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Courage, not denial: An interview with Dr. David Buss

By Bernard Chapin
web posted February 9, 2004

Bragging about whom you've studied under does not seem to be socially acceptable in our new millennium. It seems that such behaviors belong to a past, objective age. However, a couple of years ago at a gathering, I heard a young lady with a background in psychology proudly relay to those around her that she had studied "under Buss." I was the only one present who knew the individual to whom she referred and also the importance of her claim.

Dr. David BussDr. David Buss is one of the most highly regarded names in the field of evolutionary psychology. He is so well-known that it is practically impossible to find an evolutionary work that does not in some way allude to him. Indeed, in the interview that follows, Dr. Buss mentions, among those researchers who've had the biggest influence upon him, the names of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. It is ironic because in their book (written with Jerome H. Barkow), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, Dr. Buss contributes his own chapter and is then mentioned specifically by the two writers who follow him.

Dr. David Buss received his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley in 1981. He then was an Assistant Professor at Harvard University before taking a position for 11 years at the University of Michigan. Presently, he is a Full Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Texas.

He has written works that are have been hugely influential both in the universities and in popular culture. His most famous works, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating and Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, are discussed in detail below, and another book, Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love or Sex, examines the green-eyed monster itself.

Dr. Buss has a style that is erudite but not burdened by excessive technicality. Through his rigorous methodology, he has provided the field of evolutionary psychology structure and respect. It is our good fortune that he can spare the time for this interview.

BC: Dr. Buss, the first thing I wanted to ask you about concerns the nature of evolutionary psychology. Could you explain to our readers the meaning of this rather new science?

DDB: Evolutionary psychology represents a theoretical synthesis of the principles of modern evolutionary theory with principles of modern psychology. It views the human mind as largely composed of a set of complex adaptations--information processing devices designed to solve specific adaptive problems that are ultimately tributary to survival and reproduction.

Just as the body consists of a large collection of integrated "organs," each with a specialized function (e.g., a liver to filter toxins; a heart to pump blood), the mind consists of a large collection of integrated "mechanisms," each with a specialized function. Examples include specialized fears of snakes, spiders, darkness, heights, and strangers--things that were dangerous to human survival over deep evolutionary time; specialized preferences for selecting mates; specialized emotions, such as jealousy, designed to solve problems of mate poaching and mate defection; specialized cheater-detection mechanisms to solve problems of social exchange; and dozens or hundreds of others.

The evolutionary process is the only known scientific process capable of producing complex mechanisms of this sort, so there is really no alternative for psychology. You can run, but you can't hide from evolutionary psychology. There is no such thing as "non-evolutionary psychology," since there are no known causal processes, other than evolutionary ones, capable of producing complex organism mechanisms that characterize psychology.

Evolutionary psychology brings a formidable set of theoretical tools to understanding psychological mechanisms that have been largely absent from the field of psychology for the past century--inclusive fitness theory, sexual selection theory, game theory, and many more.

BC: Your landmark 1989 study of human mating preferences in 37 different cultures is cited by just about everyone in the field. Was your use of such a large number of cultures a direct attempt on your part to make the conclusions of evolutionary research more verifiable? Isn't study design the best way to refute charges that evolutionary psychology is merely speculation?

DDB: Prior to my 1989 study, there was practically no systematic empirical research designed to test predictions about humans from principles of evolution. I knew that psychology had, and still has, a strong anti-biological bias. This means that the bar is set quite high for hypotheses anchored in evolutionary biology.

While sweeping generalizations about the effects of "learning" or "culture" or "socialization" are routinely believed based on the flimsiest of evidence, well-articulated evolutionary hypotheses are typically subjected to tremendous skepticism. Thus, when I set out to test the set of hypotheses about sex differences in human mate preferences, I knew that I had to go overboard and document the findings beyond a reasonable doubt. That is why I set out to study as many cultures as I possibly could.

When I hit 37 cultures located on six continents and five islands, consisting of 10,047 participants, and the results proved to be so powerful and consistent, it met my own scientific standard for believing the hypotheses to be confirmed. I think the study was critical in helping to establish evolutionary psychology as an empirical discipline, rather than one involved in speculation or untested hypotheses. Since 1989, the empirical discipline of evolutionary psychology has mushroomed in a way that is extremely gratifying, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

BC: Why does evolutionary psychology evoke such strong reactions in people? I've noted that when I discuss basic principles with those who have never heard of it before I am met with either enthusiasm or anger. There seems to be little in between. Why might this be so? You are the perfect person to ask.

DDB: I think the strength of reactions is caused by several factors. One is religious, since evolutionary psychology threatens beliefs about divine creation. A second comes from political ideologies--people have agendas for making the world a better place, and evolutionary psychology is erroneously believed to be at odds with social change.

People think "if things like violence or infidelity are rooted in evolved adaptations, then we are doomed to have violence and infidelity because they are an unalterable part of human nature. On the other hand, if violence and infidelity are caused by the ills of society, by media, by bad parenting, then we can fix these things and make a better world."

It's what I call the "romantic fallacy": I don't want people to be like that, therefore they are not like that [interviewer's emphasis]. The thinking is wrong-headed, of course. Knowledge of our evolved psychological mechanisms gives us more power to change, if change is desired, not less power.

A third general reason for the hostility to evolutionary psychology comes from mainstream social science. People have been brainwashed for years by the silly mainstream theories that invoke simplistic environmental causes of human behavior, and many social scientists have made their status and reputation in the old paradigms. So evolutionary psychology threatens to undermine their status and prestige, so it is bitterly opposed, usually with great venom. In this sense, evolutionary psychology is no different from many other scientific revolutions that are bitterly opposed at the time, but eventually accepted when shown to be correct.

