Geof­frey Miller, author of the excel­lent Mat­ing Mind, has recently released Spent; a look at con­sumerism and mar­ket­ing through his lens of evo­lu­tion­ary psychology.

With an exist­ing knowl­edge of evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy the­o­ries the ideas in Miller’s lat­est will come as no sur­prise. These two reviews are still worth perus­ing, however:

Jonathan Gottschall pro­vides a con­cise overview of Miller’s argu­ments:

From Veblen’s clas­sic The­ory of the Leisure Class (1899), Miller appro­pri­ates the con­cept of “con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion,” whereby peo­ple live and spend waste­fully just to flaunt the fact that they can. From Dar­win, Miller appro­pri­ates sex­ual selec­tion theory—“costly sig­nal­ing the­ory” in mod­ern parlance—whereby ani­mals com­pete by send­ing sig­nals of their under­ly­ing genetic qual­ity. As with the gaudy dis­plays of pea­cocks, pur­chas­ing deci­sions fre­quently rep­re­sent attempts to adver­tise “fun­da­men­tal bio­log­i­cal virtues” like “bod­ily traits of health, fit­ness, fer­til­ity, youth, and attrac­tive­ness, and men­tal traits of intel­li­gence and personality.

Robin Han­son decon­structs Spent into five crit­i­cal points, offer­ing some fan­tas­tic quotes:

  • Sig­nal­ing infuses most human activity.
  • “Con­sumer cap­i­tal­ism” mar­keters trick us into using unre­li­able signals.
  • We’d be bet­ter off to talk and cus­tomize more, and work and buy less.
  • Laws aren’t the answer; let’s make bet­ter social norms.
  • Let’s also adjust a con­sump­tion tax to com­pen­sate for side effects.

This looks like the crux of Spent:

We are social pri­mates who sur­vive and repro­duce largely through attract­ing prac­ti­cal sup­port from kin, friends, and mates.  We get that sup­port inso­far as oth­ers view us as offer­ing desir­able traits that fit their needs.  Over the past few mil­lion years we have evolved many men­tal and moral capac­i­ties to dis­play those desir­able traits.  Over the past few thou­sand years, we have learned that these desir­able traits can also be dis­played through buy­ing and dis­play­ing var­i­ous goods and ser­vices in mar­ket economies.

Update: John Tier­ney has writ­ten a won­der­ful review of the book for The New York Times.