He‘s a cute guy, the 35-year-old evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller. We know it because he’s got a rather larger-than-usual picture of himself on the back of his first book, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. He wears a dark knit sweater and a Mona Lisa grin. There‘s a mosaic of a sun behind his back, and a letter “A” on his chest. A letter “A.” College logo? British designer label? Or is it the scarlet letter Hester Prynne had to wear on her chest after her night out with the Reverend Dimmesdale? An “A” for “Adultery.”
Miller’s book is about adultery, after all, or about the closest thing to it that an evolutionary psychologist can honorably examine: sexual selection. He argues that all human accomplishments that can‘t be directly traced to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” can be chalked up instead to what might be called Miller‘s “reproduction of the nicest” — the phenomenon by which sweet, witty, artistic, musically inclined and poetic guys get to have more affairs and pass on more genes to the next generation than mean-spirited, unartistic, unpoetic wage slaves. In other words, human culture evolved as a male seduction ploy. If it weren’t for guys wanting to have as many lovers as possible, and women needing to decide between them, art, literature and morality as we know them today would not have evolved. We would still be in the jungle beating up on small animals and running away from big ones.
Miller‘s thesis seems more visceral than rational, more a function of temperament than evidence. A boyish scholar whose prose brightens when he writes of erotic fantasy and prehistoric polygamy, Miller thinks everything revolves around sex. Art, science, culture — it’s all foreplay to him. It‘s not that he fails to support his claims. He provides abundant information about bower birds who paint nests and insects who perform dances to seduce females — information that partly masks the fact that his argument, like that of most evolutionary thinkers, is at bottom speculative and comparative, and can be proven neither wrong nor right. But it is not the quality of evidence that is most troubling; for all the science, this book is written with the heart and hormones; reason is an afterthought.
Far more disturbing than the instinctive quality of his argument, however, are his solipsistic tendencies. For Miller, we are alone with our genes. Other people figure as no more than ciphers in our personal histories. This emerges most clearly in his treatment of altruism. Essentially, good will — from child care to restaurant tipping — evolved in the male as a seduction display. When men take care of children, it’s not because they love them (after all, as he observes, a single child represents a tiny biological investment for a man — one of millions of sperm, ten of 1,400 minutes of the day), it‘s because they want to sleep with their children’s mother some more. The reason men give more money to charity and tip higher than women is that they want women to get wind of their good deeds and fall into their beds — kindness, Miller points out, is No. 1 on most women‘s lists of qualities they seek in a mate. Clearly there are holes in this argument: How does Miller account for men who care for their ex-wife’s children — perhaps sufficiently to irritate their new girlfriend and thus arguably reduce their reproductive potential? How does he explain that people don‘t turn into monsters once they pass their reproductive years — or decide not to have children?
Compare Miller’s biological defense of promiscuity to the argument Holly Hein advances in her first book, Sexual Detours: that infidelity is essentially the result of childhood trauma. Not a very original theory — lots of things seem to boil down to childhood trauma — but she voices it with all the gusto of a new religious convert. “An affair,” she announces, “. . . has nothing to do with who is in your arms,” nor for that matter with who isn‘t — your spouse. It’s about the memory of your parents. The book abounds with examples from Dr. Hein‘s Santa Monica counseling practice. She treats people not only in — but on the brink of — affairs. Like Sam. “Sam was flirting,” she tells us ominously. Why? His wife’s nose displeased him: “He was stuck on that nose. Why wouldn‘t she have her nose fixed? . . . If she fixed her nose everything would be perfect.”
Luckily, Dr. Hein “had learned a thing or two about what keeps people together” before Sam knocked on her door, and she knew it was never — never — their noses. “The nose was nonsense,” she declares, her voice heavy with therapeutic experience. Boldly, she asks Sam if the offending organ reminded him of anything significant in his earlier life. “When he connected his wife’s nose to his past, he bolted upright as if struck by lightning. The more he talked about his feelings as the son of a critical, selfish, disapproving father . . . the less his wife‘s nose mattered.”
What was the connection? Did Sam’s father have a similar nose? Hein doesn‘t say. What she does say, triumphantly, is that “the nose [soon] lay by the wayside,” because “the more he talked about how bad he felt about himself, the better he felt about his wife’s nose.”
On the surface, Hein‘s argument looks sweeter than Miller’s. Indeed, the maternal Hein, whose publicity blurb emphasizes her adoration for humanity (even her acquaintance with French and Spanish is hailed as “a result of her love for people”), wants to console a betrayed spouse by reminding, “An affair has nothing to do with love . . . it is not even about someone else.” But her argument turns upon itself. If an affair is not, at least in part, about someone else, why is a marriage? If all we ever do is grapple with our past in the guise of another person, then isn‘t the person we meet and marry as accidental as anyone else? What motive is there for loyalty in so arbitrary a universe, so solitary a game? If the person “in our arms” doesn’t matter, who the hell does? Hein defuses affairs by devaluing love.
The fact is, there are as many kinds of adulterous relationships as there are relationships. Some are shallow; some are deep. Some are overdue excuses for people to get out of unsatisfactory or abusive marriages (statistics show most people lack the courage to leave marriages unless an affair plays a role); some are frivolous and destructive distractions. All are terribly human.
Sexual Detours has the virtue of any cabinet of cliches: It contains a few trusty old trinkets, one or two well-worn truths — and a lot of stuff that needs to be retired, because we‘ve seen too much of it and it was never useful to begin with. One of these is Hein’s notion of the Third Party in an Affair — often the “Second Woman.” To Hein, as to other writers, she is a nonentity, a disposable Kleenex, a bad habit to kick — with all the ruthlessness that that implies. An “affair must be treated as a drug,” she declares — and given up with as glad a conscience and as hard a gesture. “Nothing easier than firing the poor girl when it comes to it,” says a tiring philanderer in British novelist Tim Park‘s recent collection Adultery and Other Diversions. Was this Leon’s thought before he “fired” Madame Bovary once upon a time and she took that rat poison? A Second Woman has no fewer feelings than a First Woman; to treat her as a “drug” is to add inhumanity to infidelity.
The Mating Mind is without question the more serious, scholarly and original of the two books. Both Miller‘s and Hein’s arguments, however, seem oddly antiquated. Whatever the prehistoric evidence for male fertilization mania, in our day at least as much “art” is poured into contraception as reproduction. People don‘t commit adultery to pass on their genes. Books on adultery don’t sell because everybody‘s trying to process childhood traumas. They sell because we dream of risk, adventure, passion, courtship and the possibility of reinventing ourselves. A timely book about adultery would tell us not how to avoid it but how to tap its potent attractions for our marriages.