Halfway through reading The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal about Human Nature, I wondered if it should be renamed The Book of Lists. It contains lists of television programmes, album titles, self-help books and adulterous high-flying males, to name only a few. It is a polemic for the supremacy of evolutionary psychology over the social sciences; according to Gad Saad, neither economics nor marketing can tell us as much about human behaviour in a commercial context as evolutionary psychology and its overriding goals of innate needs, preferences and drives. Saad rejects what he calls "anti-science", seeing social constructivism, Post-Modernism and religion as movements that have united to attack evolutionary theory. At this point, I should also note that this is not a particularly appealing book if you happen to be female (see below).
Saad outlines evolutionary theory and then develops the modern-day argument based around human behaviour and consumer responses. His argument is presented with extensive references to research (although mostly through footnotes rather than detailed explanation in the text) and buttressed by anecdotal lists. Themes include survival and food (including a list of food-related movies), where we learn that spice use is positively correlated with a country's ambient temperature; and sex (supplemented by lists of male car collectors, because men's testosterone levels increase when they drive a Porsche, but not when they drive a Toyota), where we also learn that women are motivated to wear high heels as a result of their innate need to be attractive in the mating market.
Other chapters include discussion of family and friends, cultural products and advertising - which, while acknowledging that some colour connotations and linguistic idioms may be culturally bound, reminds us that we have innate unconditioned responses to sexual stimuli, facially symmetric endorsers and deep male voices. In the chapter titled "Marketing hope by selling lies", Saad attacks religion as being tantamount to child abuse. Religion is, perhaps unsurprisingly, his biggest whipping boy, but anything that smacks of social constructivism is also scorned.
It is here that I began to lose patience. Not only for the book's overriding themes of mating as the only drive that matters, with women always being attracted to high-earning men rather than unemployed janitors (indeed, it's amazing that janitors get to mate at all) and men always preferring younger women (with the subtext of "that's the way it is - get over it"); but also because Gaad's position is ultimately a supremacy argument that ignores environment, culture and social context. Many of us understand about our evolutionary drives, but also know that other factors influence our choices.
Inevitably, Saad's approach frequently leads to simplistic analyses of business and marketing. He criticises the well-known Dove "Campaign for Real Beauty" advertising for its overtones of social construction and suggests that it is presenting a myth that no universal metrics of beauty exist: as Saad has it, men will always prefer "women with fat deposits in all the right places (eg, Scarlett Johansson)". This completely misses the point of the campaign and the reasons for its success. Dove recognised that a large number of women were not Scarlett Johansson, but wanted to look and feel good, and not just to entice a mate; the advertisers understood that the marketplace beyond sexual allure might in fact be economically more important.
Saad does finally suggest that the evolutionary approach is a complement rather than an alternative to social science, but it would have improved this book immeasurably if he had looked a little harder for examples where the two work together. As it is, The Consuming Instinct will leave many readers disappointed that this opportunity was not pursued.
The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal about Human Nature
By Gad Saad
Prometheus Books, 374pp, £21.95
Published 21 June 2011