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In memoriam John Tooby
Robert Kurzban reflects on the life of a colossus, the man who cofounded modern evolutionary psychology.
Written by Robert Kurzban.
John Tooby died on November 10th, 2023.
He was a husband, a father, a mentor, and a genius. History will remember him as one of the cofounders of the field of evolutionary psychology, along with his wife, Leda Cosmides. And so he was.
In reality, however, John’s contribution was akin to a reinvention, even a renaissance, a rebirthing of psychology and its neighboring disciplines in the social sciences, setting them on new, firmer theoretical grounding, the theory of evolution by natural selection. His legacy is creating the conceptual tools to advance the study of the human mind, human behavior, and human nature.
John was born in 1952, completing his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 1989 at Harvard where, among other things, he participated in meetings of primatologists and social scientists called Simian Seminars, a crucible in which ideas about humans and their place in nature fluoresced. John did not talk to us (his students) a great deal about his Harvard days, but the Simian Seminars always sounded to his students like a kind of mystical academic speakeasy, with ideas so innovative and potentially shocking they could only be voiced in dark smoke-filled rooms in Cambridge.
After some struggles on the academic job market—anthropology as a field, then as now, is not always friendly to the idea that biology is important for understanding human culture—Tooby alighted at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). Unlike many other institutions, UCSB was home to scholars sympathetic to biological approaches. There, with Leda, he founded the Center for Evolutionary Psychology. The Center became something of a capitol of the discipline and their edited volume The Adapted Mind was both its Declaration and Constitution.
The heart of the book was their chapter The Psychological Foundations of Culture, which delivered on the promise in the title. It argued against the standard view in the social sciences (sometimes called the standard social science model, or SSSM) according to which the mind is a general-purpose learning device. Instead, they argued the mind is like a Swiss Army Knife, a collection of specialized computational tools designed to solve the adaptive problems our ancestors faced. John and his wife wove together insights from biology, cognitive science, and anthropology to argue persuasively that evolution is necessary to explain human nature and its many cultural manifestations, from maternal love to classical concertos, from romantic jealousy to epic poetry, from fear of the dark to rock music.
What mind created such insights? For many, to talk to John was to have a moment with the Oracle at Delphi. He was so outrageously broadly read—many people are astonished to learn that his dissertation, in an Anthropology program, was about intragenomic conflict—that there seemed to be no topic about which he did not have insight. His intellect was a lighthouse: he could focus his attention on any question and within moments illuminate the problem at hand.
He was eclectic and intellectually ambitious, addressing virtually every topic of interest to scholars of human nature, from conflicts within the genome to human reasoning to emotions to morality to economics to political science to cultural change. His influence ripples across the social sciences.
John the Mentor
I knew John first and best as mentor. Surely his scholarship is a crucial part of his legacy, but for me—I joined the Tooby/Cosmides lab at UCSB in 1993—his training of the minds of the future ranks among his most important contributions.
The intellectual life John and Leda created at the Center was electric with ideas. Crucial to that was the feeling of amity they cultivated in the lab. New lines of research were birthed in lab meetings, aided by the supportive atmosphere and pizza, which always accompanied our discussions.
Many lessons were given and taken in the lab, too many to enumerate here, but I’ll mention a few that stand out and reflect, if only dimly, what it was to have John as a mentor.
Shortly after giving a presentation in lab, John pulled me aside to tell me I was reading scientific papers wrong. He suspected—correctly—that I started at the Introduction and read through to the Method, Results, and Discussion. I admitted that this was true–after all, this is the order the sections appeared–and he said from now on I was to read the Methods and Results sections first, and the other parts after, if at all. Don’t, in short, be led by the authors’ framing or their inferences. Decide first what the methods actually address, what the results actually show, develop your own explanation, and then—maybe—go back to see if the authors had something to add. Much is revealed in this advice.
John was, to be sure, candid with his criticism, tempered by the fact that his occasionally tough feedback communicated his high expectations. During my first year of graduate school, I handed him a five-page draft of a proposal. He began reading it in front of me and, on reaching the end of the first page, put a single red line from the bottom left corner to the upper right. He handed the page back to me, wordlessly saying, “try again.”
Another lesson began with John asking if I knew the modal number of citations for scientific papers. This question came as I was mulling starting a project which, if I recall correctly, addressed a lingering debate in a corner of the literature on reasoning. In any case, this was before Google Scholar and I indicated I hadn’t the first clue.
Zero, he said. The most common number of citations for a paper is zero. Don’t write average—modal—papers, he said.
Having attracted more than 60,000 citations over his career according to Google Scholar, he was onto something. Indeed, his scholarly achievements have been broadly recognized. To take but a few examples, he won the prestigious Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation, was named a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation—other winners include Linus Pauling and James Watson—and, in 2020, received the Jean Nicod Prize (with Leda). I am confident that had he lived longer, more honors would have been added to the list.
John aimed at important topics. He instructed his students to do the same. Many have indeed gone on to successful careers and important achievements.