BC: Is evolutionary psychology today more accepted on the American university campus? I recall that on one occasion before he spoke, there was a poster circulated about Edward O. Wilson that claimed he was a "Prophet of Right Wing Patriarchy." Has anything like that ever happened to you?

DDB: I've received occasional hate mail and have been the target of some malicious gossip, but it's been tremendously gratifying to see evolutionary psychology become a main part of the curriculum in many colleges and universities.

Here at the University of Texas, for example, we have an entire area of the psychology department devoted to Evolutionary Psychology, with half a dozen faculty members. Harvard University has recently emerged as an important center for evolutionary psychology, with key figures such as Steve Pinker and Marc Hauser.

Most universities now have at least one evolutionary psychologist, and it's growing all the time. It's still opposed at some universities, but the general trend is positive. There is no going back.

BC: Along the same lines, why is evolutionary psychology misconstrued as having a political orientation? I mean, it shouldn't be interpreted in such a fashion. Yet I've read evolutionary psychologists who took great pains to explain to their readers that they are not political extremists. Why should they have to? Science describes what is, not what should be or what is fantasy (but perhaps this is why it offends some).

DDB: Evolutionary psychology, of course, has no political orientation. All of the key writers in evolutionary psychology have indeed taken pains to explain that they are describing and explaining human nature, not offering prescriptions or justifications.

Evolutionary psychologists have had to do this because they have been unjustly accused of harboring political agendas. People are also worried that evolutionary psychology will be misused to justify certain undesirable behavior--such as "I couldn't help cheating, it's in my genes." And, of course, there is no way to prevent scientific knowledge from being used or misused. But in my view, we are better off with the knowledge than without it.

Evolutionary psychology has indeed uncovered some disturbing components of human nature, and people fear those components. But we really need to know about them, rather than bury our heads in the sand of ignorance.

BC: Actually, as a response to critics who wrongly label it as "determinist," can you make an argument that the study of evolutionary psychology inherently improves the human condition?

DDS: All efforts at improvement require deep knowledge of the thing you are trying to improve. Evolutionary psychology promises to provide that knowledge, at least in some domains that people care about, such as the psychology of violence. Evolutionary psychology is a science designed to understand the causes of human behavior. As such, it is no more or less "deterministic" than any other approach with the same goal of understanding causes.

BC: You're releasing an updated version of Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. Is this not indicative of the discipline's influence increasing? What types of new research or conclusions have you added to your latest addition?

DDS: My new edition of Evolutionary Psychology (Allyn & Bacon, 2004) represented a major revision. I had to master five years of explosive research in many areas--mating, parenting, kinship, dominance, violence, cooperation, social exchange, altruism, and many others. It has been extremely gratifying to see the cumulative progress made in these areas, which is a testament to the increasing power and influence of the core framework of evolutionary psychology. The scientific revolution is coming to fruition.

BC: Your most famous book (indeed the one through which you first caught my attention), The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, is also being reissued. This work has crossover appeal beyond those who are scientifically minded. If you ask me, it would prove a much better self-help book than many of those titled as "Self-Help." Have you found that its title and lively style garnered it unexpected readership among the general population? What have you added to this latest addition that would cause somebody like me to buy the updated copy?

DDB: The Evolution of Desire undoubtedly is my most widely read book. Originally published in 1994, it continued to sell well in paperback, with no signs of slowing down. Because the field of human mating had mushroomed in the past decade, I felt that a major update was in order, and was fortunate that my publisher, Basic Books, was eager to publish a major revision.

I've added two entirely new chapters to the book: Chapter 11: Women's Hidden Sexual Strategies, which focuses on the functions of the female orgasm and why women have affairs; and Chapter 12: Mysteries of Human Mating, which focuses on some fascinating puzzles of human mating, such as "Can men and women be 'just friends'"? What are the causes of rape? Do women have evolved anti-rape defenses? What about homosexuality? And several others. It was great fun to update The Evolution of Desire, and I hope that readers will be well-rewarded with the new material in the Revised Edition (Basic Books, 2003).

DDB: Under the "stranger than fiction" category, in a class I taught last semester to graduate level teachers concerning human development, all but one of them answered negatively to the statement that there is a biological basis behind many of our mating behaviors. They honestly believe that "male" and "female" are socially constructed roles. How does one combat such dogmatic views? What suggestions do you have for refuting the "social constructionist" only bias among many students?

DDB: Unfortunately, students are still being taught long-outmoded ideas that have no empirical or theoretical warrant. Evolutionary psychology has revolutionized our understanding of human mating, and many other domains as well. If you ask "what new insights and empirical discoveries have been produced by those operating in a social constructivist theoretical framework?", you come up empty-handed. If you ask the same question of those working in evolutionary psychology, you come up with literally hundreds of fascinating empirical discoveries, generated by powerful evolution-based theories.

Eventually, the outmoded social constructivist theories will fade away, since they do not generate novel insights or important empirical discoveries. Evolutionary psychology, in contrast, is here to stay. There is no turning back. Charles Darwin, at the end of Origin, wrote this prophesy: "In the distant future, psychology will be based on a new foundation...." Evolutionary psychology is Darwin's prophesy coming to fruition.

BC: What great thinkers have had the biggest impact on your development as a researcher and a psychologist?

DDS: Charles Darwin, W.D. Hamilton, Richard Dawkins, Don Symons, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby.

BC: Thank you very much, Dr. Buss, and best of luck in your future scholarship.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.

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