It’s really hard to compile a list of the best evolutionary psychology books.
Most of all, it’s difficult for me to rank them, because there are so many good ones.
But I finally got over the hump, and came up with the best evo psych books:
#12. Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism
This is the typical book that most authors in this same list would abhor:
- It’s biased by leftist and feminist ideology
- It’s more concerned about “how things should be” than “how things are”.
What is it doing on this list, then?
Well, Ghodsee discusses something you won’t find in any other book in this list: the power struggle between men and women as groups, and not just as individuals.
Indeed, most other evolutionary psychologists on this list either deny, misunderstand, or choose to ignore that men can sometimes, and do sometimes share similar interests in repressing and disempowering women.
That can happen even while all those men are pursuing individualistic goals as well as while they competing among themselves for sexual access to women.
When a large enough percentage of men all gain denying women resources and power, then the net result looks as if they were acting as a homogenous group pursuing a concerted effort (the famous “patriarchy”).
So, yeah, feminists say a lot of dumb things. But they are not wholly wrong about everything.
And evolutionary psychology authors should stop reacting to a biased world view with more bias on their own.
Could it be a coincidence that all other authors on this list are men?
Let’s focus instead on what’s true.
#11. How The Mind Works
“How the Mind Works” is Pinker’s Magnus opera.
And albeit I don’t personally like Steven Pinker, he’s written something good.
In “How the Mind Works”, Pinker draws from both evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He sets out to explain the intricacies of the human mind, from cognition, to categorization, to social intelligence.
I personally find the book becomes a bit too deterministic when it comes to evolution and life.
And I coined these two fallacies that apply to a few evolutionary psychology authors:
- The “perfect machine fallacy”: the idea that organisms are perfect adaptations, working like clockwork machines
- The “perfect designer fallacy”: the idea that evolution will always shape organisms to be the best possible adaptations for the environment
Albeit probably Pinker knows better and would deny the above claims, “How the Mind Works” gives readers the idea that organisms are perfect, machine-like adaptations, and that evolution works better than any humanly engineered system.
#10. The Blank Slate
It’s crazy when you think about it:
Still today, mounds of data and evidence notwithstanding, plenty of people still deny the presence of innate human drives, the importance of genes in shaping character and behavior, and the inborn psychological toolkit we all come equipped with.
Yet, we still need to be careful when talking about “inborn drives and urges”.
And still live in a world where the truth must be defended tooth and claw -ironic, since the leftist blank slate dogma denies humans have any inherent drive towards conflict and competition-.
Luckily, Pinker took it upon himself in denouncing the leftist dogma of the blank slate.
If you want to learn more about why the “tabula rasa hypothesis“, behaviorism, and the “standard social science model” are just plain wrong, this is your book.
“Behave” is an overview of… Everything human.
It’s Sapolsky’s Magnus opera, and the only reason it’s not higher than #9. is that “Behave” is not focused on evolutionary psychology, but on human psychology and behavior in general.
And since evolutionary psychology is so central to human behavior, it also deals with evolutionary psychology.
So it can be a great text to put evolutionary psychology into the greater perspective of brain structure, genes, and biology.
And when it comes to quality, “Behave” is one of the best sources you can find.
When I first read “The Social Animal” by Elliot Aronson I thought there could be no better book on psychology, social psychology, and people.
Then I started reading “Behave”, and I wasn’t sure anymore.
#8. Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters
This one is controversial.
And for many reasons.
Sadly, the “controversy” also includes the quality of the presented evidence and the scientific approach (or lack thereof) on a few passages.
I agree with the authors’ stance against the politicized “standard social science model” where nurture always trumps a non-existing nature. But WBPHMD goes a bit overboard with it and becomes slightly political in its own right.
That being said, it’s a wonderful primer for beginners and younger folks who are just starting out on their path to enlightenment. WBPHMD is beginner-friendly because it presents key evolutionary tenets in a fun and entertaining Q&A format.
But don’t be fooled by the “beginner” part.
Even as a non-beginner, I still learned a lot from “Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters”.
#7. The Moral Animal
I have a special connection with “The Moral Animal”.
It’s how my (love) story and quest to study and understand people and psychology started.
Back then I still used to read on paper, and these were some of the pages that I copiously took notes on:
When I first started reading “The Moral Animal” I thought I had stumbled into the decryption code of the world.
I was SO hooked: everything just made sense!
“The Moral Animal” does not introduce any new theory.
Indeed, Robert Wright is a journalist.
What he does very well, though, is putting together all the evolutionary psychology findings in a consistent, overarching narrative.
Sure, it came out in 1994 and since then much new research has been performed and led to further advances in the field.
