Shopping and the Stone Age brain

More and more evolutionary psychologists claim we are driven to consume by cavemen instincts. We don’t buy it.

Various Authors

Topics Science & Tech

‘And I am a weapon of massive consumption and it’s not my fault / It’s how I’m programmed to function.’ Lily Allen, ‘The Fear’ (1).

‘It was like a war, out there. He enjoyed the adrenalin rush about not knowing what was going to happen… This camaraderie, boys together kind of thing. I suppose it’s kind of like a gang of men together… the more it goes on the more intense it gets [and] the more they band together and the more they group together and the more elaborate it all becomes.’ Brenda Nixon, wife of Dave Nixon who stood against the state during the 1984-85 miners’ strike in Hatfield (2).

Even though Lily Allen is probably being ironic, these two quotes show how the language of evolutionary psychology has seeped into the popular imagination. Women shop and men gang together because that is how they are made. Writing in The Times, author John Naish said that we consume because of our ‘primitive brains’ wired with a ‘want more’ instinct (3).

Naish, and other neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists (4), argue that human beings, especially men, form close-knit ‘in-groups’ with the people they know. They want to belong to these in-groups and will fight fierce battles against ‘out-groups’ to prove their mettle.

A runaway consumerist society is thus ‘explained’ by an avalanche of stuff in the shops that our brains desire. Celebrity endorsement of the ‘stuff’ heightens its appeal because the visibility of celebrities means that we see them as our in-group, and our brains are wired to copy in-group behaviour. Finally, we fight against out-groups to prove our loyalty to the in-group and win more resources. In short, we shop and fight because evolution programmed our brains to shop and fight.

Such explanations of human behaviour rest on the contentious idea that our brains evolved during the Stone Age to cope with Stone Age problems. Naish argues: ‘The desire-driven wiring of our primitive brains evolved in the Pleistocene era, between 130,000 and 200,000 years ago. It was moulded by half-starved hunter-gatherers and farmers whose crops frequently failed.’ (5) Consequently, stuff easily excited Stone Age man, and that excitement stays with us to this day. When we buy, says Naish, ‘the reward-chemical dopamine is released’. Stone Age man was also inclined to hoard stuff and want the stuff that other Stone Age men hoarded. Our modern brains still trigger that desire for what others have. When a celebrity endorses a product, says Naish, the endorsement lights up our brain’s ‘dorsal claudate [sic] nucleus, which is involved in trust and learning’ (6).

These references to the brain might sound impressive and explanatory but they are, at best, merely descriptive. Dopamine is known as a ‘reward-chemical’ because it is released when people report feelings of reward. Buying stuff is obviously rewarding (the reward is the stuff) and so it is no surprise that buying stuff releases a chemical associated with reward. The release of dopamine when we buy stuff is no more surprising than the release of money. When we buy stuff, money is released because that is the way the purchase is expressed financially and dopamine is released because that is the way the reward of the purchase is expressed chemically. But the money does not actually make the purchase anymore than the dopamine feels the reward. It is persons that make purchases and persons who feel rewards.

Neither the release of money nor the release of dopamine explains the buying of stuff. These things are merely correlates. Naish and others, however, cannot be merely suggesting that what we feel and what we see have physical, brain-based, correlates. Such a suggestion would be trite. Rather, Naish and others are clearly implying that these brain-based changes are what cause our behaviour. That implication extends so far beyond the evidence that it is hard not to marvel at the monumental megalomania of evolutionary psychology and its neuroscience partner (7).

Our neuroscience techniques and understanding are still grossly inadequate to explain precisely what even a single brain chemical or brain region precisely does. Dopamine, for example, has been implicated as a cause of schizophrenia, addiction and depression but drugs that boost or reduce dopamine levels rarely provide a cure for these disorders. No doubt that is partly because these disorders involve more than just dopamine dysregulation, but that argument hides much ignorance. The very nature of schizophrenia, addiction and depression remain highly contentious and the overlap between them is not obvious. By what mechanism might a brain chemical sometimes cause paranoid hallucinations and sometimes excessive drinking and sometimes shopping? The vagueness and lack of specificity suggests the involvement of dopamine in these behaviours is remote, indirect and not causal. Even more precise correlates would still stop short of explaining behaviour. Current brain explanations of behaviour are, at best, correlates masquerading as explanations.

