Evolutionists used to be puzzled by the wastefulness of the peacock's tail. Now they believe that almost everything in nature that we find beautiful or impressive has been shaped by wasteful sexual display. Sexual display also lies at the root of culture, consciousness and modern consumerismby Geoffrey Miller / February 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
At the top of Sennheiser’s range is the “Orpheus Set,” stereo headphones which retail for ?9,652. They are finely crafted headphones, no doubt. But to most ears, they deliver a sound quality not greatly superior to a pair of ?25 Vivanco SR250s, which have received several “best value” awards. As an evolutionary psychologist considering contemporary human culture, I wonder this: why would evolution produce a species of anthropoid ape that feels it simply must have the Sennheisers, when the Vivancos would stimulate its ears just as well?
The standard Darwinian account of consumerism is that natural selection shaped us to have certain preferences and desires which free markets fulfil by providing various goods and services. For example, sugars were rare and nutritionally valuable in Pleistocene Africa, so we evolved a taste for sweets, which chocolate and cola manufacturers now fulfil-or perhaps exploit. This theory can explain many features of many products, and seems to give the Darwinian seal of approval to free-market consumerism.
However, this theory of evolved preferences can’t explain the Sennheiser effect. The nominal function of stereo headphones is to deliver a private soundscape, an acoustic virtual reality. We might expect headphones to be judged and priced in proportion to their sound quality. But they are not. The marketing people at Sennheiser know that Orpheus Sets are bought mainly by rich men, young or middle-aged, who are on the mating market, openly or tacitly. Their 400-times greater cost than the Vivancos is a courtship premium. While the Vivancos are merely good headphones, the Sennheisers are peacock’s tails and nightingale’s songs. Buyers of many top-of-the-range products understand that their price is a benefit, not a cost. It keeps poorer buyers from owning the product, thereby making it a reliable indicator of a possessor’s wealth and taste. We want Sennheisers not for the sounds they make in our heads, but for the impressio…