Forget nature versus nurture.
From cooperation to social stigma,
morality to mating, evolutionary adaptation
is the key to understanding human behavior,
says Penn psychologist Robert Kurzban.

We’ve arrived a bit early at McFadden’s, a cavernous wood-paneled bar situated in the urban wasteland between hip Old City Philadelphia and up-and-coming Northern Liberties. It is nearly empty, but “Ed”—a 33-year-old engineer from the suburbs who prefers to remain anonymous—is already here, sitting on a bar stool, awaiting the start of another HurryDate party.

Ed is a veteran of these gatherings, at which men move between tables for a series of four-minute dates with a dozen or more women of similar ages. Afterwards, participants indicate their choices—people they’d like to see again—and are sent any matches by e-mail. Ed, attractive, personable, and looking to start a family, says he usually receives a couple of matches after a HurryDate event. But not a single woman has responded to his request for a real-life date. “I find they don’t follow up,” he laments.

Beer in hand, Robert Kurzban, assistant professor of psychology at Penn, nods sympathetically. This puzzling non-responsiveness may be bad news for Ed. But it is excellent news for Kurzban, buttressing his current theory about HurryDating preferences. “This is exactly what we find in our data,” he says quietly. At these events, “people are shifting into a short-term mating mode,” even if they say they are looking for a long-term partner. That means women, just like men, tend to choose largely on the basis of physical attractiveness, disregarding factors such as income and social status.

The HurryDating women are “very driven by the local environment,” says Kurzban, who hypothesizes that both the bar setting and the intoxicating presence of so many prospective partners may trigger short-term mating behavior. “And once they get to a different environment”—for instance, back home—“their preferences are very different.” And they don’t seem to include Ed, who, despite many fine attributes, is no Bill Gates.

The 36-year-old Kurzban has attracted national media attention this past year for his work on HurryDating. It’s a new direction for him. In the past few years, he has won recognition for research on topics such as coalitional psychology, social stigma, race, and moralistic punishment. Cross-trained in economics and anthropology, and known for his broad range of interests, Kurzban was the chief organizer this year of the annual conference of the Human Evolution and Behavior Society, held at Penn in June and attended by leading figures in the field of evolutionary psychology [See sidebar].

“Rob is already a superstar in evolutionary psychology, and he’s a rising star in social science at large,” says Martie G. Haselton, associate professor of communications studies and psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles. “He’s been a real pioneer—the first to explore several topics, including serious applications of evolutionary principles to experimental economics. This work has ramifications for understanding one of the most vexing problems of human existence: how to get people to cooperate.”

Kurzban is “a Renaissance man,” says Leda Cosmides, whose 1992 book, The Adapted Mind, co-authored with her husband, John Tooby, is considered one of the founding documents of evolutionary psychology. “Rob’s a brilliant guy, and he’s very creative, and that’s why he can do such high-quality work in so many areas.”

Kurzban says his greatest intellectual joy derives from applying the evolutionary paradigm, which sees human psychology in terms of evolved adaptations, to a range of problems in social psychology and other disciplines. “To be able to read different literatures—for example, the social stigma literature, the literature of morality, the literature of leadership—and apply an evolutionary analysis has been the exciting thing for me,” he says, “because all of these things allow us to take a large body of research that’s been done and look at it in a way that hasn’t been applied before. And that’s why you see me moving from cooperation in groups to morality to mating.” In each case, he says, re-thinking existing data using an evolutionary approach can “lead to what, I hope, are new insights, as well as new empirical work that allows us to make progress.”

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/06

The Reverse Engineer
By Julia M. Klein

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

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“It’s Not Just Mating Anymore”