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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 463-465 ( 18 October )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/demarest.html

Book Review

Human Evolutionary Psychology 
by Louise Barrett, Robin Dunbar, and John Lycett
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. ISBN: 0333725581

Reviewed by Jack Demarest, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Psychology, Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ 07764, USA.

One look at the Table of Contents and I was convinced this will be an important contribution to the growing body of textbooks in Evolutionary Psychology (EP). For the past four years, I’ve been using Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology in conjunction with Daly and Wilson’s Sex, Evolution, and Behavior (which I used alone prior to 1999) for my undergraduate EP course. I’ve also reviewed several other texts for publishers. None has the breadth, the organization and the depth that this book offers. Other textbooks focus more heavily on one theme or another most of the time. Buss’ (1999) text, for example attends heavily to decision making issues in the various domains of mate selection (e.g., attraction, sexual strategies, mate choice, mate retention, parenting, kinship), while Gaulin and McBurney’s (2001) text focuses more broadly on evolutionary cognitive psychology (e.g., sensation, perception, learning and memory, logical thought, intelligence, consciousness). I suppose no course can be all things, but it is questionable whether an EP course that relies on one of these texts really presents a balanced picture. Human Evolutionary Psychology, on the other hand, attempts to do justice to each of the many facets of EP. This book takes the reader from the politics and polemics of EP critics (and internal conflicts like the Darwinian Anthropology-Evolutionary Psychology debates in the 1990s), to the fundamentals of Darwinian thinking, to the specific issues and conceptual tools of behavioral ecology, to the variety of novel ideas produced from an evolutionary perspective in cognitive, social and developmental psychology. It is wonderfully comprehensive; exactly the sort of textbook I want for my course, or so I first thought.

This book is divided into thirteen chapters, beginning with an overview of some controversial issues and a description of differences between human behavioral ecology (HBE) and EP. Chapter 2 is a synopsis of important concepts in modern HBE, despite its somewhat misleading title (Basics of Evolutionary Theory). In my course, I include a brief overview of historical antecedents of contemporary evolutionary thinking, and a basic primer on natural selection, since I have found that many people have a fundamental misunderstanding of these notions. This would have been a useful addition to Chapter 2 (and one reason why I continue to use the Daly and Wilson textbook). Chapters 3 and 4 focus on cooperation, altruism and reciprocity, with the first chapter devoted to kinship and the second to propositions that do not require genetic relatedness (e.g., reciprocal altruism, the marginal value theorem, the “show off” hypothesis of food sharing). Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 are largely concerned with mating and reproductive effort. Chapter 5 (Mate Choice and Sexual Selection) addresses the issues of attraction and the consequences of epigamic selection. Chapter 7 concerns parental investment issues, including parent-offspring conflict, paternity uncertainty and jealousy, sibling rivalry, infanticide, and differential parental biases in sex ratio formation and the investment of time and resources (Trivers-Willard effects). Chapter 6 is devoted to life history models and issues about the allocation of resources to growth and reproduction across the lifespan. Interesting additions to the basic tenets of this perspective are discussions of the possible adaptive significance of menopause, celibacy, and homosexuality. Chapter 8 is primarily a cross cultural survey of marriage and inheritance rules, while Chapter 9 presents a traditional anthropological perspective on kinship and social groups, with additional material on the problems of freeriders, berserkers, and rapists. Chapters 10, 11, and 12 focus on the role of cognitive mechanisms in evolution. Chapter 10 reviews the Fodor/Cosmides-Tooby notion of the modular brain, with a welcome section on non-modular representations of mind (i.e., not all evolutionary psychologists are convinced that the modularity assumption is necessary and/or sufficient). There is also a small section on emotions although I think the growing concentration of research in this area (e.g., humor, fear, guilt, depression, anger and jealousy) warrants a chapter of its own. Chapter 11 (Social Cognition and its Development) introduces the reader to a number of ideas from social and developmental psychology that have not often been associated with EP. Sections of this chapter discuss intentionality (oddly, without any reference to Dennett), social referencing, and children’s play. There is a long section on autism, as well as several pages on the role of the cerebral cortex in social tasks. Chapter 12 concerns the evolution of language and meaning. The first part of this chapter is a discussion of several ideas about why language and speech evolved, and there is even a section on ancient and modern languages. The second part of this chapter focuses on social functions of language, with a good deal of attention paid to social gossip, social contracts, and Miller’s Scheherazade hypothesis. The final chapter of this book addresses issues about cultural evolution, including the role of language in the transmission of culture. There is a brief treatment of the ways in which culture is transmitted across generations, and Dawkins’ notion of the meme is introduced. There is an interesting but short section on the local adaptive value of cultural rules including dialects and cognate words. Several pages are devoted to a comparison of various mathematical models of cultural evolution, omitting the technical math and highlighting the basic arguments. Here we find a treatment of the Lumsden-Wilson idea that culture and the brain are the products of a co-evolutionary process, each driving the other. We also read about models of cultural evolution based on the co-joint fitness of phenotype and genotype (i.e., phenogenotype co-evolutionary models). Finally, the dual inheritance model of Boyd and Richerson is described. The book ends with a few pages discussing group selection as a mechanism of cultural change. There is no summation or argument for a unified psychological science like that found in other texts (e.g., Buss, 1999).

