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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 215-219 ( 5 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/eehb.html

Book Review

Evolutionary Explanations of Human Behaviour
by John H. Cartwright
Routledge, 2001

Reviewed by Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, Nordfjord Psychiatric Center, N-6770 NORDFJORDEID, Norway.

As evolutionary psychology continues to become a natural part of any modern presentation of academic psychology, the quest has started for a good textbook that is both readable, up to date and representative of the field. For some that quest was short-lived as Buss (1999), the major liaison between mainstream academia and mainstream evolutionary psychology (EP), wrote his textbook. Then again, all do not agree with this choice (see for example Wilson, 1999). For others Gaulin & McBurney (2001) solved the problem, by rewriting the classical psychology introduction text in the name of EP. I am currently pondering which of these two books I would recommend as curriculum. Although Buss’ book maybe is a little too influenced by his special interests, I probably would choose it.

But there are alternatives - and Cartwright has with his nifty little paperback entered the scene. I had prior to reading his book heard some very positive comments about it from other psychologists interested in evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. Custance (2002) has reviewed Cartwright’s more advanced and larger book Evolution and Human Behaviour and her conclusion was that there was much to recommend his book, but that it might be a little too difficult for first year undergraduates. The current book is probably the alternative - but I am not sure that it is a good alternative, although it is accessible.

A short summary

The book consists of 194 pages, 9 chapters. It is written first and foremost to be an accessible and easily read introduction to evolutionary psychology. After a general introduction to evolutionary theory the book presents three major themes: human mating behaviour and sexual selection, evolutionary psychopathology and the evolution of the human brain and intelligence. The last chapter is a specific study aid, for improving essay writing skills.

The book contains a glossary, references and an index.

There are a few mistakes in some of the tables and a few spelling mistakes in the text and references.

Major contribution

The book is written as part of a comparative psychology module. As such it presents a pretty good attempt at presenting both an evolutionary as well as a comparative approach to human psychology. Sometimes it seems that the author wishes to distance his approach from mainstream EP - and the name ”Darwinian psychology” is used several times. This is not a consistent use of terminology, and there is no obvious reason why the author should wish to distance himself from mainstream EP. Neither does he discuss such a potential schism.

Geoffrey Miller (2000) has called for an EP that to a larger degree focuses on sexual selection as a description of why humans have large brains, and with the dual focus of sexual selection and brain size and intelligence Miller might be quite satisfied with this book.

The book is short, and mostly well written. Most of the time this is a good presentation of mainstream EP. As I will discuss below, though, this is not the consistent image.

Also, the book offers exercises and a specific chapter on essay writing, so that students wishing to improve their grade may have good reason to choose this book.

Oh, where, oh, where have the major theoreticians gone? (Surprise #1)

One interesting feature of any text is the literature the author chooses to refer to. And, of course, further reading, when that is an important part of the book, such as this one.

I am quite a mainstream Cosmides/Tooby style evolutionary psychologist. I am aware that there are several different approaches that may be taken - I like rigorous theory building. EP, I find, may be at least three different things:

Tooby and Cosmides’ stringent, rigorous theory.

A more loose approach consisting of any evolutionary approach to the study of any animals’ behaviour, including humans. This includes more variation than the first category - it is not less scientific, but theory-building may be hampered by the greater variation of approach.

Popularised versions, which are more speculative than academic.

Cartwright bases his book on all three, but he refers mostly to authors from the last two categories. Still, in general he uses concepts (like the EEA) and ideas typical of Cosmides and Tooby’s contributions to EP.

Cartwright surprises, or to be honest he shocks me, by almost totally avoiding mentioning Cosmides and Tooby, not listing a single of their papers in the references, and misrepresenting them in the few sentences he offers on them. It may be worth noting that Steven Pinker neither made it to the references - this may be less shocking, but still rather surprising.

