The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (2)

Given the title of the post and some of the material covered, this post may by some be considered NSFW. I don’t know. Now you’re warned anyway.

I finished the book. My goodreads review reads as follows:

“Torn between two stars and three, I may still decide to give it two stars. First half was interesting (3,5 stars), second half was in my opinion very weak (1,5 stars). I was close to not finishing it. Very speculative, especially towards the end – it devolves into more or less pure storytelling.”

I’m quite disappointed. There’s good stuff in the second half, especially in the first part of the second half, but there’s a lot of crap too – chapter 9 was weak, and chapter 10 was bad too. Some of the stuff looked to me to be pretty much nothing but wild speculation supported by very little evidence, and bad evidence at that. Even worse, I get the distinct impression at least a few places that he seems to deliberately pick evidence that supports his views even though different evidence (and more relevant evidence) might very well lead to different conclusions – why would you use the vocabulary size of modern English speakers (60.000 words) to infer stuff about the language abilities and behaviours of our far ancestors, when it would presumably be much more informative to look at the vocabulary sizes of e.g. today’s Bushmen or Australian Aboriginals? And to which extent does it even make sense to make such inferences in the first place? On a different if related note he at one point spends a couple of pages to motivate why the reciprocity theory of courtship is obviously wrong, but what he’s actually arguing against is a straw-man that is very hard to take seriously and seems completely irrelevant to the validity of the model. He employs manipulative argumental strategies along the way more than once and when he does this it makes it hard for me not to jump to the conclusion that his arguments stink even though they may not actually do so – I don’t like it when I get the impression that someone is trying to manipulate me, and Miller comes off as occasionally quite manipulative to me in this book.

Anyway, some quotes from the last half as well as a few comments. I’ve mostly (but not only) quoted from the good stuff because I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the other stuff:

“When we see a human perceptual or cognitive ability that looks curiously sensitive to stimulation yet resistant to satisfaction, we should not assume that it is a poorly designed information processing system. It may be part of a system for sexual or social discrimination. […] Female orgasm seems poorly designed as a pair-bonding mechanism, but it is perfectly designed as a discriminatory system that separates the men from the boys.”

“It seems likely that male choice shaped breasts not to distinguish girls from young women, but to distinguish young women from older women. Here, the informative thing about breasts is the way they droop with the effects of age and gravity. There is a relatively narrow age window in which large breasts can appear pert before repeated cycles of pregnancy and breast-feeding causes them to sag. There were no bras or breast-lift operations in the Pleistocene. […] hominid males probably favoured younger women for their higher fertility. Any indicator of youth, such as large, pert breasts, would tend to be favoured by males. […] an attractiveness benefit in youth can often outweigh an unattractiveness cost in older age. This is why it can be in the interest of females to evolve youth indicators such as large breasts that tend to droop, fine skin that tends to wrinkle, and buttocks that tend to develop stretch marks. […] women with more symmetric breasts tend to be more fertile. […] The larger the breasts, the easier it is to notice asymmetries. […] The role of breasts as fitness indicators may help to explain why there is so much variation in breast size between women. […] fitness indicators do not tend to converge on a single size in a population. They maintain their variation indefinitely, due to the effects of genetic mutation and variation in condition.”

“Most evolutionary psychologists have viewed human morality as a question of altruism, and have tried to explain altruism as a side-effect of instincts for nepotism (kindness to those who may reciprocate). I think human morality is much more likely to be a direct result of sexual judgments today because our ancestors favored sexual partners who were kind, generous, helpful, and fair. We still have the same preferences. David Buss’s study of global sexual preferences found that ‘kindness’ was the single most important feature desired in a sexual partner by both men and women in every one of the 37 cultures he studied. It ranked above intelligence, above beauty, and above status.” (If not for the fact that he actually thinks this stuff is true, it’d be hilarious. Here’s a link. I’m pretty sure Buss’s study belongs in the “completely useless” category. This is just stupid.)

“Ecologists have long understood that the typical interaction between any two individuals or species is neither competition nor cooperation, but neutralism. Neutralism means apathy: the animals just ignore each other. If their paths threaten to cross, they get out of each other’s way. Anything else usually takes too much energy. Being nasty has costs, and being nice has costs, and animals evolve to avoid costs whenever possible. […] most of the violent competition happens within a species, because animals of the same species are competing for the same resources and the same mates. […] If we were typical animals, our attitudes to others would be dominated not by hate, exploitation, spite, competitiveness, or treachery, but by indifference. And so they are.”

