Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

Sex, Evolution, Homicide, and a “Secret Society!”

An interview with pioneering psychologist Martin Daly

To those of us who began thinking about human behavior in evolutionary terms back in the 1970s and 80s, Martin Daly is something of a hero.  In this interview, he gives some of the historical background of what led him from studying gerbils in the Sahara Desert to studying homicidal young men in Detroit. 

“It bothers me when people DON’T think of Homo sapiens as just another critter…The best contributors to our field have been people who have worked on other creatures as well as other human beings. You’ve got to know what’s different about Homo saps in order to see what’s interesting about them.”

Unlike many of the other pioneers in the field, Daly did not experience a lot of obstacles to studying human behavior in evolutionary perspective.  He attributes this to being in a Canadian University, with support from the Canadian government, which funded Martin and his partner Margo Wilson continuously for 32 years. 

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When asked about his greatest contribution to the field, Daly says that “for sure” it is his seminal textbook with Margo Wilson: Sex, Evolution, and Behavior.  I myself used it for a class on sexual behavior I taught at Montana State University in the 1970s.  When I looked that book up on Google Scholar, I see that it has been cited 1174 times, which is itself impressive.  But it turns out that his book Homicide has been cited 2477 times.  If you throw in the thousands of additional citations to their various papers on marital violence and sexual jealousy, one of which was published in Science, I would argue that the work on homicide has had more impact. 

If you are interested in learning about the history of studying psychology in evolutionary perspective, and the roots of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, this YouTube video is worth a look.  As Daly notes with a laugh, the first president of this now robust interdisciplinary group thought that perhaps: “If there is going to be an evolution and human behavior society, it should be a secret society!”  Fortunately for scientific progress, that suggestion did not pan out. 

References to some of Daly's classic papers and books:

Daly, M. (1978). The cost of mating. The American Naturalist, 112(986), 771-774.

Daly, M., Behrends, P. R., Wilson, M. I., & Jacobs, L. F. (1992). Behavioural modulation of predation risk: moonlight avoidance and crepuscular compensation in a nocturnal desert rodent, Dipodomys merriami. Animal Behaviour, 44(1), 1-9.

Daly, M., Rauschenberger, J., & Behrends, P. (1982). Food aversion learning in kangaroo rats: a specialist-generalist comparison. Animal Learning & Behavior, 10(3), 314-320.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1978). Sex, evolution and behaviour. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. Transaction Books.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Evolutionary social psychology and family homicide. Science.

Daly, M., Wilson, M., & Weghorst, S. J. (1982). Male sexual jealousy. Ethology and Sociobiology, 3(1), 11-27.

Wilson, M., & Daly, M. (1985). Competitiveness, risk taking, and violence: The young male syndrome. Ethology and sociobiology, 6(1), 59-73.

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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