How The Peacock Got Its Feathers And Other Tales of Nature's Spendthrifts

John Horgan | Posted on 09/01/04

Nearly a decade ago, I received a modest but still larger-than-expected windfall from the publication of a book. This good fortune left me with difficult choices: Should I thank my wife for caring for our two infant children while I toiled nights and weekends on the book? Reward myself for a job well done? Put the money into a savings account for our children's education or other unforeseeable needs? What about donating to some worthy cause?

My wife and I ended up taking our first vacation together in years. We also decided to get our tattered, old couch reupholstered, and I doubled our annual contribution to a local conservation group. But I stuck most of the money in a savings account. In other words, the thrifty side of my nature prevailed - but not entirely. I tried to balance my frugal impulse (if that is not an oxymoron) with other desires: to thank my wife, to enjoy the fruits of my labor, and to spread the wealth a bit beyond my family. Surely it would have been wrong to save all the money; that would be taking thrift too far.

We are defined, both as individuals and as a species, by how we spend, share, and save resources. And thrift, which my dictionary defines as "the quality of using resources carefully and not wastefully," is a proven strategy for promoting our long-term welfare. Why then do we feel so ambivalent toward it? Morality czar William Bennett includes self-discipline, compassion, work, responsibility, friendship, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith in his Book of Virtues - but not thrift. We all like being called compassionate, brave, honest, but does anyone's heart swell with pride at being described as "thrifty"? The term gives off a derogatory whiff, perhaps because thrift - even when motivated by love of others - seems cold and calculated, a product of reason rather than passion.

Thrift stems from the same root as thrive, and it serves us when it helps us thrive in every sense, not just financially. Pursued as an end in itself, thrift can become irrational and destructive. I can still recall the chill I felt as a boy reading in The Guinness Book of World Records about the greatest of all misers, the nineteenth-century heiress Hetty Green. Dubbed "the Witch of Wall Street" (no doubt by envious male rivals), she was a brilliant investor who amassed holdings valued at $100 million, the equivalent of more than $1 billion today. And yet she ate oatmeal cold to save on heating fuel. After her son broke a leg, she treated him herself rather than paying for medical care; the child's leg became gangrenous and had to be amputated. This female Scrooge died in 1916, fabulously wealthy but friendless and unloved even by her own relatives.

Far from virtue, this is pathology, behavior that serves neither the self nor others. Another manifestation of pathological thriftiness is hoarding, which is a recognized psychiatric disorder. Hoarders save things so obsessively - not only money but newspapers, food, old clothing and furniture - that they can no longer move freely in their homes. Their floors, beds, chairs, and tables become piled high with stuff. Sufferers from this syndrome have been literally crushed by the weight of their own possessions.

Although survivors of famines and other extreme deprivations are more likely to hoard, some people seem to have a genetic predisposition to such behavior. Hoarding recurs in certain families, often in tandem with other heritable mental ailments, especially obsessive-compulsive disorder. Sanjaya Saxena, director of the obsessive-compulsive disorder research program at University of California, Los Angeles, estimates that there are three million obsessive-compulsive hoarders in the U.S. alone. Brain scans of hoarders reveal unusually low activity in regions of the brain that underpin reasoning, decision-making, and self-control. The implication is that deficits in these capacities allow an innate hoarding impulse to run amok.

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All these findings suggest that thrift - far from being purely a product of rational deliberation - may have deep biological roots. But how deep? To what extent are thrift and related behaviors - such as spending and sharing - motivated by instincts embedded in us during our prehistoric past? To what extent have they been impressed upon us by modern culture? The field best-positioned to answer such questions is evolutionary psychology, which views human nature through the lens of Darwinian theory.

"Evo psychos" (as critics like to call them) sometimes over-reach, just as proponents of psychoanalysis, Marxism, and other grand unified theories of human nature do. But if nothing else, evolutionary psychology reminds us of a profoundly consequential truth: We are animals, whose bodies and minds evolved in environments radically unlike the ones we live in now; traits that helped us propagate our genes one hundred thousand years ago may serve us poorly in an era of credit cards and Internet shopping. Ideally, by exploring the implications of this insight, evolutionary psychology can help us understand and hence transcend our modern dysfunctional behavior.

Evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker of Harvard University emphasize that thrift is a strategy employed by all living things, not just humans. "The struggle to reproduce is a kind of economy," Pinker writes in How the Mind Works, "and all organisms, even plants, must 'decide' whether to use resources now or save them for the future." What sets us humans apart, Pinker notes, is our capacity for conscious self-analysis, foresight, and self-control, which allow us to overcome our innate impulses to save or spend - at least in principle.

Thrift usually stems from a decision to renounce an immediate reward for the promise of greater ones in the future. Research has shown that variations in the capacity for "delayed gratification" emerge early in life and hence may be partially inherited. In one classic experiment, recounted by Terry Burnham of Harvard and Jay Phelan of UCLA in their book Mean Genes, a self-help book based on evolutionary psychology, a researcher gave four-year-old children a marshmallow and told them that if they resisted eating it for fifteen minutes, they would receive an extra marshmallow. More than half of the kids couldn't wait. A decade later, these children received lower grades on average than those who waited. "All of us face daily marshmallow battles," Burnham and Phelan comment, "and bountiful rewards accrue to those of us who can best control our passions."

The tendency to prefer an immediate reward is called "discounting the future" - or, as it approaches an irrational extreme, "hyperbolic discounting." Criminals, substance abusers, and compulsive gamblers are thought to be especially prone to hyperbolic discounting, whether because of environmental or inherited factors. On the other hand, discounting the future made much more sense when life could be snatched away at any moment by a predator, pathogen, snake, or lack of food. This may explain why some of us spend so impulsively and have such a hard time saving money, and why we respond more passionately to maxims such as "Carpe diem" and "You can't take it with you" than to "A penny saved is a penny earned" and "Waste not, want not." Natural selection designed us to be spendthrifts.

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Quick consumption also makes sense if your primary resource is food, and you lack refrigerators and preservatives. Our ancestors could not hoard food "because it would spoil, to say nothing of attracting possible predators," remarks the anthropologist Lionel Tiger of Rutgers University. "So we finished what was on our plate, as Mom insisted." To help us survive food shortages, our bodies apparently devised a savings plan of sorts. As the geneticist James Neel of the University of Michigan proposed in the 1960s, natural selection may have endowed our ancestors with "thrifty genes," which allowed us to rapidly accumulate fat during times of plenty so that we could survive periods of scarcity.

Thrifty genes might also predispose us toward expending only as much energy as necessary to survive and reproduce. Neel's once-controversial theory is now widely accepted; thrifty genes are thought to contribute to the surging rates of obesity in the modern world. Genes that promote rapid fat-storage and slow metabolism were adaptive when food was scarce and we had to expend enormous energy to obtain it. But in an era of supersize burgers and fries that we can purchase without leaving our cars, our innate "thriftiness" can give rise to gluttony and sloth.

Today, our culture denigrates these tendencies and exorts us to overcome them through will-power - and by spending on Jack LaLanne Health Spas and Weight Watchers. But even at our most disciplined, few of us can completely suppress our ancient compulsion to absorb and conserve calories. "I'm always amused," notes the anthropologist Donald Symons of the University of California, Santa Barbara, "to observe the little thrill I get when I find a parking place right in front of the gym - where I'm about to burn up five hundred or six hundred calories - so I don't have to walk that extra fifty feet. Old psychology, new conditions."

Squirrels, birds, and many other species practice thrift in its more familiar form: storing resources rather than consuming them immediately. In the fall European red squirrels store as many as three thousand nuts each, which they eat during the winter. The thriftiest of all animals are social insects such as termites, bees, and ants, which not only hoard food but cultivate it, practicing entomological agriculture. Leafcutter ants gather vegetable matter and bring it back to the nest to serve as the mulch and fertilizer for gardens of fungi. Just as humans keep cows for their milk, certain ant species rear aphids and other insects in their nests and consume their secretions.

But none of these instinct-driven tendencies to save or cultivate food has been observed in monkeys, orangutans, and apes, the species to which humans are most closely related. Primates "eat everything they gather at the moment they find it," says the primatologist Frans De Waal of Emory University. In lieu of hoarding, some primate species share food not only with mates and offspring, but with others outside the immediate family. This tit-for-tat sharing, an example of what is called reciprocal altruism, has been observed among wolves, wild dogs, hyenas, mongooses, and chimpanzees, our closest primate relative.

