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History of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society

How to form an international intellectual society and make new friends

Alice Andrews / NEEPS
Source: Alice Andrews / NEEPS

This particular post combines my interest in evolutionary psychology along with my interest in doing my best to inspire young minds to achieve. The story of the formation of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS) speaks to both of these themes - as you’ll see.

What is NEEPS?

NEEPS is the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society, which held its first annual conference on the campus at SUNY New Paltz in 2007. NEEPS is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge regarding human behavior based on the application of evolutionary principles, such as natural, sexual, and cultural selection. Since its inception, NEEPS has been a highly international and interdisciplinary society - including scholars from such diverse fields as anthropology, biology, history, political science, psychology, and sociology. NEEPS is open to all individuals with interests in the behavior/evolution interface - with scholars and students comprising the bulk of our membership.

Where Did NEEPS Come From?

NEEPS has a kind of interesting origin story - and I’ll say that it’s a little personal. But I think it’s an important story with potential lessons embedded - so here it is.

When I first came to SUNY New Paltz in 2000, I was excited - I was an enthusiastic young assistant professor ready to go full-guns on my academic career. New Paltz is a great school in a great location - once I landed here, I knew this was it! This said, I found out pretty early on that there’s something of “a problem” with my fit here. You see, I love evolutionary psychology - I believe fully that the application of Darwin’s ideas to behavior is, by far, the most powerful way to understand any class of behavior. And so, of course, I wanted to teach classes related to evolutionary psychology here. Well, long-story-short, it turns out that not everyone at SUNY New Paltz loves evolutionary psychology - and I was very surprised to see that my attempt to develop a class in evolutionary psychology (PSY 307, BTW!) was fraught with way more difficulties than I had anticipated. Some people were critical along multiple fronts - and (based on pretty good evidence) I can tell you that several faculty did not want this class taught at our school. Really? What in the world!? I have to say, it took a while to get Evolutionary Psychology on the books here and the process of getting the class into our curriculum left something of a bad taste in my mouth. I’m kind of a huge advocate of academic freedom and, thus, for multiple reasons, I look back at my efforts to get Evolutionary Psychology into the curriculum and shake my head with something of a “what in the world happened, again?” kind of feeling.

Anyhow, Evolutionary Psychology has now been taught to hundreds of SUNY New Paltz students for over a decade now - and I’m thinking the class is here to stay. But that whole experience got me thinking: Was the experience regarding Evolutionary Psychology that I had at New Paltz unique? Or are there others out there who are interested in this field who have run into academic roadblocks?

In Philadelphia in 2006, along with some of my students, I attended a meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES). It was incredible. There were hundreds of scholars and students from around the world - and they all were into evolutionary psychology. My students and I loved it! We were four hours away from New Paltz, but it felt like we were a world away. In talking about evolutionary psychology, you didn’t have to explain your entire framework for studying whatever it is you were studying. Conversations about your intellectual work did not invariably boil down to an intellectual game of posturing regarding whether evolution is relevant to behavior. You could just talk to others about your work related to evolutionary psychology - and the others that you talked to were on the same page as yourself.

On the drive back to New Paltz, I talked with my students, Mike Camargo and Heather Mangione, and raised the idea of creating a regional society related to evolutionary psychology - perhaps called the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. And perhaps we could host the first conference on our own campus. I’d had a long-standing history of organizing events at New Paltz and I knew that with the help of bright young students like Mike and Heather, along with my long-standing evolution-friendly colleague Alice Andrews, it would be a piece of cake. We were all in.

So I came back to New Paltz and was excited - and I sent out a bunch of emails - largely to folks I’d met at HBES - and to others whom I knew to be interested in evolutionary psychology and who were in the region. The idea of NEEPS was to have a small, regional society - something intimate - so that folks with interest in evolutionary psychology had something of a community that they could count upon and connect with.

I put out emails to Oswego’s Becky Burch, Binghamton’s David Sloan Wilson, and Albany’s Gordon Gallup. These are stars in the field and are all in New York. “Would you please come to my evolutionary psychology conference?” They were all in! David and Gordon agreed to be our inaugural keynote speakers - and their talks at the conference ended up being totally memorable.

At some point during the organization of all this, I got an email from Rosemarie Sokol and Sarah Strout. They were even younger than I was - fresh PhDs out of the renowned Clark University. They pretty much asked what was up with this NEEPS thing. I didn’t really know them that well at the time - but they seemed nice - and certainly seemed on board with the vision of NEEPS. Pretty quickly, Rose (now Rosemarie Sokol-Chang) agreed to serve as the program chair for the first conference - and Sarah agreed to be on the program committee and play a major role in making the conference happen.

Then I got emails from Dan Kruger and Rob Deaner - a couple of young bucks from different schools in Michigan. They were asking if they were allowed to attend the NEEPS conference even though Michigan is not really in the northeast. Well you can guess my answer - the more the merrier!

Maryanne Fisher and a few others from Canada contacted me. Technically, Halifax is very north and east, Maryanne argued … could the Canadians attend? Of course!

Before the inaugural conference even took place, it was clear that I was not the only one feeling like we needed a better community to support the intellectual work of evolutionary psychology. We were hopeful that NEEPS would be that community.

The inaugural conference was a huge success - with lots of positive energy and excitement. Scholars and students came from all over to attend. We met new people, we stayed out late at night at Bacchus (the official pub of NEEPS) exchanging ideas; we made plans for the next conference; we held a business meeting and developed an executive board. And we were fortunate to have friend and Psychology Today Editor, Kaja Perina, in attendance, along with her applied evolutionary psychologist husband, Nando Pelusi. We had a good start!

