Every year, my university invites a keynote speaker to give a psychology-related presentation to the class of fourth-year undergraduate students. This year, our faculty decided to invite celebrated evolutionary psychologist, Gad Saad, who will give a lecture titled: “The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography and Gift Giving Reveal.” As you might guess, Saad is looking to sell our graduating class on his scientific claim that we are natural born consumers.
Since I am not able to attend his talk due to various clinical commitments, I thought I would take a peek at some of his assertions and give those who can attend something to think about. I will assume that Saad is going to give a presentation similar to the TED talk that he did not long ago (see above).
In his talk, Saad favorably quotes E.O. Wilson, one of the founders of sociobiology (evolutionary psychology version 1.0), who said that “Genes hold culture on a leash.” And like Wilson, Saad more specifically wants to claim that “Genes hold consumer behavior on a leash.” So while he is careful to pay lip service to cultural variability, Saad nevertheless says that our biology will constrain and ultimately underwrite the cultural malleability that does exist – in this case, as it relates to the things we consume. This should not sound like anything new for those of us accustomed to thinking like an evolutionary psychologist, or for those who understand how they go about defining the human mind.
Saad begins to ground his innate-consumerist thesis by describing evidence for innate gender-specific toy preferences, and says that we can even see differences in sex-based toy preferences in monkeys. That is, female vervet monkeys apparently like to play with dolls and pans, while male monkeys prefer to play with toy cars. I’m not going to focus on these finer points, though I curiously wonder whether a car or a doll means the same thing to a monkey as it does to us, and I cannot help but think that boys do play with dolls – mind you dolls with swords, guns, and combat fatigues. But I digress. If you care to go down that rabbit-hole, there is what I believe to be an even-handed take on that literature written up by the Guardian. For our purposes, we might simply note that right from the start Saad is looking to compare us with monkeys, and that he is emphasizing our innate animal nature, believing it holds the ultimate causal explanation for many of our everyday human behaviors.
Natural Born Gluttons
Saad continues his TED lecture by pointing out that the kinds of foods we prefer to consume (e.g. fatty foods, carbohydrates, etc.) are ultimately rooted in our biology and our evolved taste buds. It’s not that we are brainwashed by marketing campaigns or ‘fancy jingles,’ he says, but rather that we are prewired to favor the kinds of foods we tend to consume. Saad claims that we have a similar ‘instinct’ for “hoarding and gorging,” but since we do not have the same metabolic rate, as say a hummingbird, we are left with the current American obesity crisis and other “dreadful diseases.” Note how quickly Saad went from comparing us to monkeys (and monkeys to us) and now to hummingbirds. I am less comfortable in making such comparisons, but let us set that point aside for the moment – we will pick it up again later. We might also briefly observe that while Saad is presumably alluding to various hormones related to flavorful desire, and lower-level homeostatic regulating mechanisms related to hunger (gorging), he curiously fails to mention similar evolved mechanisms for satiation.
Could there be truth to Saad’s comment about our biological predisposition to crave fatty foods and the US obesity problem? Well, I cannot help but wonder how he might explain how Switzerland, Norway, and France have less than one-third of the obesity rate of the US, and that Canada, which is almost identical in terms of geography but arguably different in culture and government, has less than half of the US rate. Presumably, Saad would have to claim that ‘people have different genetic scripts based on their biological lineage, or, that we are all the same in this regard, but that populations might vary in obesity rates because some cultures are better than others at harnessing or suppressing this instinct to gorge ourselves silly, or alternatively, that less affluent societies might not have equal access to these kinds of foods, thus creating an environmental constraint on a biological urge.’ Saad gives some clues by saying that “cross-cultural differences in culinary traditions are themselves due to biology,” expanding to add that “food preferences are adaptations to the local environment.” But arguably the most important part of the ‘local environment’ are sociocultural influences (including governmental and economic ones), which are in my estimation far more capable of accounting for the obesity problem that he mentions.
For example, Saad minimizes or ignores the possibility that capitalism and consumerism might operate as a symbolic action system – one defined not by genes, but by invented human culture, and that such systems might in their own right offer greater explanatory power in terms of causation. The US curiously leads the world in the consumption of unhealthy and highly processed foods. It also provides billions of tax dollars to large corporations that produce such foods, thus subsidizing the junk food industry (making healthy foods comparatively more expensive), and allowing said corporations to spend billions of dollars on marketing and advertising to persuade consumers into subconsciously believing that a ‘happy meal’ will actually make them feel good. Saad also ignores or dismisses the very real possibility that people could be trending toward obesity in Western societies due to a kind of cultural sickness, where a lack of healthy alternatives to feeling good about oneself indirectly causes some members of that culture to over-indulge in ‘feel good’ fatty foods, which might be just one of many crude ways to feel ‘okay’ about oneself – in this case, by getting a quick dopamine fix by wolfing down a greasy McDonalds hamburger. All of these issues involve complex societal and economic factors that have very little to do with genes, though Saad is quite happy to dumb it down, which enables him to see no problem with comparing a bear sitting in a river, eating a fatty salmon, to a human being wolfing down a Big Mac.