All these species live in multifamily or extended-family groups and obtain food by hunting. Sharing makes sense for animals that live in packs and hunt, De Waal remarks, because hunting sporadically produces large amounts of high-energy food with a short shelf life. De Waal sees a dark irony in the connection between sharing - arguably the elemental moral act - and hunting. "If carnivory was indeed the catalyst for the evolution of sharing," he notes in his book Good Natured, "it is hard to escape the conclusion that human morality is steeped in animal blood."

Some anthropologists have dismissed primate sharing as "tolerated theft" or "tolerated scrounging." A male chimpanzee who has killed a baby antelope rarely takes the initiative in giving meat to others in the troop. Rather, he does not strenuously object when others snatch pieces away from him. After years of observation, De Waal is convinced that chimpanzees keep close track of who in the troop is being stingy or generous in sharing food, especially precious meat. If a successful hunter begrudges others a bite of an antelope, they are more likely to repay him in kind when they receive a windfall.

Archaeological and ethnographic studies suggest that early humans, too, relied heavily on sharing. If a hunter killed a giraffe, he gave some meat to the families of other hunters, with the understanding that they would reciprocate when his family is in need. He built up a reservoir of goodwill among others in the group that could translate into food later. Sharing exacts a short-term cost but pays long-term dividends. "It's a bit analogous to an insurance policy that repays the investment over evolutionary time, even if not to each individual," Symons explains. "After all, few of us will ever collect on the fire insurance policies on our houses, but we happily pay the premiums." Symons emphasizes, however, that acts of generosity were usually motivated not by conscious calculation but by emotions such as love, affection, and compassion.

Both generosity and frugality play vital roles in the ethics of modern hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung, African bush people, whose way of life is thought to resemble that of prehistoric humans. Melvin Konner of Emory, an anthropologist who has lived among the !Kung, notes that they "have and admire the traits of moderation and self-control and condemn profligacy and especially conspicuous consumption. Indeed, any effort to get yourself to stand out economically will bring trouble." Konner nonetheless believes that human generosity, like that of chimpanzees, is to some extent compelled rather than genuinely altruistic. He adds, "The impulse to hoard, along with selfishness generally, is in my view inherent in human nature."

In his book The Tangled Wing, Konner recalls an episode involving a !Kung hunter and father, "a good and substantial man in every way." After killing an antelope and giving much of the meat to others, the hunter asked Konner to help him save a haunch of meat for himself and his family. Konner reluctantly agreed, and stuck the haunch in the branches of a tree beside his hut. Although everyone in the tribe could see the haunch, no one objected. Apparently both the hunter and the other !Kung felt that Konner's presence permitted this relaxation of the ethical rules. As a result, Konner writes, the hunter successfully "schemed his way around a cultural norm that gave no quarter to greed."

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Tribes such as the !Kung practiced a kind of simple socialism, following the Marxist dictum, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." To a certain extent, this social structure was enforced by scarcity rather than moral purity. In regions where food was more abundant, social organization became more complicated. Among hunter-gatherer tribes in Paleolithic Europe or in the Pacific Northwest, for example, "The resource base became rich enough to allow accumulation," Konner writes. Accumulation led to social stratification, in which members of the tribe granted power to a chief or "big man" who was adept at hunting - or at seizing territory or resources from rival tribes.

Chiefs could indulge in extravagant displays of both greed and generosity. Among the Kwakiutl Indians of the Pacific Northwest, chiefs sought higher status by sponsoring "potlatches," feasts in which they gave away or even destroyed food, blankets, canoes, and other precious possessions. Rivals would counter with their own wasteful potlatches, leading to what Pinker jokingly calls "a spectacle of consumption the world would not see again until the American bar mitzvah." This is a perverse form of generosity, motivated by the desire for power and status, just as hoarding is a perverse form of thrift.

Although hunter-gatherers are often depicted as ur-environmentalists, living in equilibrium with nature and never consuming more than they needed, they hunted many species to extinction when given the opportunity. As the anthropologist Jared Diamond notes in The Third Chimpanzee, when humans first crossed from Siberia into North America some twelve thousand years ago, the New World teemed with large mammals that had never seen and, thus, had no fear of humans. Within a few thousand years, humans had wiped out most of these species, including camels, horses, saber-toothed tigers, mammoths, giant beavers, and sloths. Human hunters perpetrated similar blitzkriegs as they invaded other areas around the world.

