustrating of its main thesis as Miller’s Mating Mind. From start to finish the author dazzles us with his evolved and educated protean eloquence – this book, the author’s extended phenotype, is as flashy as a peacock’s tail that ever was to hit the popular science shelves. And, as the author claims that Charles Darwin (1871) did with his sexual selection work, this is in part a disguise: actually I believe this is a quite serious attempt at influencing a theoretical shift within evolutionary psychology and presenting a new theoretical framework for investigating human mental evolution. The major thesis is that one should shift from a cold cognitive problem solving survivalist approach to human mental evolution and address mental capacities as handicaps, sensory biases and fitness indicators, selected sexually by choosy females, and thereafter by mutual sexual choice. This story is built around sound ethological findings and speculations about human affairs. Finally – I am afraid that, as Miller points out, as displays often may be more spectacle than truths about the world, this is probably not the whole truth and nothing but the truth about mental evolution. On the other hand it is a creative and surprising manoeuvre – and I believe the most interesting approach to the evolution of arts, including music, for many years. For this reason alone one ought to read the book – that is if one is interested in the evolution of human musical nature. (Note: The book does not deal with music explicitly, but as Miller claims in the Epilogue, most of the arguments for the evolution of art apply to his theory of evolution of music).

I have just finished reviewing a book by John Dupré (2001) for the Human Nature Review (Kennair, 2002). Dupré claims that evolutionary theory cannot be used legally to address human psychology – it is a biological theory not a psychological theory – and as such evolutionary psychology is viewed to be poor, reductionistic and imperialistic science. The current book, by Geoffrey Miller, differs from Dupré’s book in almost every way – they approach the same subject so differently that as a reader one may become quite baffled at how differently the world may appear to educated people. The reason that I mention this is that Miller makes the very interesting claim, especially in light of Dupré’s stance, that the theory of sexual selection actually is a psychological theory, and that this is the best explanation of much of the what we call human nature. And I must agree – the theory is based on the effects of mental calculations and perceptions of females, that is female psychology. The reason that this is interesting for the readers of NJMT is that Miller focuses on the evolution of the arts and human mental capacities that have been previously viewed and discarded merely as luxury behaviour. Instead of focusing exclusively on survival value, Miller moves the arts to centre stage, in the epic of the evolution of the human mind, claiming that the evolution of a colourful and creative mind through sexual selection caused the human mind.

This is probably the book which best addresses almost all issues raised in the last few years’ articles on evolution and music in NJMT (Christensen, 2000; Dissanayake, 2001; Grinde, 2000; Kennair, 2000, 2001; Merker, 2000; Trevarthen & Malloch, 2000). This is not due to the focus on music – the book hardly mentions music (see Miller, 2000, for his theories on music) – but because Miller launches a generic theory for studying all arts, sports, language and any display of fitness, intelligence and creativity. The most important book on the evolution of music so far is Wallin, Merker & Brown’s (2000) The Origins of Music. Apart from the introductory essay of Origins my conclusion (Kennair, 2001) is that Miller’s essay is the most important contribution to that book. But both Miller (2000, 2001) and I seem to agree with McBurney & Gaulin (2000) that there is too little empirical work done yet and therefore too much free speculation. Still, Miller is at least working within mainstream evolutionary theory to a great enough degree to be somewhat disciplined by some facts and accepted truths. And to start off speculation is fine… but one cannot be starting off for too long.

Mating Mind is not really a popular science book – it is that too, a splendid one at that – but it is also a major theoretical exposition and a reformulation of many elements of evolutionary psychology. What I personally find most amazing is how the author combines these two genres in such a relaxed, easy read, and serious manner. At the same time – too many blatant just-so stories may frustrate the more informed reader, when they are used as evidence/ support, and are not the thesis to be tested. But, no matter what Gould (1980) says, just-so stories are not a problem in themselves as many still think- they are standard scientific method (Holcomb, 1996).

The story goes like this: There are different processes that may cause brains to grow large and become intelligent and creative – some of these processes are described by game theory, others by evolutionary theory. The most interesting approaches are those found within sexual selection theory – Zahavi’s handicap principle (the peacock grows a tail so splendid, to point out that it is fit enough to, even if it has a high biological cost) and fitness indicators being the most interesting. The other two: runaway selection and sensory bias are not found as convincing.

