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Interviews with My Intellectual Idols: Part II

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? 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.

Catherine, Dave, Me

Part I of this blog series explains how and why fellow evolutionary psychologist Catherine Salmon, filmmaker Dave Lundberg Kenrick, and I co-led On the Origin of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society ~ An Oral History, and presents our interviews with Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Douglas Kenrick, Martin Daly, Randy Thornhill, Mark Flinn, and William Irons.

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This second installment contains interviews with David Buss, David Sloan Wilson, Napoleon Chagnon, Don Symons, Bobbi Low, Sarah Hrdy, and Raymond Hames. Interviews with E.O. Wilson, Richard Alexander, Randy Nesse, and Peter Richerson will be posted in the new year.

I hope you enjoy these interviews as much as Catherine, Dave, and I enjoyed conducting them.


David Buss (Intro written for TVOL by Diana Fleischman)

This interview in the series "On the Origin of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society" is with David Buss, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. David is one of the founders of evolutionary psychology but initially made significant contributions to personality psychology. He is perhaps best known for groundbreaking work in human sex differences and mating including jealousycross-cultural mate preferences (as he discusses from 17:21-28:50) and the strategies people use to capture and retain a mate. Oftentimes his discoveries come with their own snappy nomenclature like “mate poaching” and "exploitability". David professes he is especially interested in the “dark side” (e.g.) of human nature. Many of the initial forays David made into new territory have spawned whole new lines of research.

I'd be remiss to not mention many of David's more colorful qualities as recounted by myself and his other former graduate students. David is a self-described "hyperadaptationist"; he sees psychological adaptations everywhere. Once, during a seminar at his house David mentioned to us that his puppy, Dexter Darwin, sleeping in his lap was "parasitizing his parental mechanisms". Similarly, David also takes a keen interest in how evolutionary psychology principles manifest in real life. At parties you’ll often see him asking questions and listening avidly while people describe their romantic lives, relationship dissolutions and aggressive interactions. It's not just David's scientific perspective but his charm that have led him to have such an impact on the field and the wider public. A feminist friend of mine told me that meeting and talking with David reversed her negative preconceived notions about evolutionary psychology and psychologists. David's incisive understanding of mating psychology is only rivaled by his difficulty with modern technology. Once, during a lecture attended by hundreds of students a mobile phone began ringing loudly and continuously. After a few tense minutes David finally realized the sound was emanating from his briefcase which he put outside after unsuccessfully trying to silence the phone!

Some highlights of this interview include David's rebellious roots and how an early hypothesis about dominance was purely designed to upset one of his teachers (1:00), how he began to acclimatize to John Tooby and Leda Cosmides’ night owl schedule when they became fast friends at Harvard (13:00-13:43), the advice he would give to graduate students (32:00) and the way he demonstrates how to derogate a rival male on his interviewer and former graduate student Barry X. Kuhle, maybe a little too effectively (21:00).

David Sloan Wilson (Intro written for TVOL by Barry X. Kuhle)

We all have Giants whose shoulders we’ve stood upon to get a lay of the intellectual landscape we hope to inhabit and influence one day. One of the earliest giants I had the honor and good fortune to learn from was evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson

I met David in the summer of ‘96. A few weeks after my junior year at Binghamton University, I learned of evolutionary psychology by stumbling across The Evolution of Desire in my local library in Merrick, Long Island. When I returned to campus that summer to continue my research on classical conditioning in rats, I told my honors thesis advisor that I wanted to study evolutionary psychology. Ralph Miller looked at me sternly, and said, “You should head next door to Science III and talk to Professor Wilson right way.” 

In short course, an eager and green twenty-year old psychology major knocked on David’s door and spewed forth with his aspiration to become an evolutionary psychologist. David was welcoming and encouraging. He suggested that I read The Adapted Mind, his 1992 review of it in QRB, and his insightful 1994 article in Ethology and Sociobiology on “Adaptive genetic variation and human evolutionary psychology.”

A few weeks later I dropped by his office to discuss the readings, after which he suggested a few more. This went on for most of the summer. At one point he even lent me his “Cosmides and Tooby” folder, which was amazing! In a time before articles were readily available online, here I had a dozen or so foundational articles on evolutionary psychology with critical comments from one of the nascent field’s most critical proponents in the margins. I was in geek heaven!