“Verbal courtship can be viewed narrowly as face-to-face flirtation, or broadly as anything we say in public that might increase our social status or personal attractiveness in the eyes of potential mates. […] Verbal courtship in the broader sense explains why we compete to say interesting, relevant things in groups. Sexual choice permeates human social life, because anything that raises social status tends to improve mating prospects.” […] In cooperative communication, the receiver may be mildly skeptical about the information conveyed. In courtship, the receiver is extremely judgmental not only about the information, but about the signaller. When listening, we automatically evaluate whether what is being said makes sense, whether it is congruent with what we know and believe, whether it is novel and interesting, and whether we can draw intriguing inferences from it. But we also use all of these judgments to form an impression of the speaker’s intelligence, creativity, knowledge, status, and personality. We assess the information content of utterances not just to make inferences about the world, but to make attributions about the speaker.”

“People tend to socialize with friends and sexual partners who show roughly their own verbal ability level – their verbal compatibility has already determined which social relationships were formed. The majority of human conversation occurs between sexual partners and long-term friends. They have already chosen each other as mates or friends precisely because their first few conversations were mutually interesting, evoking mutual respect and attraction.”

“we present our lives in the best possible light. We mention our successes rather than our failures, impressive relatives rather than wastrels, dramatic trips more than solitary depressions, and palatable beliefs more than secret bigotries. Our life stories presents us as the heroes of the grand adventures that are our lives, rather than the Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern to someone else’s Hamlet. Nevertheless, because most people distort their life stories to more or less the same degree, they remain a valid basis for mate choice. Initially at least, our life stories will be compared not to the truth, but to the equally distorted life stories of our sexual competitors.” (No, honest signalling in this framework simply doesn’t make any sense. Lying isn’t optional.)

“How should we interpret the female superiority on language comprehension tests [“women comprehend more words on average, and this sex difference accounts for almost 5 percent of the individual variation in vocabulary size.”], given the greater male motivation to produce public verbal displays? The latter has not been so well quantified yet, but it is still obvious. Men write more books. Men give more lectures. Men ask more questions after lectures. Men dominate mixed-sex committee discussions. […] men can’t be quiet because that would give other men a chance to show off verbally. Men often bully women into silence, but this is usually to make room for their own display. ”

“Human courtship, like courtship in other animals, has a typical time-course. Courtship effort is low when first assessing a sexual prospect, increases rapidly if the prospect reciprocates one’s interest, peaks when the prospect is deciding whether to copulate, and declines once a long-term relationship is established.”

“People act differently when they’re in love with different people. We tend to match our expressed interests and preferences to those of a desired individual. […] In courtship, we work our way into roles that we think will prove attractive. […] Acting is not the prerogative of a few highly strung professionals, but a human birthright, automatically activated whenever we fall in love. In courtship, all the world became a stage, and all the proto-humans merely players.” (link in case you didn’t get the reference)

September 1, 2013 - Posted by | Anthropology, Biology, Books, Ecology, Evolutionary biology, Language, Psychology


  1. “why would you use the vocabulary size of modern English speakers (60.000 words)” — I have a difficult time believing this. Source?

    Comment by Miao | September 1, 2013 | Reply

    • I should have added ‘according to Miller’ – I also found that number to be implausibly high, but I don’t really know much about such stuff so I might be wrong. In the notes all that’s included is this remark (nowhere is the number 60.000 mentioned):

      “369. Vocabulary sizes: Aitchison (1994), G. A. Miller (1996).”

      He points out that vocabulary use follows a power law, and notes that: “The most frequent words account for about 60 percent of all conversation; the most frequent 4,000 words account for about 98 percent of conversation.” (relevant citations there are Constable (1997) and Crystal (1997)).

