Review: Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life – Douglas Kenrick

When a baseball player steps up to the plate and wags his bat at the wall past outfield, it’s a sign.  Next pitch is a homerun.  When someone, in this case, Douglas Kenrick, entitles a book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life it’s the literary equivalent of holding a bat straight out to the centerfield wall.

The introduction begins, “You and I have probably never met, but you might be shocked to learn how well we know one another and how intimately our lives are connected.”  Kenrick goes on to say, “this is a book about the biggest question we can ask: What is the meaning of life?”  However, he explores questions regarding the choices people make and how evolution may play into those decisions, without really addressing the meaning of life, or the other question he brings up, “How can I live a more meaningful life?”  Instead, as if he were ready for critic’s comments, Kenrick states, “Despite what you might have read in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, first impressions can be misleading.  If you do a blink-style speed-read of this book, you might think it is mostly about me…But if you keep reading, I am pretty sure you’ll discover that this book is really about you, your family, and your friends and about the important decisions you confront every day.”

It feels like Kenrick is putting the onus on the reader.  If you think the book is about me, obviously you are not a close reader, obviously you skimmed my book.  Balance those sentences with the powerful title and warning signs may begin to flare.  In my experience, books are skimmed because they are not engaging.  Let’s look at the sentences with some modifications.  “If you do a blink-style speed-read of this book, you may think I am not an engaging writer.  But if you keep reading, I’m pretty sure you’ll discover that this book is worth it.”  It’s hard to get past “but if you keep reading.”  As I thought about it, my main impulse was to say, “But if you keep reading, I’m pretty sure you’ll discover that this book is not really engaging.”

Stripped away, Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life is a book centered around the author and his interests.  The writing trends toward creating a persona of a New York City kid turned intellectual but still with his folksy, blue-collar charm.  It comes across feeling as fabricated as Hillary Clinton having a shot of whiskey with rural constituents.  Someone may say a scientist researches their interests, and thus Kenrick’s interests are really the foundation of his research.  That may be the case, but I didn’t find Kenrick’s interests and research too interesting.  Instead, the tone of the book is soapbox.  He’s not looking to help people have a more meaningful life, but is defending evolutionary psychology against critics.  Moreover, he is supplanting structure with stories from his life.

Overall, I came away having learned some concepts of evolutionary and cognitive psychology, but it was at a cost.  The cost was wading through a tiresome narrative from a writer who loves spinning yarns, but is not a good storyteller nor an engaging writer.  The cost was being placed in the middle of a brawl between a defensive scientist and the status quo without a background in experimental design.  The cost was a writer who was ready to turn on his reader in the first few pages of the introduction.  With a title like Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life, the reader expects a homerun and deserves at least a double play.  Kenrick displayed his personality with a catchy title, then left the crowd disappointed with a grounder skittering along the infield dirt.

2 Responses to “Review: Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life – Douglas Kenrick”

  1. Tim

    I also came away with a desire to read Blink. Not only is Blink really good (Gladwell is a talented writer), but Kenrick seems to have misunderstood Gladwell’s book, because it has nothing to do with speed reading.

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