After reading two dozen books and articles suggested by David (including his classic 1994 BBS article, “Reintroducing group selection to the human behavioral sciences”), I was super-excited to take his spring undergraduate biology course, Evolution and Human Behavior. But he told me I shouldn’t. Stunned, I asked why. He replied that having enrolled in his graduate seminar on multilevel selection (which he invited me to take that fall) and having completed all of his suggested readings, that I simply didn’t need to take the course. That I should instead TA the course for him. I was floored! I met this world renowned scholar mere months ago, and here he was suggesting that I, a lowly psychology undergraduate, agree to TA his upper-division biology course where I was expected to lead a 20-person discussion section a few hours per week. His faith in me was invigorating. During my final year of college David introduced me to both the study and teaching of evolutionary psychology—the twin passions that have most consumed my professional life ever since. 

I’m forever indebted to David for shepherding me through the foundational literature in evolutionary biology and psychology back when I was a wee lad. To be invited back to Binghamton last year to give a talk to his wonderful Evolution Studies Program (EvoS) students was quite touching for this nostalgic bloke. Although EvoS wasn’t around when I was an undergraduate at Binghamton, David saw to it that I received a critical, off-the-books tutorial on exploring human behavior through multiple evolutionary lenses. 

So it’s quite fitting that the first person I interviewed for “On The Origin of HBES: An Oral History Project” was David, the first person to tell me about HBES. A sense of his “love/hate relationship” with HBES and evolutionary psychology is easily seen in our interview (he refers to himself as “somewhat of an outlaw among outlaws of the HBES society” at the 0:36 mark). Notable moments include: 

  • His affection for George C. Williams after David marched into his office as a grad student, declared “I’m going to convince you about group selection,” and was offered a postdoc on the spot (8:40) 
  • How Bill Hamilton eventually came around and changed his own mind on group selection and how George Williams wrote to David that “group selection was a strong force in human evolution” (10:11-14:54)
  • How he was pressured by HBES founders to disinvite Stephen Jay Gould as the keynote speaker for the 1993 HBES conference he hosted at Binghamton University (19:00 – 20:11)
  • How HBES needs to be much more activist (32:17-33:41)

Napoleon Chagnon (Intro written for TVOL by David Sloan Wilson)

The first time I met Napoleon Chagnon, I asked him why he became an early advocate of human sociobiology. 

“Because it told anthropologists to study reproduction instead of pottery!” he retorted.

Nap’s answer took me aback, because it signified that the central insight of sociobiology for a cultural anthropologist such as Nap was more basic than the issues that preoccupied me. As a PhD student at the University of Michigan in the 1960’s, his mentors placed an emphasis on culture and resisted the idea that human behavior might revolve largely around genetic reproductive success. That made Nap’s PhD research on the Yanomamo tribe of South America both groundbreaking and controversial. In addition to revealing the importance of genetic relatedness, Nap showed that Yanomamo men earn a special status by killing their enemies and that such men had more wives and children. Natural selection was favoring the kind of belligerence that earned the Yanomamo the name of The Fierce People – the title of Nap’s classic ethnography. 

Nap’s battles with his colleagues in cultural anthropology were also fierce, as he recounts in this fascinating interview with Catherine Salmon (see also her interview with William Irons, Nap’s “lifetime best friend” who was a partner in arms). He recounts how HBES was initially just a get-together of a few people, with no one imagining it would grow into a society with hundreds of members. 

Times have changed for the study of human behavior from an evolutionary perspective, thanks in part to Nap’s pioneering spirit. In his interview, he describes his more nuanced studies of kinship in which he was among the first cultural anthropologists to record the latency of response of his informants as an indication of their certainty of the kinship relation. During the 1993 HBES meeting that I hosted in Binghamton (see my interview with Barry X. Kuhle), Nap presented a series of photographs of Yanomamo men that I remember to this day. 

“How many people do you think he has killed?” Nap asked of the man in the first photograph, who was clearly a warrior displaying his belligerence. This went on for three or four photographs, until he came to the last photograph of a man who looked as beatific as a Buddhist monk and hadn’t killed anyone. Nap then recounted how the Yanomamo had been studied primarily along the banks of a river, which provided the easiest access. The tribe extended away from the river into the highlands, however, and Nap had only recently gained access to these villages by helicopter. Men from the highland villages were much less belligerent than men from villages along the river. Heterogeneity in belligerence existed even within this single tribe. 

