Evolutionary Entertainment

Exploring the evolutionary foundations of popular culture.

Interviews with My Intellectual Idols: Part I

On the origin of Human Behavior & Evolution Society, an oral history project.

M. Flinn, S. Hrdy, D. Kenrick, L. Cosmides, S. Pinker, J. Tooby, B.Low, N. Chagnon, W. Irons, D. Buss, M. Daly, R. Thornhill

Ever wish you could meet one of your intellectual idols? Maybe shake her hand? Maybe share how much her work has meant to you? Maybe even hug her, like, three times? (Okay, maybe not that last one for you, but yeah, I hugged Leda Cosmides thrice in three days. I’m weird like that. Deal with it. )  

Well, I got to meet, greet, and convey my gratitude to many of the Mental Giants who have most influenced my meager mind. And then I sat down and they let me interview them, on film, for a good half hour. Wow.  

Here’s the backstory…  

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Catherine, Dave, Me

At the 2012 meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES), evolutionary psychologist Catherine Salmon and I spent part of the last night in Albuquerque on a rooftop bar reminiscing about graduate school, past HBESes, and the myriad HBESers who have passed. Pioneers and pillars of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology like Bill Hamilton, Linda Mealey, David Rowe, Dev Singh, John Maynard Smith, George C. Williams, and Margo Wilson. Before extant Founding Folk were selected out, we batted around the idea of filming oral histories of the Living Legends who helped found and foster HBES and, long story short, with funding from HBES and expertise from filmmaker Dave Lundberg-Kenrick, we interviewed sixteen of our intellectual heroes at 2013’s 25th meeting of HBES in Miami Beach.

In Part I of this two-part installment I’ve compiled eight of these remarkable interviews, namely those with Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Douglas Kenrick, Martin Daly, Randy Thornhill, Mark Flinn, and William Irons.

Interviews with David Buss, Napoleon Chagnon, Sarah Hrdy, Don Symons, Raymond Hames, Bobbi Low, Peter Richerson, and David Sloan Wilson will be released each Monday through November in D. S. Wilson’s fabulous emagazine for all things evolutionary, Evolution: This View of Life (TVOL). Come December, I’ll post Part II which will include all eight of these interviews, and any others we conduct (we hope to interview Dick Alexander, Richard Dawkins, Irv Devore, Jane Lancaster, Randy Nesse, and E. O. Wilson).

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the first installment of these interviews as much as Catherine and I enjoyed conducting them.

Steven Pinker (The below edited introduction was written for TVOL by David Sloan Wilson)

Looking back, Pinker recalls how he first adopted an evolutionary perspective, based on thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor, who stressed the need to posit a nativistic dimension to human cognition and language….Looking forward, Pinker advises new students to think of themselves as psychologists first and evolution as an essential perspective for the study of all aspects of psychology, rather than a sub-discipline of the field. He describes the self-described field of evolutionary psychology as a stepping stone toward this end. He calls for more integration with evolutionary genetics and more generally the fully rounded approach associated with Nobel Laureate Niko Tinbergen, who stressed that all evolved traits should be studied from functional, mechanistic, developmental and phylogenetic perspectives. He also shares his own best idea that has not yet received the attention that it deserves.

Leda Cosmides (Intro written for TVOL by Rob Kurzban)

Leda is one of the pioneers of the field of evolutionary psychology. She is a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, where she co-founded the Center for Evolutionary Psychology (CEP) with husband and collaborator John Tooby. Leda’s impact on evolutionary approaches cannot be overstated. Her awards and honors are numerous, and include the prestigious National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award. On a personal note, I might add that Leda was my advisor in graduate school and I certainly would not be where I am today if it were not for her expert tutelage (and limitless patience). 

Even if you are very familiar with Cosmides’ work, you’ll learn a lot from this video, including how being 5 minutes late to a meeting with E. O. Wilson (when she was an undergrad at Harvard) was "key to her future,” how her seminal and award winning 1989 paper on cheater detection took four years and several rejections before getting published in Cognition, why she called the field she and John helped start "evolutionary psychology" as opposed to "human sociobiology,” and much more. 

Most of her papers are available on the web page for the CEP. I hope you enjoy the video.

John Tooby (Intro written for TVOL by R. Kurzban and Diana Fleischman)

Catherine interviews John Tooby, an American anthropologist who, as you will hear, has a wide breadth of interests. 

John’s contribution to evolutionary psychology, along with his wife and collaborator Leda Cosmides, can hardly be overstated. John received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harvard, and later worked with Roger Shepard at Stanford. He received the Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation when he was a faculty member at UC Santa Barbara, where he remains today, with his primary appointment in the Department of Anthropology. He co-directs the Center for Evolutionary Psychology with Cosmides. 

What may be most interesting about the interview is John’s perspective on the trajectory of the field and his determination about what is yet to be done. John really feels he has just scratched the surface of all he planned to do and says he takes “life extension mix" (11:15+) because progress (including the revolution of the social sciences through evolutionary theory) has gone slower than he anticipated. John also talks (21:00+) about how his vision of the scientific enterprise has evolved over the course of his career, from an idealized vision of people rationally digesting new ideas and findings to his present conception of it as isolated villages who know a lot about what the other people in their village are up to but not very much about anything beyond immediately adjacent villages. 

The interview is quintessential John Tooby. For instance, there’s a nice little section (6:45) in which John talks about how, as a student, he explained to (intellectual giant) Robert Trivers what an evolutionary approach really predicts about organisms’ behavior.

Also don’t miss the hilarious way that John deprecates himself with modularity saying he is “unfortunately lesioned in the anecdote part of his brain” 22:28.