Material Consumption and Unconscious ‘Mating’ Strategies
At about the 7-minute marker in his TED talk, Saad again comfortably compares animal and human behavior, this time, with regard to the similarity of their ‘mating’ strategies. Think about that word for a minute – “mating.” Are we not de-humanizing real world human relationships by allowing ourselves to use this term as if it appropriately applies to us, in the same way that it might apply to dogs, apes, and in the example that Saad uses, birds? The terminology we use comes with certain assumptions, and Saad, having made such assumptions himself, would like us to unquestionably do the same. He simultaneously encourages us to regard his feathered friend, the cardinal, in humanistic terms, as we judge it as capable of ‘nuptual gift giving.’ Saad further leads the audience by saying, “he’s got a food morsel in his mouth… he’s saying ‘look, I can provide for you,’ and as a measure of how well I can provide for you, how about you grant me sexual access to you?” Of course even Saad would to some degree recognize his own rationalization as ridiculous, but his anthropomorphizing of the intent behind such animal behavior in effect lulls us even further into making certain assumptions about humanizing animal behavior and dehumanizing the behavior of people – in short, if we do not take notice, we are all the more prepared to accept his line of reasoning without question. Nevertheless, Saad is confident that there is little difference between the stereotyped impulses of birds, and of men spending one-quarter of their yearly salary on a diamond ring, in hopes that women might agree to become long-term bedmates.
Saad continues his line of reasoning to say that we use other products as sexual signals. A Porsche, for example, is nothing more than human peacocking: displaying sexual fitness through flashy signs material wealth. I agree that it is displaying something, but I would say that it is more broadly a display of symbolic value, not sexual fitness per se, though a person of high prestige or status within a given culture probably does have a better chance of getting laid; however this would be mere correlation, not evidence of genetic causation, as Saad seems to think. The non-evolutionary psychologist would tend to view symbolic status as cultural invention, whereas Saad would only pay lip service to cultural variability, while he attributes its ultimate cause to some pre-programmed genetic script hiding somewhere in our biology. In this case, he believes that the desire for wealth and an abundance of material objects is ultimately rooted in our biology. He sees little difference between consuming fatty food and sex on the one hand, triggered by hunger and sex hormones respectively, and the urge to buy iPhones, Porche’s, and designer jeans, on the other. But surely we are not to believe that our genes have encoded the abstract concepts of finance and currency? And if he is to say instead for example, that women have evolved to be psychologically attracted to shiny objects (much like barracudas), then shouldn’t a shiny 1985 K-Car be as evolutionarily attractive as a 2013 Porsche? And yet, I think real-world tests would prove that the Porsche in this day and age wins out every time, since that is what our capitalistic culture presently defines as a status symbol.
Consumption of all the Rest
Saad lastly goes on to explain identified sex differences in other things that we consume, including books, literature, art, and so on, suggesting that they have biological causes too. Women throughout history, suggests Saad, have read romance novels with stereotypically sexy male protagonists or idealistic heroes, while men are overrepresented as consumers of hardcore pornography. Saad also points to the allegedly genetic basis of sex differences in the things that men and women sing about in popular radio: men sing about desiring youth and beauty while bragging about their money and material possessions; women sing about their various physical attributes and about their need for men to have ‘the goods.’ He insists that we find the same patterns across cultures, including Hindu and Arabic songs. At this point Saad throws in a joke by saying: “you don’t hear people singing, hey Linda, you are not working hard at school, and therefore I won’t have sex with you.” No Saad, perhaps you don’t, but that is not enough for you to convince any critical-thinking person that the ‘cause’ must be therefore genetic.
Suppose, as I am suggesting, an alternative hypothesis: where our culture is viewed as a symbolic set of man-made values independent of an innate biology. In this case we might view our capitalistic and consumer-driven culture as one of many possible alternatives; in our case it is one that ascribes value and meaning to material acquisition. Now before we go further, I do of course concede that all peoples will naturally desire some materialistic possessions as a matter of survival – securing food, water, shelter, clothing, and so on. And according to Maslow, these things will take precedence and will trump any desire for the acquisition of ‘symbolic’ meaning. But note that in our consumerist cultures we desire these material objects above and beyond our basic necessities and comforts. For example, people in capitalistic cultures do not wear clothes until they are no longer functional, they instead exchange them or throw them away when their culture determines they are no longer in style – unless you keep up with these trends, your implicit worth or value will be in doubt. Based on this version of reality, a woman within a capitalistic system of value might unconsciously say: “hey this man has a lot of money and stuff, which our culture values, which I therefore value, which makes him an attractive choice in a partner.” This leads to a very different interpretation of Saad’s findings, though he would dismiss it, since he has already committed himself to the evolutionary psychologist’s view of reality – he prefers to see human choices as instinctual and deeply embedded in our physiology.