The book provides a thorough presentation of sexual selection theories – both historical and contemporary. And through this Miller develops his own model of human evolution, focusing less on what one could call mechanistic metaphors and puritan functionality and more on artistic or popular culture metaphors and sexual attraction. Miller thereby formulates a new evolutionary psychology specially designed for addressing themes such as human musicality. Instead of searching for elusive survival functions, one may ask whether women would rather have sex with musicians than tone-deaf men. This in a nutshell is sexual selection theory: all things being the same, if one is musical and the other not, will the females systematically choose the musical male? Further, will the females themselves become musical due to the fact that almost all genes pass through both sexes over generations? And, if musicality demands many genes to be present and healthy to come about, will musicality be a fitness indicator (a sign to the choosy female whether the male has genes that will help her children survive and have children)? Thus the most musical males may reproduce with greater chance, and may themselves be more choosy – reproducing with more fit females, and even more musical females…

This necessarily makes for more speculation than empirical evidence. Especially attempting to describe selection pressures and behaviours in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness – the Pleistocene (the period of time in which most evolution that has made us human took place). The first chapters therefore are the most interesting, and least frustrating. Even if one is familiar with the theory I believe most will find Miller’s presentation refreshing and novel. Although not convincing. But that may not be the point. This is a start – the work starts now: empirical testing, data collection etc. Here I find that Miller ought to have worked harder at suggesting the relevant tests and suggesting how his speculations might be investigated. Surely pitting natural selection hypotheses against sexual selection hypotheses must be interesting. I for one like combos – I wonder why it took Miller half the book to suggest interactions between natural and sexual selection, and then he didn’t return… This I believe to be a result of introducing the new theory. If one allows too much room for the ruling paradigm one will probably be absorbed into it, without much notice. But I believe that there also were natural selection effects (survival-reproductive effects) which is why our ancestors dominated their niche and suppressed their cousins.

Another problem is that Miller’s description of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness is inconsistent – sometimes there are families, other times not etc. Especially the question of whether there are fathers or not is important, and Miller needs to resolve this. I believe Miller needs to be more stringent and rigorous in building his model of selection pressures and modern day psychology – so that critiques such as mine of inconsistency and other’s, such as Spier’s (2002), of unsubstantiated claims are less simple to launch.

I have claimed (Kennair, 1998 – also available as Kennair, 2002b) that evolutionary psychology is not merely a marriage between sociobiology and cognitive psychology (as Dennet, 1995, among others, claims). Rather I attempt to show how evolutionary psychology is more indebted to Richard Dawkins’ (and especially Selfish Gene, 1976, and Extended Phenotype, 1982) theoretical developments. This seems even more the case with the sub-species of evolutionary psychology developed by Miller. I believe, especially within the evolutionary studies of the arts, that Miller will manage to make the Darwin-Dawkins-Miller link a major one, once the gene- and biology phobia is extinguished.

One might complain that the book has become too wordy (maybe the result of a runaway editor?) – there are too many examples and repetitions, and the book has thus become somewhat inflated at plus 400 pages. At the same time Miller is a thrill to read – and quite convincing, as well as pedagogic. If the theories Miller is building his theory on are new to the reader, this is a very good introduction and illustration of modern sexual selection theory and basic principles of evolution and game theory. In such cases the repetition is probably very helpful. If the basics are familiar, the text itself is still so eloquent that one will probably be quite amused all the same – although the danger is then that one will want to see the evidence, and so far there is little (to say “none” would be too harsh). For those who do not revel in wordy display there is a precis (Miller, 2001) – which also includes Miller’s own critique of the book. This also links to four other reviews of the book, most of which are quite unconvinced (Betzig, 2002; Roney, 2002; Spier, 2002) although one is rather positive (Rigby & Franks, 2001).

There are a few grammatical mistakes, especially missing words. The book contains a glossary, which probably is helpful for those who are not familiar with the most important technical concepts, and a good index. It also has a selected, though relevant, bibliography – these references are presented as endnotes. Which makes the text more readable, unless one is very interested in what is said where by who – for those of us who are there are a few more pages to leaf through.

The last problem I wish to address in this review is the problem of genetic differences and selection today. I am sure that rock stars have sex with many more different people than I do – but am I necessary less musical than a member of a “boy band”? And do they get more children? I have so far accepted that the interesting evolutionary studies are of human universals, and as far as I can see music is a universal – very few musicians are tone deaf but also very few musicians have perfect pitch – I am also sure that many people with perfect pitch do not play instruments. There seems to be a cut off level that was achieved by human nature where people in general are musical, but where thousands of years have passed without this being adaptive in any way. I would probably therefore not focus on differential reproduction due to genetic variance for music today. I am still attempting to work out how behavioural genetics and evolutionary psychology fit together – so far I find that they are addressing different problems and I find that genetic variance is less interesting than universal human nature (see Kennair, 1998, 2002b). How many people do not have children today, or for the last thousands of years, due to their lack of wit and panache? I believe social anxiety might be a problem, but there is always drink or contingency to get around that problem. I am therefore unsure whether genetic differences we see today mean anything, or can help us understand the human universal. I believe it is possible that I might have misunderstood Miller on this point, though.

