Coming-of-age rituals in print

Evolutionary Psychology
November 26, 2004

Evolutionary psychology textbooks aimed at an undergraduate audience have started to appear. Unfortunately, they have been written by evangelists, by researchers whose own findings are given centre stage, or by a combination of the two. This would be bad enough, were it not that evolutionary psychology is also criticised for being an immature, politically motivated science.

As a consequence, Lance Workman and Will Reader’s textbook is a godsend. They have produced a reasonably comprehensive treatment, with every topic covered being treated with careful balance. That overall positive assessment should be borne in mind as I point to features of their book that are less than helpful.

Workman and Reader start with a history of evolutionary psychology. Focusing on the contributions of particular individuals may on occasion be a useful didactic tool, but it is taken too far here by scattering the text with grainy photographs that add nothing of substance.

As the book progresses, themes such as mate choice, altruism, conflict and social development are covered using case studies. It is here that the authors’ critical approach shines. Whereas others would use case studies to support a perspective or theory, Workman and Reader also use them to show alternative interpretations requiring further work.

However, there is a general easing off when mathematical formalism is involved. Good theoreticians make assumptions, work through the sums, produce results and then explain them so that they can be grasped intuitively. Missing out the sums provides a false sense of security. For example, descriptions of evolutionarily stable strategies and inclusive fitness are weak.

Although this is the best available textbook for introducing undergraduate students to evolutionary psychology, it needs to be revised and given a coherent formal treatment.

Paul Harvey is head of zoology, Oxford University.

Evolutionary Psychology: An Introduction. First edition

Author - Lance Workman and Will Reader
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 417
Price - £50.00 and £22.99
ISBN - 0 521 80146 X and 80532 5

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