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Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind

by David M. Buss

Evolutionary psychology is at its best at offering fascinating, plausible evolutionary descriptions of behavior. It is at its worst when delivering prescriptions, often committing origin fallacies.


David Buss’ work is a textbook, but reads like a fun, mass-market book. summarizing much research: One study suggests intriquing results from the pairing of a high-dominant woman and a low-dominant man in a task requiring a leader. The low-dominant man gets chosen leader 80 percent of the time, yet the high dominant woman makes the final decision on who becomes leader 91 percent of the time. When pairing a high-dominant man and a low-dominant woman, the high-dominant man, not surprisingly becomes leader 90 percent of the time.


The best time to discover whether friends are true or fair-weather is during critical difficulties—fighting off a lion together, foraging for food during a famine—but modern living provides few of these critical events. Some alienation in the modern world results because many modern interactions are glib reciprocations or cheatings. Immediate repayment of a favor to a friend indicates lack of close friendship. Surprise favors given with affection indicate greater friendship.


Human fears and preferences have strong evolutionary influences. We prefer nature settings neither too open nor too thick—settings having multiple escape routes and easy to climb trees. Men and boys build coalitions. We innately fear snakes, spiders, heights, crowds, separation, and strangers, not electrical outlets. Fear of electrical outlets depends on learning. We overgeneralize some threats because of the huge negative expected value of many threats--better to protect yourself from an imaginary threat 99 times and stop a legitimate threat once than to lack caution 100 times and end up dead the one time the threat was real.


Women without pregnancy sickness are more than twice as likely to have spontaneous abortions—perhaps because they ingest foods having more toxins and fetuses are sensitive to toxins. Most pregnancies end up in spontaneous abortions, often before women know they are pregnant. When we feel sick, iron-rich foods taste horrible because bacteria thrive at high iron levels.


Men become promiscuous partly because many women give them the opportunity. Some members of both genders pursue short-term mating and some members of both engage in long-term mating. When it comes to sex with strangers, men and women differ. Research suggests zero percent of women agree to sex with an attractive stranger they just met. Butt seventy-five percent of men agree.


Buss writes that though short-term mating "strategies" often harm women and children and many others, those practices often spread genes. A credible threat of retribution can keep a man or woman from cheating. Occasionaly, cheating can be a way of trading up and gaining resources. Passing promiscuous maternal genes to a promiscuous son is a plausible evolutionary practice to spread genes. Evolutionary psychologists seldom hesitate to deliver brutal facts. Within the Ache Indian tribe, for example, young and disabled children are murdered if their father dies.


Women believe bad traits in men are more undesirable than men believe bad traits in women are undesirable. The four bad traits that men rate more undesirable than women—out of 67 traits—are ugliness, hairiness, needing commitment, and poor sex drive. Among the 63 traits more highly preferred by women than men are money, status, humor, ambition, industriousness, personableness, dependability, lovingness, good health, similar values, psychological stability, and willingness to invest resources.


Some famous research asserts that the computer compiled “average” face is the most attractive face, but this research may be misleading. When people say “average looking” in conversations, they mean somewhere around the median in attractiveness. The computer face is a mean assembled from dozens of faces. Symmetry matters for attractiveness. The computer assembled mean face is highly symmetrical.


Other research indicates that when the computerized mean faces of men and women are "feminized"—fuller lips, thinner jaws, smaller noses, shorter jaws—they are judged more attractive by both men and women. A computer assembled mean white man’s face looks like an ordinary guy with high symmetry. Feminizing that face turns it into a Donny Osmond lookalike.


The “averageness” may not be what causes attraction. Evolution may produce somewhat bell shaped curves around what is more attractive. Throwing the members of a bell shaped curve into a computer produces a mean near the peak of the curve. Other factors to consider: The more attractive feminized face may be sometimes undesired because the more masculinized face conveys power, which carries more weight with some individuals in their mate choices.


Other intriguing claims:

·        Other research: Women admire dominant behaviors in others more than men, provided women perceive the behaviors to be pro-social. Women loathe men who get pushed around by other men. The minimum acceptable income percentile women want in a date is twice what men want.

·        Research also suggests we observe and remember low status cheaters more than high status cheaters. Twenty percent of us, according to D.D. Cummins, look for rule violations by those with equal or higher status. Most of the remainder look for cheating by lower status individuals.

·        Helping actions increase status, provided an individual is not being taken advantage of..

·        The testosterone levels of tennis players double prior to matches. Afterward, winners’ levels stay high. Testosterone plummits in players suffering a loss.

·        Porn and prostitution reduce the resources and bargaining power of non-sex worker women.

·        Within five minutes, most groups of strangers develop hierarchies.


Deception plays a complex role in evolutionary psychology. Convincing individuals that ideas are their own, for example, is a powerful method of persuasion. Implants, tanning, and hair coloring are attempts at deception, but prudent men find these efforts hideous because they indicate a woman is vain, unstable or deceptive in general. Much of what evolutionary psychology says about deception is fairly obvious to wise observers: Politicians pursue their goals and the goals of their cronies while pretending to serve the people. Nothing here is morally great, but this remains the most fascinating work on evolutionary psychology I have seen. Worth skimming.         

Book review article by JT Fournier, last updated July 29, 2013


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