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Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity Are Revolutionizing Our View of Human Natur [Audiobook] [Audio CD]

Douglas T. Kenrick , Fred Stella
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

26 April 2011
The founder of social evolutionary psychology - known as much for his outsized personality as for his brilliance - gives us a singular tour of the human mind. In "Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life", social psychologist Douglas Kenrick integrates cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and the science of complexity to paint a fuller picture than ever before of the simple and selfish rules that govern our lives, influencing how we seek friendships, status, and self-protection; how we choose mates; how we raise children - and even how we shop for a car. But such rules needn't make selfish or simple people. Out of their interaction emerge the patterned and complex societies and people we see, and all the one-night stands, racial prejudices, self-serving nepotism, porn addictions, artistic creativity, economic consumption, religion, and politics that a gregarious species can handle. Many books on evolutionary psychology seem to suggest that, because we are apes, we can't be expected to do anything but act like them. By exploring the nuance of social psychology and the surprising results of his own work, Kenrick gives a much fuller picture of what makes us caring, creative, and complex-that is, fully human. Illuminated with stories from Kenrick's eventful and colorful life, "Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of life" is an exploration of our biological inheritance, our mental biases and failures, and our mind's great successes.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product details

  • Audio CD
  • Publisher: Highbridge Company; Unabridged edition (26 April 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1611744431
  • ISBN-13: 978-1611744439
  • Product Dimensions: 15 x 13 x 1.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,135,849 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"(Douglas Kenrick's) tour of human behaviour is breezy and engaging...a book that debunks our intuitive justifications for our behaviour will not fail to entertain."

--The New Scientist

"(an) entertaining compilation of psychology experiments... Kenrick, unlike many popularizing authors, displays a fine scientific modesty and generosity to the reader in pointing out where different explanations are possible. I particularly like his suggestion to think of the mind not as a `blank slate' but as a `coloring book'. I think mine's full of purple dinosaurs."

--The Guardian --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Douglas Kenrick is Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University. He serves as a member of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society executive council, and has published over 150 scientific articles, books (including Social Psychology, now in its fifth edition), and book chapters (in the Handbook of Social Psychology and the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology), the majority applying evolutionary ideas to human behavior and thought processes. Much of his work has been funded by NIMH and NSF and has been reported in highly prestigious journals, including Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Psychological Review, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and Evolution and Human Behavior, in addition to being covered in national media, including Newsweek, the New York Times, and Psychology Today. Kenrick lives in Tempe, Arizona. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Hux
Format:Hardcover
The stereotypical "scientist" uses fancy and expensive equipment to learn about distant and microscopic things. Evolutionary social psychologists--who attempt to understand nothing less than the human mind--have made an impressive number of discoveries with pen-and-paper questionnaires and simple experiments run on desktop computers. These discoveries are changing the face of social science, radically altering how we understand ourselves and our societies. This book offers a nice summary of those exciting discoveries, made mostly within the last 10 years. And it's an entertaining read.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  32 reviews
34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A real primer on Evolutionary Psychology 13 May 2011
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
For those who have ever read E. O. Wilson's classic book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition (or maybe On Human Nature: Revised Edition), then I suppose you could consider Professor Kenrick's book somewhat of an updated version. It's a real primer on evolutionary psychology. Having been familiar with evolutionary psychology, I thought that there might not be anything very interesting in Prof. Kenrick's book, but I was dead wrong. In fact, I think quite the opposite now. To be honest though, I didn't really get into the book until about half-way; however, once I got to about Ch. 7, I was hooked. Several things that I really enjoyed were: 1) Kenrick's discussion of the need to update Abraham Maslow's famous Hierarchy of Needs, 2) the `reproductive religiosity model' which looks at the difference between Conservatives and Liberals as a difference in mating strategies, and 3) the brief, but important, discussion on the connection between dynamical systems theory and evolutionary psychology.

I realize that there are some people out there who continue to insist that evolutionary psychology is bogus and consequently not their cup of tea, but I would challenge them to read Prof. Kenrick's book and find a better - more rational - theory of human nature than evolutionary psychology. I would also venture to say that Kenrick is definitely one of the better spokespersons for it. By the end of the book I was really at home with his laid-back, breezy, and humorous style of writing. I also appreciated the brevity with which he covered the topics; he covered many issues. For instance, Modularity of the Mind (Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind), the Prisoner's Dilemma (SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed), Decision Making (Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious), and our Basic Human Needs (The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice).

