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An interview with a founder of evolutionary psychology

Leda Cosmides on the birth of evolutionary psychology

Leda Cosmides is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met.  She has had a profound impact on the field of psychology.  Her dissertation research, on the evolutionary logic of social exchange, which was published in the journal Cognition, has been cited 1886 times, according to Google Scholar. The same program of research was also the centerpiece of her chapter in The Adapted Mind, and that chapter alone has been cited 2116 times (a rather impressive figure for a book chapter, since most of them disappear in complete anonymity).  She is also coauthor of several other works with her husband, John Tooby, which have been cited over 1000 times each.  There are many more such papers on their way to stardom, and her lab continues to break new ground.  Any single one of these papers would allow a typical academic to feel proud of a successful career…. 

And yet, Leda and her equally brilliant husband, John Tooby, came very close to not having academic careers at all.  Despite the fact that they both had Ph.D.’s from Harvard, where they had been mentored by the world class evolutionary biologists Robert Trivers and E.O. Wilson, and by the great anthropologist Irven DeVore, they both had a stunningly hard time getting academic jobs.  Indeed, five years passed between Leda’s now classic dissertation research, and her first job (the same one she has now, at UC Santa Barbara).

How could that have happened? 

Leda tells her story in an interview that was filmed at a recent meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.  It includes several things I found surprising, including the way B.F. Skinner indirectly influenced her as a teenager.

The interview is one of a series that Catherine Salmon and Barry Kuhle conducted with several of the founders of the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology (not the same thing, as Leda explains in her interview).  They also interviewed several of the other intellectual revolutionaries who helped bring modern evolutionary ideas to psychology, anthropology, and biology, including Napoleon Chagnon, Martin Daly, Sarah Hrdy, Bobbi Low, John Tooby, Randy Thornhill, David Buss, Bill Irons, Mark Flinn, and Steven Pinker.  I have seen a couple of these interviews, and found them fascinating.  I am hoping they’ll put more up soon.  But you can check out Leda Cosmides’ interview now.  

P.S. I was doubly delighted that, rather than just slap together a bunch of amateur Skype interviews (complete with fish-eye shadowy lighting and noisy audio tracks), Catherine and Barry arranged for the organization to hire my son, film-maker David Lundberg Kenrick, to get professional footage (with absolutely no nepotistic input from me incidentally).  A secondary benefit of this twist was that Dave got to hear all these now distinguished folks talk about the difficulties they encountered applying evolutionary ideas to human behavior.  This led him to admit to me that he now thought perhaps I hadn’t just been whining over nothing for all these years! 


Douglas T. Kenrick is the author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature. Now available in paperback (and in German, Chinese, and Korean, though I haven't quite verified the translations!).  His new book: The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think (coauthored by Vlad Griskevicius, and available for pre-order on Amazon) will be out this month!  


Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L. E., & Tooby, J. E. (1992). The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Oxford University Press.

Cosmides, L. (1989). The logic of social exchange: Has natural selection shaped how humans reason? Studies with the Wason selection task. Cognition, 31(3), 187-276.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive adaptations for social exchange. The adapted mind, 163-228.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1995). The psychological foundations of culture. The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, 19-136.