But let me also offer a few comments about Saad’s ideas on general trends in popular music. It seems to me that what Saad means by ‘popular radio songs’ is most likely a selective sampling of hip-hop and rap, which appear to be the more dominant genres among industrialized nations at the present time, and which, for better or worse, tend to emphasize some of the stereotypes that Saad mentions. However, this is in my mind nothing more than an honest reflection of the values of our capitalistic hero-systems upon which we tend to base our hopes, desires, and measures of self-worth; it is a symbolic culture defined in large part on material consumption. After the Second World War and Vietnam, the clash of the world’s major cultural ideologies had been mostly settled, and the threat of communism in particular, had greatly dissipated. By the end of the 1970’s, capitalism was secured in North America. The hippies who protested the Vietnam War, and who spoke about the potential evils of capitalism, eventually disbanded. In the 1980’s we most obviously and unashamedly saw our cultural prototype in the over-indulgent and superficial yuppie, whose music paralleled the values of the time. The 1990’s grunge movement, by all measures equally as popular as modern hip-hop, was a symbolic reaction against the shallowness of the preceding decade. It was an aggressive rebellion against mainstream consumerism, a tearing down of what exists in hopes of finding something real – you seldom hear people singing about having goods, needing goods, or wanting to shake one’s ass or grope another’s ass in this genre of music. The 1990’s grunge movement faded, and for various reasons, the cultural values reflected in the music lyrics of the day changed. My point is that rather than view recent music trends emphasizing sex and money, as evidence of some genetically dictated, peacock-like display of a our sexual fitness, we might alternatively view them as general side-effects of capitalistic cultures, which with the globalization of capitalistic systems, would also explain how similar trends tend to emerge in other countries.
“Logic would tell us that a culture with an intact ‘moral net’ offers its members considerable advantages in terms of [values, meaning, and] happiness. But testing this out has become very difficult because nearly all intact small-scale societies of the world have been largely destroyed by contact with the West (J. Schumaker, 2007; In Search of Happiness, p. 49).”
Still, I seriously doubt that you would find the same abundance of sexualized and materialistic themes in the music of the Tibetan peoples, hippie communes, native peoples, or even the American Amish, who generally frown upon an emphasis on material possessions, greed, and blind consumption.
But what then are we to make of men objectifying women, and some women objectifying or over-sexualizing themselves in their songs? Well, first it helps to appreciate that within the context of our absurd human condition, we can observe that the problem of the human being, involves reconciling our existing as a flesh-and-bone animal that must simultaneously attain its worth symbolically. It is also useful to remember that throughout history men have undermined women and that even to this day men will earn more than women holding the exact same work positions. It still is a man’s world in many ways. Sensing that they cannot get their worth through the same symbolic means as a man (e.g. money and material possessions), some women choose to overemphasize what they do have, that is, they use their physical bodies, as a way to secure their self-esteem and worth, or as leverage with men, in order to level a playing field where they are at a disadvantage. Unfortunately, for some women, this means effectively reducing themselves to a bag of meat; which is in many ways how men are trained to view them – not as a symbolic person of worth, but more commonly as a sexual object. Our long history of sexism has also lingered within our cultural myths and assumptions, making it hard to recognize, and hard to usurp.
Summary and Discussion
Evolutionary psychologist Gad Saad wants to claim that much of human consumerism is caused by biological drives or instincts that held particular survival and sexual fitness advantages in our evolutionary history. Like most evolutionary psychologists, Saad believes that he can use cultural artifacts as evidence of an underlying universal biology. He claims that “cultural products are ultimately created by human minds.” I do not disagree with this statement, but we must remember how the evolutionary psychologist defines the mind, which will help us understand how they will go on to interpret culture. Recall that they view the mind as comprising innate and domain-specific information-processing mechanisms believed to be designed to solve specific evolutionary problems in our distant Pleistocene past. Defining the mind in this way, and committing himself to the philosophical assumptions of the paradigm that he works within, Saad is able to say that he can use the cultural products that he speaks of, in order “to identify some of the evolutionary forces that would have led to the evolution of the human mind.” Like any evolutionary psychologist, Saad wants to uncover the domain-specific biological programs that he believes are hidden in our nature: “we need to find some other ‘fossils’ of the mind, and we can turn to cultural products, as our fossil records.” But as far as Saad is concerned, this is not a historical record of human invention and meaning, but rather one of our common biological innateness. In other words, the paradigmatic assumptions of the evolutionary psychologist, as I have discussed and critiqued elsewhere, prefers to see culture as arising from ultimate biological causes, instincts, or drives. Culture is in this case seen as a ‘proximate’ variable, giving clues or evidence to reveal the assumed ‘ultimate’ biological causes in our underlying genetic blueprint.
