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Jul 05, 2009


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Can't say I agree--at the very least your analysis is simplistic.

Most highly intelligent people aren't celebrities and most of the people who are celebrities are not highly intelligent, as one example. If women were seeking the carriers of genes for high intelligence, they'd be hanging out in front of research institutions at universities...Believe me, they aren't.

"Second, if we feel that we are somehow socially or emotionally linked to the performer, there is an increased chance that we or our offspring will share in the genetic bounty represented by that performer."

How? Do you mean through a Lamarckian mechanism of inheritance?

"Third, the more we ingratiate ourselves with the performer, as by displaying submissive and adoring behavior, the more likely we are to earn the performer’s esteem, and with it, a chance to mate with the performer and endow our offspring with the performer’s superior genes."

Oh come on. An adoring fan has about as much chance of mating with a celebrity as winning a lottery.

Thank you for those observations, which are perceptive and valid, though I demur:

1. Yes, you are correct that the view expressed in my article is highly simplistic: it is in fact an attempt to describe a mass phenomenon via a reductionistic formula. Science is a reductionist process. Evolutionary psychology in particular is always accused of reductionism and the accusation is usually half-right. Reductionism is useful but limited, which is another way of saying that science can only tell us what science tells us. Like Einstein said, we should simplify as far as possible -- but not further. I guess you think I went too far. I admit that my essay says very little about the specific Michael Jackson case -- it is really more about "modern celebrity worship". You've already seen what I had to say specifically about Michael and his music.

2. Does musical and/or verbal talent correlate with intelligence? I say -- obviously yes. If you want, we can compare evidence. Perhaps you are arguing that I err in correlating celebrity with musical/verbal talent? I'd argue that as well, and we can compare evidence.

3. Yes, surprisingly, something close to a Lamarckian form of inheritance is predicted by Genetic Similarity Theory. Specifically, of course there is neither inheritance of experience nor group inheritance, but rather there exists a cooperation and communication between similar genes within a group's gene pool. So when we observe the superior performance of someone in our gene pool we are comforted -- it's like rooting for the Cavs and watching a LeBron dunk. Each dunk is a message: we're going to win -- let's feel good! If LeBron's genes can do it, my genes can probably do it, too!

3. Do women NOT hang out in front of universities? I suppose it depends on the university. At my college we called them "pre-weds" and they were quite accessible. Is it different for you? Which university do you frequent? Shortage of girls there, really? Do you think Niall Ferguson or Bernard Henri-Levy have a lack of offers? I am a tenured college professor and I must say I get a lot more attention from the female students than the security guards or sanitation crew.

Stephen Hawking had two women fighting over him even when he was utterly paralyzed -- do you think the same would be the case if he'd been a bus driver?

4. "An adoring fan has about as much chance of mating with a celebrity as winning a lottery." Sorry, Yusef, this is simply not true. Where do you live? Don't play an instrument? Every local bar has its local rock stars and young ladies certainly stand a much better chance of sleeping with the bassist if they indicate they are available. And they do!

But even more to the point: do you know any groupies? Perhaps my experience of groupies is different than yours. My experience is that groupies often do fantasize -- and take their fantasies quite seriously -- of sleeping with their heroes. They are not always crazy. Sly Stallone's wife introduced herself with a photo which essentially offered herself; she'd kept a poster of him over her bed.

When you see a bunch of girls close to the stage at a rock concert, jumping up and down, what do you think is going on? They're not saying "I really appreciate the inter-subjective normativity of this musical text!" They're saying, "I'm yours, please take me." We could compare evidence here, but I hope you are not easily shocked by lurid material.

Thanks for the very clearly-expressed comments, which I find quite helpful, especially given the difference in our approaches.

I think you are correct to say maybe the problem here is you don't address the specific case of Michael Jackson's celebrity...that's the subject to be explained, moreso than more general mating preference of human females.

