What do sex and murder have to do with the meaning of life?

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What do sex and murder have to do with the meaning of life?
What good could come from studying topics like incest, homicidal fantasies, and one night stands?

If the nuns who taught me at St. Joseph’s elementary school were still alive, they’d likely say a prayer for me, and wonder where they went wrong. Not only am I still cracking jokes in the classroom, but I’ve spent my adult life mucking around with some pretty sinful topics: I’ve studied one-night stands, incest, homicidal fantasies, and man’s hatred for his fellow man. Goodness, I’ve even published a couple of papers suggesting that going to church may be just another mating strategy (Li, Cohen, Weeden, & Kenrick, 2010).

A number of years back, when I told my friend David Funder that I was doing some research on everyday people’s thoughts about murder, he raised his eyebrow, and observed: “Kenrick, it seems like the M.O. for an evolutionary psychologist is this: Pick a topic that is normally not even whispered about in polite company, and shine a big spotlight on it.”

 

Funder’s assessment was not completely unfair. But my colleagues and I don’t pick these unsavory topics just because it’s what sells in the tabloids. Instead, we study these things because these are the issues with which humans the world over concern themselves –who’s sleeping with whom, who might stab me in the back, who might hurt my kids, and on and on. Why do so many people read the tabloids and gossip magazines like People and Us, anyway? Because they have better book reviews than the New York Times, or because they have rumors about which powerful man is cheating on his wife and sleeping with which Hollywood ingénue? And why have people the world over shelled out billions of hard-earned dollars a year and stood in long lines to see movies like Gone with the Wind, Titanic, Braveheart, and Avatar? It’s not to appreciate the finer points of cinematography, it’s because the movies present vivid conflicts between the bad guys (them) and the good guys (us), brave and heroic men involved in love affairs with beautiful young women, and other topics humans have always gossiped about.

There’s more to evolutionary psychology than just sensationally engaging topics, however. We evolutionary psychologists are also searching for an integrated conceptual paradigm to unite the social sciences with our neighboring biological sciences. Sometimes it can sound a bit grandiose —like the claim that the evolutionary perspective can integrate psychology, economics, political science, biology, and anthropology, and our further insistence that the perspective has profound implications for applied disciplines like law, medicine, business, and education. But it’s not just academic -- these issues have important implications for everyone—from your relatives in rural Wisconsin to the members of the U.N. Security Council. If there is any hope of changing the world for the better, from reducing family violence to reversing overpopulation and international conflict, economists, educators, and political leaders will need interventions based on a sound understanding of what people are really like, not some fairy-tale version of what we’d like them to be.

 
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