Lastly, as far as an answer to the Meaning of Life question, Prof. Kenrick has really hit the nail on the head when he writes, "I am not suggesting that we all ought to go forth and multiply, ignoring the problem of overpopulation, or that you rush out to make five hundred new Facebook "friends." What I am suggesting instead is that you let yourself enjoy the natural pleasures of taking care of the intimate associates you already have. You can regard time spent with family and friends as a distraction from the central task of life, or you can slow down and let your brain's social mechanisms savior the experiences." I think that's pretty sound advice. I highly recommend this book.

Here is a quick run-down of the chapters: Ch. 1 - Standing in the Gutter: How did an innocent young student accidentally fall in with a band of intellectual revolutionaries?; Ch. 2 - Why Playboy is Bad for Your Mental Mechanisms: When is beauty bad for you?; Ch. 3 - Homicidal Fantasies: Why have most of us had at least one fantasy about committing murder; Ch. 4 - Outgroup Hatred in the Blink of an Eye: Why can't we all just get along; Ch. 5 - The Mind as a Coloring Book: Why doesn't cultural variation support the blank-slate view of the mind? Ch. 6 - Subselves: The three faces of thee; Ch. 7 - Reconstructing Maslow's Pyramid: Where are the missing bricks in the classic pyramid of needs?; Ch. 8 - How the Mind Warps: Why do men and women forget different people and regret different things?; Ch. 9 - Peacocks, Porsches, and Pablo Picasso:Why do men go out of their way to avoid a Consumer Reports Best Buy?; Ch. 10 - Sex and Religion: When is godliness just another mating strategy?; Ch. 11 - Deep Rationality and Evolutionary Economics: Why are behavioral economists only half right when they say that our economic choices are irrational?; and Ch. 12 - Bad Crowds, Chaotic Attractors, and Humans as Ant: Why your parents were right about the company you keep.
47 of 56 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Intellectually Disappointing 26 Jun 2011
By Pete Saueracker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life by Douglas Kenrick anticipating a good read. I was sorely disappointed. Knowing nothing about the intricacies of evolutionary psychology, the topic of his book, I had no axes to grind in contrasting it with behaviorism, psychoanalysis, social psychology or any other pedagogy. I was open to any conclusions Kenrick might advance if they were adequately supported by scientific testing and experimentation. While some of the book did, indeed, provide this, sadly, too much of it did not.

The book opens with the results of some of Kenrick's own experimental results combined with that of other evolutionary psychologists, particularly in the field of the differing motivations men and women experience when it comes to sex and aggression. Men are looking for physical sex that leads to feelings of intimacy and women are looking for intimacy that might lead to sex. Further, Kenrick's experiments show that women think of killing fellow human beings almost as much as men do, 68% to 76%. Interesting so far, with some reservations about the quality of the data.

But from there, everything goes down hill. Kenrick starts drawing wild conclusions from additional data that is far more circumspect in its meaning. He claims that male creative accomplishment, such as in the fields of poetry or music is purely an endeavor to enhance the chances of having sex with women. He simply ignores that only a very small percentage of men even persue such activities, let alone are good at them. He ignores that most creative men get married and have children. This, he claims shifts their evolutionary motivation to that of monogamous relationship building and successful child rearing, which insures the passage of their DNA on to another generation, their grandchildren. Yet despite being married with children, creative men don't stop creating and keep producing their art into their dotage. Kenrick does not address this counter evolutionary paradox, let alone attempt an explanation, only one of many such inconsistencies that go unaddressed in his book.

He also stops examining women's evolutionary motivations through much of the book after the first two or three chapters or, worse, simply ascribes to them the same evolutionary imperative (having lots of sex) as men, without any experimental evidence to support the position.

I was very disappointed in Kenrick's work and found that I had to force myself to read the last few chapters. His claims and conclusions had become so wild and unsupported by that point that they had devolved into nothing more than the types of assertions made by a bevy of drunks at the bar. I expected a more scholarly and well-supported approach to the topic of why we humans do what we do. Kenrick did not provide that here. I have an extensive home library of books I have bought and read over the years. I ended up giving Kenrick's book away. I felt it was largely worthless, not worthy of a place on my bookshelf, one that I would have been better not buying.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read For So Many Reasons 9 May 2011
By A Midwest Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is one of those nice hybrids of biography and scientific research. Kenrick is a well known social psychologist and one of the founders of evolutionary psychology. In this book, he talks about personal experiences that led him to ponder different aspects of the meaning of life, and the rather clever experiments he conducted to understand those questions. For example, in one chapter, he describes the vividly painful "flashbulb" memory of hearing about his brother's death alongside a much more pleasant flashbulb memory (of a three-way kiss with two attractive women). That leads into a series of interesting experimental findings on the different kinds of holes in men's and women's memories. In a later chapter, he opens up with Catechism lessons from nuns and the conflict between being a Catholic teenager and his prurient interests in the beautiful girls in church. He moves from there to some fascinating studies on the links between sex and religion (for example, in one study, he and his colleagues found that seeing a lot of good-looking members of your own sex increases your tendency to say you believe in God).

