Article Summary: “Conspicuous Consumption, Sexual Selection, and Social Institutions: The Darwinian Dynamic Thorstein Veblen Missed,” Jon D. Wisman

Summary of JOIE Article (Volume 15(1) February 2019), by Jon D. Wisman, Professor, Department of Economics, American University, Washington D.C. The full article is available on the JOIE website

Of Veblen’s contributions to social science, two are foundational to the others: 1) His recognition of the necessity to ground social science in biology, a domain of understanding that had been unfolded by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and 2) His development of a theory of evolving institutions that guide or channel innate biological proclivities. 

One of the principal innate proclivities he identified is the pursuit of status. Social approval and thus status might be acquired in varied ways, from being a fierce warrior or a good worker to being a generous member of the community to being wealthy and powerful. But what behavior is best rewarded with approval and thus becomes predominantly sought depends upon a society’s unique set of social institutions. These institutions steer or channel innate proclivities in particular manners. And of special interest to Veblen, the social institutions of capitalism predominantly steer behavior toward seeking recognition and status through conspicuous consumption, resulting in a colossal waste of society’s resources. 

But why do humans seek to acquire status through their consumption practices? Or more fundamentally, why do they seek status? Why would such a powerful propensity have been selected in the evolution of the human species? How, especially, could wastefulness fit into a theory of natural selection that privileges fitness? 

Given the central place that Darwin occupies in Veblen’s work, it is surprising that he did not incorporate Darwin’s concept of sexual selection as the driving force behind conspicuous consumption as well as much other behavior intended to favorably impress others, if not the driving force behind all his instincts.

            This article adds the Darwinian depth of sexual selection to Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption, and demonstrates the manner in which Veblen’s theory, and especially his understanding of human nature and social institutions, might have been expressed differently had he appropriated Darwin’s fuller understanding of natural selection. 

Veblen’s theory of human behavior is of considerable importance within the institutionalist tradition. However, other highly influential later thinkers in the institutionalist tradition, especially John R. Commons and Clarence Ayres, distanced themselves from Veblen’s attempt to ground human behavior in biology, arguing instead that human behavior is determined by social forces and that biology essentially plays little or no role (Camic and Hodgson 2011). 

Veblen insisted that biologically inherited proclivities – what he called instincts – are of central importance, but that culture does indeed matter in that instinctual motivation is modified and channeled in its expression through prevailing social institutions. Darwin’s dynamic of sexual selection adds greater clarity as to what is innate and how institutions modify and guide what is innately given. By revealing how Veblen might have deepened his understanding of human behavior, it is hoped that institutionalists will recognize more clearly the necessity Veblen insisted upon of formulating social science in conformity with the findings of evolutionary biology. 

Conspicuous Consumption

Veblen’s theory of consumer behavior is founded upon the fact that social status is critically important to people and thus strongly affects their behavior. How people are judged by others constitutes the foundation for social status and self-esteem. This point was forcefully made by Veblen: “The usual basis of self-respect is the respect accorded by one’s neighbors. Only individuals with an aberrant temperament can in the long run retain their self-esteem in the face of the disesteem of their fellows” (Veblen 1899, 39).

Although “Veblen saw Darwinism as the apogee of modern science” (Camic and Hodgson 2011, 266), he failed to ground conspicuous consumption and the struggle for status more generally in one of the most central elements in Darwin’s theory – his conception of sexual selection. This failure impeded Veblen from developing an understanding of the manner in which social institutions channel an innate human proclivity that Darwin and contemporary evolutionary biologists recognize as of foremost importance in understanding human behavior.

Sexual Selection

Recognition of the competition that occurs in sexual selection enabled Darwin to solve an enigma in his theory of natural selection which views traits as selectively retained when they enhance chances of survival: How could his theory of natural selection explain the existence of seemingly unfit traits such as the ornate and heavy male peacock’s feathers, or the enormous racks of antlers found on stags? Such traits are expensive to grow and maintain. They make their owners less efficient in acquiring nourishment and avoiding predators. The huge tail on the peacock makes it difficult to pass through dense brush, take flight, or stay in the air. The antlers of the stag require huge investments in calories and minerals, slow down flight, and are discarded each year. In both instances they appear to be wasteful expenditures that reduce fitness. 

Darwin formulated an additional dynamic, sexual selection, that “… depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females,” and females competing with each other for the highest quality males (1859, 88). 

Natural and sexual selection relate to fitness and are driven by only one thing – reproductive success. Whereas natural selection occurs as a species undergoes mutations enabling a better fit to the opportunities and challenges of its environment, sexual selection occurs within how members of the species relate to each other. The unique set of genes of those individuals who are successful in mating will be present in the next generation; those of the unsuccessful become extinct.

