It’s really hard for me to compile a list of the best evolutionary psychology books.
Most of all, it’s difficult for me to rank them, because I love them all.
I think evolutionary psychology is a fundamental discipline to truly understand humans.
When I hear its critics saying “it’s not falsifiable” (not true) or “it’s not a well respected discipline in the world of academia”, I always wonder: do you even look at people and how they behave, or just read papers?
Because evolutionary psychology just makes sense, adds up, and explains much of the behavior that any socially intelligent individual can see and experience first hand.
And that’s true whether or not this or that academic “respects it” or not.
Alright, enough with the rant, down with the list:
#10. Sex At Dawn
There are two central thesis of “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, so attacking the “institution” of monogamy feels a bit like a strawman.
In its critique of the “Western monogamy institution”, the book feels more intent in destroying than building a coherent theory in an objective way. But still, until there it’s all good.
It’s the second concept which is more debatable.
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.
The authors say that “fathers didn’t care about paternity” in the past. Maybe. And that’s exactly why they are not well represented today :).
Fathers that didn’t care about paternity couldn’t have been widespread for too long.
So, in line with standard evolutionary psychology thought, I don’t buy that theory of a “hippy” human past.
But it’s always good to challenge your beliefs, and there are many more golden nuggets in Sex at Dawn spread throughout the book, which is why it still makes it to the top 10 of best evolutionary psychology books.
By R Sapolsky
Summary | Audiobook
“Behave” is an overview of.. Everything human.
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.
“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 human behavior.
#8. Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters
This one is controversial.
And for many reasons.
Sadly, the “controversial” also includes the quality of evidence and scientific approach (or lack thereof) on a few passages of the book.
And in its strong and recurring stance against the politicized “standard social science model” where nurture always trumps a non-existing nature, WBPHMD also become slightly political on its own.
That being said, it’s a wonderful primer for beginners and younger folks who are just beginning their path to enlightenment 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 codes of the world.
I was hooked: everything just made sense!
“The Moral Animal” does not make any prediction or 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 theory.
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.
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-.
The calculation here is still based on rational costs and benefits though, and there might be one important reason cooperation emerged.
The best evolutionary book in position #1. provides the 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 also focused on practical applications of knowledge.
#4. Evolutionary Psychology
By D Buss
Summary | Amazon
If you want to have the broadest overview of evolutionary psychology, this your book.
It’s designed as a textbook for graduate students, but it’s equally good for the general public.
This is the “manual” of evolutionary psychology.
Still underestimating sexual selection in my -and Miller’s- opinion, but it’s a high quality work.
#3. The Selfish Gene
The Selfish Gene, popularizing Hamilton’s work, ushered a revolution in the social sciences.
That being said, as most revolutions, it might have gone 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, acknowledged 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 areas of life.
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 deception of one’s true fitness and intentions (Dawkins & Krebs, 1978).
And of course, they’re right…
#2. The Evolution of Desire
If you are looking for practical applications of evolutionary psychology wisdom into human dating and mating, look no further.
#1. The Mating Mind
If you want to understand evolutionary psychology, like truly understand evolutionary psychology, then you need to read this one.
I feel that a few evolutionary psychology authors fall for what I call “evolutionary determinism”, such as the belief that “the best option always wins”. And it often ends up being the best option 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.
Evolution indeed can be messy and random. And sometimes a trait that might bad for the species’ survival can still thrive thanks to runaway sexual selection.
This is a simple fact of evolution, but seems like it’s been forgotten by many modern authors.
Sexual selection is how we possibly evolved our wonderful brain. And how we also evolved kindness and altruism.
After all, men give more freely 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?
At least, Miller certainly makes a compelling case for both. And he convinced me.
Dating Power Dynamics
Outside of The List, With Ignominy:
A few books have the power to make me read in awe.
While some others, make me angry for one reason or another.
Most often though, it’s because the author is biased and “bending” science to fit his narrative while still pretending to be a scientist.
These are the evolutionary book that should come with the scarlet letter of “anti-science”:
I’ll go out on a limb and say it:
The reason why Jared Diamond is so popular is because 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 is not a scientist, he is a biased, politically-motivated author with an agenda.
There is no shame in that by the way. His books would be awesome… If he admitted it his own bias.
But when he pretends he is being a neutral and evidence-based writer, then he is doing a great 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 described.
But there is 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.