Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity Are Revolutionizing Our View of Human Nature

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Overview

“Kenrick writes like a dream.”—Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Biology and Neurology, Stanford University; author of A Primate’s Memoir and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
 
What do sex and murder have to do with the meaning of life? Everything.

In Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life, social psychologist Douglas Kenrick exposes the selfish animalistic underside of human nature, and shows how it is intimately connected to our greatest and most selfless achievements. Masterfully integrating cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and complexity theory, this intriguing book paints a comprehensive picture of the principles that govern our lives. As Kenrick divulges, beneath our civilized veneer, human beings are a lot like howling hyenas and barking baboons, with heads full of homicidal tendencies and sexual fantasies. But, in his view, many ingrained, apparently irrational behaviors—such as inclinations to one-night stands, racial prejudices, and conspicuous consumption—ultimately manifest what he calls “Deep Rationality.”

Although our heads are full of simple selfish biases that evolved to help our ancestors survive, modern human beings are anything but simple and selfish cavemen. Kenrick argues that simple and selfish mental mechanisms we inherited from our ancestors ultimately give rise to the multifaceted social lives that we humans lead today, and to the most positive features of humanity, including generosity, artistic creativity, love, and familial bonds. And out of those simple mechanisms emerge all the complexities of society, including international conflicts and global economic markets. By exploring the nuance of social psychology and the surprising results of his own research, Kenrick offers a detailed picture of what makes us caring, creative, and complex—that is, fully human.

 Illuminated with stories from Kenrick’s own colorful experiences -- from his criminally inclined shantytown Irish relatives, his own multiple high school expulsions, broken marriages, and homicidal fantasies, to his eventual success as an evolutionary psychologist and loving father of two boys separated by 26 years -- this book is an exploration of our mental biases and failures, and our mind’s great successes. Idiosyncratic, controversial, and fascinating, Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life uncovers the pitfalls and promise of our biological inheritance.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

As far as we know, humans are the only species that actively researches what makes themselves tick. Since the publication of E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology 35 years ago, that inclination has become a downright obsession, spawning a daunting proliferation of new explorations in evolutionary psychology and related fields. Ranking high in these efforts is Douglas Kenrick's Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life, which draws on not only evolutionary psychology, but also on cognitive science, social psychology, and complexity theory to make striking conclusions. Each chapter spotlights the answer to a question: How did an innocent young student accidentally fall in with a band of intellectual revolutionaries? When is godliness just another reproductive strategy? Why do men and women forget different people and regret different things?

Publishers Weekly
Classical Freudian psychology was often mocked for claiming that everything we do is a result of our sexual drives, but evolutionary psychologist and Arizona State professor Kenrick says that his field now believes that isn't far from the truth. Evolutionary psychologists look at how we make decisions based on how they help us survive and pass along our genes, and Kendrick looks at various areas of life in this light. For instance, Kenrick reports on studies showing that reproductive strategies lead people to analyze expressions of anger differently in men and women. Studies also show that not all prejudice has the same motivation: people fear different groups, such as blacks or homosexuals, for different reasons. According to Kenrick, creative acts can also promote reproduction by attracting a mate or conferring status. The author compares the human brain to a coloring book rather than the traditional blank slate to express the interplay of innate qualities and the environment. As with a coloring book, the outlines are with us from birth, but environment influences what colors we choose to complete the images. This briskly written and often witty book will challenge readers on many levels and is sure to provoke debate, if not controversy. (May)
From the Publisher

Kirkus
“Kenrick’s gift for speaking directly to the reader and making the abstract concrete through humor and homely examples make [Sex, Murder, and The Meaning of Life] an accessible and engaging exploration of how human behavior is connected to the behavior of our primitive ancestors.” 

Richard Wrangham, Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University; author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
“Kenrick’s irreverent potpourri of personal anecdote, background science and catchy experiments makes evolutionary social psychology both entertaining and profound. Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life is a disturbing and fascinating read. It will make you wonder who you are.”


Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; Author of How the Mind Works, The Language Instinct, and The Stuff of Thought
“Douglas Kenrick is one of the most important scientists studying the evolutionary shaping of human drives and emotions. By highlighting the author’s own research, this lively book introduces readers to new evidence on how the mind works, presented in a cohesive framework.”
 
Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; Author of Stumbling on Happiness
“Several decades ago, Doug Kenrick married evolutionary biology to social psychology and he has been a leader in this important field ever since. Unlike many scientists, he sees the big picture and writes with humor, wisdom, and verve. I’m eager to read his book!”
 
Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics, Duke University; Author of Predictably Irrational
Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life helps us understand our complex, odd and quirky nature. It is a fascinating journey that brought us here and Douglas Kenrick is a master in helping us understand our real nature.”
 
Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside; Author of The How of Happiness
“Douglas Kenrick is a brilliant thinker, gripping speaker, and a writer whose style is so engaging, probing, and full of irreverence and wit that is unmatched by anyone I know in academia. On top of his profound mastery of the study of evolution and behavior, he has a fascinating and quirky life story that adds color and richness to his academic expertise. He is also that rare individual with whom you’d be equally likely to want to have a drink and/or seek out to obtain keen insights into human motivation and behavior (and ideally both at the same time).”
 
Noah Goldstein, UCLA Anderson School of Management; Author of New York Times best-selling Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive
“One of the Founding Fathers of modern evolutionary psychology, Doug Kenrick is also regarded as one of the most brilliant, creative, and accessible scholars in all of the social sciences. But a conventional scholar he is not: One part academic, one part comedian, and one part street fighter from Queens, Kenrick has ruffled a few feathers in his time. His crisp and witty writing, and his willingness to put scientific correctness before political correctness, will make readers think, laugh, and blush all at the same time.”
 
Bert Hölldobler, Foundation Professor of Life Sciences, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity, Arizona State University; Author of Superorganism
“Douglas Kenrick is a pioneer in Evolutionary Psychology. His scientific contributions to this relatively young field are impressive. In his psychology textbooks he demonstrates his remarkable gift as a teacher and his creativity as a science writer. All these credentials are reflected in the new book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life. This volume promises to become one of the most exciting and authoritative books on the topic of evolution and human behavior, accessible to a broad readership.”
 

Booklist
“Undeniably provocative.”
 

CHOICE “[Kenrick] writes well and is wonderfully self-deprecating….Kenrick’s reach—or, more accurately, bite—is big, but the book is focused and well paced….Recommended.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465020447
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/26/2011
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author


Douglas T. Kenrick is a Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University. His work has been covered in Newsweek, the New York Times, and Psychology Today. Kenrick lives in Tempe, Arizona.
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 11, 2011

    Put this at the top of your summer reading list

    It may sound cliché, but I really could not put this wonderful book down. Professor Kenrick has written a compelling account of the latest discoveries in psychology. It is endlessly informative, often hilarious, and at times rather poignant. I won't rehash the content of the book, which brings together insights from social psychology, evolutionary theory, and dynamical systems theory to explain everything from sexual behavior to family relations, violence, prejudice, religion, and consumerism. But I will say that Kenrick goes beyond explaining things to the reader and shows how we mortals can use this treasure drove of knowledge to make our own lives, relationships, and communities happier and more sustainable. By interspersing cutting-edge research findings with sometimes startling personal anecdotes, Kenrick shines through as the kind of guy we would want to have a beer with. A stuffed-shirt academic he is not. This book is for general readers who want to connect the latest psychological findings to their own lives. It would also work well in college courses in social or evolutionary psychology. I for one look forward to reading more from Professor Kenrick.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 8, 2011

    topics sounded great but read was labored

    I listened to author on late night talk show and this book and it sounded great. However, when I bought it and started reading it was boring with way to much filler about nothing. Boring, a lot backround about nothing and EASY to put down. Predictable conclusions and I felt like I was in college reading the professors book who was trying to justify his career.

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