David Barash – The Evolutionary Outlier

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David BarashThe irony of teaching Peace Studies and being included in a listing of the ‘101 Most Dangerous Academics in America’ isn’t lost on David Barash: for a while after the book was published, he mockingly took to signing his emails as Dangerous David.

An evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, David is no stranger to stirring up controversy, whether he’s talking evolution, animal behaviour, or the human penchant for revenge.

One of the earliest contributors to the growth of socio-biology – the study of social behaviour with particular focus on the role of evolution. Sociobiology, says David, “involves examining what living things do – including complex actions such as courtship, parenting, altruism and its flip-side, conflict and competition – with an eye to how they reflect evolutionary, genetic strategies.”

It’s no accident he speaks of examining what living things – rather than people – do; he has extensively studied animal behaviour as well, especially the evolution and ecology of social systems among free-living animals.

Sociobiology, which has recently transformed into something called evolutionary psychology, has been one of David’s key focus areas: how evolutionary factors affect human behaviour, monogamy for instance.

More recently he has also actively pursued the nascent discipline – or rather, approach – of peace studies, which concerns itself with matters of war and peace. “Peace Studies differs from traditional academic fields like international relations in two ways,” he says. “For one, it’s clear about having a vague orientation in favour of peace and against war. Secondly, it gives equal attention to the matter of ‘positive peace’ – the question of what type of world we want, rather than just what we are against (in this case war).”

It seems odd for one man to study evolution, animal behaviour and peace but David sees an underlying connection. “These issues are fundamentally linked, they all involve questions of how biology affects behaviour, including male-female differences, reproductive strategies, and the troubling problem of violence in living things generally,” he says.

A Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, perhaps David’s greatest demonstration of peace studies come through in the fact that a frequent collaborator on his books – he has authored 30 titles covering his three core interest areas – is his wife, psychiatrist Judith Eve Lipton. The two have collaborated, among other things, on the provocative The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People, apart from a host of articles and research works over the last few decades.

Barash’s various interests collide frequently – and fascinatingly – in his writings; in Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature, he uses the cutting-edge ideas of contemporary Darwinism to illustrate how the heroes and heroines of our favourite stories – from Homer all the way to Bridget Jones – have been molded as much by evolution as by the genius of their creators.

More recently he authored Payback: Why We Retaliate, Redirect Aggression and Take Revenge, an indepth look at revenge, and the concept of redirected aggression, responsible for inexplicable, nasty behaviour by otherwise decent people – as well as how we can rise above it.

Practising what he preaches in more ways than one, David and his wife live on a 10-acre farm in Redmond with 4 horses, 4 dogs, 6 cats, a remarkably demanding cockatoo, and a three-legged turtle.

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