John points to The Psychological Foundations of Culture chapter in The Adapted Mind as one of his most important works, which anyone should strongly consider putting at the top of their reading list. The chapter and most of the rest of John’s work can be found on the publications page of the web site for the Center for Evolutionary Psychology.

Douglas Kenrick (Intro was written for TVOL by R. Kurzban)

Doug is among the field’s most colorful personalities – have a look at his biography on the Psychology Today page – and among the most prolific, having published around 200 articles during the course of his career. Kenrick also connects with the general public, with his popular blog; indeed, his second book (with Vladas Griskevicius) The Rational Animal was released last month. 

Kenrick’s perspective owes a great deal to his academic history, coming as he does from the more social side of the field, and his discussion of his own history in the field to some extent echoes David Buss’ remarks. Kenrick captures the tension between social and clinical psychology (around 6:00), discussing how people in those areas want to “find out how to make people nice,” a goal which practitioners sometimes think might be undermined by the evolutionary approach. 

In addition to discussing his early work on analyzing personal ads, and his more recent work on people’s “fundamental motives,” Kenrick offers some advice to up-and-coming scholars in the field, especially about dealing with rejection (21:30). Kenrick emphasizes that the Great Ones all experience their share of rejection, an inevitable part of even the most successful scholarly career. 

We hope you enjoy this engaging interview with one of the field’s most colorful – and insightful – scholars

Martin Daly (Intro written for TVOL by C. Salmon)

Martin is a past-President of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (1991-1993) and the co-author of many influential papers and several books (Sex, Evolution and Behavior, Homicide, The Truth about Cinderella), many co-authored with the late Margo Wilson. He has been elected to the executive committees of the Animal Behavior Society and the International Society for Behavioral Ecology, and has been the recipient of fellowships from the J.S. Guggenheim Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1998, he and Margo were elected Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada. His research topics range from the behavioral ecology of desert rodents to evolutionary perspectives on risk-taking and interpersonal violence, particularly male-male conflict and family violence. I must disclose that Martin was also my long-suffering PhD advisor and I was particularly influenced by the work he and Margo did on discriminative parental solicitude. 

Martin retired from McMaster University (1978-2010) and in 2012 joined the Anthropology Department at the University of Missouri where he is focusing his research attention on the role of inequity in access to resources in escalating male-male competition and resulting homicide rates. This interview will give you some insight into how Martin went from desert rodents to the epidemiology of familial and young male violence (including that we’re all just critters), the pre-HBES days, why inequity matters, advice for current graduate students, and more. 

Randy Thornhill (Intro written for TVOL by R. Kurzban)

Randy is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of New Mexico. 

Many members of the Human Behavior an Evolution Society might know Thornhill best for his work on sexual coercion, in particular his book with Craig Palmer, which received a great deal of attention and evoked not a little animosity from various quarters. However, in the interview, Randy points not to this line of work as his most important, but rather his earlier work on insect mating, especially the book with John Alcock, The Evolution of Insect Mating Systems. The importance of this book is attested to by the coincidental occurrence earlier this month of a symposium entitled “30 Years of Thornhill & Alcock” by the Royal Entomological Society. Because of Thornhill’s contributions to the literature on humans, it is easy to forget that his training was as a biologist and that his initial species of interest was an insect. 

While brief, the interview has a number of highlights, not the least of which is Thornhill’s description of how he got interested in the field, which he traces all the way back to when he was twelve years old, when his mother took him to a public library, introducing him to a book by a certain Charles Darwin (Descent, rather than Origin, by the way.) Thornhill alludes to resistance to the field over the course of his career, and echoes remarks by John Tooby; Thornhill recalls thinking that he had to hurry to get work published in the application of evolution to studying human behavior because it wouldn’t be long before everyone was doing it. 

Mark Flinn (Intro written for TVOL by C. Salmon)

Mark is professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Mark is an graduate of the hotbeds of adaptationist thinking that were the University of Michigan and Northwestern University in the mid-70s to mid-80s and he talks a bit about those exciting early days of informal meetings before HBES existed. Of course, many of you are probably aware that Mark is the current (new as of this past July) president of HBES. He shares some of his thoughts about HBES, not only about its beginnings but also about what he would like it to be in the future.

Many of you may also be most familiar with Mark from his work on psychosocial stress, in particular, his work on the connections between childhood stress, family relationships and health conducted at his field site in Dominica. In his interview, he talks about how his childhood love of turtles set him on his career path and what the gatherings pre-HBES years were like, including the perils of having inquisitive children in the audience! He shares some of his impressions of Bill Hamilton and George Williams, the influence of Dick Alexander and Napoleon Chagnon on his graduate student self, and the utility of different methodological approaches and levels of analysis. And a call for us not to forget the big picture questions despite the pressure to publish or perish in the job market.

William Irons (Intro written for TVOL by D. S. Wilson)

Anthropologist William Irons is one of the founders and past presidents of HBES, and also helped to found and served as president of the Evolutionary Anthropology Society (2001-2003). In his interview, Bill recalls how HBES emerged from a network of informal interactions among scientists from a melting pot of disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, and animal behavior. He also recalls the hostile attitude against “sociobiology” that he faced among his colleagues in anthropology, including knee-jerk accusations of racism and career-threatening barriers to publication and promotion. Finally, Bill provides an overview of his own foundational contributions, including the importance of reputation as a mechanism for linking biological and cultural success, the role of religion as a mechanism for organizing cooperative groups, and his articulation of Richard Alexander’s theory of moral systems.

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Copyright © 2013 Barry X. Kuhle. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of Psychology Today and the University of Scranton, or me, and certainly not the views of my friends, family, probation officer, gut bacteria, darkest thoughts, and personal mohel.

Barry X. Kuhle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Scranton.

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