Q&A with: Evolutionary Psychologist Robert Kurzban, Ph.D.
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speaks with Robert Kurzban, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the upcoming book, “Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind.” Kurzban also founded the Pennsylvania Laboratory for Experimental Evolutionary Psychology and serves as the secretary of the .
Below he shares his thoughts on evolutionary psychology and what students can expect as they pursue a career in the field.
Q: How did you become interested in evolutionary psychology?
Well, when I was an undergraduate there was barely anything called “evolutionary psychology.” I was a bio major at first at Cornell University, and I had the opportunity to see a really good talk by David Buss who was visiting Cornell. He gave a talk that, to me, was just really impressive, and what I was excited about was this idea that you could apply the principles, which I had been learning in biology classes to understanding humans, in particular human social behavior.
Q: What kind of training does a student interested in evolutionary psychology need?
The most important thing for evolutionary psychology is to be really good at evolutionary biology. The principles that underlie the fields are similar. So, while it’s great to take psychology classes as an undergraduate, it’s even better to take evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology classes. Anthropology and philosophy are useful, and, in particular, cognitive science is useful. Having said all that, I just want to add that people come into evolutionary psychology from all different disciplines. Your undergraduate degree, in some sense, doesn’t matter as long as you’re excited about the discipline.
Q: What can students expect as they pursue a career in evolutionary psychology?
Well like the rest of the academic world, the opportunities in evolutionary psychology are very difficult. It’s very challenging right now for people to get jobs out of graduate school, or for people to get into graduate school. It’s a very competitive business. One of the exciting things about the discipline, though, is that it’s growing. Of course, just like anything else, you want to be in the growing industries as opposed to the shrinking ones. So, there are opportunities. There are places where you can do your graduate training that, when I was an undergraduate, weren’t available. I did a couple of post-docs before going to the University of Pennsylvania. Those are becoming much more common, but, in general, pursuing a degree in evolutionary psychology really means pursuing a degree to do research.
Q: Are there any specific traits that work well for an evolutionary psychologist?
I’ve found that, like many disciplines, evolutionary psychology attracts people who are just very curious about human nature or what it means to be a social animal. Because it’s a new field and because it’s not well established, in some senses, it can help to have a personality for which conflict or at least a little bit of challenge is something that you’re interested in or can deal with. There’s a lot of debate. And, so, I think that people who are interested in engaging in arguments, logic and evidence… are going to be better suited for the field.
Q: What are some of the challenges in the evolutionary psychology field?
You really have to be prepared to learn evolutionary biology, cognitive science, anthropology, economics and game theory. The first few years of graduate school can be challenging because you have to master a lot of different disciplines. I think that students need to be prepared to learn a wide variety of fields that aren’t immediately obvious. The degrees are going to be psychology degrees, but the training is diverse.
Q: How has evolutionary psychology grown in the last few years?
Evolutionary psychology has grown quite a bit over the last several years. The conferences are getting bigger. One of the most important changes that we’ve seen is at the level of the journals. The sciences are really in the journals. And the impact of the main journal in evolutionary psychology, Evolution and Human Behavior, is now on par with the best science journals in the world. It means that people are paying attention to the research. It also means that people are more interested in submitting their work to these journals, which suggests that the profile of the discipline is getting bigger. We’ve also been aided by the fact that the community of researchers who call themselves evolutionary psychologists is broad; there are economists, anthropologists, biologists and psychologists. These interactions have made the discipline stronger. That’s not to say that the discipline has rocketed in terms of size; it’s still a relatively small field.
Q: What is the research like?
One of the interesting things about evolutionary psychology, unlike other areas of psychology, is that it’s not a content domain; it’s more of an approach. If you went into linguistics in a psychology department, you can be pretty sure you’re going to be doing something on language. Whereas, if you go into evolutionary psychology, you could be doing something on language, but you could be doing something on how people choose their mates or reason in social interactions. I do work on cooperation and morality. The key in evolutionary psychology is that we use this particular lens, this particular set of theories first developed by Darwin and refined by biologists over the last 150 years. Because you could be studying almost anything about human behavior that also means that you could be using a wide range of methods. You could be doing anything as simple and straight-forward as survey research to fMRI research with neuroimaging. You could be looking at other physiological measures; you could be doing field observations. The techniques that you use to answer your research question depend on your research question.
Q: Can you tell us about your upcoming book: “Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind”?
My upcoming book, which is published by Princeton University Press, is really not only about hypocrisy. At its heart, it’s about one of the core ideas in evolutionary psychology, which is this notion of modularity-this idea that the mind is not unitary. It’s not just one thing; it’s made up of lots of little parts all working together. Sometimes those parts work in harmony, and sometimes they conflict with each other. What I was interested in talking about in the book was all these different aspects in which humans have these internal conflicts in their heads-how you can simultaneously believe two different things or have hypocrisy and think that something is wrong and then do that thing. The reason is that you have different modules in your head; whichever one is in charge at any given time determines what you do, what you say and so on. The book is really a light-hearted discussion of human inconsistency and a vehicle to talk about this idea of modularity and how human minds consist of lots of different parts.
Q: Any other must-read recommendations?
A great place to start is Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Many students have probably already read it, but if they haven’t, it’s a really wonderful book, just re-released in its 30th anniversary edition. It’s as good now as it was in 1976. Another great book is Steve Pinker’s How the mind works. It’s a lengthy book, but a pretty good read. It’s not written for the advanced graduate student. Someone who is just entering graduate school or that level would be perfectly able to master it. Another great book in biology, which other people wouldn’t recommend, but I think is just great, is George Williams’ book, Adaptation and Natural Selection. It was written in the mid 1960’s, and, yet, the ideas are as cogent today as they were when he wrote the book.
Q: Any other advice for aspiring evolutionary psychologists?
Evolutionary psychology, as a new discipline, requires tenacity. It has all the usual challenges of science-trying to discover something new that no one else knew before and doing it cleanly and correctly-and it has the added element of being novel and, therefore, at least somewhat controversial. Good evolutionary psychologists have to have all of the features that good scientists have: you have to be smart, work hard, and be ready to deal with setbacks. But, in evolutionary psychology you also have to be tenacious. You can’t give up.