Neuroscience and evolutionary psychology hide their ignorance behind mealymouthed phrases such as ‘involved in’ and ‘associated with’. Undoubtedly the brain has a functional organisation that means some areas will be more ‘involved in’ or ‘associated with’ certain behaviours and feelings over others. Damage to the back of the head, for example, can disrupt vision while damage to the left side can disrupt language and so forth. But the involvement of a brain area in behaviour indicates just that; brain involvement does not explain why behaviour or experience occurred. There is a big gap between the brain and explanations of vision and language and no amount of mere association will do the explaining for us.

Our aim is not to deny any role of evolution and neuroscience in explanations of behaviour or feelings but rather to rein in the inflated claims made for evolution and neuroscience. Evolutionary and neuroscience interpretations of feelings and behaviour consistently run up against the problem that feelings and behaviour are not reducible to gene mutations or neural activity. When we decide to buy something it isn’t the case that our brains have somehow made the decision in front of us. It is we who decide. Our behavioural decisions and feelings cannot be reduced to neural activity, brain chemistry or computational activity or, as the philosopher Ted Honderich has explained, to a ‘macroscopic quantum coherence, with Bose Einstein condensates combining and microtubules microtubuling’ (8).

At the same time, however, supporters of the idea that our behaviour and feelings are bound up with neural activity are on seemingly stable ground (9). It is evidently the case that damage to the brain can cause changes in behaviour and feeling. Consequently we are left with a paradox. On the one hand there is the seemingly undeniable fact that we are more than the physical activity of our brains. On the other hand is the seemingly undeniable fact that whatever behaviour and feelings may be, they are intimately bound up with what our brains do.

We think the answer to this paradox is to realise that while the brain is necessary for behaviour and feeling (heads full of sawdust won’t do or feel anything), it is not sufficient. Something more is required. Precisely what that something more is, and precisely what it provides, we are not sure, but we are reasonably confident the something more is bound up with the collective nature of human existence. If one of us decides to buy an enormous plasma screen to watch Lily Allen or documentaries, for example, that is not a decision created by either of us alone. We do not make plasma screens, create TV shows or run technology stores, and we barely understand how any of these things actually work. Our decision to buy a TV is not ours alone but is part of the collective decision to organise home entertainment in that way. The availability of plasma TV screens and their presence in homes create the context in which buying will occur. The decision to buy the TV, therefore, cannot be reduced to our individual neural activity regardless of how many bucketfuls of dopamine we may secrete when the TV arrives.

This does not mean that society dictates consumption, however, anymore than dopamine secretions dictate consumption. Although society can create a context in which buying occurs, our decisions and natures remain for us to control and define. Every decision involves social and objective factors, but always with the subject at the centre of the decision-making process. At the end of the Second World War, Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out that, for human beings, existence comes before essence (10). We are not defined by our nature, or essence, but by what we do. There is no such thing as a ‘want more brain’ – there is only, for better or worse, the act of consumption carried out in particular historical circumstances. We carry out the act of consumption just as we have created the historical context which we inhabit. We did not arrive at this stage of history as readymade consumers; we created this stage of history and the consumer within it.

Evolution moulded our physical existence and our brains mediate everything we do and feel. But that does not mean evolution or our brains create our behaviour and feelings. In every circumstance, human beings make themselves and it is our decision and our responsibility to make the choices we make. Naish and others use dodgy evolutionary neuroscience to remove both our free choice and the responsibility for those choices. We don’t buy it.

Stuart Derbyshire is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham. Anand Raja is reading psychology at the University of Birmingham.

Previously on spiked

Raymond Tallis said free will is not an illusion. In the spiked review of books, Stuart Derbyshire argued that we’re no slaves to our senses, and that ‘being human’ is not a simple stimulus-response thing. He showed that a thesis on war being an evolutionary trait was mind-blowingly dumb. Or read more at spiked issue Science and technology.

(1) Watch it here.

(2) The Miners’ Strike, BBC

(3) Enough is enough: learn to want less, The Times, 12 January 2008

(4) The Political Brain, by Drew Westen; Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World, by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden

(5) Enough is enough: learn to want less, The Times, 12 January 2008

(6) It should be caudate nucleus.

(7) It was the radical psychiatrist Thomas Szasz who talked of the ‘monumental medical megalomania’ of his profession with respect to ‘explanations’ of psychiatric disease. Quoted in Blaming the Brain, by Elliot Valenstein

(8) On Consciousness, by Ted Honderich

(9) Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World, by Chris Frith

(10) Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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