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Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary perspectives on human behaviour [Paperback]

by Kevin N. Laland, Gillian Brown
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 4, 2011 0199586969 978-0199586967 2
Evolutionary theory is one of the most wide-ranging and inspiring of scientific ideas. It offers a battery of methods that can be used to interpret human behaviour. But the legitimacy of this exercise is at the centre of a heated controversy that has raged for over a century. Many evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and psychologists are optimistic that evolutionary principles can be applied to human behaviour, and have offered evolutionary explanations for a wide range of human characteristics, such as homicide, religion and sex differences in behaviour. Others are sceptical of these interpretations. Moreover, researchers disagree as to the best ways to use evolution to explore humanity, and a number of schools have emerged. Sense and Nonsense provides an introduction to the ideas, methods and findings of five such schools, namely, sociobiology, human behavioural ecology, evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution, and gene-culture co-evolution. In this revised and updated edition of their successful monograph, Laland and Brown provide a balanced, rigorous analysis that scrutinizes both the evolutionary arguments and the allegations of the critics, carefully guiding the reader through the mire of confusing terminology, claim and counter-claim, and polemical statements. This readable and informative introductory book will be of use to undergraduate and postgraduate students (for example, in psychology, anthropology and zoology), to experts on one approach who would like to know more about the other perspectives, and to lay-persons interested in evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. Having completed this book, the reader should feel better placed to assess the legitimacy of claims made about human behaviour under the name of evolution, and to make judgements as to what is sense and what is nonsense.

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Editorial Reviews


Review from previous edition: "This is a superb book." --Johan Bolhuis, Trends in Ecology and Evolution

"Lucid and balanced, 'Sense and Nonsense' will hopefully reach a broad audience." --Sarah Hrdy

"This is a remarkable book: succinct informative and very sensible. It strips away the polemic to map a way forward, and is worth reading by anybody interested in how best to analyse human behaviour." --Paul Harvey, T.H.E.S

"Laland and Brown are superb pilots for these treacherous waters. It is an altogether excellent book." --Patrick Bateson

"A 'must read' for my undergraduate courses for the foreseeable future." --Henry Plotkin

"I recommend that everyone with some influence or interest in popular culture read this book." --Mark Pagel, New Scientist

"A welcome and incisive corrective to the disarray within evolutionary social theory." --Herbert Gintis, Human Nature Review

About the Author

Kevin N. Laland is Professor of Behavioural and Evolutionary Biology at the University of St Andrews. His research encompasses a range of topics related to animal behaviour and evolution, particularly social learning, gene-culture coevolution, and niche construction. He has published 6 books and over 160 articles on these topics and has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He is also a former President of the European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association. Gillian R. Brown is a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on sex differences in the behaviour of mammals, which she studies from neuroendocrine, developmental and evolutionary perspectives. She has published over 40 articles on sex differences, covering topics such as adaptive birth sex ratios, sex differences in infant and adolescent behaviour, parental investment and the evolution of mating strategies. She has held a Wellcome Trust Career Development Fellowship.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition (June 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199586969
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199586967
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #825,648 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
52 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A breath of fresh air July 16, 2002
By A Customer
This book is both a great read, and an informative one, for anyone interested in human behavior, evolutionary theory, and the links between the two. The area of potential evolutionary bases to human behavior has traditionally been filled with much controversy, some fighting, scattered irresponsible speculations and pronouncements that at times have produced tragic effects, and quite often, more heat than light. Laland and Brown have produced a book that is truly a breath of fresh air. One of the things I liked most about Sense and Nonsense is that Laland and Brown had actually sat down to talk with--and listen to--many of the leading proponents of different "schools" of thought. They work hard in Sense and Nonsense to give a fair presentation of each different approach, before moving on in each chapter to provide their own analysis of the approach presented from their own perspective as working scientists. In the midst of an area in which some researchers have been prone to simply shout louder--often literally--at those they disagree with, Laland and Brown have truly taken the time to listen, reflect, and form considered and thoughtful judgements. This is a service to all of us: After reading their book, I know that I will always look reflect differently on researchers' claims of evolutionary bases of human behavior, whether that's hearing them at a conference, or reading a journal article, or the latest best-selling book or TV interview. If you want to improve your understanding of evolution and human behavior, get a guided tour through the area and its controversies by two thoughtful experts, and come out with a changed perspective that will likely always stay with you, then read Sense and Nonsense. Great book.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clear and lucid, but who's it for? November 6, 2008
Sense and Nonsense is a clear, lucid explication of the current landscape of the research on how evolutionary theories are applied to the social sciences. By their own admission often oversimplifying for clarity's sake, they break down the different ways in which evolutionary ideas are used in the social sciences into four categories--human behaiourial ecology, evolutionary psychology, memetics and gene-culture coevolution--and show how these descended, with modification, from sociobiology, and from Darwinian evolution itself.

The book clearly and succinctly describes the methodologies and underlying assumptions that define each approach, and no less clearly do they identify their perceptions of the relevant strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches. Although, as another reviewer states, it might be more interesting in a dramatic sense to see them take a more polemical position, it is difficult to argue with them that each of the approaches has its merits and defects, and that, in a new religion, as it were, no one is served by internecine warfare.

I have two reservations, however. My first is something between a quibble and a small problem: Laland uses primarily gene-culture coevolution models himself, and although he is generally balanced in his assessments, one cannot but come out of the book feeling that gene-culture coevolution is first among equals in the authors' minds. They don't hide their sympathies, exactly, but if you don't know of them up front, you have to be paying pretty close attention to find them out.

My second concern has to do with audience. Whom is supposed to read this?
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34 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sorting out the Issues August 12, 2005
Kevin Laland is a prominent researcher in gene-culture coevolution, niche construction (the study of how organisms modify their social and physical environment, and thereby modify their own gene pool) and animal social learning. Gillian Brown is a primatologist who studies parenting behavior. Their book is a study of six strands of evolutionary theory as applied to human behavior: (a) Darwin and his pre-sociobiology followers (including Galton, Spencer, Lorenz, Tinbergen, von Frisch, and Ardrey); (b) the founders of sociobiology, including Dawkins, Trivers, Hamilton, Maynard Smith, and E. O. Wilson; and three offshoots of sociobiology, (c) behavioral ecology (including Hill, Kaplan, Hawkes, and Chagnon); (d) evolutionary psychology (including Cosmides, Tooby, Daly, Margo Wilson, Pinker, Buss); (e) memetics; and (f) gene-culture coevolution (including Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, Boyd and Richerson, and Laland himself).

The title is inspired by the authors' impression that, despite the fact that the academic social sciences have virtually ignored evolutionary approaches, the public finds them very sexy and provocative, to the point where evolutionary research is continually influenced by political and journalistic concerns, and the science tends to be overwhelmed by the junk and the hype. I fully share this impression, and I think they have done a fine job in extracting the "sense" from the "nonsense." They even manage to treat memetics seriously, despite the fact that memetics' attempt to detach culture from reproduction, production, cooperation, conflict, and the other basic activities of social life cannot possibly succeed.
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