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In other words, humans, and particularly males, when given the chance may quickly abandon the strategies of frugality and generosity and become greedy and wasteful. What Darwin called sexual selection, which results from competition for mates rather than the struggle for survival, almost certainly underpins some male attitudes toward saving, spending, and sharing. The classic example of a trait resulting from sexual selection is the tail of the peacock. Peahens apparently prefer peacocks with big tails, so the tails evolved even though they put peacocks at a disadvantage in evading predators.

Sexual selection also explains why males of some species - particularly those who fight over mates - are much larger than females. Male elephant seals, who batter each other like sumo wrestlers during the mating season, weigh as much as five thousand pounds, more than twice as much as females. Male seals have been known to crush females during coitus. Sexual selection can affect behavior as well as physiology, points out the evolutionary psychologist David Buss, of the University of Texas. Male roadrunners offer mice or other delicacies to females (but only turn the food over if the females consent to being mounted). Male shrikes in Israel's Negev Desert impale snails and nest-building materials onto thorns to attract mates.

Just as female shrikes instinctively favor males with the most stuff, so do female humans. "The evolution of the female preference for males who offer resources may be the most ancient and pervasive basis for female choice in the animal kingdom," Buss contends in The Evolution of Desire. For short-term sexual dalliances, women focus more on physical characteristics and personality traits such as a sense of humor. But when asked what they want in a long-term partner, women consistently place financial resources near the top of the list, along with related qualities such as ambition.

Buss, who reached these conclusions after surveying men and women in thirty-seven cultures on six continents, contends that women are not just rationally seeking financial security in a male-dominated world; wealthy women also prefer wealthy men. No wonder then that so many males - when they have the opportunity - buy and flaunt expensive wristwatches, cars, and clothes, and ply prospective mates with jewelry and expensive meals. These "resources" - and the male ambition and acquisitiveness required to obtain them - are the human equivalents of the peacock's glittering tail. "Girls praise a poem," the Roman poet Ovid complained two millennia ago, "but go for expensive presents. Any illiterate oaf can catch their eye provided he's rich."

Males practice sexual selection, too, of course. Buss has found that males typically value financial resources and ambition less than physical attractiveness in a mate. That helps to explain why modern females spend so lavishly on clothing, makeup, botox treatments, breast implants, and other enhancements to their physical appearance. The cosmetics industry cleverly "exploits women's evolved concern over appearance," Buss adds, by raising the standard of beauty to that of "seemingly flawless world-class models."

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Our materialistic tendencies have not gone unopposed. Politicians, religious leaders, philosophers, and others supposedly concerned for our moral welfare have long extolled the benefits of frugality. The Greek fabulist Aesop exorted us to imitate the thrifty, hard-working ant, and six centuries later Jesus proclaimed, "It is easier to thread a camel through a needle's eye than get a rich person into God's Kingdom." The Amish and other religious sects - particularly those practicing monasticism - renounce worldly ambition and materialism as sinful and attempt to pare life back to necessities. Secular movements such as Voluntary Simplicity, named after a book with that title published in 1981, also encourage us to make do with less.

Even the U.S., the greatest capitalist empire of all time, promotes frugality in a fashion. Legislators have penalized certain forms of conspicuous consumption by imposing luxury taxes on expensive cars, yachts, and other items. The Social Security program forces us to save for retirement, so that we will not end up indigent in our old age. Politicians and economists tout saving as beneficial not only for individuals but also for society, because banks can lend more money to corporations, leading to more reinvestment and jobs (although some economists, notably John Maynard Keynes, have disputed the correlation). But of course, saving now is really just a means to the end of spending more later.

The desire to save - which marketers exploit by concocting "white sales" and "blue-light specials" - can also lead to wasteful spending. In A Theory of Shopping, the ethnographer Daniel Miller of University College London argues that thrift plays a central role in the shopping patterns of British women, whether lower- or upper-class. Miller documents the astonishing lengths that some women (and, less often, men) go to in the pursuit of bargains - researching products and prices, clipping coupons, visiting different stores, scrutinizing shelves for discounted items. Thrift motivates some women to seek out expensive items; the women see the higher price as a kind of guarantee that the goods are higher-quality and hence a better bargain than cheaper products.