It turns out that connecting with Rosemarie Sokol-Chang and Sarah Strout had a particularly large benefit for NEEPS. You see, in 2007, at the same time that NEEPS started, Rose and Sarah started the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology (JSEC). At the NEEPS conference, we all agreed to have JSEC serve as the official journal of NEEPS. There! Now we even had our own journal! And JSEC (now EBS) quickly became one of the most important intellectual outlets in the field.

NEEPS Highlights Across the Past Decade

NEEPS just held a five-star conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, hosted by the formidable Maryanne Fisher. This conference, our 10th annual conference, was truly international, including scholars from such nations as New Zealand, Japan, Israel, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, the UK (and more ...) along with representation by a great number of Canadian provinces and US states. In fact, for bringing in such an international group of delegates to NEEPS, Maryanne Fisher was given a special award by the city of Halifax for being a true ambassador of that great city.

A lot has happened between New Paltz in 2007 and Halifax in 2016. Here are some of the highlights:

  • World-class keynote speakers regularly join NEEPS - and they include David Buss, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, and Marlene Zuk - to name a few.
  • JSEC changes its name to Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and is published by the American Psychological Association. Edited by Daniel O’Brien, EBS is the only journal dedicated to the evolution/behavior interface published by the APA.
  • In 2016, the first-ever meeting of the SouthEastern Evolutionary Perspectives Society (SEEPS) is organized by founding NEEPSter Chris Lynn and is held on the campus of the University of Alabama. Influenced by NEEPS, SEEPS is now looking like it’s on its way to being a major intellectual force for the expansion of evolution education.
  • Annual conferences are held in locations all around the northeast, including New Hampshire, Boston, and Pennsylvania - and conference attendance has grown steadily across the years.
  • The Feminist Evolutionary Perspectives Society (FEPS) emerges from NEEPS, leading to a strong group of scholars interested in the interface of evolution and feminism. Perhaps the most tangible product of FEPS is the major book, Evolution’s Empress, edited by long-standing NEEPSters Maryanne Fisher, Justin Garcia, and Rosemarie Sokol-Chang.
  • The Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society (AEPS - pronounced “APES!”) emerges from NEEPS, under the leadership of long-standing NEEPSter Nick Armenti and a team of others who are convinced that the work of evolutionary psychology has the capacity to shed light on important applied issues of humanity. Dan Kruger and Nick Armenti edited an entire special issue of JSEC dedicated to work in applied evolutionary psychology. Current AEPS president is world-renowned advice columnist, Amy Alkon.
  • NEEPS has been fortunate to have outstanding leadership, including (after myself as founding president) the following presidents: Rosemarie Sokol-Chang (APA), Daniel Kruger (University of Michigan), and (present) T. Joel Wade (Bucknell University).

NEEPS and the Future of Evolutionary Psychology

In the members of NEEPS (or, as long-standing NEEPSters Gordon Bear and Kilian Garvey call us, the tribe of NEEPS), I definitely found a large group of bright, passionate students and scholars who share my enthusiasm for the field of evolutionary psychology and who are willing to pitch in and take steps to ensure that this field has the support needed to continue in its mission of advancing work in the evolutionary behavioral sciences. A core element of NEEPS has always been our focus on student support. About half the attendees of NEEPS in any given year are students - and we make sure that NEEPS provides a comfortable and student-friendly environment. Toward this end, we are happy to say that students at NEEPS regularly come back. Further, there are many great success stories of NEEPS students who have advanced in their careers largely with the support provided by NEEPS (such as Laura Johnsen, who has attended every single NEEPS conference (starting in high school!) and who is now a PhD student in biological anthropology at Binghamton University).

Between the success of our journal EBS, the continued interest in our annual conference from individuals all around the world, a huge number of collaborative research projects among NEEPS members leading to all kinds of publications, and regular stories of student success that we see among NEEPS members, we are confident that NEEPS serves as the intellectual community that we sought to create when we started. And we look forward to the future successes of NEEPS as we enter our second decade of business.

When Life Gives you Lemons ...

Looking back at the story of NEEPS, I have to say that I stand in awe at what our students, colleagues, and I have created. NEEPS is one of the world’s most significant intellectual communities dedicated to the advancement of the evolution/behavior interface. And when you think about it, it came about from a large-scale effort to turn lemons into lemonade. When I started my career at New Paltz and found that there was very strong resistance to the field of evolutionary psychology, I clearly had various options in front of me. I could have quit the fight and just agreed to teach other classes and content. I could have just found some other job. But you know, in retrospect, I’m glad that I found so much resistance to the teaching of evolutionary psychology at New Paltz because I don’t think that NEEPS and all its parts would have come together otherwise.

All this said, note that I was thrilled to be recognized by my NEEPS colleagues during the tenth annual NEEPS conference (via Rosemarie Sokol-Chang and Maryanne Fisher) for my years of dedication to NEEPS with the presentation of a hand-crafted chalice set. I use it all the time!

So there’s a little life lesson in there. You might call it turning lemons into lemonade - or simply smiling at the rain. But next time someone tries to block you from following your passions and your dreams - and from what you think is right - realize that there are options. And don’t ever give up on yourself. And don’t be afraid to take chances. You’ve only got one shot here, so why not make it great?

Bottom Line

If the success of NEEPS is any indication at all, then there is a bright future for the field of evolutionary psychology on a global scale. Helping form and develop NEEPS has been a highlight in my career - and I truly look forward to seeing what the next decade brings for the little evolutionary society that could.