Gottschall’s Gotcha

Jonathan Gottschall reviewing Miller's Spent in Seed:

Miller may have made this final point a bit too well. I was not many pages into Spent before I found myself helplessly attuned to Miller’s own “narcissistic self-displays.” Miller reminds us frequently of his elite education, tells us that he owns several thousand books, lets on about his sophisticated taste in avant-garde art, makes offhand displays of his mastery of musical jargon (“timbral richness,” “isorhythmic motets,” “polyphony”), stresses his impeccable liberal credentials, and shows off his authentic verbal flair, his cosmopolitanism, and his soaring IQ (he argues —tendentiously —that elite university degrees function as covert IQ guarantees). So Spent functions not only as an attempt to popularize a vein of scientific research, but also as a means of selling the audience on the virtues of its creator: Geoffrey Miller—a smart guy, a bit of a Renaissance man.

There are two things to say about this. First, it is Geoffrey Miller, Renaissance man, who gives Spent so much of its winning personality, its narrative tang, and its consistent good humor. Second, Spent cued me in not only to its author’s self-marketing, but also to my own. For what is a book review if not—at least in part—a narcissistic self-display? What am I doing now, if not flaunting my penetration, my learning, my tough-minded yet charitable judgment, and—most narcissistically of all—my ability to take a decade of Miller’s life as a scholar, scientist, and close observer of American pop culture, and wrap it up neatly in a 1,200-word package—complete with an artful, preening flourish at the close?

Jonathan clearly "gets it."  Let me also admit: my blog posts are no doubt also designed, at least unconsciously, to signal my many features.

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  • Luis Enrique

    “my blog posts are no doubt also designed, at least unconsciously, to signal my many features”

    by ‘designed’ do you mean signaling your many features is the true purpose of your blog posts, the ‘real reason’ why you blog, or do you mean that signaling is just one element in the story of why you blog, alongside your enjoyment of intellectual pursuits, your enjoyment of communicating with others, etc. etc.

  • Erich

    Luis, communicating is a way to convey signals, so implicitly, Robin’s posts (as with any other human communication) both contain his opinion on a particular subject along with signals to his status/ability/loyalty.

  • newerspeak

    “…my many features.”

    I’d just like to say that **I** am featureless.

  • Anon

    In all these posts, amazingly, I don’t think anybody has said this yet: I like signalling. I like watching other people signal, too, and I like competing with them.

    I like playing sports, telling and hearing jokes, discussing philosophy and economics (I’m here, aren’t I?), listening to and playing music, flirting, lekking, and earning money. I’m not a complete dick about it, but that’s part of the signalling, too. Humans competing with other humans generates almost all of the complexity, humor, frustration, fun, pain, and challenges of life. I like signalling – it’s as human and as enjoyable as eating!

  • Interesting. I noticed the author of Kludge: The haphazard construction of the human mind do the same thing: he kept inserting gratuitous references to his academic affiliations, the actresses he’s met at parties, etc.

    Wait! Now I’m signaling my well-read-ness! Doh!

  • George Weinberg

    So, are our anonymous commenters not interested in signalling, or are they just going about it really badly?

  • George Weinberg: Signaling is like prisoner’s dilemma – everybody would be better off if everybody spent less time, money, and effort on signaling, but then anybody who signals more than others wins. So it’s quite natural to dislike the entire game, even if you’re pretty good at it.

  • antianticamper


    “featureless?” this seems interesting.


  • Anon

    @Tomasz Wegrzanowski:

    Three times a week, my group of friends plays basketball with other groups. We spend evenings running, sweating, showing off to onlookers, trash-talking, and jockeying for position in our friendship coalition. What a waste of time, right? Everybody knows that basketball is a zero-sum game! If only we could escape such a miserable prisoner’s dilemma!

    Come on. Truly, competition of this sort is the spice of life.

  • Doug S.

    “First Law of Communication: The purpose of communication is to advance the communicator.” – Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat

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