Even the idea of a culture as like a single organism coordinated by symbolic relations, which was the paradigm that Nap rebelled against in the 1960’s, is beginning to make sense from an evolutionary perspective through the work of HBES pioneers such as Peter Richerson, who is also featured as part of this series (forthcoming) and who refers to human cultures as “crude superorganisms.” E.O. Wilson (interview forthcoming) whose book Sociobiology became the lightning rod for controversy in 1975, compares human societies to social insect colonies in his 2012 book The Social Conquest of Earth. Human behavior from an evolutionary perspective is a multi-stranded topic. Nap’s interview reflects one of the most important strands and the series of interviews on the Origin of HBES provides an invaluable oral history of the tapestry under construction. 

Don Symons (Intro written for TVOL by C. Salmon)

This interview in the series “On the Origin of Human Behavior and Evolution Society” is with Don Symons, Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Don is an iconic figure in the field, having written The Evolution of Human Sexuality back in the late 1970s, one of the most cited works in the field. He has always been a strong proponent for focusing on the idea that adaptation is revealed in design. He is also equally well known for staying out of the limelight so we hope that viewers will appreciate this chance to hear and see him discussing his experience with the birth of evolutionary psychology. 

What some viewers will not know is that Don’s start was in primatology and he is the author of a book on rhesus monkeys entitled Play and Aggression, published the year before The Evolution of Human Sexuality. He also had a somewhat atypical path from PhD student to job hire to tenure that while surprising somehow seems just right for him. The importance of climate in job choice is also featured. He talks about the influence Richard Dawkins and George Williams had on him (advising students to read Williams’ Adaptation and Natural Selection until you feel it in your bones), and how the genesis of his own evolutionary thinking came about because, like many young men, he had been thinking a lot about sex. But unlike many others, he reflected on this preoccupation with variety for its own sake with an adaptationist lens. 


Bobbi Low (Intro written for TVOL by Rob Kurzban)  

I received two grades of “C” when I was an undergraduate at Cornell University. One of the two was in course called “Human Sexuality.” So you can imagine that I had more than the usual amount of misgivings when, as a starting Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, I was asked to teach a course called “Human Sexuality.”

In many ways, this turned out to be something of a blessing. First of all, I got to learn material that I missed when I went round the first time. More importantly, looking for a textbook to use for the course led me to discover Bobbi Low. I began my search with textbooks designed for such classes. With due respect to the authors of these texts, none of them took the sort of approach that I was looking for, and I doubted these texts would resonate with my students. I was surprised to find that textbooks on human sexuality, by and large, didn’t refer to evolution much at all, let alone rest the material in the book on the theory. Indeed, the central message of these texts seemed to be along the lines of, “hey, undergraduate reader, different people do different things in the bedroom (or kitchen or dungeon set), and it’s all ok.” 

Bobbi Low’s book, Why Sex Matters, was, in this context, a breath of fresh air, and I can’t say enough about the text. I used it every time that I taught the course, even though it wasn’t really designed for such a purpose. Low understood and explained ideas surrounding sex and human behavior in a way that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Personally, I feel as if I owe her a debt of gratitude, for writing a book that even a C student in human sexuality could understand. 

I was lucky to meet Bobbi a number of years ago, back when I had a good reason to spend time at the University of Michigan. As much as I came to value her as the author of a textbook, I came to value her as a friend even more. She has a warmth and generosity of spirit which, I think comes across in this brief interview. 

In many ways, this interview is the quintessential example of what Barry and Catherine intended this series to be. Low gives an excellent flavor of what the early years were like, who the major players were, and how the organization that would become HBES began to coalesce. She also has delightful and heartwarming stories, including a nice little anecdote about Bill Hamilton (~25:00), and she adds an important perspective on what it was like to be a woman in the academy during these early years. 