It is the analogy (or metaphor, which may be a better description and solve some confusion) of the Swiss Army knife that Cartwright finds worth mentioning - but he warns (p. 100); “Despite the appeal of the Swiss army knife model of mental modules of archetypes discussed earlier, it would obviously be wrong to suppose that the mind arrives on the world stage fully formed.” When discussing mental modules previously he warned that modules are less independent than tools on a penknife - this may have been a splendid opportunity to present Pinker’s (1997) mainstream EP view of modules.

I believe Tooby and Cosmides would be surprised to hear that they should believe that the mind is born fully formed. They too are quite explicit in their major essay (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992) that this is a misunderstanding of the idea of “innate”.

I am aware that everyone within EP does not share my appreciation of this specific approach to EP. On the other hand, I doubt many would decide to not include Leda Cosmides, John Tooby or Steven Pinker in an introduction to evolutionary psychology.

An odd choice (Surprise #2)

The book presents three evolutionary approaches to human behaviour. The two first themes are sexual selection and human sexual behaviour and human brain evolution and intelligence - which are not the most typical areas of interest within mainstream EP. The third theme of this book is evolutionary psychopathology. This was quite a surprise. I find that this a most interesting choice, it is my favourite subject - but it is hardly the major area within EP. Had I written the book myself, as a clinician, I would have liked to include evolutionary psychopathology, but I would only do so if the book already contained a lot more on social psychology and cognitive psychology.

What is odd therefore is that the presentation of evolutionary psychopathology is so shallow. Major references are lacking - more work by Nesse and Marks would have been expected. Also there is quite a lot of interesting work on depression and evolution that was not touched. Thus a more updated and coherent picture may have been presented.

In the end the two chapters on evolutionary psychopathology end up being the most critical of the scientific value of an evolutionary approach - as many of the hypotheses presented are claimed to be difficult to test. I am quite sure that these hypotheses are currently being tested in many studies - why Cartwright thinks these are difficult hypotheses to test, is therefore unclear. Also, I think a more thorough reading of behavioural genetics might have improved this chapter. As these chapters stand, I am quite unsure what a student would gather from them.

Major misreading (Surprise #3)

Recently Andy Neher posted to the evolutionary psychology list (link) the first draft of an article aiming to present EP. There Neher wrote that:

Familial abuse. The most cited research on this topic was conducted by Daly and Wilson (1988), who showed that stepfathers are much more likely to abuse and even kill their stepchildren than their biological children. There are at least two problems with this research and the way it has been interpreted: (a) The usual interpretation among EPs is that an adaptive module has evolved that predisposes a father (the abusive parent is usually the male) to be abusive toward a child with whom he has no genetic, and therefore fitness, involvement.

This provoked reactions from Pascal Bercker (link) and myself. I have also recently found this same mistake in an article for which I am writing an invited commentary (Kennair, in press). I find it quite troubling therefore to find Cartwright (p. 80) making a similar mistake:

This brutal side of our past [the new dominant male killing the infants of his previous rival, thus bringing the females back into oestrus, and ensuring that energy is not wasted on children that are not his own] may have left its mark on modern humans. The evolutionary psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have found that the risk of infanticide for a stepchild is 100 times higher than for a child with natural parents (Daly and Wilson, 1988). It is perhaps not surprising then that infant humans are often afraid of strangers. The fearful and often tearful reaction of a 1-year-old child when a strange male approaches may be a relic of our brutal past.

First, it is not obvious that humans have used such a strategy. Thereafter, Wilson and Daly’s research does not support the conclusion. The number “100 times” looks large, but one has to remember that the vast majority of stepchildren are NOT murdered! Last, if tears are displayed, and this is an adaptation, then the tears must be a cue that is expected to trigger a sympathy-response from the possible aggressor…

Having read Daly and Wilson (1988) it seems impossible to make this mistake. They anticipate that readers might jump to the wrong conclusion, and get quite explicit on how one shall not understand what they mean, and how one ought to read their results. Their position is NOT that stepfathers have adaptations to kill stepchildren, rather stepchildren do not trigger adaptations evolved to prevent fathers from harming genetic children.