To conclude: This is probably not the truth about human mental evolution – but it absolutely seems like a convincing addendum to current thinking, and one that warrants more attention – and ultimately empirical testing. It is a popular science book, but it is also a Trojan Horse – it is a very serious theoretical exposition, aimed at sneaking into the meme-sets of evolutionary psychologists. It is not explicitly about music, but it might as well have been – there is every reason to believe that if Miller is correct, even partially, about the phenomena he addresses in the book, that the theory will apply to music, too. As most other theoreticians within the evolution of the arts have a lower degree of evolutionary theoretical discipline (and if they have higher discipline, they probably are studying animals not human music and art) this is the best available route to explore – if one wishes to do so scientifically. Biomusicology and sexual selection theory both need to start testing hypotheses – and when this happens this will make very interesting reading. In the meantime enjoy this book – this energetic, protean display of wit and wonder about the evolution of our favourite human games and most deeply held convictions!


Betzig, L. (2002) Croaks and tails or teeth and claws?. Psycoloquy, 13(009) Mating Mind (4). (Retrieved from http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?13.009 on January 31st 2002.)

Christensen, E. (2000). Music precedes language: Comment on Grinde’s article. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 9, 32-35.

Darwin, C. (1871/1981). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1976/1989). The selfish gene (New ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1982). The extended phenotype. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwin’s dangerous idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Dissanayake, E. (2001). An ethological view of music and its relevance to music therapy. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 10, 159-175.

Dupré, J. (2001). Human nature and the limits of science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gould, S. J. (1980). Sociobiology and the theory of natural selection. In G. W. Barlow & J. Silverberg (Eds.), Sociobiology: beyond nature/nurture? Reports, definitions and debate (pp.257-269). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Grinde, B. (2000). A biological perspective on musical appreciation. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 9, 18-27.

Holcomb, H. R., III. (1996). Just so stories and inference to the best explanation in evolutionary psychology. Minds and Machines, 6, 525-540.

Kennair, L. E. O. (1998). Evolutionary psychology: an emerging integrative meta-theory for psychological science and practice. Thesis. Department of Biological and Medical Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, University of Bergen.

Kennair, L. E. O. (2000). Developing minds for pathology and musicality. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 9, 26-37. (Retrieved from artikkelkennair91.html#top on January 31st 2002.)

Kennair, L. E. O. (2001). Origins – investigations into biological human musical nature. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 10, 54-65. (Retrieved from bookreview_2001012.html on February 5th 2002.)

Kennair, L. E. O. (2002a). Review of Human Nature and the Limits of Science by John Dupré. Human Nature Review, 2, 7-16. (Retrieved from http://www.human-nature.com/nibbs/02/leok.html on January 31st 2002.)

Kennair, L. E. O. (2002b). Evolutionary psychology: An emerging integrative perspective within the science and practice of psychology. Human Nature Review, 2, 17-61. (Retrieved from http://www.human-nature.com/nibbs/02/ep.html on January 31st 2002.)

McBurney, D. H., & Gaulin, S. J. C. (2000). Review of The origins of music edited by Nils L. Wallin, Björn Merker, and Steven Brown. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21, 443-450.

Merker, B. (2000). A new theory of music origins: The language auxiliary hypothesis. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 9, 28-31.

Miller, G. (2000). Evolution of human music through sexual selection. (pp. 329-360). In Wallin, Merker & Brown (Eds.) The origins of music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Miller, G. (2001). Precis of: The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. Psycoloquy, 12(008). (Retrieved from http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?12.008 on January 31st 2002.)

Rigby, K., & Franks, B. (2001) A mating of minds. Psycoloquy, 12(033) Mating Mind (2). (Retrieved from http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?12.033 on January 31st 2002.)

Roney, J. R. (2002) Likeable but unlikely, a review of The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller. Psycoloquy, 13(010) Mating Mind (5). (Retrieved from http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?13.010 on January 31st 2002.)

Spier, E. (2002). Did sex make you brainy?. Psycoloquy, 13(004) Mating Mind (3). (Retrieved from http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?13.004 on January 31st 2002.)

Trevarthen, C., & Malloch, S. N. (2000). The dance of wellbeing: Defining the musical therapeutic effect. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 9, 3-17.

Wallin, N. L., Merker, B., & Brown, S. (Eds). (2000). The origins of music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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