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on 27 February 2011
According to Evolutionary psychology the human brain is the product of evolution and natural selection.

Indeed, according to evolutionary psychology - Evolution shapes everything: Hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys, immune systems etc. and even cognition.
Sure, evolution might seem very impersonal and materialistic. Still, according to evolutionary psycholoy, it was evolution that ended up giving us all of our human feelings and thoughts. Evolution might be the story of the selfish gene, but evolution might also tell us something about how we learned to work together. Even altruism can be explained with the help of evolutionary ideas (i.e. kin selection and reciprocity might help us to understand how nonselfish social traits, such as altruism, could arise).

Some critics argue that evolutionary psychology hypotheses are difficult or impossible to test. Still, all in all I find the book persuasive - and certainly an interesting read.

-Simon
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on 7 July 2010
Establishing any kind of physical connection between monkeys and men was bad enough for some of Darwin's contemporaries, but at least men (and perhaps women) had souls gifted by God, or so it was widely believed. Today, it's the thought of evolution intruding into our minds that gives many the creeps, even those who have no truck with silly things like eternal souls. How can an impersonal and materialistic algorithmic grind possibly result in human feeling and thought in all their splendid variety? Why does a mother love her child? Why does she sometimes kill her child? As these kinds of questions escalate in impertinence, it often seems we either already know the answer or we just don't want to know. For anyone curious about the actual claims of this fascinating and important branch of science, or just curious to see what some of the fuss is about, this beginner's guide is a great starting place. Robin Dunbar, the lead author, is an evolutionary psychologist who also happens to be one of our best science writers. Our ancestral environment, our social brains, our language and culture, our ability to tell stories about ourselves and about both real and imagined worlds, our religion or lack of it - all make up our human nature and matter to who we are now, and evolutionary psychology can contribute to an understanding of each of these aspects of ourselves.

The phrase "gene for" ought to come with a health warning. It's one thing to have brown eyes because of a gene, but to be moved by pictures of children orphaned by an earthquake on the other side of the world? How can our most complex behaviours, our thoughts, our moods, our deepest emotions and life decisions possibly be controlled by a bunch of genes? They can't, and no evolutionary psychologist claims that they can. In one of the earliest sections - "Genetic determinism: the evolutionary red herring" - the authors make it clear that an "evolutionary approach to understanding behaviour is most definitely not about identifying a single causal link between genes and behaviour".

In fact, if such a link existed, it would spell disaster for the species in question. What confers advantage is not rigidity but flexibility, and the "genes that code for the brain have been selected expressly to enable the organism to escape from a genetically driven existence". Still, people love to talk about genetic and environmental causes, as if they could be separated, as if the question - "Is your cake 80 per cent ingredients (genes) and 20 per cent oven temperature (environment)?" - made any sense. The interactionist view is the only game in town.

One of the book's main concerns is with social cognition. A mind equipped with cognitive mechanisms to navigate the physical world is a marvellous piece of evolutionary kit. Add to that the ability to navigate the social world and it's showtime (literally, since with this new capacity we can now tell stories). Theory of Mind (second-order intentionality) gives humans a cognitive edge over all other animals. Monkeys, for example, "are good ethologists (they understand how to read and manipulate others' behaviour) but they are poor psychologists (they don't understand the mind behind the behaviour)". Humans, in contrast, can hold beliefs about someone else's beliefs about someone else's beliefs and so on.

Sharing attention "seems to be a distinctive human characteristic" and "a key human cognitive trait" because from this so much else follows. Even something as ordinary and unremarkable as pointing at an object "purely to draw another's attention to it" is actually a cognitively demanding and exclusively human ability. (Raymond Tallis, usually disparaging of evolutionary psychology, agrees - see his fascinating Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence.) Our unique status as intentional agents is what gets the "cultural ratchet" turning and keeps it going through childhood and beyond, producing as diverse a flowering of cognitive skills as language, imitation, empathy and cooperation.

