BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Evolutionary Psychology: A Graphic Guide by Dylan Evans

Introducing Evolutionary Psychology: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Evolutionary Psychology: A Graphic Guide by Dylan Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Ever controversial, one can’t help but see some appeal in evolutionary psychology, at least with respect to certain aspects of human behavior (e.g. mate selection, parenting, and certain questions of cooperation versus competition.) As a social scientist, I was often struck by how much social science theories were like zombies – you couldn’t kill them, but if you moved fast enough you could ignore them. Which is to say, even as evidence of incorrectness piled up, theories would be tweaked to seem more consistent with reality – slap a “neo-” prefix on the front end and insert a few choice rationalizations into the theory, carefully worded so as to avoid direct contradiction the original idea. But in Darwinian Evolution one has a well-validated, powerful theory that is so simple and elegant that it’s hard not to see its merits.

While not explicitly divided up this way, this book could be segmented into three parts. The first part presents background information about evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology, the “parents” of evolutionary psychology. The meaty middle of the book investigates the areas of human behavior and decision-making where evolutionary psychology makes its most compelling arguments – e.g. familial relations, dietary decisions, disgust, cooperation, altruism, etc. The final section explores some of the criticisms that have been leveled against evolutionary psychology. These critiques are restricted to three scholarly complaints about the discipline (i.e. Pan-adaptationism, Reductionism, and Genetic Determinism.) It doesn’t delve into the current popular criticisms of evolutionary psychology – e.g. that it seems to justify womanizing and “toxic masculinity.” However, the author does explain that the discipline only comments on the “is” part of the “is-ought” dichotomy – i.e. explaining the way things are shouldn’t be taken as endorsing them as the way things should be. [This explanation is made regarding the discipline’s earliest blackeye – i.e. being used to justify eugenics.]

I found this to be a thought-provoking overview of this intriguing – if controversial — branch of psychology.

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You’re So Evolved: Love Poem to a Hominid

Baby, I dig your bipedal ways
You could chase down wounded game for days
And walking around on just two feet
You can forage in the mid-day heat
When it’s too hot for those big ole cats
Who bully their way through our habitat


My dearest, it simply makes me drool
When I see you working with a tool
Thumbs opposable, and shoulders free
I’m awed when you throw stones at me
Just imagine how I shed a tear
When I see you chuck a pointy spear


And that prefrontal cortex, oh my lord
You could plan the move of a nomadic horde
One day you’ll be able to add, and subtract
You’ll think–and paint–in the abstract
You just need vocal cords of greater dexterity
To express yourself with heightened clarity
[not in grunts and stone throwing]


True, you’re not the strongest of the apes
And while tigers race you barely traipse
Monkeys climb, swinging tree to tree
You lack arm strength and dexterity
Still, there’s something about you that I just can’t deny
Though you share sixty percent DNA with a fruit fly
You’re so evolved

BOOK REVIEW: Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich

Why We Run: A Natural HistoryWhy We Run: A Natural History by Bernd Heinrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is actually several different books woven together. It’s part autobiography of the author’s running life, it’s part a study of comparative biology between various creatures with an endurance bent and humans, it’s part an examination of the evolutionary biology of humanity’s proclivity to run, and it’s part guide to preparing to engage in ultramarathons. Often I pan such books as being unfocused, ill-planned, and—most often—attempts to whip an article’s worth of material into a book length piece. However, Heinrich keeps it interesting enough that I don’t feel it necessary to level these criticisms. Still, my first warning to readers is that one has to read on for quite a while before one gets to the book that one thought one bought—i.e. one that answers the title question of “why WE (i.e. people in general and not the author specifically) run.” In short, you’ll need to have an eclectic set of interests to get through the whole book, but some may find reading only part of it gives them all they wanted from the book.

It should be noted that the book is on its second title. The original title was: “Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us about Running and Ourselves.” The author explains in the front matter why the original name was changed (apparently some loud and obnoxious writer had a similarly titled book on a different subject and whined about it.) Changing the title wasn’t required because: a.) titles cannot be copyrighted, and b.) it wasn’t exactly the same title anyway. Still the new, more succinct, title may lead one to expect a succinct book, which this isn’t so much.

Some readers will enjoy Heinrich’s writing style; others will find that it ventures too far into flowery territory on occasion. I did enjoy it. However, I can see how a reader might find some of the descriptive sequences to be excessive–particularly toward the beginning of the book.

While there’s some overlapping and interweaving, one can think of the book in three sections. It’s written in twenty chapters. The first six tell the author’s story of getting into running and his youth. The next eight chapters deal in comparative and evolutionary biology. In general, these chapters look at the biology of other creatures as they pertain to said animals’ ability to engage in running (or activities that are like running in that they involve endurance of muscles and the cardiovascular system.) Also included in this section is the evolutionary biology of humans as it relates to becoming a species of runners. This is the core of the book and was the most interesting section for me. In it, Heinrich considers the endurance activities of insects, birds, antelopes, camels, and frogs. Each of these has a particular relevance. For example, camels are masters of endurance under harsh conditions. Frogs tell the story of the difference between fast and slow twitch musculature (relevant to sprinters versus distance runners.) Antelopes are, of course, the exemplars running in the animal kingdom, but the nature of their running is so different from that of humans (i.e. making quick escapes versus pursuing wounded prey.) The last six chapters can be seen as a guide to preparing for ultramarathon races, but it’s also a continuation of the author’s self-examination of his running life from the time he began ultramarathoning.

I’d recommend this book for readers who are interested in the science of human performance. It’s well written, and the insights it offers into the biology of other animals are fascinating. Whether you read the whole book or just the part that pertains to your interests, you’ll take something away from this book.

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