Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

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

A casual chat with a champion of evolutionary psychology

David Buss talks about the field he helped create

David Buss is a larger than life character, who has championed the integration of evolutionary biology and psychology. If you glance at Google Scholar, you will see that his scientific work has been cited in papers by other researchers fully 31,234 times. His most influential work includes an ambitious paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in which he tested evolutionary hypotheses in a comparison of 37 cultures. That paper alone led many psychologists to rethink their default assumption that every sex difference found in American college students could be handily explained as due to the influence of “American culture.” His textbook Evolutionary psychology has the ambitious subtitle: “the new science of psychology” and an influential paper he published in Psychological Inquiry calls evolutionary psychology “a new paradigm for psychological science.” 

A new interview with Buss was just released as part of the series on the early pioneers of the Human Behavior & Evolution Society (I have already mentioned earlier interviews with Leda Cosmides and Martin Daly, and Barry Kuhle, who worked with Catherine Salmon to do the interviews, has also summarized several of them in his post “8 great pioneers of evolutionary psychology”). 

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I first met David Buss when I was an assistant professor at Montana State, and I was visiting a graduate student at Berkeley, Avril Thorne.  Avril mentioned that there was another graduate student at Berkeley who had read an early paper of mine in Psychological Review, and had gotten excited when he saw that I made reference to evolutionary ideas in the discussion section. Although he was still in graduate school, David had already published 10 papers, and was recognized as someone who would likely have a very productive career. Indeed, after finishing his degree at Berkeley, and before moving into evolutionary psychology, he became an assistant professor at Harvard and established a solid reputation for his work in personality. That work won Buss a prestigious early career award from the APA. 

To give you some idea of how influential that young grad student from Berkeley has become since then though, I once gave an address to a social psychology conference in Spain, and afterwards someone said to me: “So, you are a Bussiano?” 

In this interview, Buss talks about his early contacts with evolutionary biologists at Harvard, and about his own favorite findings, on mate-guarding and mate competition, which he notes were inspired by Thornhill and Alcock’s book on insect behavior!  (see Catherine Salmon’s interview with Randy Thornhill here).

What I especially like about this series of interviews is that they are casual and personal. The interview with Buss gives you a feeling for what it would be like sitting down and having a serious chat with David in a bar. In real life, he is actually quite a funny guy, and it would be hard to sit through a talk of his without having a good laugh. In the bar, he’d probably get you laughing with an amusing anecdote or a good joke. Here’s one David once told me: Q: What’s the difference between a social constructivist and a mafia don? A: The mafia don makes you an offer you can’t refuse, the social constructivist makes you an offer you can’t understand. 

Buss has offered the field a set of findings and ideas that are both easy to understand, and intellectually hard to refuse.  

Besides being an avid Bussiano, Douglas Kenrick is author of: The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think and Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature

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

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