His first chapter talks about how people are often hostile to thinking about humans as animals, and quotes Oscar Wilde's statement that "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." The general outline of the book starts out in the gutter, with chapters on sex, violence, and racial prejudices, and moves toward the stars, with later chapters on economic decision-making, artistic creativity, self-actualization, religion, and culture.

Along the way, Kenrick does a nice job of weaving together ideas from evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and complexity theory to show how all these things are connected, and how they all help us understand the meaning of life. In the last chapter, he talks about how going on Oprah Winfrey's show and thinking about his relationships with two sons (one an adult, one a young child), led him to think about what all this research says about how to live a more meaningful life.

The book delivers on the author's promise to combine Steven Pinker, Anthony Bourdain, and Douglas Adams. It's funny, profound, and intellectually engaging.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and Cogent Review of Current Evolutionary Psychology! 29 Jun 2011
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Thirty or so years ago, some folks in the field of psychology began looking at insights from biology, wondering if human behavior might be best explained using a Darwinian adaptationistic model. Our author, Robert Kenrick, was a student at the time and has since gone on to work in the frontiers of this new field - evolutionary psychology. And while applying Darwinian reasoning to human behavior is not nearly as taboo as it was years ago, there is still much resistance to the idea that such things as artistic impulses, altruism, impulses to violence, etc, have their roots in the genetic adaptations of our pre-human ancestors.

But here is a book that offers a defense and overview of this field of evolutionary psychology. In very entertaining prose, Robert Kenrick gives us chapters exploring the latest theories and knowledge about how humans behave in different situations, and why evolutionary accounts of why we do so make sense. About a quarter of the book - sprinkled throughout various chapters - is a bit of autobiography, both about Kenrick's very atypical (for an academic) upbringing, and his trials, tribulations, and excitements as a student in the then-taboo field of evolutionary psychology. Most of the book's chapters are devoted to recounting studies that Kenrick and others have done exploring such questions as to what extent humans can differentiate faces of races that aren't their own, when and why males get violent when there seems to be little to gain from doing so, and other human quirks.

Here is a taste. Chapter 2 ("Why Playboy is Bad for Your Mental Mechanism") explores who men and women tend to be attracted to, and in particular, who they notice in crowded rooms. First off, it should come as no surprise that men notice hot women in crowded rooms, but it may be more surprising to note that women do too (men, for mating reasons; women, probably for comparison reasons). And both men and women not only notice, but remember the faces of, the attractive women they pick out in the crowd. Women, on the other hand, will also notice handsome men in crowds, but do not generally remember their faces later. And why is Playboy bad for your mental mechanism? Because looking at too many attractive women seems to decrease physical attraction to women who fall short of that standard of beauty - the ones that exist somewhere other than Playboy.

Another interesting chapter is Chapter 4 ("Outgroup Hatred in the Blink of an Eye"), which demonstrates that, and why, we are often good at facial recognition of our own "group" but bad at recognizing faces of the "other." Most of us, I think, know about studies that show humans having a harder time distinguishing between faces of other races than faces of their own race. But, there is more. We also tend to be more acutely aware of negative facial expressions (particularly threatening ones) on the faces of other races than those of our own, to the point where we sometimes impute negative (again, threatening) emotions onto those faces that are not really there. Why? The evolutionary explanation is roughly that, over evolutionary history, one faced much more danger from those in the "outgroup" than those in the "ingroup" and, likely, our ancestors that were sensitive to negative facial expressions of those not in their group were probably better able to survive than those who weren't.

Chapter 6 ("Subselves") is devoted to arguing against the old behavioristic idea that human action, and particularly, social action, was explainable in very general terms - that we act roughly the same way with the same motives whether talking to our children, a potential mate, a friend, or someone we are trying to impress socially. Kenrick champions a modular model of the mind, arguing that we have evolved seperate 'modules' to deal with separate social situations that each have a 'logic' different from the others. Courting a potential mate involves different skills and a different mentality than holding onto a mate we already have, and what, and why, we do for children is quite different than what, and why, we will do for a neighbor we are trying to impress. And short of some really vague heuristic like "everything we do, we do so that we can survive and get our genes passed on," these different modules and their ways of behaving aren't really reducible to one standard rule-set. (Anyone interested in further discussion of the idea of the modular mind might also check out Kurzban's Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind. There is FAR more to the story than I've given here.)

