An Infinite Variety of Waste

Excerpt from The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (2000) by Geoffrey Miller (pg. 128-129)

Zahavi’s handicap principle and the idea of condition-dependence* are different perspectives on the same thing. The handicap idea emphasizes that sexual ornaments and courtship behaviors must be costly in order to be reliable fitness indicators. Their cost can take almost any form. They can increase risk from predators by making an animal more conspicuous with bright colors. They can increase risk from germs by impairing an animal’s immune system (which many sex hormones do). They can burn up vast amounts of time and energy, like bird song. They can demand a huge effort to obtain a small gift of meat, as in human tribal hunting.

As with Veblen’s conspicuous consumption principle, the form of the cost does not matter much. What matters is the prodigious waste. The waste is what keeps the fitness indicators honest. The wastefulness of courtship is what makes it romantic. The wasteful dancing, the wasteful gift-giving, the wasteful conversation, the wasteful laughter, the wasteful foreplay, the wasteful adventures. From the viewpoint of “survival of the fittest,” the waste looks mad and pointless and maladaptive. Human courtship even looks wasteful from the viewpoint of sexual selection for non-generic benefits, because, as we shall see, the act of love considered most romantic are often those that cost the giver the most, but that bring the smallest material benefits to the receiver. However, from the viewpoint of fitness indicator theory, this waste is the most efficient and reliable way to discover someone’s fitness. Where you see conspicuous waste in nature, sexual choice has often been at work.

Every sexual ornament in every sexually reproducing species could be viewed as a different style of waste. Male humpback whales waste their energies with half-hour-long, hundred-decibel songs that they repeat all day long during the breeding season. Male weaverbirds waste their time constructing ornamental nests. Male stag beetles waste the matter and energy from their food growing huge mandibles. Male elephant seals waste a thousand pounds of their fat per breeding season fighting other elephant seals. Male lions waste countless calories copulating thirty times a day with female lions before the females will conceive. Male humans waste their time and energy getting graduate degrees, writing books, playing sports, fighting other men, painting pictures, playing jazz, and founding religious cults. These may not be conscious sexual strategies, but the underlying motivations for “achievement” and “status”- even in preference to material sources- were probably shaped by sexual selection. (Of course, the wasteful displays that seemed attractive during courtship may no longer be valued if they persist after offspring arrive- there is a trade-off between parental responsibilities and conspicuous display.)

The handicap principle suggests that in each case, sexual selection cares much more about the prodigious magnitude of the waste than about its precise form. Once the decision-making mechanisms of sexual choice get their necessary information about fitness from a sexual display, everything else about the display is just a matter of taste. This interplay between waste and taste gives evolution a lot of elbow room. In fact, every species with sexual ornaments can be viewed as a different variety of sexually selected waste. Without so many varieties of sexual waste, our planet would not be the host of so many species.

* (from Glossary, pg. 437) Condition-dependence: A trait’s sensitivity to an animal’s health and energy level. For example, dance ability is condition-dependent because tired, sick animals can’t dance very well.

Avoid Runaway Signaling in Effective Altruism


Above: “Virtue Signaling” by Geoffrey Miller. This presentation was given at EAGlobal 2016 at the Berkeley campus.

For a good introduction to the EA movement, we suggest this amazing essay written by Scott Alexander from SlateStarCodex, which talks about his experience at EAGlobal 2017 in San Francisco (note: we were there too, and the essay briefly discusses our encounter with him).

We have previously discussed why valence research is so important to EA. In brief, we argue that in order to minimize suffering we need to actually unpack what it means for an experience to have low valence (ie. to feel bad). Unfortunately, modern affective neuroscience does not have a full answer to this question, but we believe that the approach that we use- at the Qualia Research Institute- has the potential to actually uncover the underlying equation for valence. We deeply support the EA cause and we think that it can only benefit from foundational consciousness research.

We’ve already covered some of the work by Geoffrey Miller (see this, this, and this). His sexual selection framework for understanding psychological traits is highly illuminating, and we believe that it will, ultimately, be a crucial piece of the puzzle of valence as well.

We think that in this video Geoffrey is making some key points about how society may perceive EAs which are very important to keep in mind as the movement grows. Here is a partial transcript of the video that we think anyone interested in EA should read (it covers 11:19-20:03):

So, I’m gonna run through the different traits that I think are the most relevant to EA issues. One is low intelligence versus high intelligence. This is a remarkably high intelligence crowd. And that’s good in lots of ways. Like you can analyze complex things better. A problem comes when you try to communicate findings to the people in the middle of the bell curve or even to the lower end. Those folks are the ones who are susceptible to buying books like “Homeopathic Care for Cats and Dogs” which is not evidence-based (your cat will die). Or giving to “Guide Dogs for the Blind”. And if you think “I’m going to explain my ethical system through Bayesian rationality” you might impress people, you might signal high IQ, but you might not convince them.

