No, really, the $17,000 Apple Watch IS all about getting your leg over

Evolutionary economics explained with cave humping

Ancient cave frieze. Pic: Leon Yaakov

Worstall on Wednesday There was a certain amount of consumer resistance to my assertion that the Apple Christometer's $17,000 worth of bling was all about sex. But I'm afraid that this really is so. Bling is about getting sex: and it's the women who decide that it is as well.

We have a less than reputable source for this:

…conspicuous consumption being the hallmark of immature capitalism.

And a more reputable one which points out that it's not even capitalism, however immature, responsible but just the first stirrings of Neolithic technology:

In a study led by scientists from Arizona State University, the University of Cambridge, University of Tartu and Estonian Biocentre, and published March 13 in an online issue of the journal Genome Research, researchers discovered a dramatic decline in genetic diversity in male lineages four to eight thousand years ago - likely the result of the accumulation of material wealth, while in contrast, female genetic diversity was on the rise.This male-specific decline occurred during the mid- to late-Neolithic period.

Melissa Wilson Sayres, a leading author and assistant professor with ASU's School of Life Sciences, said, "Instead of 'survival of the fittest' in biological sense, the accumulation of wealth and power may have increased the reproductive success of a limited number of 'socially fit' males and their sons."

Start from the beginning of this whole evolution thing, which is that to have grandchildren is to win. In fact, they're the point and purpose of the whole game. It is this that explains the nagging by mothers of presumed-to-be-fertile daughters about when they're going to settle down. It's the desire to win the game.

We should also add the standard model of human sexuality. It's the men who (generally) propose nookie and the women who decide upon whether it's going to happen and between whom. A result of this is that the usual estimate is that 80 per cent of the women who have ever lived had children while only 40 per cent of the men did. We see echoes of this in even modern populations when they're put under stress: the ratio of boys born to girls falls. In famine, for example, a child is likely to be undersized as a result: but it's going to be easier for an undersized woman to have those desired grandchildren than a runt of a boy.

The mechanism isn't, of course, in the number of male embryos conceived; it's in the spontaneous abortions of them. In much the same way that the number of genetic abnormalities conceived doesn't change as a woman ages, it's the number that are not done away with that falls.

What these researchers have shown is that there's a huge narrowing of the male number of ancestors about the time that farming really got going. This is the second such narrowing (after the “out of Africa” one) and, as they note, it is male-specific. That means it's got to be that a smaller number of men who were fathering the children. As the researchers also point out, it's about stuff.

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle doesn't really lend itself to the accumulation of stuff. It's not that such people are noble savages – Rousseau was wrong – but that possessions can only be what is carried. It's only with either beasts of burden or agriculture that it's actually possible for there to be that accumulation. Without those there's not all that much chance for inequality in possessions. The first time we get into a position that there is a possibility of inequality of possessions, we find that the male contribution to the gene pool narrows on the claimed grounds that the alpha males got the nookie.

So, bling is all about evolution, then. I often find it useful to turn the usual thoughts about evolution on their head. Instead of “people did this so more of their offspring survived” read it as “we're descended from the people who did whatever it was”. It also doesn't matter all that much which flavour of evolution we think about. Economic and cultural evolution is probably Lamarckian (inheritance of acquired characteristics) rather more than it is Darwinian (the environment sorting through gene combinations). Being the son of a great engineer won't make you a great engineer. But a childhood of tinkering in the shed with a great engineer is likely to leave you as a competent engineer.

A number of economic historians try to explain the Industrial Revolution in this manner, as an example. Greg Clark argues that the bourgeois had higher child survival rates than the not-bourgeois, so in England those with the bourgeois habits outbred the others. Deirdrie McCloskey argues that what really caused it all is that the bourgeois vices came to be seen as virtues. Those are not inconsistent stories. Yet they are both very much Lamarckian, rather than Darwinian, ones.

Which brings us back to those Neolithic farmers. We are descended from them and it doesn't really matter very much whether it's genes or habits that have been passed down. The truth is that our great x 10200 grandmothers dropped their fur bikinis and spread their knees for the bloke with two goats not one. And thus the Apple Watch Edition really is about sex: for bling, status display and inequality are all about access to nookie, something that the women decide upon based upon the bloke's bling. ®

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