While Kenrick - and other evolutionary psychologists - take delight in showing us those areas of human behavior that just don't seem to make any sense from a 'rational' perspective, Kenrick finishes by discussing why seemingly irrational behavior actually seems a bit more rational when we think about our evolutionary histories. The idea, after all, behind evolutionary psychology is that our impulses, drives, and even reasoning ability, is the product of evolutionary history, which is quite slow-acting. Thus, we are 'hardwired' for a world that existed thousands upon thousands of years ago, and evolution hasn't quite caught us up to the world of today. So, when males get into bar fights when there is seemingly nothing to gain from it, this is because the male mind is the product of a world where defending one's reputation was a way to gain mating success. And when humans value protection from loss more than equivalent gain, this is because we evolved in a world where losing what one had could push one into starvation, famine, etc, while gaining an equivalent amount had a comparatively diminished utility.

One thing to note is that Kenrick doesn't devote much time to defending the view that our brains and modules therein are evolutionary adaptations. He assumes that the interested reader already agrees with him on this point. Readers interested in a defense of applying principles of evolution to psychology might want to read Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature or the first few chapters of Evolutionary Psychology: A Beginner's Guide (Beginners Guide (Oneworld)).

Really, this is a very good book. The critics below are correct that the author never really gets around to tying everything together to the "meaning of life" part of his title, other than to say that knowing these things about humans can enhance our view of what it means to be human. But, I was not really looking for that. I was looking for a good and readable summary of the latest in evolutionary psychology. And that is what I got.
19 of 25 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Falls Short of Title 6 Jun 2011
By T. A. Lepczyk - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
When a baseball player steps up to the plate and wags his bat at the wall past outfield, it's a sign. Next pitch is a homerun. When someone, in this case, Douglas Kenrick, entitles a book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life it's the literary equivalent of holding a bat straight out to the centerfield wall.

The introduction begins, "You and I have probably never met, but you might be shocked to learn how well we know one another and how intimately our lives are connected." Kenrick goes on to say, "this is a book about the biggest question we can ask: What is the meaning of life?" However, he explores questions regarding the choices people make and how evolution may play into those decisions, without really addressing the meaning of life, or the other question he brings up, "How can I live a more meaningful life?" Instead, as if he were ready for critic's comments, Kenrick states, "Despite what you might have read in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, first impressions can be misleading. If you do a blink-style speed-read of this book, you might think it is mostly about me...But if you keep reading, I am pretty sure you'll discover that this book is really about you, your family, and your friends and about the important decisions you confront every day."

It feels like Kenrick is putting the onus on the reader. If you think the book is about me, obviously you are not a close reader, obviously you skimmed my book. Balance those sentences with the powerful title and warning signs may begin to flare. In my experience, books are skimmed because they are not engaging. Let's look at the sentences with some modifications. "If you do a blink-style speed-read of this book, you may think I am not an engaging writer. But if you keep reading, I'm pretty sure you'll discover that this book is worth it." It's hard to get past "but if you keep reading." As I thought about it, my main impulse was to say, "But if you keep reading, I'm pretty sure you'll discover that this book is not really engaging."

Stripped away, Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life is a book centered around the author and his interests. The writing trends toward creating a persona of a New York City kid turned intellectual but still with his folksy, blue-collar charm. It comes across feeling as fabricated as Hillary Clinton having a shot of whiskey with rural constituents. Someone may say a scientist researches their interests, and thus Kenrick's interests are really the foundation of his research. That may be the case, but I didn't find Kenrick's interests and research too interesting. Instead, the tone of the book is soapbox. He's not looking to help people have a more meaningful life, but is defending evolutionary psychology against critics. Moreover, he is supplanting structure with stories from his life.

Overall, I came away having learned some concepts of evolutionary and cognitive psychology, but it was at a cost. The cost was wading through a tiresome narrative from a writer who loves spinning yarns, but is not a good storyteller nor an engaging writer. The cost was being placed in the middle of a brawl between a defensive scientist and the status quo without a background in experimental design. The cost was a writer who was ready to turn on his reader in the first few pages of the introduction. With a title like Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life, the reader expects a homerun and deserves at least a double play. Kenrick displayed his personality with a catchy title, then left the crowd disappointed with a grounder skittering along the infield dirt.
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