Bust most of the basic tenets of evolutionary psychology are still the same, and they are well represented in “The Moral Animal”.
#6. The Origins of Virtue
This makes a good pair with “The Selfish Gene”, just to rebalance things and understand hte whole truth.
Sure, we are selfish, but we also cooperate.
Why is it so?
Well, “The Origins of Virtue” is dedicated to providing an answer: because, sometimes but not always, cooperation is still good for selfish genes -and for the humans who carry them-.
Ridley’s analysis here is still solely based on rational costs and benefits of cooperation.
And I think there might be one equally important reason why cooperation emerged in humans.
The best evolutionary book in position #1. provides that final answer (or, at least, a theory).
#5. The Red Queen
“The Red Queen” focuses on sex and sexual selection and mating.
And it does a great job at it.
It would be even higher, if it weren’t for “The Evolution of Desire” which covers similar themes.
“The Red Queen” is superior in terms of theoretical framework and in the overview it provides.
But “The Evolution of Desire” is more practical, and it ranks higher because The Power Moves is focused on the practical applications of knowledge.
#4. The Evolution of Desire
If you are looking for practical applications of evolutionary psychology wisdom into human dating and mating, look no further.
This book can be a true eye-opener and it will increase your mating intelligence by 3 fold.
#3. The Selfish Gene
The Selfish Gene, popularizing Hamilton’s work, ushered a revolution in the social sciences.
That being said, as many revolutions do, it went too far for a while.
Today, most social sciences accept that selfish interests can sometimes be best achieved by cooperation.
Luckily, Dawkins is a true scientist, and he took stock of the evidence, acknowledged the mistake, and made amends.
In more recent versions of “The Selfish Gene”, Dawkins writes:
Cooperation and mutual assistance can flourish even in a basically selfish world (…) we can see how even nice guys can finish first.
Dawkins went as far as to say that he could have called his book “The Cooperative Gene”.
That is not to say that the “Selfish Gene” was wrong, though. The idea that most of what we do is in service of the selfish gene’s reproductive goals still holds true.
The Selfish Gene-type of thinking also spilled over into -and improved- other branches of science.
For example, the standard model of courtship communication was that animals (and humans) communicate about themselves to facilitate mating. But Dawkins and Krebs realized that communication is sometimes cooperative and sometimes about the deception of one’s true fitness and intentions (Dawkins & Krebs, 1978).
And of course, they’re right…
#2. Evolutionary Psychology
This the leading textbook on evolutionary psychology.
If you want to have the broadest overview of evolutionary psychology, this your book.
Albeit designed as a textbook for graduate students, it’s equally good for the general public.
#1. The Mating Mind
If you want to understand evolutionary psychology, like truly understand evolutionary psychology, then you need to read this one right after you read Buss’ textbook.
I feel that a few evolutionary psychology authors fall for what I call “evolutionary determinism”, such as the belief that “the best trait always wins”.
And in our contemporary academic culture, the traits that win often end up being the best trait for survival, not for mating and courtship.
But evolution is more complex.
It’s both survival and reproduction, at the same time.
Sometimes the two don’t go hand in hand, but can (partially) move against each other.
Miller also does a great job at explaining the messier and more complex nature of evolution.
The same name “evolution” can be misleading as it seems to imply that it’s a continuous march towards “better and stronger”.
But that’s not always the case.
To begin with, remember that genetic mutations don’t develop with a predisposition towards helping the individual survive or reproduce, but they first evolve out of total randomness.
Genetic mutations are not always an “evolution” on the past in the sense of “being better” but they develop as simple variations that can either be helpful, harmful, or neutral.
Only after the variations developed they can be selected for or against by the environment and by the interaction with the other members of the same species.
And sometimes, it’s also possible that a trait can be good for mating, but not for survival.
Think for example about the deers’ antlers, or the peacock tail: they do not help them survive, but they still evolved bigger and bigger thanks to sexual selection (runaway sexual selection, in some cases).
Back to “The Mating Mind’s” main theory now.
Sexual selection is how we possibly evolved our wonderful brain. And how we also evolved kindness and altruism.
After all, why would men give more in tips and charity when a woman is watching? Why would that be, if not because kindness and altruism (also) evolved thanks to sexual selection?
That is Miller’s simple, yet genius insight.
Dating Power Dynamics
If you’re interested in evolutionary psychology to help you date better, than this is your book.
Outside of The List, With Ignominy:
A few books have the power to make me read in awe.
While some others, make me rail at the book :).
Most often, it’s because the author is biased and is “bending” science to fit his narrative while still pretending to be a scientist.
That’s the ultimate manipulation to me: science is our best weapon for progress, and it must remain neutral (see: “Enlightenment Now“).
