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.