Finally, Low offers some important advice to grad students in the field: “be bolder than you think you have any right to be” (17:30)

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (Intro written for TVOL by Barry X. Kuhle)

This installment of “On the Origin of HBES: An Oral History,” focuses on Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist and primatologist who has made major contributions to sociobiology and related disciplines. Selected as one of 21 Leaders in Animal Behavior in 2009 and recipient of the Lifetime Career Award from the Human Behavior and Evolution Society in 2013, Sarah is professor emerita at the University of California-Davis, Associate in the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, and A.D. White Professor-At-Large at Cornell University. A former Guggenheim fellow, she has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the California Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Her books include The Langurs of Abu: Female and Male Strategies of ReproductionThe Woman that Never Evolved, selected by The New York Times as one of the Notable Books of the Year in 1981; Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection, which won the Howells Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Biological Anthropology and was chosen by both Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal as one of the “Best Books of 1999"; and Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, an exploration of psychological implications of humankind’s long legacy of shared child-rearing which has been awarded both the 2012 J.I. Staley Prize from the School of Advanced Research and a second Howells Prize. For many years she edited the Foundations of Human Behavior series and continues to serve on editorial boards for Evolutionary Anthropology and Human Nature. She lives with her husband Dan, a retired medical doctor and walnut grower on their farm in northern California where they are engaged in sustainable agriculture and habitat restoration (http://www.citrona.com/vita.html).

My “interview” with Sarah was less of me questioning her and more of an epic nostalgia session between Sarah and fellow HBES Lifetime Career Award recipient Bill Irons. Here’s why: Sarah showed up a touch early, while I was still interviewing Bill, and she had a handful of candid photos of Bill Hamilton, Bob Trivers, George Williams, and others in hand. Our filmmaker, Dave Lundberg-Kenrick, keenly noticed that she was itching to show the photos to Bill and suggested that I step out of frame and let Sarah sit in and do so on camera. Ninety minutes later, with cameras nearly overheated, we had a treasure trove of remarkable reflections, anecdotes, backstories, insider scoops, and reminisces that left me howling, enthused, enlightened, inspired, and with tingles down the spine. To be a fly on the wall for two brilliant and eloquent elder statesmen (er, woman; sorry, Sarah) to trade stories about knife fights that Hamilton and Trivers may have had (not with each other, thankfully), Hamilton arguing with automobiles and getting attacked by killer bees, Trivers being well, Trivers, and much, much, more was simply wonderful. Just surreal, folks. I cannot do justice here with how candid and insightful it was, so I won’t even try. 

Raymond Hames (Intro written for TVOL by Rob Kurzban)

Ray Hames modestly refers to himself as “The Late Pioneer” in this interview addition to the series on HBES founders. Indeed, the whole interview is peppered with modesty, a fact that will come as no surprise to those of us who have had the pleasure to spend time with the self-effacing but absurdly competent Hames. A high point of the interview, in fact, is a moment in which Ray discusses one of his papers – a chapter in an edited volume – and not only seems to want to murder this one of his scholarly darlings, but erase it from common memory, as he urges listeners never to cite it again. 

Hames discusses some of his early experiences coming into the field, including mentioning the name Chomsky, which has been somewhat surprisingly scant in the list the field’s founders have mentioned as influences. There are, of course, the usual giants, including Symons, Chagnon, Williams, and a charming anecdote about how Hames didn’t share a room with geneticist Sewell Wright.

Hames offered some advice (12:30, 22:00) for HBES members, especially about sex and violence, suggesting that there ought to be less of the former and more of the latter, and I’m pretty sure he was talking about research attention as opposed to the socializing at annual meetings. He also exhorts scholars to get out of the lab and stop studying WEIRD people, a point well taken, though as a personal matter I think we’re doing reasonably well on that score. 

Despite the fact that these interviews are aimed at documenting the ancient (i.e., 25 year or so) history of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, it’s very difficult to talk about Hames’ contributions without calling attention to the recent past. Since 2007, Hames has been serving as the Society’s Treasurer, a far longer term than the Society has any right to ask of him, and if HBES were an organism, then Hames would be the backbone, and possibly the entire skeletal system, and quite possibly the whole nervous system as well. He has, more or less single-handedly, managed the Society’s finances, which are not as simple as putting membership checks into a bank account and counting the gold in the vaults. Having worked closely with Hames for years now, I have been able to see that, in addition to competently discharging any number of other tasks – anything no one else wants to do but needs to be done well is put into the Treasurer’s portfolio – he tends to the baroque tax laws under which the Society operates and chaperones largely financially-innocent conference organizers through the money side of the annual conference. He provides a tremendous degree of institutional stability, allowing most of us to simply show up at the conference and enjoy the science without ever having to worry about whether the people bringing the coffee were paid.  

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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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