The evolutionary psychologist thus paints a very different picture of what it means to be human. They prefer to see culture as the result of biological causes, versus man-made ideas including abstract symbols, reasons, and meanings. This is a gross misrepresentation of humanity, as they seek to objectify people in the way that they might any other animal. As we discussed in the topic on Free Will, causes happen to objects, while reasons are the product of a human consciousness and a collective community of subjective minds. We need to distinguish between what it means to be acting as an object versus a subject. A heterosexual man, for example, will as we know find himself sexually aroused upon being exposed to pornography – there is admittedly a cause-effect relationship with regard to physiological arousal, but not necessarily the consumption of pornography. The hypothetical man is in this example acting as an object, where his arousal is explained (caused) by the stimulus of a naked woman that triggers an innate biological reflex. But this is only part of the story, even in uncontroversial situations such as this, where we actually know what the biological mechanisms are, and when we know that they are indeed innate. In reality, we seldom find ourselves slave to our lower-level reflexes, since part of what it is to be human is a rational subject that subscribes to socioculturally defined values that transcend our materialistic biology. In other words, the discovery of some lower level animal-like sexual impulse does not mean that it will have the last word in determining the ‘ultimate’ causes for why we do what we do. We do not need an evolutionary psychologist to tell us that fatty foods are addictive or that naked women trigger erections, but we do need them to craft some illusionary story to make it sound as though this is the most important explanatory factor with regard to obesity and pornography consumption, and why. Again, and as we discussed with regard to the problems of reducing the human mind to neurophysiology, we must not conflate objective causes, with subjective reasons.
Evolutionary psychologists would not understand this distinction, since their understanding of the phylogenetic trajectory of mankind stops before the evolution and creation of the symbolic self. They view human behavior as little more than a continuation of animal behavior – the difference to them is little more than a quantitative one (we have more domain-specific adaptations or programs).
Whereas the difference for the non-evolutionary psychologist, is not based on quantity, but rather quality, as the evolutionary trajectory of man gave birth to an intuitive sense of agency and self-consciousness, which allowed for the creation of language, tearing through the fabric of a reductionist cause and effect materialism and giving rise to the symbolic species that we know; one where we collectively invent our own meanings and values, and are capable of placing them in many cases above and beyond the value of physical survival or sexual desire.
Evolutionary psychologists would have none of that, as they see us as more animal than human, which is why they are so comfortable comparing us to other animals, why they can blame obesity on our slow metabolic rates, and why they believe they can look at Shakespeare and popular culture to tell us about our inherited biology. This view of the human being is a distorted one. It takes a conservative stance toward humanity, involving a de-humanization of the person, presenting a nihilistic and implicitly fatalistic worldview that subtly reinforces the status quo. Evolutionary psychology, as I have recently argued, is the modern man’s myth and a pseudoscientific religion. Our deep and desperate cry for meaning in the face of a world that disappoints, gives rise to an absurd condition that throughout history we have tried to deny or escape. It has been part of our evolutionary legacy; it has been part of our psychological burden for thousands of years and we use our invented cultures to help us carry it, though the symbolic ideal is continually reinvented, and the face of the hero is ever changing.
All civilizations and cultures have their illusionary myths and prototypes for acquiring symbolic meaning or heroism. But the modern Darwinian hero is an especially curious one. Not only is he deluded about himself and the world that he inhabits, as are those who make the existential leap into unreasonable hope (e.g. religion), but he curiously rejoices in his despair, making him in my view an existential coward – where meaning is reduced to the laws of crude evolutionary biology and hunter-gatherer philosophies. This is what allows Saad to happily exclaim that “Nothing in consumer behavior makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Tiring of the tension, between our recognition of ourselves as a biological animal and a symbolic self, he rejects the possibility of creating meaning, and chooses instead to deny it, reducing himself and his worth to that of any other animal.
Using the theoretical assumptions of evolutionary psychology, Saad is able to interpret his research in ways that allow him to vindicate capitalism, consumerism, and the gender divide, by grounding them in a fantasized evolutionary biology. He has not sold me. And though I know that there are at least a few of my students who will question what he has to say, I suspect the majority in attendance will similarly rejoice in the power of Saad’s ‘scientific evidence,’ happily and approvingly applauding his message: we consume because we are fated to do so, since we are after all, nothing more than monkeys in a long line of kings.