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Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity are Revolutionizing our View of Human Nature [Hardcover]

Douglas T. Kenrick
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 26, 2011 0465020445 978-0465020447
“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.

Editorial Reviews


“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.”
“Undeniably provocative.”
“[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.”

About 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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (April 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465020445
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465020447
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #621,979 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Professor at Arizona State U, author of over 190 scientific paper, chapters, and books integrating evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and complexity theory

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A real primer on Evolutionary Psychology May 13, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
For those who have ever read E. O. Wilson's classic book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition (or maybe On Human Nature: Revised Edition), then I suppose you could consider Professor Kenrick's book somewhat of an updated version. It's a real primer on evolutionary psychology. Having been familiar with evolutionary psychology, I thought that there might not be anything very interesting in Prof. Kenrick's book, but I was dead wrong. In fact, I think quite the opposite now. To be honest though, I didn't really get into the book until about half-way; however, once I got to about Ch. 7, I was hooked. Several things that I really enjoyed were: 1) Kenrick's discussion of the need to update Abraham Maslow's famous Hierarchy of Needs, 2) the `reproductive religiosity model' which looks at the difference between Conservatives and Liberals as a difference in mating strategies, and 3) the brief, but important, discussion on the connection between dynamical systems theory and evolutionary psychology.

I realize that there are some people out there who continue to insist that evolutionary psychology is bogus and consequently not their cup of tea, but I would challenge them to read Prof. Kenrick's book and find a better - more rational - theory of human nature than evolutionary psychology. I would also venture to say that Kenrick is definitely one of the better spokespersons for it. By the end of the book I was really at home with his laid-back, breezy, and humorous style of writing. I also appreciated the brevity with which he covered the topics; he covered many issues.
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47 of 56 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Intellectually Disappointing June 26, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life by Douglas Kenrick anticipating a good read. I was sorely disappointed. Knowing nothing about the intricacies of evolutionary psychology, the topic of his book, I had no axes to grind in contrasting it with behaviorism, psychoanalysis, social psychology or any other pedagogy. I was open to any conclusions Kenrick might advance if they were adequately supported by scientific testing and experimentation. While some of the book did, indeed, provide this, sadly, too much of it did not.

The book opens with the results of some of Kenrick's own experimental results combined with that of other evolutionary psychologists, particularly in the field of the differing motivations men and women experience when it comes to sex and aggression. Men are looking for physical sex that leads to feelings of intimacy and women are looking for intimacy that might lead to sex. Further, Kenrick's experiments show that women think of killing fellow human beings almost as much as men do, 68% to 76%. Interesting so far, with some reservations about the quality of the data.

But from there, everything goes down hill. Kenrick starts drawing wild conclusions from additional data that is far more circumspect in its meaning. He claims that male creative accomplishment, such as in the fields of poetry or music is purely an endeavor to enhance the chances of having sex with women. He simply ignores that only a very small percentage of men even persue such activities, let alone are good at them. He ignores that most creative men get married and have children. This, he claims shifts their evolutionary motivation to that of monogamous relationship building and successful child rearing, which insures the passage of their DNA on to another generation, their grandchildren.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read For So Many Reasons May 9, 2011
This book is one of those nice hybrids of biography and scientific research. Kenrick is a well known social psychologist and one of the founders of evolutionary psychology. In this book, he talks about personal experiences that led him to ponder different aspects of the meaning of life, and the rather clever experiments he conducted to understand those questions. For example, in one chapter, he describes the vividly painful "flashbulb" memory of hearing about his brother's death alongside a much more pleasant flashbulb memory (of a three-way kiss with two attractive women). That leads into a series of interesting experimental findings on the different kinds of holes in men's and women's memories. In a later chapter, he opens up with Catechism lessons from nuns and the conflict between being a Catholic teenager and his prurient interests in the beautiful girls in church. He moves from there to some fascinating studies on the links between sex and religion (for example, in one study, he and his colleagues found that seeing a lot of good-looking members of your own sex increases your tendency to say you believe in God).

His first chapter talks about how people are often hostile to thinking about humans as animals, and quotes Oscar Wilde's statement that "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." The general outline of the book starts out in the gutter, with chapters on sex, violence, and racial prejudices, and moves toward the stars, with later chapters on economic decision-making, artistic creativity, self-actualization, religion, and culture.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars pretty good general reading surveyof Dr Kenricks work
I enjoyed the book. It is easy to read, interesting, and introduces key theories and a way of interpreting human interactions which were new to me. Read more
Published 18 days ago by marjorie crouch
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
Professor Kenrick clearly explains some of the most intriguing issues about human nature beyond the false topics strongly supported by too many of the so-called social scientists
Published 3 months ago by ferran
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding!
Masterly written. It conveys the extraorfdinary power of the field to explain the way we behave, and at the same time entertains us with this insight
Published 15 months ago by Ximena Katz Vicuna
5.0 out of 5 stars Actual Peer Reviewed Research
Often when you pick up a book on "Science" it is written by someone underqualified who doesn't rely on actual peer reviewed science. Read more
Published 16 months ago by James Gordon
5.0 out of 5 stars Five stars
This book was so interesting to read, between Kenrick's well conducted and unusual studies and life experiences you'll fall in love.
Published 19 months ago by Erika Worthing elw
4.0 out of 5 stars Simple rules make us profoundly human
Weaving together the insights of the three interdisciplinary movements of cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and dynamical systems theory, Douglas Kenrick reveals the... Read more
Published on June 14, 2012 by Deb
5.0 out of 5 stars Another look at the WHY of history
I enjoyed this book. It was certainly not boring and I feel that if a person (especially a woman) who may be wondering why her husband's eye wonders may feel a little reassured... Read more
Published on May 22, 2012 by AA
4.0 out of 5 stars An Accessible Book for the Masses
Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life by Douglas T. Kenrick

"Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life" is a book about the study of the underside of human nature and then some. Read more
Published on December 8, 2011 by Book Shark
2.0 out of 5 stars Agreed, it's Intellectually Disappointing
Compared to other books in the same subject area, I didn't find anything new or interesting to be read here. All of the information is old news by this point. Read more
Published on November 4, 2011 by Renee A. Davis
4.0 out of 5 stars Recommend for the curious
Review based on ARC

This was, for me, someone without much of a background in "evolutionary psychology," interesting and thought provoking. Read more
Published on September 7, 2011 by A. Allen
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