Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life by Douglas Kenrick (Audiobook)

I should, before reviewing, disclaim that this was a free book from Librarything, which I got on the condition that I review it.

Douglas Kenrick’s Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity Are Revolutionizing Our View of Human Nature was, on the whole, a very enjoyable audiobook.

Generally, Kenrick does a good job of bringing together his personal experiences and the research he and others have done — both pointing towards very interesting insights into human nature. This is especially interesting given Kenrick’s unusual background (at least, unusual for an academic): his experience having a father who landed in prison, his youthful days as a street hoodlum, and his frank discussion of his past divorces all lend interesting notes to the discussion of evolutionary psychology he presents.

I realized, only late into reading the book, that I’d heard of Kenrick before: he was in the news — a certain kind of rarefied academic news, that is — as one of the researchers who had proposed a revised form of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (I’d been researching the Maslovian concept of a hirarhcy of needs for a paper a couple of summers ago and come across Kenrick and company’s proposed rearrangement.) I’m not sure what I think of Kenrick’s reconstruction — on the one hand, I’m not wholly sure that self-actualization need be discarded, or separated from child-rearing, and on the other, I rather think that the “self-actualization” that Kenrick folds down into Esteem and other social-capital related values is a bit problematic. Some people, for example, compose music for respect: others do it to get the music in their heads out into the world, to give it life. (Most writers I know write for the same reason.) I think, rather, there may be a sort of fluidity in our brains about different kinds of offspring, whether biological, mechanical (in the case of an inventor or repairman), memetic (the musician or writer), or whatever.

The book does raise interesting questions, while explaining things clearly and understandably. I especially appreciated the section where he and other researchers find evidence supporting a proposition that they’d originally doubted: that the difference between the Religious Right and the Left in America is fruitfully seen as a playing-out of different mating strategies… though it presents us with the dilemma (which Kenrick doesn’t address, beyond saying he takes the issue less personally now) of what we are to do with this reality, given how things far removed from child-rearing (such as foreign policy, the state of public education, and more) hinge on something as basic as the conflict between different mating strategies?

In any case, I liked the book for rounding out my knowledge of some studies, for raising anew certain questions that vex me, and for lending a new perspective on a few interesting questions. Kenrick’s book may not be a groundshaking new contribution to the popularization of evolutionary psychology, but he is interesting and funny… and I think you can safely ignore reviewers who imply he’s sexist, or doesn’t know what he’s talking about. From what I can tell, they weren’t “reading” (or listening) all that carefully, or are hellbent on being offended by scientific inquiry into human sex differentiation… or, they simply don’t understand what’s being argued. I am pretty sensitive to people justifying sexism on the basis of theory, whether scientific, cultural, or otherwise, and I saw none of that. And Kenrick doesn’t gloss over racism: indeed, his discussion offers a partial explanation for it. (Incomplete, yes, but what are we expecting him to do, explain it all the way through?)

As for the audio, Fred Stella is a good narrator in general, with a friendly and engaging narrative voice. The only thing that drove me crazy was the amount of punched-in dubbing in the text, especially — and somewhat embarrassingly — in the names of researchers who had worked with Kenrick. One wishes that whoever was producing the audiobook had gone ahead and either gotten the pronunciations checked beforehand, or at least allowed Stella to punch in and out with longer clips. Or, hell, a little more professional handling of the audio setup could have made the edits done later a little bit less apparent. But all in all, it was very well narrated.

gordsellar: Your host on this site. I'm an SF writer, homebrewer, and expat teaching at a university in South Korea. My policies for commenters on this site can be read here.
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