Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life by Douglas T. Kenrick
As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.
Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity are Revolutionizing our View of Human Nature by Douglas T. Kenrick (a social psychologist), is a book that examines what murder, sex, religion, cheating, and yes, even the meaning in life have in common.
As Kenrick explains, most of our actions throughout life are fueled by selfish biases that helped our species evolve and our ancestors to survive many eons ago. From these biases we form simple mental mechanisms that lead to the emergence of complexity we see all around us everyday. Our actions that appear on the surface to sometimes be illogical, often have very logical underpinnings.
In the book, Kenrick describes how Maslow's hierarchy has evolved over the years and goes further to discuss how the apex, self-actualization, is just a self-centered step on the way to a much higher goal—taking care of other people. So the renovated pyramid of motivation helps us to see the tight linkages between topics as disparate as sex and self-actualization, clarifying the structural connections between the muddy bricks down by the gutter and the shinier ones up near the stars And it points us to a higher meaning of life, lifting us above our immediate cravings and into the firmament of social interconnectedness.
But, what does Kenrick believe is the meaning of life? In the final chapter he talks about how there are two ways to interpret the question:
1) How does it all fits together - which he concludes is answered very well by evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and dynamical systems theory
2) How can we live a more meaningful life
In regard to the first way to interpretation of the question, there is a certain beauty to the emergence of complexity in the world around us. Atoms becoming molecules, molecules becoming cells, cells become organisms, and many organisms coming together to make not only human beings that can contemplate the meaning of life, but also a wide variety of lifeforms we see around us. Everything comes together and we continue to develop our theories on how that takes place.
For the second interpretation of the question, Kenrick reflects on his own life, and what has given him the most fulfillment. He thinks back to all the time he has spent with his children, and though the memories aren't always happy ones, they do bring about a greater sense of fulfillment than other memories. Of course, evolutionary biology would have something to say about this, and our internal desire to see our offspring flourish. Yet, not all evolved lifeforms have this same bond with their children; humans are particularly different from many mammals (but not all), because of the significant amount of time we need to invest in our offspring to ensure they reach maturity. Humans aren't built to be happy all the time, so although some studies have shown that couples without children are sometimes happier, there may be a lesser sense of fulfillment in their lives.
Kenrick also recalls often being told that he should do what's right for himself. Yet, he says upon thinking about this further, the greatest sense of fulfillment comes from doing what's right for those that we love. He then also cites a study where people got to choose from getting $20 to spend on oneself, or $5 to spend on someone else. The choice that left people most fulfilled, though it had less monetary value, was the unselfish one.
According to Kenrick, the way to live a more meaningful life is doing what's right for those we love—children, perhaps, most importantly, but other family and friends shouldn't be far to follow. Take time, savor the moments you have with your loved ones—in that, you can find meaning.
Overall, the book was a delightful and educating read. It was interesting to learn Kenrick's views on how religion and even liberalism can be two different reproductive strategies. In addition, he hits on many other topics, e.g., why men often seek younger mates—women, older companions, how love has inspired the some of the greatest artists, and even why we sometimes have homicidal thoughts. Despite the title, insight into the meaning of life was a bit sparse, but Kenrick did have a few nuggets of wisdom to bestow upon us towards the end.
Overall - 7
Meaning of Life Relevance - 2
Uniqueness – 5
If you read the book, what did you think? What did we miss? Comment below and let us know.