Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life

September 16th, 2011 Books & Publishing, The Sun Herald

Douglas E Kenrick
Basic Books

There’s a motif from philosophy about the human condition that our nature exists everywhere from the basest carnality and desire to the loftiest reaches of intellect and morality. How the two exist in the same creature has caused not just debate but considerable tension in relations from the familial to the geopolitical.

The idea behind Douglas Kenrick’s Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life is that the wildly varied mind states and drives we occupy are closely connected. For a long time after Dawkins introduced and galvanised a new generation to Darwin’s ideas it was fashionable to consider us essentially selfish, the smooth running of society arising organically out of mass competition. More recent theories claim altruism’s actually been as successful a survival strategy as rivalry.

Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life sketches a picture of those connections, how our behaviour in our own interests has combined on a global scale to produce everything from animal skins to electron microscopes.

His thesis is the result of a shift in the study of psychology in the 1970s. Traditional Freudian psychoanalysts subscribed to dark, seamy storms of conflict in adulthood as a result of our relationships in infancy, but a number of rogue researchers thought psychology was more connected with the same biology that made us leave the trees and walk upright.

This book is their manifesto — a call to update psychology with evolutionary biology. Any economist will tell you how people respond in unexpected ways in loss/gain exercises — ways that run counter to their interests. Kenrick thinks such ‘bad’ economic decisions actually point to what he calls ‘deep rationality’, an innate awareness of long term genetic success over short term personal gain.

An intriguing aspect of it is what’s called domain-specificity. The more-accepted opposite (domain generality) is the idea that there’s a corporeal ‘you’ inside your brain subject to only fleeting, shallow changes, but domain specificity allows for as seven ‘subselves’ depending on the short term likelihood of danger, good times with friends, sex and so on.

It sounds like a long bow until Kenrick reminds us about how we behave differently in different situations (you don’t speak and conduct yourself the same way with co-workers at the pub as you do with a deeply religious neighbour, other people’s children or meeting the Queen).

Just like one part of the mind recognises shapes, another colour and another sounds (but they combine to tell you it’s a kookaburra in the yard), Kenrick thinks parts of subselves arise and combine to help us navigate the social environment we find ourselves in.

Among the advantages of psychology-as-evolution is the chance to look at ourselves without political sensitivities. Nature gives us a very good reason why women are attracted to powerful men and men to younger women, even why we’re inherently racist. Very old social norms like men providing while women nurture persist no matter how much we wish they didn’t, because despite the choices society offers to break free of them, many seem to be hard wired in us.

Even though it shouldn’t distract you from the ideas, the book’s delivery is a little flawed. Kenrick talks about his own life to make his point, but he sounds like he wants to cast himself as the classic flawed genius and the anecdotes are a little irrelevant. There are a few too many hard theoretical terms you might gloss over, and he spends too long taking sides in the political battle that ensued over psychiatric research.

But he might be onto something. There’s a school of thought our history of art and self-exploration might be innately competitive to assure our individual genetic futures, so everything from cave paintings to the International Space Station might be a mating strategy. It just so happens that same strategy has given us the smarts to build a world more astonishing than those selfish genes could ever imagine.

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