I think there is a particular danger of “runaway IQ-signaling” in EA. I’m relatively new to EA, I’m totally on board with what this community is doing, I think it’s awesome, it’s terrific… I’m very concerned that it doesn’t go the same path I’ve seen many other fields go, which is: when you have bright people, they start competing for status on the basis of brightness, rather than on the basis of actual contributions to the field.


So if you have elitist credentialism, like if your first question is “where did you go to school?”. Or “I take more Provigil than you, so I’m on a nootropics arms race”. Or you have exclusionary jargon that nobody can understand without Googling it. Or you’re skeptical about everything equally, because skepticism seems like a high IQ thing to do. Or you fetishize counter-intuitive arguments and results. These are problems. If your idea of a Trolley Problem involves twelve different tracks, then you’re probably IQ signaling.


A key Big Five personality trait to worry about, or to think about consciously, is openness to experience. Low openness tends to be associated with drinking alcohol, voting Trump, giving to ineffective charities, standing for traditional family values, and being sexually inhibited. High openness to experience tends to be associated with, well, “I take psychedelics”, or “I’m libertarian”, or “I give to SCI”, or “I’m polyamorous”, or “casual sex is awesome”.


Now, it’s weird that all these things come in a package (left), and that all these things come in a package (right), but that empirically seems to be the case.

openness_2Now, one issue here is that high openness is great- I’m highly open, and most of you guys are too- but what we don’t want to do is, try to sell people all the package and say “you can’t be EA unless you are politically liberal”, or “unless you are a Globalist”, or “unless you support unlimited immigration”, or “unless you support BDSM”, or “transhumanism”, or whatever… right, you can get into runaway openness signaling like the Social Justice Warriors do, and that can be quite counter-productive in terms of how your field operates and how it appears to others. If you are using rhetoric that just reactively disses all of these things [low openness attributes], be aware that you will alienate a lot of people with low openness. And you will alienate a lot of conservative business folks who have a lot of money who could be helpful.

Another trait is agreeableness. Kind of… kindness, and empathy, and sympathy. So low agreeableness- and this is the trait with the biggest sex difference on average, men are lower on agreeableness than women. Why? Because we did a bit more hunting, and stabbing each other, and eating meat. And high A tends to be more “cuddle parties”, and “voting for Clinton”, and “eating Tofu”, and “affirmative consent rather than Fifty Shades”. 


EA is a little bit weird because this community, from my observations, combines certain elements of high agreeableness- obviously, you guys care passionately about sentient welfare across enormous spans of time and space. But it also tends to come across, potentially, as low agreeableness, and that could be a problem. If you analyze ethical and welfare problems using just cold rationality, or you emphasize rationality- because you are mostly IQ signaling- it comes across to everyone outside EA as low agreeableness. As borderline sociopathic. Because traditional ethics and morality, and charity, is about warm heartedness, not about actually analyzing problems. So just be aware: this is a key personality trait that we have to be really careful about how we signal it. 


High agreeableness tends to be things like traditional charity, where you have a deontological perspective, sacred moral rules, sentimental anecdotes, “we’re helping people with this well on Africa that spins around, children push on it, awesome… whatever”. You focus on vulnerable cuteness, like charismatic megaphone if you are doing animal welfare. You focus on in-group loyalty, like “let’s help Americans before we help Africa”. That’s not very effective, but it’s highly compelling… emotionally… to most people, as a signal. And the stuff that EA tends to do, all of this: facing tough trade-offs, doing expected utility calculations, focusing on abstract sentience rather than cuteness… that can come across as quite cold-hearted.


EA so far, in my view- I haven’t run personality questionnaires on all of you, but my impression is- it tends to attract a fairly narrow range of cognitive and personality types. Obviously high IQ, probably the upper 5% of the bell curve. Very high openness, I doubt there are many Trump supporters here. I don’t know. Probably not. [Audience member: “raise your hands”. Laughs. Someone raises hands]. Uh oh, a lynching on the Berkeley campus. And in a way there might be a little bit of low agreeableness, combined with abstract concern for sentient welfare. It takes a certain kind of lack of agreeableness to even think in complex rational ways about welfare. And of course there is a fairly high proportion of nerds and geeks- i.e. Asperger’s syndrome- me as much as anybody else out here, with a focus on what Simon Baron-Cohen calls “systematizing” over “empathizing”. So if you think systematically, and you like making lists, and doing rational expected value calculations, that tends to be a kind of Aspie way to approaching things. The result is, if you make systematizing arguments, you will come across as Aspie, and that can be good or bad depending on the social context. If you do a hard-headed, or cold-hearted analysis of suffering, that also tends to signal so-called dark triad traits-narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sociopathy- and I know this is a problem socially, and sexually, for some EAs that I know! That they come across to others as narcissistic, Machiavellian, or sociopathic, even though they are actually doing more good in the world than the high agreeableness folks. 


[Thus] I think virtue signaling helps explain why EA is prone to runaway signaling of intelligence and openness. So if you include a lot more math than you really strictly need to, or more intricate arguments, or more mind-bending counterfactuals, that might be more about signaling your own IQ than solving relevant problems. I think it can also explain, according to the last few slides, why EA concerns about tractability, globalism, and problem neglectedness can seem so weird, cold, and unappealing to many people.