This is what Daly and Wilson (1988, p. 83) write:

Substitute parents will generally tend to care less profoundly for children than natural parents... Parental investment is a precious resource, and selection must favor those parental psyches that do not squander it on nonrelatives… Child-specific parental love is the emotional mechanism that permits people to tolerate - even to rejoice in - those long years of expensive, unreciprocated parental investment. Substitute parents are less likely than a natural parent to experience the emotional rewards that make the costs of parenthood tolerable.

The following quote from Daly and Wilson (1998, pp. 37-8) ought to put straight that the context Cartwright chooses for referring to Daly and Wilson is also misunderstood:

Human beings are not like langurs or lions. We know that 'sexually selected infanticide' is not a human adaptation because men, unlike male langurs and lions, do not routinely, efficiently dispose of their predecessors' young. ... Quite unlike the situation in langurs or lions, human stepfamilies exist in all societies, and most stepchildren survive them.

One may only hope that people who shall present EP actually do read EP originals… reading other authors’ renderings of EP often ends up in misrepresentation. I am not claiming that Neher or Cartwright have not read the original - how should I know?! - I am saying: the reader who reads their version is not going to get the right idea. That is probably bad enough. For the reader who cannot easily get hold of Daly and Wilson (1988) maybe Daly and Wilson (2001) is more available, as it is freely available on the internet.


Initially I liked the book. The format was handy for travel, the writing good. Alas, this first impression did not last the full few chapters of the book. The book ends up being a little too odd for my liking. The approach of focusing on evolutionary psychopathology as a major topic is interesting - but as a clinician I was not struck by the author’s grasp of the field. Also, the very strange exclusion of references to the work of Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Steven Pinker opens for the possibility that a student may complete a course on EP and not actually have heard of these theoreticians. That is, no matter what appraisal one may have of their work, not good enough. Finally, the quality of the work varies too much - from some of the most lucid and graspable descriptions of mainstream EP to uncritical renderings of popular science EP or downright false representation of critical ideas.

These mistakes or odd representations of EP ideas are surprising - according to those who have read Cartwright’s “Evolution and Human Behaviour” or are familiar with his work, they are not typical of his general understanding of the field.

All in all these problems turn what had the potential to be a wonderfully short and clear introduction to EP into a confused attempt. I am quite sure, though, that these problems may be solved in later editions with minimal peer feedback, rewriting and editing. I think there is a market for this book - at least as long as we are kept waiting for Cosmides and Tooby’s promised short summary of EP.


Thanks to Gary Brase, University of Sunderland, for the Daly and Wilson (1988) quotation. Thanks to Oliver Curry, London School of Economics, for the Daly and Wilson (1998) reference and quotation. Thanks to Jukka-Pekka Takala, Finnish National Council for Crime Prevention, for the Daly and Wilson (2001) online reference.


Custance, D. (2002). Book review: Evolution and Human Behaviour by John Cartwright. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 23, 151-153.

Buss, D. M. (1999). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1998). The truth about Cinderella: A Darwinian view of parental love. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (2001). An assessment of some proposed exceptions to the phenomenon of nepotistic discrimination against stepchildren. Annales Zoologici Fennici, 38, 287-296. (Retrieved from here on May 9th 2002).

Gaulin, S. J. C., & McBurney, D. (2001). Psychology: An Evolutionary Approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kennair, L. E. O. (in press). Kan en anti-biologisk, biologisk agnostisk eller biologisk naiv filosofi beskrive menneskets natur?/ Can an anti-biological, biologically agnostic or biologically naive philosophy describe human nature? Impuls - The Psychology Journal of the University of Oslo.

Miller, G. (2000). The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. London: Vintage.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. Harmondsworth, UK: The Penguin Press

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psycho-logical foundations of culture. In J.H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 19-136). New York, NY: Ox-ford University Press.

Wilson, D.S. (1999) . Tasty slice -- but where is the rest of the pie? Review of Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind by David M. Buss. Evolution and Human Behavior, 20, 279-87.

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© Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair.


Kennair, L. E. O. (2002). Review of Evolutionary Explanations of Human Behaviour by John H. Cartwright. Human Nature Review. 2: 215-219.

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