      Comment by US | September 1, 2013 | Reply

      • The explanation and additional info he provides in the text also makes the claim look, well, implausible is a kind word to use:

        “We acquire our vocabularies with such speed that we must have evolved special adaptions for learning word meanings. To build an adult vocabulary of 60,000 words, children must learn an average of 10 to 20 words per day between the ages of 18 months and 18 years. Often these words are learned through a single exposure: an adult points to a bassoon and says ‘that’s a bassoon’ just once, and the child knows the word forever after.” (p. 369)

        Yeah, well, that’s not how it works. I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. If I’d wanted to explain in more detail why I’m howering around the two-star rating, I’d have included more quotes like these in the post. 20 words per day for almost two decades? One exposure? I call bullshit.

        Comment by US | September 1, 2013

      • You just reinforced my decision to avoid pop science books whenever possible. 😀

        Comment by Miao | September 1, 2013

      • Reading the book had the same effect on me (and the Dawkins book before that should also have been a reminder). Unfortunately I sort of feel compelled to read a few more this year – I already bought Ridley’s The Red Queen and Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty..

        Comment by US | September 1, 2013

  2. According to this link, most adult native speakers know between 20.000 and 35.000 words. At least 2 million people (native and non-native English speakers) have taken the test. It is a very big sample, but of course it is also a very self-selecting sample — people who are Internet-savvy enough to take the test are probably also people who are more educated than those who are not computer-literate, so chances are that the average vocabulary sizes are even lower than the results published on that website. Claiming that native English speakers on average know 60.000 words each is really unbelievable.

    Comment by Miao | September 1, 2013 | Reply

    • I messed up the HTML. Oops.

      Comment by Miao | September 1, 2013 | Reply

      • I fixed it for you.

        Comment by US | September 1, 2013

    • I see that you have fixed the HTML. Thanks!

      Comment by Miao | September 1, 2013 | Reply

    • Heh, that link is actually quite interesting. According to the results, Danes who’ve taken the test have the highest average English vocabularies of all non-native English speaking test takers – I’d assumed that Scandinavian countries would do well, but I had no idea that the difference between Danes and, say, Germans is as big as is indicated from these measures.

      Incidentally you’re right to assume that the numbers are not representative on account of selection effects. They note this themselves:

      “note that […] average vocabulary sizes of our respondents are significantly higher than those of the overall population at large. How do we know this? Because our American participants’ self-reported verbal SAT scores hover at around a constant 700 (out of 800 maximum) at all applicable age levels, while the median score of SAT test-takers is only 500. And these test-takers themselves are a more educated subset of the American population as a whole. To put things in perspective, it has been estimated that if the whole US population took the verbal SAT, it would have a median verbal score of around 350. Our average respondent’s verbal SAT score of 700 places him or her in the 95th percentile among SAT takers, and above the 99th percentile in the American population as a whole.”

      And even the 90th percentile of that sample lies below 40.000. There’s no way the 60.000 number is not just plain wrong.

      Comment by US | September 1, 2013 | Reply

      • “if the whole US population took the verbal SAT, it would have a median verbal score of around 350” — This is a lot worse than I’d expected.

        Comment by Miao | September 1, 2013

      • It is hardly surprising that Danes are generally significantly more English-literate than Germans are. English-language programmes and films are usually dubbed in German when broadcast in Germany; German translations of English-language books are also far more common than are Danish translations. (The reasons for these are obvious — bigger German consumer markets, etc.) As a consequence Germans are generally a lot less exposed to English, and I imagine the same can be said for the French, the Russian and the Spanish.

        Comment by Miao | September 1, 2013

      • I was aware of these factors so I wasn’t surprised that Danes do better than Germans. What surprised me was that the differences are as big as they are. Perhaps I’ve underestimated how important TV and books are to language acquisition (…a topic you know more about than I do 🙂 ).

        Actually I probably on a related note have tended to think of the entire Internet as a place where English dominates because I relatively rarely visit non-English sites – but there are of course huge non-English parts of the Internet online, and the larger the country/language the less you need to look for foreign material to satisfy your information needs (e.g. the German part of wikipedia is presumably of a significantly higher quality than is the Danish part of wikipedia). I hadn’t thought about this but such effects probably also contribute to the disparity.

        Comment by US | September 1, 2013

      • “There’s no way the 60.000 number is not just plain wrong.” — Agreed completely. This mistake alone tells me that Miller’s book is probably not worth my time.

        Comment by Miao | September 1, 2013

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