John’s influence as a mentor was not restricted to intellectual support. Amid all his academic accomplishments, it is easy to lose sight of the personal. In 1993, as a first-year student in Santa Barbara, I was far from home and struggling with what would be a lifelong affliction with major depression. In November of that year, John and Leda invited me into their home to celebrate Thanksgiving. (I prepared purple mashed potatoes, a topic that would become legend over the years.) It is hard to overstate the healing power of feeling included. John did not just teach his students. He supported them.
Indeed, John built deep connections with those he mentored. He and I shared a love of Star Trek, and our conversations were frequently peppered with favored lines from the series and films. In one meeting, Leda pointed out a confound in an experimental design I was contemplating. There was a beat as John and I both realized her point was correct but there was no plausible way to design around it. I said, “Da air is da air,” evoking a line from an episode in The Original Series – “The air is the air, what can be done?” – and John nodded and smiled in recognition of the point as we shared a moment of connection. Leda, as I recall—quite understandably—rolled her eyes. I can’t speak to his relationships with all of his students, but I know that he inspired love and respect in them, for good reason.
John the Person
John was more than just a superlative academic. He was also a touchingly devoted father, imbued with his academic disposition. I was lucky to visit the Tooby and Cosmides house shortly after their daughter, Nike, was born. I arrived to find a helium balloon tied to her wrist with a delicate thread, bobbing up and down with each wave of her tiny arm. A note was attached, in John’s just-legible scrawl. The exact words are lost to posterity, but the note was addressed to his daughter, something like: Nike, this balloon shows you that you can and will have a causal effect on the world.
I think it is fair to say that John was transformed by his daughter. He talked about discovering life with her as discovering a new world. I never knew him to anything but thrilled to explore this new world.
It goes without saying that he was also a devoted husband. Lab debates between John and his wife Leda occasionally devolved into epic battles between the two, point and counterpoint delivered sharply but affectionately as students looked on wondering if this is what the spectators at the Lincoln-Douglas debates experienced.
John and Leda complemented one another. John saw his role in part as balancing, as he once put it, Leda’s tendency to “take life seriously.” When he created the specifications for a new laboratory at UCSB, John added in carpeting and a sink in the proposal, which were not strictly necessary for the business of the lab, but he thought would be nice to have. When I asked how he was justifying them in the grant budget, he said, “noise attenuation and stimulus preparation,” laughing the laugh of the joyous and carefree. He was a serious scientist, but not always serious.
John insisted that human nature is complicated and, like all of us, he had some foibles. His lectures were occasionally delivered in something of a mumble, and he sometimes struggled to keep his remarks within the time allotted to him. He adopted PowerPoint only as overhead projectors faced extinction in academic classrooms. His quirks were greeted with the grace accorded to someone who, frankly, had much more to say than most, so audiences would receive it in whatever form it was delivered for as long as he would speak.
John acquired his share of academic opponents. Much of the hostility was due to misunderstanding, sometimes willful, of what he was saying. To work at the crossroads of biology and psychology is to tread an inherently fraught path. John’s prose was intensely intellectually rewarding for those who digested it, but not all took the care to do so. My own memories of John are bittersweet because I would have loved to have heard from him after I exited academia. The last time I talked with John would turn out to be at a conference years ago, neither of us knowing that our lighthearted goodbyes that day would be our last. John’s company was a blessing; to lack it, as now we all must, is to know want.
How can John’s impact be measured? The papers, citations, and awards are all part of his legacy, but his influence can be seen in ways more abstract, defying quantification. Key among those is a generation of social scientists, collaborators and students he armed with the tools of evolutionary biology and a relentlessly rigorous adaptationist style of thinking. There are, to be sure, also charming legacies. Many of John’s students unconsciously adopted some of his distinctive linguistic habits–I myself injected “sort of” into most of my sentences for years after leaving the lab–and many former students still do that distinctive hand motion of his, thumb held against fingers, wrists rotating to emphasize a point.
Ultimately, John will be remembered as one of the greatest social scientists of our time. His impact will reverberate for decades. Evolutionary psychology has grown since its inception. Not always as fast and as easily as he would have liked, but the field has spread from its beginnings in the 80s to a tenuous toehold in the 90s to an expanding beachhead today. Evolutionary approaches to psychology and adjacent fields have found their way into the world’s journals, classrooms, newspapers, and laboratories. The society of evolutionary scholars is vibrant and growing. Most importantly, his ideas are standing the tests of time.
John never stopped contributing to human understanding. He never stopped exploring the frontier of the mind. Science has lost a titan who walked among us for not nearly long enough.
Posterity will see him as a quiet intellectual giant, who neither sought nor enjoyed the celebrity that sometimes accompanies scientific genius. He thought deeply, worked hard, and added profoundly to humanity’s body of scientific knowledge. His legacy is etched not only in articles and chapters, but also in the hearts and minds of everyone he touched with his wisdom, kindness, and unwavering commitment to uncovering the truths of human nature. John Tooby's journey may have ended, but the path he charted remains a beacon for all who seek to understand the complex tapestry of the human mind.
He was a beloved mentor, loyal husband, and devoted father.
I’ll paraphrase Captain James T. Kirk and of John I will say: Of all the souls that I have known, his was the most… human.
Robert Kurzban is an American freelance writer and former psychology professor specializing in evolutionary psychology. You can find his Substack Living Fossils here.
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