How I'd Sell Civilization to Cavemen
By Bryan Caplan
Geoffrey Miller’s Spent begins with an imaginary dialog between a modern man (You), and a couple of cavemen (Gerard and Giselle). You’re trying to sell them on modern civilization, but you’re thwarted at every turn.
First, you fail to sell Gerard:
Gerard: So, Man-from-Future, with this money stuff, could I buy twenty bright young women willing to bear my children?
You: No, Gerard. Since the abolition of slavery, we can’t offer genuine reproductive success in the form of fertile mates for sale…
The back-and-forth continues, but at the end you’ve got to admit that
modern civilization can’t offer Gerard much more life or reproductive success.
Next, you fail to sell Giselle:
Giselle: Man-from-Future, can I buy a handsome, high-status, charming lover who will never ignore me, beat me, or leave me?
You: No, Giselle, but we can offer romance novels that describe fictional adventures with such lovers.
Finally, in desperation, you start listing camping gadgets: steel knives, backpacks, and shoes. But when an elderly cave woman asks, “What’s the catch?,” honesty compels you to respond:
All you have to do is sit in classrooms every day for sixteen years to learn counterintuitive skills, and then work and commute fifty hours a week for forty years in tedious jobs for amoral corporations, far away from relatives and friends, without any decent child care, sense of community, political empowerment, or contact with nature.
I’ve got a lot to say about Spent, but I’ll start by insisting that any half-decent salesman could sell civilization to cavemen. The salesman should start by mentioning that civilization ends hunger. In fact, by working for an hour or two a day, you can go to a “grocery store” and choose between tens of thousands of tasty foods. If that’s not enough, civilization keeps people warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and dry all year long. And even if it doesn’t drastically raise adult life expectancy, civilization does wonders for infant and child mortality. Do you think cavemen might miss their kids when they die? If so, civilization has much to offer them.
OK, how should the civilization salesmen deal with Gerard and Giselle’s amorous questions? He could show them pictures of our movie stars – more attractive than any caveman or cavewoman could conceive. In the interests of full disclosure, the salesman should add that movie stars are exceptionally good looking, but that almost every civilized human looks better than the average Cro-Magnon.
What about the school and work expectations that civilization imposes upon us? A wise but honest salesman should point out that civilization offers all kinds of job options. You can still enjoy food, shelter, etc. even if you take an easy job, dislike commuting, want to live near family and friends, or desire “contact with nature.” To close the deal, the salesman should offer the cavemen a few leading questions: “Do you ever get bored of hunting and gathering? Fed up with meddlesome relatives? Well, civilization gives you a choice!”
Spent goes on to attack economists for our indifference to marketing. Frankly, though, Miller’s not setting a very good example for us. Economists may need to raise our social intelligence, but even we know how to sell heat to Eskimos.