This is a great book for those who have read some Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and/or Edward O. Wilson and want to get an idea of what the academic writings behind the scene of popular introductions to Darwinian evolution and evolutionary psychology might look like. The range of topics is wide, from (a representative title from each section) Life History Theory and Human Development, to Sociogenomics for the Cognitive Adaptionist, to Biological Adaptations and Human Behavior, to Physical Attractiveness: Signals of Phenotypic Quality and Beyond, to How Selfish by Nature?, to Psychopathology and Mental Illness, and finally to The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion. There is even cutting edge research recently featured in the New York Times based on the work of Christopher Badcock found in An Evolutionary Theory of Mind and Mental Illness: Genetic Conflict and the Mentalistic Continuum. Getting this book for that chapter alone is worth it.
However the book isn't perfect. The final chapter, The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion by Scott Atran, starts out like a serious academic work, describing, for instance, that the number of supernatural events in a story is between two and three for the story to be credible. Only one supernatural event, or ten supernatural events make a story unbelievable--an interesting observation in the study of the psychology of religion.
But in the last two pages, the conclusion of the chapter, Atran makes a factual error and then a foundational empirical error.
His factual error is "...religious fervor is increasing across parts of the world, including in the United States, the world's most economically powerful and scientifically advanced society." In contrast Newsweek (April 13, 2009) says:
According to the American Religious Identification Survey..., the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent. The Jewish population is 1.2 percent; the Muslim, 0.6 percent. A separate Pew Forum poll echoed the ARIS finding, reporting that the percentage of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith has doubled in recent years, to 16 percent; in terms of voting, this group grew from 5 percent in 1988 to 12 percent in 2008--roughly the same percentage of the electorate as African-Americans. (Seventy-five percent of unaffiliated voters chose Barack Obama, a Christian.) Meanwhile, the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million. (That is about double the number of, say, Episcopalians in the United States.)
His foundational empirical error is based in "Science cannot tell us what we ought to do or what ought to be; it can tell us only what we can do and what is. Religion thrives because it address our deepest emotional yearnings and society's foundational moral needs." He continues with his assessment that Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins "are all arrogantly out of their depth" for arguing that "science can replace religion". This placement of religion along side of science with certain properties it alone has is not unlike Stephen Jay Gould's discredited NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria). If this is a material world, and there is no empirical evidence to suggest it is not, it is ALL science. This little fact upends everything Atran argues for in his conclusion. Because science can't yet answer how a particular person chooses what is moral for her doesn't mean it should be relegated to the religious magisteria. It just means that science hasn't found the answer yet and more work has to be done.
This conclusion oddly seems to have nothing to do with what was said earlier in the chapter and seems to be tacked on at the last moment. He should have left it off because it takes away from the scientific approach in the rest of the chapter and of the book. It's an unfortunate way to end this good academic introduction to evolutionary psychology. Tear out those two pages and this book gets five stars!