Political Peacocks

Extract from Geoffrey Miller’s essay “Political peacocks”

The hypothesis

Humans are ideological animals. We show strong motivations and incredible capacities to learn, create, recombine, and disseminate ideas. Despite the evidence that these idea-processing systems are complex biological adaptations that must have evolved through Darwinian selection, even the most ardent modern Darwinians such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richards Dawkins, and Dan Dennett tend to treat culture as an evolutionary arena separate from biology. One reason for this failure of nerve is that it is so difficult to think of any form of natural selection that would favor such extreme, costly, and obsessive ideological behavior. Until the last 40,000 years of human evolution, the pace of technological and social change was so slow that it’s hard to believe there was much of a survival payoff to becoming such an ideological animal. My hypothesis, developed in a long Ph.D. dissertation, several recent papers, and a forthcoming book, is that the payoffs to ideological behavior were largely reproductive. The heritable mental capacities that underpin human language, culture, music, art, and myth-making evolved through sexual selection operating on both men and women, through mutual mate choice. Whatever technological benefits those capacities happen to have produced in recent centuries are unanticipated side-effects of adaptations originally designed for courtship.


The predictions and implications

The vast majority of people in modern societies have almost no political power, yet have strong political convictions that they broadcast insistently, frequently, and loudly when social conditions are right. This behavior is puzzling to economists, who see clear time and energy costs to ideological behavior, but little political benefit to the individual. My point is that the individual benefits of expressing political ideology are usually not political at all, but social and sexual. As such, political ideology is under strong social and sexual constraints that make little sense to political theorists and policy experts. This simple idea may solve a number of old puzzles in political psychology. Why do hundreds of questionnaires show that men more conservative, more authoritarian, more rights-oriented, and less empathy-oriented than women? Why do people become more conservative as the move from young adulthood to middle age? Why do more men than women run for political office? Why are most ideological revolutions initiated by young single men?

None of these phenomena make sense if political ideology is a rational reflection of political self-interest. In political, economic, and psychological terms, everyone has equally strong self-interests, so everyone should produce equal amounts of ideological behavior, if that behavior functions to advance political self-interest. However, we know from sexual selection theory that not everyone has equally strong reproductive interests. Males have much more to gain from each act of intercourse than females, because, by definition, they invest less in each gamete. Young males should be especially risk-seeking in their reproductive behavior, because they have the most to win and the least to lose from risky courtship behavior (such as becoming a political revolutionary). These predictions are obvious to any sexual selection theorist. Less obvious are the ways in which political ideology is used to advertise different aspects of one’s personality across the lifespan.

In unpublished studies I ran at Stanford University with Felicia Pratto, we found that university students tend to treat each others’ political orientations as proxies for personality traits. Conservatism is simply read off as indicating an ambitious, self-interested personality who will excel at protecting and provisioning his or her mate. Liberalism is read as indicating a caring, empathetic personality who will excel at child care and relationship-building. Given the well-documented, cross-culturally universal sex difference in human mate choice criteria, with men favoring younger, fertile women, and women favoring older, higher-status, richer men, the expression of more liberal ideologies by women and more conservative ideologies by men is not surprising. Men use political conservatism to (unconsciously) advertise their likely social and economic dominance; women use political liberalism to advertise their nurturing abilities. The shift from liberal youth to conservative middle age reflects a mating-relevant increase in social dominance and earnings power, not just a rational shift in one’s self-interest.

More subtley, because mating is a social game in which the attractiveness of a behavior depends on how many other people are already producing that behavior, political ideology evolves under the unstable dynamics of game theory, not as a process of simple optimization given a set of self-interests. This explains why an entire student body at an American university can suddenly act as if they care deeply about the political fate of a country that they virtually ignored the year before. The courtship arena simply shifted, capriciously, from one political issue to another, but once a sufficient number of students decided that attitudes towards apartheid were the acid test for whether one’s heart was in the right place, it became impossible for anyone else to be apathetic about apartheid. This is called frequency-dependent selection in biology, and it is a hallmark of sexual selection processes.

What can policy analysts do, if most people treat political ideas as courtship displays that reveal the proponent’s personality traits, rather than as rational suggestions for improving the world? The pragmatic, not to say cynical, solution is to work with the evolved grain of the human mind by recognizing that people respond to policy ideas first as big-brained, idea-infested, hyper-sexual primates, and only secondly as concerned citizens in a modern polity. This view will not surprise political pollsters, spin doctors, and speech writers, who make their daily living by exploiting our lust for ideology, but it may surprise social scientists who take a more rationalistic view of human nature. Fortunately, sexual selection was not the only force to shape our minds. Other forms of social selection such as kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and even group selection seem to have favoured some instincts for political rationality and consensual egalitarianism. Without the sexual selection, we would never have become such colourful ideological animals. But without the other forms of social selection, we would have little hope of bringing our sexily protean ideologies into congruence with reality.