I certainly do observe women being selective in their mating choices in a way I could interpret as being to the genetic-evolutionary advantage of any offspring.

But I think something breaks down between observations of this sort of behavior and explanations of why Jackson's attraction is so overwhelming for so many years and on such a huge scale, (in the case of Jackson, the case is global.)

I think Jackson had talent and vitality--at the minimum one could claim above average for him. Was the evolutionary advantage a woman could obtain from mating with him really so much greater than that obtainable from many other potential mating partners available to these women that we can explain their expenditures of time, energy, and other resources as they pursue Jackson? Why weren't these women dissuaded in their pursuit of Jackson's genes as it became increasingly evident he and his family members were mentally ill? (Most likely a heritable trait--which any offspring from Jackson might very well share, much to their detriment evolutionarily, I would think.)

An article at The Nation website entitled "Man in the Mirror" says Jackson's children are not genetically his. He didn't "father" them. They don't bear his genes.

You've got to hand it to Michael. Whatever he was doing, and why, was definitely very,very weird. What the heck was he up to? The Nation article loosely linked the genetic manipulation of the children to Jackson's surgical manipulations of body and face.

This is the only article/essay about MJ that didn't annoy me. A drop of sanity. Followup comment was good too along with humorous.

I find this sort of thinking though, true as I think it is, awful at times as it can really ruin the enjoyment of art, sports, etc. Sadly so much of what we are seems to come back to such crude traits.

Once again a very thoughtful post, sorry for slowness to respond. You are right that the title of my original post is a bit misleading, in that in the end it says nothing specifically about Michael Jackson's appeal, but is only addressed to the more general phenomenon of excessive rock star worship. But there is this connection: my central point is that rock star worship is driven by evolutionary mechanisms that can have the same pathology as many of our other evolutionary drives.

It has often been noted that Haagen-Dazs, for example, is a kind of evolutionary land-mine for humans. For millions of years we learned that anything that was sweet and fatty was to be immediately devoured. Now, as soon as you have a pint of Ben & Jerry's in the fridge (or whatever other fattening delicacy you prefer; my little boy chooses baklava), your evolutionary programming is not necessarily going to make wise decisions. The similar effect in hero worship is that we attribute positive moral qualities to our heroes, when there is no rational reason for us to do so.

Now to the specific case of Michael Jackson. He was the most amazing pop music child prodigy I have ever seen; I loved the Jackson 5 as a child. But, as a saying I came across recently pointed out, "Child prodigies often grow up to be prodigious children." While there are lots of child prodigies in classical music, they rarely can attract the media attention that Michael had as a child.

The dopamine rush of performing at an extraordinarily high level in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans, when you are just 10 years old -- it's kind of like subjecting a child to a forced cocaine habit. It's no wonder he eventually needed dozens of Xanax to calm down. For Jackson to transition from a successful child star to a successful adult he would have needed the world's best teachers and mentors, and apparently that's not what he got. In addition to all that, it is not unlikely that Michael also had some predisposition to mental illness, some slight tendency toward bi-polarity or neuroticism which was blown up and magnified by his unique childhood experience.

Now, to return to the social commentary we found on the Pinocchio Blog. As one of America's most famous child stars, Michael was ripe for corporate "re-invention" which was achieved by application of cutting edge marketing techniques from the Hollywood-Disney-SONY ethos. I don't think this is a very soulful way to produce music, and for that reason I think the big hits of the 1980s were for the most part, soul-less. This is an esthetic judgment and I respect the people who disagree with me on it. Billie Jean certainly can make you dance, but even there Michael has been reduced to a squeaking vocalist for Quincy Jones (I have heard it through the grapevine that Quincy once kicked Michael in the butt and pleaded with him: "Stop squeaking, mother-f---er!" I respect the great Q for his mastery of commercial genres, but I can't rank him with the great jazz masters. I love Q, and he's had the most awesome life, but I find that musically he is an enormous sell-out. Somebody fat and successful like Q cannot be placed in the pantheon that we reserve for Miles, Hendrix, Thelonius, James Brown, Billie Holliday, etc. These folks were not only prodigies but they became musical adults, producing and owning their own unique sounds.

