Leda Cosmides is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. She has had a profound impact on the field of psychology. Her dissertation research, on the evolutionary logic of social exchange, which was published in the journal, has been cited 1886 times, according to Google Scholar. The same program of research was also the centerpiece of her chapter in The Adapted Mind, and that chapter alone has been cited 2116 times (a rather impressive figure for a book chapter, since most of them disappear in complete anonymity). She is also coauthor of several other works with her husband, John Tooby, which have been cited over 1000 times each. There are many more such papers on their way to stardom, and her lab continues to break new ground. Any single one of these papers would allow a typical academic to feel proud of a successful career….
And yet, Leda and her equally brilliant husband, John Tooby, came very close to not having academic careers at all. Despite the fact that they both had Ph.D.’s from Harvard, where they had been mentored by the world class evolutionary biologists Robert Trivers and E.O. Wilson, and by the great anthropologist Irven DeVore, they both had a stunningly hard time getting academic jobs. Indeed, five years passed between Leda’s now classic dissertation research, and her first job (the same one she has now, at UC Santa Barbara).
How could that have happened?
Leda tells her story in an interview that was filmed at a recent meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society. It includes several things I found surprising, including the way B.F. Skinner indirectly influenced her as a teenager.