Evolutionary psychology gets a bad press in some quarters. In his final Reith lecture, Martin Rees referred to the "tendentious distortions" that occur when Darwin's ideas are applied to human psychology. Explaining parts of the body as having evolved over time is respectable science that even most religious people can accept. Explaining parts of the mind in a similar way is a step too far for some. Why is this? Of course, there is always the possibility of a new science overreaching itself, but science gets nowhere without risking making mistakes. A more plausible answer is rooted in the deep-seated intuition that Paul Bloom calls "natural-born dualism" (see Descartes' Baby: How Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human), which makes it very hard for us to see the world as made of just one kind of stuff. The almost irresistible temptation is to invoke another realm beyond the material, beyond those pesky physical laws that shape our bodies. The significance of this intuition for religion is obvious - without it, traditional talk of souls and spirits would soon sound hollow. It's not surprising that the pope, for example, does not accept that evolution applies to the mind or the human soul. More surprising are accommodationists like Rees who seem to be allowing this religious opinion a little too much wiggle room. Having a pop at creationists is one thing, but at the pope is impolite and best left to out-and-out atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens.

Although this is a beginner's guide, as a general reader I still found it challenging in places, and there is always the question of where established science ends and speculation begins. Since I already held the conviction that we are not born blank slates and that evolution has had a huge part to play in shaping human nature, I'm probably more sympathetic than some readers will be. Everyone interested in these debates, however, should benefit from this sampling of the research, and there's no shortage of citations, with chapter bibliographies, so claims can be followed through to their sources. The main caveat remains: just as genetic determinism is a fallacy at the level of the individual, so too is evolutionary determinism a fallacy at the level of societies. We can make a difference to the way we live, and the more we know about the way we live the more chance we will have of making progress.
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on 13 November 2009
This book is part of my core reading for my psychology degree. It is such a good read i find myself reading more chapters than i need for my lectures and re-reading things that have interested me.

Fantastic book
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on 16 July 2010
I have read a few and I am a great fan of the Oneworld Beginners guides.
This is the best one I have read so far. It make the subject so accessable. The book does not set out to confuse or overwhelm you. The book is written so you don't have to be an expert or have any great prior knowledge to grasp and begin to understand Evolutionary Psychology. Maybe as there are three writers contrubutes to it not getting bogged down.
I wish all beginers guides were as good, as sometimes I think the writer forgets that they are writing a beginners guide.
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on 21 January 2013
I have read this book and will read it again.. Evolutionary psychology is a huge subject and this book opens the way and does what all good academic books do, which is to stimulate curiosity. For me, with my interest in human self-expression,it has introduced a new dimension to my understaanding of human behaviour and perhaps given me some insight into how we have moved from our primate state into the rather glorified state of alienation from what might be regarded as a natural relationship with our environment.
Yes, we can easily see how we have become as it were cognitively driven and motivated to employ quite intricate social contracts in order to conform to some apparent principles of evolutionary determination to survive, and this might go a long way to explaining the bizarre nature of modern society.
By identifying some of the main influences which prevail upon our fragile minds I was helped to understand how we have developed into large communities and sought to manage the selfish gene and maintain at least a level of altruism to prevent social and economic degeneration and self destruction. And of course communities have failed to rally sufficiently to beat the odds at times.

I hope that further work is done to provide a more expansive view of our development psychologically and how this relates to the process of evolution. As a species we need to stand back from the far too shallow academic posturing of a vast number of the psychology brigade propounding various views of human nature.
It is probable that they are just another little phase in our evolutionary development and so is this book and so was Darwin, I suppose.
I like the idea of the 'free-loader'. This really appealed to my sense of human nature, which for better or worse, will or cannot conform to the cause of mutual survival. That is if I have understood it correctly....
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on 8 August 2011
To see the evolution of our psychology laid out like this is really illuminating. A must for anyone interested in how humans tick.
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on 8 January 2014
This is a truly excellent introduction to the field. Every psychologist should have a copy.It gives a good grounding for the area.
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on 30 November 2011
Having read bits of Evolutionary Psychology, some in parts of Richard Dawkins wonderful books , I was looking forward to a full book on the basics.
Although a good ,well structured and sound explanation of subject,it was a bit dull in parts.
Perhaps I am being a little unfair in this respect, as I rather expected the kind of analogies,and illustrations that Richard Dawkins
draws upon to illuminate, and enliven his topics.
Otherwise it is a good,well reasoned,and explained introduction.
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on 4 October 2014
Interesting and good research for beginners
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on 9 August 2009
Robin Dunbar is an accomplished writer and his summary of EP makes for good reading. His belief in his subject of choice is undoubted but there are, however, some self-evident errors in the text - in the chapter summaries. EP is a controversial subject that is only partial, not comprehensive, in its explanation of the Human Story. I recommend this book as an introduction to the subject.
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