I am writing these words while on a flight returning home from my visit to Arizona State University (ASU) where I gave talks in the Psychology and Marketing
departments. This was a truly wonderful visit in which I met an endless number of brilliant colleagues and doctoral students, many of whom I had intellectually stimulating conversations about our respective works. I wish to thank the ASU folks for having extended me their warm hospitality.
In today’s post, I briefly review Douglas T. Kenrick’s recent trade book (which just came out in paperback) titled Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity are Revolutionizing Our View of Human Nature. Doug is a Professor of Psychology at ASU and a highly popular Psychology Today blogger. While I had briefly met Doug on one or two previous occasions, this was the first time that I had the opportunity to interact with him at length. Doug’s contributions to the field of evolutionary psychology (EP) are astronomical. He is one of the pioneers of the field having published many highly influential papers over the past two decades or so. As a side note, I prefer to refer to EP as a meta-theory rather than as a field, as ultimately all of psychology if not all of the behavioral sciences should be consistent with if not informed by evolutionary principles.
Scientific prominence does not always translate into an ability to communicate with a non-specialist audience but Doug’s trade book highlights this exact rare skill. He has an uncanny ability to make complex evolutionary ideas come to life via his entertaining prose laced with gripping personal anecdotes. It takes a generosity of spirit to share one’s deeply personal accounts with the public at large. Some of these were profoundly painful (e.g., the accidental loss of Doug’s brother) while others were risqué (e.g., the three-way kiss with two beautiful young women). All of his autobiographical prose though served as a brilliant rhetorical device to bring evolutionary psychology to life (well to his life). Why do we notice an angry face when expressed by a man more so than by a woman? Are there differences between the sexes when it comes to regret-inducing realities in romantic relationships? How do key fundamental Darwinian motives shape the manner by which we navigate our daily realities (e.g., searching for a mate, ascending the social hierarchy, avoiding environmental dangers)? In my own books, The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature, I argue that many consumption acts could be mapped onto four key Darwinian meta-drives: Survival, Reproduction, Kin Selection, and Reciprocal Altruism. As such, Doug and I agree that there are basal Darwinian computational modules that guide our behaviors albeit we might slightly disagree as to their appropriate granularity (e.g., my reproductive module is further broken down by Doug into mate acquisition and mate retention).
In order to explain the domain-specific view of the human mind (known as the massive modularity hypothesis), Doug utilizes some clever labels to identify the specific evolutionarily important challenges that most people face in their daily lives: The team player, the go-getter, the night watchman, the compulsive, the swinging single, the good spouse, and the parent. Another example of Doug’s poignant prose is his use of the “mind as a coloring book” metaphor when critiquing the blank slate view of the human mind (see my recent article on the blank slate premise here). Individuals might make use of different colors for a given drawing but these must take place within the fixed confines of the borders. Doug’s metaphor reminds me of E. O. Wilson’s famous quote: “The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool.”
Bottom line: These questions and countless other fascinating issues are tackled by Kenrick in an illuminating and yet highly entertaining manner. I strongly recommend Doug’s book to anyone who wishes to have a better understanding of the evolution of the human mind.
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