THE ORIGIN OF ART - A NEW THEORY
Review of THE MATING MIND Geoffrey Miller (Doubleday) © Donald Richardson, March, 2006
The central thesis of this book can be summed up by the adage "Man proposes, woman disposes".
Miller reports that evolutionary psychologists have been reassessing Charles Darwin's 1871 book, The Descent of Man, in particular recognising that its full title added and Selection in Relation to Sex. It details the role sex has played in evolution - the other side of natural selection, which was covered in The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Natural selection relates to species evolution and survival, whereas sexual selection is about courtship and mating within a species. They are two sides of the same coin. However, discussion of sex and - in particular - the recognition that coupling results from the choice of the female, not the male - was so offensive to Darwin's contemporaries that the concept was discounted for over a century. It is appropriate that it should resurface as the bicentenary of Darwin's birth in 1809 approaches.
Sexual selection also implies that polygamy is the state of nature, a fact that has been denied in the Christian West (although not by the East) but which is now becoming accepted as the universal norm due to the sexual exploits of various presidents, rock-stars and sportsmen - and, of course, the willing connivance of their partners.
But, according to Miller, sexual selection is particularly relevant to the development of the human mind. He notes that the brain of Homo sapiens tripled in size about two million years ago. This growth predates the development and use of tools and Miller proposes - plausibly - that it is due to the development of social skills related to mating. This includes not only language but also other such purely human things as intelligence, manners, morality, humour and art. Different individuals display these traits in varying degrees, which gives a female a wide range from which to choose the most 'attractive' mate for her - basically an aesthetic choice. The reason females do the choosing is that they invest so much time and energy in pregnancy and with a neonate.
At one level, of course, none of this will be news to women; but what is startlingly new is the scientific recognition of the role of female choice in the development of the total of human mental propensities - and it makes fascinating reading (not too difficult either).
That sexual selection requires display by males is most obvious in creatures like the peacock, and it is a paradoxical fact that, when the bird's long tail is in display, he is less able to flee a predator. Hence, there is a tension between natural and sexual selection; but their coexistence over the aeons proves Miller's thesis. Human males display through demonstrating their wealth, power, intelligence, resourcefulness or creativity, many of which accomplishments are as profligate of the energy needed for survival as is the peacock's strutting. This justifies expensive engagement rings as well as simple bouquets; also Hollywood movies and art. The profligacy of courtship is what makes it romantic, Miller says.
Human mating is akin to marketing and advertising because the mind is more like an amusement park than a computer. The entire process is mediated by the senses - particularly the visual - which disposes us to the development of art. On a more basic level, Miller hypothesises that sexual display may have inclined us to bipedalism as both the penis and the breast are optimally displayed by the upright stance. On the other hand, females kept their primary sexual organ concealed because their pleasure is internalised and related to conception.
Miller adduces as evidence for his thesis that most artists have been men whose peak production was at a time in their lives when they were most sexually active. Interestingly, this dove-tails with another recent - and controversial - theory, that of Camille Paglia (Sexual Personae, Penguin, 1991), which avers that women do not need to display through making art because they are more psychologically complete than men are.