skip menus and go right to content



LifeWatch Employee Assistance Program




Topic Home  Related:  
Book Review - Psychology
by Steven J.C. Gaulin and Donald H. McBurney
Prentice-Hall, 2000
Review by Keith S. Harris, PhD
Feb 6th 2001

Evolutionary psychology is not a specialized subfield of psychology, such as personality psychology or abnormal psychology. Instead, it is a different way of thinking about the entire field. Its insights and methods should be the groundwork for the study of psychology, not an afterthought. (pp. xii - xiii)

This remarkably well-crafted work is written ostensibly as an introductory text for undergraduate college students, but will be accessible to and understandable by general readers as well. Even those already very familiar with current thought in evolutionary psychology will find this book an excellent resource. The authors are both in academia: Gaulin's background is in biological anthropology and McBurney's is in psychology. These two areas of study are especially complementary, a fact that this book illustrates.

One of the fundamental limitations of traditional psychology, according to these authors, is that it doesn't address what the mind is for. This question, they point out, is at the heart of other biologically based sciences, and it should be at the heart of psychology as well. Evolutionary psychology offers this perspective to the field. In showing how the processes of natural selection have evolved our human nature, the purpose of the mind (along with our other attributes) becomes clearer. As the authors point out, evolution provides the foundation for psychology as an empirically based science.

And in keeping with this approach, the foremost of the many commendable qualities of this text is the successful application of evolutionary principles to the entire range of human nature and behavior - - e.g., perception, cognition, consciousness, identity and social or group interactions. In considering common human characteristics and tendencies, the authors demonstrate the evolutionarily derived principles that most likely underlie them. They provide a point-by-point comparison of evolutionary psychology and traditional psychology (which they refer to as the SSSM - - the "standard social sciences model"), so that the reader understands the subtle but profound differences between the two approaches.

The first section of the book provides a thorough overview of the theory of evolution, including some of the important clarifications in the field since Darwin. This is very useful as a review for those already familiar with the theory and, for readers less facile with the subject, this section serves as a necessary prologue to the extension of the theory to include human behavior and psychology. In addition, the field of genetics is briefly but adequately covered.

The book then moves on progressively to cover almost all the areas of specialized interest in psychology - - learning and cognition, perception, the purpose and functioning of emotions, human sexual strategies, normal human development, decision-making heuristics, and the causes and course of human psychopathology.

Key bits of information and central elements of theory are highlighted in shaded frames throughout the chapters; these are labeled as Trail Markers. At the end of each chapter is a concise but excellent summary of the chapter's main points. (The use of these two techniques highlights the target audience of the book.) The authors follow a logical system of presentation, in which each chapter sensibly leads to the next. The layout and editing of the book are flawless, although it would have been nice for the publisher to offer an edition with hardcover binding.

There are other excellent university-level texts on evolutionary psychology, such as David Buss's first-rate book, Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of Mind, published in 1999. But Gaulin and McBurney's Psychology: An Evolutionary Approach is an especially well written, thought provoking and comprehensive book, and therefore highly recommended.

Keith Harris, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and supervisor of Victor Valley Behavioral Health Center in San Bernardino county, California. His interests include clinical supervision, the empirical basis for psychotherapy research (and its design), human decision-making processes, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.