Others feel thrifty when they purchase useless knickknacks, poorly made clothes, even rotting vegetables and fruit - as long as they have been sharply discounted. These shoppers are often well aware that their spending is irrational, but they persist in it anyway because it gives them a frisson of self-righteous pleasure. They enjoy feeling like "experts in the art of saving," an art that they associate with "restraint, sobriety, and respectability," Miller says. "For some the thrill is in the bargain," he concludes, "and it almost doesn't matter how much one spends in order to achieve it."

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In our culture, moreover, voices advising thrift and moderation are shouted down by those urging instant gratification and displays of conspicuous consumption. Companies spend billions of dollars to persuade us that a new sports car or plasma-screen television will transport us to nirvana; credit-card companies and banks tout the thrill of simply spending more, period. In his book Luxury Fever, Cornell University economist Robert Frank argues forcefully that money is not buying us happiness. If you are genuinely poor to begin with - with barely enough money for food, shelter, health care, and other necessities - money can indeed buy you a happier, healthier life, Frank reports. But myriad surveys indicate that once your basic needs are met, your sense of well-being does not increase in proportion with your assets.

The reason, Frank conjectures, is that the satisfaction we derive from wealth depends on our standing relative to others; we get much less satisfaction out of a pay raise or a wide-screen television if everyone else gets the same raise and television. As a result, we are caught in a kind of arms race of competitive consumption. He documents how in the latter half of the twentieth century both income and consumption increased dramatically. Since the 1950s, the average size of houses has almost doubled. The cost of automobiles has surged by 75 percent just in the last decade. And how early in life the competition starts! As soon as someone in my son's class gets the new PlayStation, he has to have one too.

The superrich are hardly immune to keeping-up-with-the-Trumps syndrome. In the 1970s, Aristotle Onassis installed solid-gold bathroom fixtures in his new three hundred-foot yacht, and had the barstools upholstered with the foreskins of whale penises. A rival shipping magnate, Stavros Niarchos, promptly ordered a new yacht of his own, specifying that it be at least fifty feet longer than Onassis's. (Frank, who cites these examples, does not reveal how Niarchos covered his barstools.) Just as supermodels raise the beauty bar impossibly high, so male tycoons set absurdly high standards of wealth and consumption.

Many of us are paying a price for our obsession with getting and spending. We are working longer hours, taking fewer vacations, spending less time with family and friends. Personal debt, mortgage foreclosures, and bankruptcies have soared. Even more disturbing, Frank says, our runaway consumption is diverting funds away from problems such as poverty, health care, worker safety, education, public transportation, and the environment. As a treatment for our wretched excess, Frank prescribes a progressive tax on consumption; the more you spend, the higher your tax rate. Such a tax, he argues, would curb conspicuous consumption and generate revenues that could benefit all of society by improving schools, lowering the costs of health insurance, or cleaning up our air and water. (Many economists have long favored shifting the tax base from one that is income-based to one that is sales-based both to discourage spending and encourage saving.)

To this non economist, Frank's proposal makes sense, although even he concedes that politically its prospects are dubious. We are all guilty of hyperbolic discounting of the future on a global scale, consuming recklessly with little regard for the long-term welfare of our species or all of life. We must accept that the earth's resources are finite, and hence must be used "carefully and not wastefully," to reiterate my dictionary's definition of thrift. This form of thrift - which seeks the thriving of all of life - deserves to be called a virtue. There is much we can do to be thrifty in this sense: recycling materials; buying fuel-efficient cars and appliances; limiting the size of our families; voting for politicians who support pro-conservation policies.

So what will I do if I get another windfall? I'd like to think I'll give a greater portion of it to that conservation group, or to another environmental cause. I may look into buying a Prius or other gas-electric hybrid to replace our rickety Subaru. Most of the money will still end up in a savings account again; that's the soundest strategy for someone with a freelancer's unpredictable income, especially with two kids to put through college. But I'll probably splurge on another vacation for me and my wife. It's been a while, and some gratification should not be delayed.