These are the evolutionary books that should come with the scarlet letter of “anti-science”:
This is both in the list of “best evolutionary psychology books” and in the list of “worst evolutionary psychology books”.
A few of the “leftist” and “blank slate” biases that most evolutionary psychologists complain about are present here.
There are two main theses in “Sex at Dawn”:
- Humans are not (fully) monogamous
- In the past humans used to freely enjoy sex just like the bonobos
The first one is a well-accepted and well-supported concept in evolutionary psychology -and by any intelligent person-, so it feels like making a case against a strawman. But overall… All good there.
The problems begin when the authors start making up our past based on what they would have liked, instead of what the evidence supports.
In what the authors dub an “obsession” of evolutionary psychology with paternity, they make the case that sex used to be free and easy in our past -just like it is in bonobos societies, they say-.
Of course, with that comes the moralizing implication that we should all be more like the hippie communes we used to be, instead of the nasty, selfish, and jealous humans we are.
There are of course several issues with that thesis.
To begin with, bonobos can be nasty to each other just like any other great ape (Sapolsky, 2017).
Second, the claim that “fathers didn’t care about paternity” in the past makes little sense.
And finally, even if that were true -which is most likely it’s not-, it has no predictive power as to how we should be.
Even if we half-accept the original thesis, such as that some time in our past a good chunk of men didn’t care about paternity, there are obvious evolutionary reasons why those ancestors who didn’t care about paternity are not well represented today.
Fathers who didn’t care about paternity were out-reproduced by those who did, and they left fewer and fewer copies of their genes.
As a shocker as it might come now, I actually truly enjoyed “Sex At Dawn”.
But it deserves a spot here because it peddles “what I wish it should be” with science, which is the ultimate sin for a scientist.
I’ll go out on a limb and say it:
The reason why Jared Diamond is so popular is that he tells people what they want to hear.
He aligns with the zeitgeist and says that, I quote: “ecological differences among existing humans are entirely the product of childhood and education“.
And he writes:
Until we can come up with a convincing, credible alternative explanation, the suspicion that racist genetic theories might be true will linger.
So now Diamond needs to “come up” with a convincing alternative to convince us all.
Diamond thinks that the public, you and I, need his convincing. Or you might never know that we espouse one of those ugly racist theories daring to say that genes matter, and that different people might differ.
Diamond is not a scientist, he is a politically-motivated author with an agenda.
There is no shame in that by the way. His books would be awesome… If he admitted his own bias.
I loved Diamond’s books, including his most famous work “Guns, Germs, and Steel“.
But when he pretends he is being a neutral and evidence-based writer, then he is doing a disservice to science.
Same as the above, but here the bias is on the opposite end of the spectrum.
This would be another good book actually… If the author didn’t make up evidence to either corroborate his own personal theories, or simply to write a “shocking” book to sell more.
More than two decades after the book has been written there is still no evidence for the “killer sperm” the author lucidly describes and presents as a scientific fact.
But there has not been any correction from the author, who preferred instead to focus on a “10th-anniversary edition” of a book that was based on a lie.
Criticism of Evolutionary Psychology
Let me preface this:
I think evolutionary psychology is one the most important discipline, if not the most important discipline, to truly understand people -and ourselves-.
Yet, there has been lots of criticism of evolutionary psychology.
Some of the criticism is driven by personal biases, wishful thinking, or religious fundamentalism.
Those need not apply, and do not register.
Another chunk of the criticism applies to “pop evolutionary psychology”, such as the evolutionary psychology that people who read one or two books on the topic engage in. That’s the typical “after the facts storytelling”. Or, as Nassim Taleb said, “people who love a nice narrative but have no evidence”.
That criticism also should not compute.
But some criticism is valid.
The methodology of some studies, for example, is inherently limited when all we have to go by is a bunch of surveys. But that applies to all studies using surveys, not just evolutionary psychology, and does not constitute a rebuttal against the whole field.
Finally, one of the criticisms with which I agree the most is the denial or downplaying of culture in shaping human behavior.
Evolutionary psychologists did at times go too far in denying the role of culture. In my opinion, that was to be expected. Some trailblazing and popular evolutionary psychologists like Buss, Moody, and Pinker took the gargantuan task of undoing decades of cultural determinism, a paradigm that Pinker correctly labeled “the denial of human nature”. And the tendency of correcting a previous (mistaken) paradigm is almost always to over-correct.
But that over-reaction, again, does not constitute a rebuttal against the discipline.
And when I look at the discipline as a whole, good evolutionary psychology correctly predicts behavior in a way that has been observed across cultures, as well as measured with different scientific methodologies, and replicated across time and samples.
As of now, I consider evolutionary psychology one of the fundamental disciplines to understand human nature.