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The Evolution of Mind: Fundamental Questions and Controversies, edited by Steven W. Gangestad and Jeffrey A. Simpson is a remarkable collection of 43 bite-sized essays by leading contributors to the study of the evolution of mind, plus useful introductory and concluding chapters by the editors. To an outsider, evolutionary psychology may seem to be a monolithic edifice. Of course, this is far from true. When one becomes more familiar with the ins and outs of the field it becomes apparent that there are numerous controversies within it. It is vital for the health any intellectual endeavor that its practitioners and theorists foster debate and encourage diversity of opinion. In doing so, we follow the example of Mother Nature who, as Darwin taught us, first generates diversity and then selects what is best. To this end, Gangestead and Simpson have zeroed in on twelve controversies, and invited three to six to contributors -- many of whom are heavy hitters -- to address each question in a short essay.
The controversies canvassed in The Evolution of Mind fall into three broad categories. The first category concerns methodological issues. Contributors give their views on how we can go about reconstructing the evolution of the human mind, the role of present-day fitness outcomes, whether the study of our closest primate relatives is of any utility in reconstructing our psychological evolution, and the role of quantitative cost/benefit analysis. The second category concerns metatheoretical issues including questions about modularity, developmental systems and group selection. The final category concerns "evolutionary outcomes" and includes discussions of the specific evolutionary pressures that may have caused us to speciate, the forces that acted to produce our massive brains, the evolutionary significance of the capacity for abstraction, the relationship between evolution and culture, and the evolution of hominid mating systems.
This is quite a broad sweep, and even the most dedicated follower of evolutionary psychology will find some of the contributions well outside of their range of interests. However, the editors have chosen their contributors well. Each contribution is informative, and most of them are clearly written, as the tight restriction on length forces each writer to express himself or herself concisely. Consequently, most of the essays are very concentrated, and enable one to learn a great deal with a small investment of reading time. The only longer pieces are the editors' introductory and concluding chapters. I found both of these immensely valuable as they set out the context and drew out some of the implications of the issues addressed in the shorter contributions.
This is a very useful book for anyone sufficiently immersed in evolutionary psychology to appreciate what is at stake in the debates. It will be less useful to newcomers to the field, who will first need to acquire a knowledge base that is broad and deep enough to enable them to follow what is going on. At times, the choice of topics seems rather arbitrary, although this is perhaps inevitable given that there is so much work going on in evolutionary psychology in so many different areas. Sometimes, when a controversy is discussed, it is not always obvious where the controversy lies. For example, the section on group selection would have benefited from a piece by someone less convinced by the utility of evolutionary explanations adverting to selection at this "level". To my mind, the volume would have been enriched if their had been input from my own discipline of philosophy (Kim Sterelny was the only philosopher with an essay in the volume). Given the rather abstract and conceptual character of many of the issues discussed, a few more well-chosen essays from philosophers who are working on issues pertaining to the evolution of mind (for example, Ruth Garrett Millikan, David Papeneau and Peter Godfrey-Smith) would have enriched the conversation. One final quibble. Text citations are not always included in the references. On several occasions I came upon some tantalizing tidbit and was disappointed when I turned to the list of references seeking to discover where I could find out more. This is not the fault of Gangestad and Simpson. Their copy-editor must have been asleep at the wheel.
In conclusion, this is a terrific book for the connoisseur of evolutionary psychology -- who will be stimulated, informed and intrigued by it. It will be a valuable addition to the library of anyone seriously interested in what evolutionary science has to say about human nature.
© 2007 David Livingstone Smith
David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of New England
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