Cultural Steering of Sexual Competition among Humans

Physical fitness indicators among humans are important, but social behavior is generally far more important.Since the cultural explosion 30,000 to 60,000 years ago, being a fine singer, dancer, story teller, or drawer became highly appreciated. Those who behave in a manner sufficiently attractive to the opposite sex will successfully mate and the genes that carry these behavioral traits will be found in their offspring. This behavior becomes instinct-driven, the dynamic of gene-culture co-evolution. 

From early childhood, we are aware of our actions that are intended to favorably impress members of the opposite sex. However, few if any are aware of the extent to which striving for excellence is ultimately driven by Darwin’s dynamic of sexual selection. As to how to behave, humans, as well as other animals, generally act on proximate cues, remaining unaware of the ultimate end driving their actions. Further, precisely because of the centrality of sexual competition and because human society requires cooperation, cultural practices have evolved to mask or soften its expression. 

Veblen’s Instincts Institutionally Channeled

            Veblen identified a restricted number of instincts — “the innate and persistent properties of human nature… irreducible elements of human nature” (1914, 2, 3), which guide behavior: the predatory instinct, parental bent, the instinct of workmanship, and idle curiosity. “These native [instinctual] proclivities alone make anything worth while, and out of their working emerge not only the purpose and efficiency of life, but its substantial pleasures and pains as well” (Veblen 1914, 1). 

Rick Tilman claims that “Basically, two clusters [of instincts] are discernable: parental bent, idle curiosity and workmanship blend together as other-regarding traits, as do aggression and predation, which are self-regarding” (1996, 99). But had Veblen appropriatedDarwin’s dynamic of sexual selection, he may have understood all his instincts as self-regarding. 

            Concerning the predatory instinct, Veblen wrote that“The conditions under which men lived in the most primitive stages of associated life… seems to have been of a peaceful and unaggressive…cast” (1899, 219–20).But had Veblen drawn on Darwin’s concept of sexual selection, he would not so readily have presumed that a non-aggressive era ever existed. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that warfare in pre-agricultural societies was incessant, driven more by the sexual rewards of being a successful warrior than by economic advantage (Flannery and Marcus 2012, Keeley 1997). Warriors who succeeded in killing enemies sired more children, thereby passing more of their genes into future generations. 

The rise of the state and civilization constituted an institutional revolution whereby aggression and predation could enable advantages in mating to those successful in using violence or economic power to accumulate material wealth, political power, and thus high status. These advantages would signal to potential sexual partners that their bearers hold greater potential for offering protection and sustenance to them and their offspring.

            Veblen’s instinct of parental bent “has a large part in the sentimental concern entertained by nearly all persons for the life and comfort of the community at large, and particularly for the community’s future welfare” (1914, 27). Modern research finds that within forager groups, being cooperative and generous earned the social respect of others and that with this came greater sexual success (Flannery and Marcus 2012). 

            Veblen claimed that his instinct of workmanship “…is present in all men, and asserts itself even under very adverse circumstances” (1899, 93). Although foragers may not have defined such activities as work (Wisman 1989), being a good hunter or gatherer, a courageous warrior, a skilled tool maker would be highly valued by others and therefore be found sexually attractive. Sexual selection would have provided Veblen with a means for demonstrating how his instinct of workmanship could have evolved in Darwinian terms, what Geoffrey Hodgson claims he did not do (2004, 198–201).

Anthropologists also inform us that in early society the individual’s motivation for carrying out productive activity was more social than material. Work provided a principal means by which individuals achieved the approbation of others. Or where wealth was sought, it was for the purpose of giving it away to achieve the approbation of others. 

Of the fourth of his instincts, that of idle curiosity, Veblen wrote, “Human curiosityis doubtless an ‘idle’propensity, in the sense that no utilitarian aim enters in its habitual exercise…” (Veblen 1914, 88). Within the context of Darwinian sexual selection, this would make it seemingly wasteful, something that might be exercised by someone with the luxury of extra time after other utilitarian needs have been met. Therefore, the reason such a propensity might have been selected is that it would signal such survival fitness that surplus idle time was available. Those successful enough to have idle time to pursue even useless questions would be attractive and therefore promising mates, and thus similar to Veblen’s unproductive “leisure class.”

Because Veblen failed to draw upon Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, he concerned himself with proximate causes as opposed to the underlying ultimate cause of sexual competition and mate selection.       

Sexual Selection, Institutions, and Cultural Evolution

As a social science discipline, economics has typically viewed humans as motivated by income and wealth. This fits with the evolutionary view that humans seek resources to reproduce and insure that their genes make it into the future and that those who most successfully do so would be valued as potential mates. However, history reveals that the ways in which humans may enhance their attractiveness to the opposite sex has varied greatly. Only recently in human history has the amassing of income, wealth, and power been of central importance in sexual selection. For at least 97-98 percent of this history, humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Being generally nomadic, accumulating material wealth was unmanageable. Further, these foragers uncompromisingly opposed anyone’s attempts to assume economic or political power, or to overtly stand out. Sexual competition had to be expressed in other ways. These included being highly skilled warriors and hunters and gatherers, developing artistic talents, and being cooperative and generous and thus contributing to the welfare of the community. 

