Sunday, August 15, 2010

Resources To Spare

In evolutionary biology, there is a concept of conspicuous display of resources, even wasting resources (especially among males), to advertise that one has good and to spare. Peacock tales are the most frequent example: they provide no particular advantage and use up a lot of the body's resources to produce such a display. Yet because of this, they are a sign of good genes and general health. I've got resources to burn, peahen, baby.

I wonder if something similar hasn't been increasingly at work in liberal arts college education. On a national cultural level, it is We have such an abundance of wealth that we can afford to spend thousands of dollars to educate some our most talented youth in fields that don't promise to increase the GDP much. Countries on the make can't afford such luxuries, and they send their best and brightest into science and technology or business degrees.

On an individual level, a degree one finds enjoyable, rather than one that is geared toward income, announces that the bearer has such talent that they can find remunerative work anyway. I think uncomfortably of my own studies in Theatre and Medieval English Literature. To the question "What are you going to do with that?" I was arrogant enough to brush it off. I'll find a way to make it work. You'll see. I no longer think that was a good attitude or a wise bet.

Humans are more complex than peacocks, so the comparison is not as linear. There are certainly at least some job possibilities attached to every field (though various "Studies" come close to being entirely self-referential). And there is certainly significant benefit to a society for some people to know history, philosophy, or literature - it's just that the proportion of people we send into those fields may be askew.

Of course, sports provides some of the same evolutionary cues. I have enough health and strength that I can waste it on entertainment. Which may account for the animosity that starts at a relatively young age between jocks and intellectuals - they are signaling different types of abundance with overkill, completely eliminating the other group from one sector of the mating pool. One could extend this to include artists, fighters, and preps as well.


karrde said...

...and then there's the oddball who takes engineering and science classes because he enjoys them...

However, this explanation of the way various cultural trends display "I have lots of extra resources" is intriguing.

I've been told that a variety of cultural traits were ways of distinguishing who had extra resources.

Why does a bride wear white at a wedding? I've been told that it originally had to do with families who could afford to buy an expensive dress for a single occasion flaunting the fact that they could afford a hard-to-clean dress for a special event.

Why do women spend money on jewelry, shoes, dresses, high-dollar purses, and other accessories? Part of it is showing that they can afford to spend money on items with low functional value.

Not to pick on the ladies too much:

Why do doctors stereotypically buy cars made by BMW, Lexus, and Jaguar? Is it really better enough than even a Cadillac to justify the price difference?

I'm sure other things can be mentioned...

Unknown said...

People are really impressed by degrees. I think this reflects the "packaged" nature of the accomplishment and that it need not be shared with anyone else. It telegraphs something in a few words.

Somewhat related is where military officers have multiple graduate degrees and it portrays the image of a high intensity multi-tasker. What most people don't realize is that those degrees were not obtained after hours, but were an assigned duty to prepare the officer for the future. While hard work was required, the erroneous impression of "excess resources" is often present to the outsider.

jaed said...


But do we have that many young people who are majoring in (say) classics, philosophy, medieval literature, or pure mathematics? None of them are terribly practical; but all require some serious effort, and all make the student what I would call a learned person, or at least well on that road.

But we seem to actually have more young people majoring in things like environmental studies, public health, business administration, the various grievance studies. Not impractical scholarly pursuits, and not degrees that (in general) require the kind of serious intellectual effort that the ones in the previous paragraph do.

I'm not sure this is peacocking so much as it is "Just get me a degree with the minimum of effort and aptitude." If anything, the opposite of wealth display: desperation.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

jaed - more to come on this.