Thirteen chapters, a useful number for a one semester course spread across the same number of weeks. Of course, it is difficult to imagine covering the material in each chapter in one week. Chapter 2, for example (Basics of Evolutionary Theory) includes such novel and often difficult to grasp concepts for students as the selfish gene, genomic imprinting, individual versus inclusive fitness, kinship and coefficients of relatedness, game theory and evolutionarily stable strategies, parental investment and parent offspring conflict, and the varieties of sexual selection. I’m almost six weeks into my EP course and I’ve spent much of this time describing, explaining and discussing the ideas that the authors pack into the first two chapters. In the Preface, the authors describe their rationale for the text. They note some of their students’ academic limitations and that the impetus behind this book was the need for a text sufficiently broad to cover each authors’ interests without requiring “students to tackle the primary literature head-on.” I’ve had the same experience and share this concern, and I’m sure it is a sentiment common to EP instructors at most institutions. Undergraduate psychology students often have little background in biology, much less population thinking and math modeling. It takes time for them to process this information and understand the concepts and issues. They typically require concrete examples; they often need to be taken step by step through the subtleties of a polygyny threshold model or the Hawk-Dove game and the resulting ESS. Sometimes the concepts must be dramatized in some way to enable these students to extract the meaning from these abstractions. Video, still images, interesting stories… this is what it takes to make an idea memorable to my students. But there are no attention-getting photographs or drawings in this textbook and not one swatch of color. There is little in the way of conversational language, and almost no humor or pathos. The book is written at a relatively high level of discourse, and it cuts across disciplines and assumes the reader can easily follow. My students would certainly have difficulty with much of it. The problem with this book is that there is so much packed into each chapter, and it is all presented as text and graphical functions, and it is written in a style that professionals employ but that students have not yet mastered. For an undergraduate, this book is intimidating.

Will this become the textbook of choice for EP courses? I doubt it. But it is not because the author’s failed to do the job they set out to do. It is well organized, comprehensive, and fluent. It has a 5 page glossary, and a marvelously detailed index. Even the Table of Contents contains an outline of each chapter. This is a wonderful book, and if you’ve got talented students and a talented professor to bring some memorable drama to these pages, this is the best EP textbook on the market. It is certainly the most comprehensive. However, in the next edition I hope the authors will take a tip from one of my favorite textbooks, John Alcock’s Animal Behavior, and attend to the teaching tools Alcock employs, including the use of humor, expressivities, color and informative photos, that bring a textbook alive.

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© Jack Demarest.


Demarest, J. (2002). Review of Human Evolutionary Psychology by Louise Barrett, Robin Dunbar, and John Lycett. Human Nature Review. 2: 463-465.

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