Humans are a social species for which social coordination was important for survival, and thus a proclivity for this social coordination was selected. As hunter-gatherers, humans shared food, child care, defense, and practically everything else. Sexual selection favored traits that enhanced cooperation and coordination within the group. In a seeming contradiction, cooperation would constitute a form of competition. So too would generosity. Those viewed as most contributing to these group efforts would be appreciated and thus be found more sexually attractive. 

Much changed radically with the evolution of new social institutions accompanying the rise of states and civilizations about 5,500 years ago, the pre-condition for which had been the adoption of agriculture about 10,000 ago and the later innovations in metallurgy. The concentrated power of the state could protect private property andthus add a new cultural force that would become central to human sexual selection. Those who accumulated or possessed significant property would be more attractive as mates than those without property. Property provided greater material security and thus greater probability that offspring would survive.Wealth and power came to be highly unequally distributed and so too did access to sexual partners. Wealthy and powerful men often commanded huge harems, thereby better ensuring that their genes would pass into the future.

Although increasing institutional complexity opened yet new domains in which sexual competition might occur, wealth and power have remained the foremost cultural means of signaling sexual attractiveness. The conspicuous consumption so aptly described by Veblen expressed this sexual competition and continues to do so today. The degradation of work with industrialization and the accompanying decline of community with urbanization greatly weakened important alternative ways in which people could acquire social approval and esteem, forcing them to rely increasingly on consumption to signal how skilled and hardworking they are, and thus what good mates they would make.  

The problem, Veblen claimed, stemmed from private property: “Human nature being what it is, the struggle of each to possess more than his neighbor is inseparable from the institution of private property” (Veblen 1919, 397), and thereforethe solution is the elimination of private property: “With the abolition of private property, the characteristic of human nature which now finds its exercise in this form of emulation, should logically find exercise in other, perhaps nobler and socially more serviceable, activities” (1919, 399). Indeed, he later continued, “it is conceivable that labor might practically come to assume that character of nobility in the eyes of society at large” (1919, 401).  

Final Reflections

Veblen’s contributions to social thought, although inadequately appreciated within mainstream economics, stand out as major intellectual advances. Most notably, he recognized that social sciences must be structured in terms of evolution, and that there are critical parallels between the biological evolution that Darwin elaborated and social evolution. He also developed deeper understanding of the manner in which human behavior is not only biologically driven but steered in its expression by prevailing institutions. However, he overlooked a critical component in Darwin’s work, with the consequence that he missed an opportunity to more firmly ground his understanding of social dynamics in Darwin’s evolutionary framework.

As Darwin made clear, all sexually-reproducing animals, humans included, compete for sex. In doing so, they strive to stand out, to be above others in whatever manner is socially approved and therefore attractive to the opposite sex. No matter how equal a society might be in all other respects, sexual competition will lead to differential access to the opposite sex. And in terms of evolutionary biology, this is the inequality that has always mattered most. 

However, although humans may be genetically programed to seek status, power, and self-esteem, just what provides these “intangible states” has varied considerable over the course of human history. Depending upon the institutional rules of the game, social status might conceivably be provided equally well by work, generosity, and community spiritedness as by wealth and political power. What earns status is thus substantially determined by a society’s institutions, but the results of successfully attaining high status are the same cross-culturally. Those who do so are more successful in finding mates and sending their genes into posterity. 

Reformulating social understanding in terms of sexual selection would bring closer to completion the struggle Veblen undertook to ground social dynamics in terms of Darwinian evolutionary biology. Veblen understood that while human action is driven by innate proclivities, the manner of its expression is guided or channeled by social institutions that vary transhistorically and transculturally. It was this central focus on institutions that led many to consider him the father of institutional economics. 

            Yet, in spite of the explanatory promise of Veblen’s marriage of social understanding with biology, as noted above, the school of economics that traces its genesis to Veblen, American institutionalism, significantly abandoned Veblen’s grounding of his analysis in human biology. The project of this article has been to renew Veblen’s grounding of institutional analysis in evolutionary biology by exploring the dynamics of a critical element of Darwin’s theory – sexual selection — that Veblen missed.


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———. 1914. The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

———. 1919. “Some Neglected Points in the Theory of Socialism.” In The Place of Science in Modern Civilization, 387–408. New York: B. W. Huebsch.

Wisman, Jon D. 1989. “Straightening Out the Backward-Bending Supply Curve of Labor: From Overt to Covert Compulsion and Beyond.” Review of Political Economy1 (1): 94–112.

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