Corporate America is able to sell us Chee-tohs at $2 bag, Fiji water for $4/bottle, and we take it gratefully. As a mass-produced corporate musical product, I rank Michael above Fiji water and almost to the level of Chee-tohs (I really like Chee-tohs). But I used to live in France -- I'm not going to confuse a bag of Chee-tohs with a three course meal Chez Bocuse. Similarly, I can't put Michael on a level with a singer like Marvin Gaye, Jacques Brel, Maria Callas or Billie Holliday, because it is my perception that they were much, much greater at their professions. My wife was a professional opera singer for about 20 years, so I've tried to learn to listen to singing in a sophisticated way.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I've argued this a lot with my wife, and that despite her opera background she just adores bubble-gum pop music and thinks I am way too hard on Michael. Her argument is that we should not separate singers from their public personas and stage-acts, that we should look at the whole thing as an entertainment "package" -- she thinks I overly compartmentalize Michael's vocal skills and limited musical innovativeness without giving him credit for the unique-ness of the whole product. She hasn't convinced me, but I get the point. The moon-walking and prancing is nothing more than cute for me, but it gives my wife a frisson I can't understand.

Finally, if I try to analyze my own reaction from an evolutionary perspective, it leads me to reflect upon the evolutionary psychology of snobbery. It is possible that part of my own reaction to popular phenomena such as the MJ frenzy is intended as a display of my own superior intelligence and genetic fitness. My attitude is admittedly elitist and that is something I will have to analyze further. In my own defense, it's hard not to listen to Thelonius and Miles without becoming elitist. Great music is art; pop music is a commercial product like Chee-tohs. We can like both while still retaining the ability to distinguish a difference in quality.

Thanks also for the reference to the interesting Nation article.


Good point regarding our enjoyment of genetically inherited "crude traits". This is a point I need to further emphasize in my public communications.

For example, it is possible for one to define love in evolutionary terms, but that definition can never replace the experience of love. When my 19-year old son flies off to college each semester, I get too choked up to say goodbye so I have to sort of make some strange wheezing noises as the cab pulls away. The genetic explanation for my feeling and the feeling itself are so far apart that you could almost say they occur in different universes.

That being said, as I mentioned to Yusef in another post, our natural feelings can lead us astray.

But maybe this is an old story -- wisdom comes from the balancing of the heart and the head. The head allows us to understand the origins of our feelings, so that we can learn to recognize dangerous feelings (like the very sincere feeling of wanting to eat the Haagen-Dazs in the freezer). However, we should learn to live congruently with our feelings and natural inclinations. A book in my library (which I haven't read carefully) seems to make this point; it's called The Ancestral Mind, and the author is basically arguing that we should make friends with our own evolutionary programming. If it makes us susceptible to Chee-tohs and Haagen-Dazs, then we can learn to counteract it by making delicious meals that are good for us. If it makes us susceptible to the charms of easy-listening pop music, we can learn to push that enjoyment even further by challenging ourselves and exposing ourselves to more difficult music. We can shape and "garden" our evolutionary drives.

I do feel a bit guilty for coming down on the "hater" side of the MJ debate, and I don't want to ally myself with the usual right-wing nut-jobs. However, for many Americans like myself, it has been an irritating and even embarrassing episode. It has made me slightly embarrassed to be American. It's like the Day of the Trifids or something, you wake up one day and all your neighbors have turned into rhinoceroses and are acting upset that you haven't done so as well.

The challenge for me now is finding a balance in this kind of social critique. I find the phenomenon crazy, but I don't want to be too insulting, elitist or arrogant vis a vis my fellow American nut-jobs. I'm sure I'll be working on this for years.

Surely,Michael was a star and he stay a star forever.Certainly we will remember him a long time.


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