Locust Walk Talk: Houston and the Behind the Scenes of How We Travel

Author: Casey Ryan, C’95

Traffic was horrible from the airport, the I-610 loop was under construction and it was going to take longer than the 29 minutes that the web predicted it would take for us to get from the airport to our hotel.  I took advantage of the time with Rob to discuss the plan for event.

The event was going to be in the home of a Penn alumnus.  The timing of the event was 7:00pm to 9:00pm.  In my introduction, I’ll mention your time at Cornell, UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, Caltech, and the University of Arizona since Penn alumni like to know where their professors when to school. It would be no problem for me to take you into town in order to meet up with an old friend.

The view of Houston from Westheimer Road.

The view of Houston from Westheimer Road.

We’re only four years apart in age, so we also chatted about the similarities and differences between our Ivy League educations. We dove into our motivations for choosing the schools that we did.  We concluded that our two almae matres offered many of the same opportunities which were set against the most opposite of backdrops.


Earlier, I recognized Rob and tried to get his attention before boarding the plane. However, the procedure was a little hectic and I lost my chance.  Luckily, when we landed, I was able to get off the plane quickly enough to wait for him and introduce myself.

“Excuse me.  Professor Kurzban?”  I asked.


“Hello, I’m Casey Ryan from Alumni Relations.”

“Oh, great. You’re going to be taking me to tonight’s event?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Good. Oh, by the way, just call me Rob” he said and after a beat, “And how did you know who I was?”

“I Googled you. Your vitae had your picture attached.”

Over 45 Penn Alumni listening to Rob.

Over 45 Penn Alumni listening to Rob.

We have a hectic job of coordinating travel plans, hotel rooms, and taxis for our professors.  While we cultivate a great rapport with faculty via e-mail, we sometimes don’t get the opportunity to meet them in person until we both arrive at the airport even though we all work on the same campus.

The minor awkward moment of finally meeting Rob, in this case, quickly melted away into a conversation that ranged from our high school and college experiences to the culture of Washington D.C. these days, to his area of expertise (evolutionary psychiatry), to cities that he visits often for potential future events with our clubs. We had over an hour in the car and miles of access road closures to get acquainted before arriving at our hotel.

Rob wrapping up, revisiting his Walt Whitman quote.

Rob wrapping up, revisiting his Walt Whitman quote.

At our appointed time, we headed over to the Greater Uptown house to help set up. Our hosts Wayne and Therese warmly invited us in as Berkely, the Club President, and Stephanie, a Club Board Member, were placing the finishing touches–including name tags and a thoughtful “Welcome to Texas” goodie bag.  We tested the setup of the room for good acoustics and found power sources for the laptop and projector.  When we finished getting everything ready for the event, we clinked wine classes in another quick toast to the fine state of Texas.  By 6:50 PM, Penn Alumni had arrived and were mingling – all obviously excited for Rob’s talk about the research in his book, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind.

Rob started his chat with a quote from Walt Whitman to illustrate the point of his discussion. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”  To compliment Rob’s talk, I started tweeting @CaseyJamesR.

CaseyJamesR: Kurzban in #Houston discusses evolutionary psychology with @Pennalumni

CaseyJamesR: “Evolution is a very competitive process,” Rob Kurzban in #Houston with @Pennalumni

CaseyJamesR: “Self-esteem is not a major predictor or cause of almost anything'” Kurzban in #Houston with @Pennalumni

Alumni mingling and chatting about the presentation.

Alumni mingling and chatting about the presentation.

Unfortunately, I was only able to post three tweets during the night since other event duties kept me busy throughout his lecture. However, I was able to glean what evolutionary psychology posits: our mind has many different modules, specialized units designed by the process of evolution by natural selection.  The metaphor Rob used to explain modularity was that our mind is similar to a smart phone in that it has many apps that work to process numerous and unrelated tasks (n.b. Rob  clearly stated that he wasn’t saying that the mind is just like a smart phone, but the comparison helps to convey the variety of functions represented in a collection of individual modules).

These modules focus on many different aspects of our social lives, such as finding a mate, evaluating self-preservation and making moral assessments. Usually they work together seamlessly. However, there are times that modules produce contradictory beliefs. This contradiction leads to an outcome that would be hypocritical.

Rob was able to share many colorful examples of the contradictory results, ranging from minor outcomes like not looking both ways to cross the street to scandals that have rocked many political careers.  In the end, the alumni of Houston were engaged with Rob’s work and the Q&A session extended for over an hour.  At  the conclusion of the event, we thanked the Penn Club of Houston and the Greens for their Texas-sized hospitality.

And of course, no trip to Texas would be quite complete with the requisite bar-be-que!

And of course, no trip to Texas would be quite complete with the requisite bar-be-que!


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Filed under Alumni Perspective, Alumni Programming, Casey R., Locust Walk Talk

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