The Evolutionary Approach

In taking the evolutionary approach, Cosmides and Tooby remind us again that evolutionary psychology is a way of thinking about any topic within it. Remember that I told you to take all the approaches to studying emotions and then use the evolutionary approach? Also recall the Sagan and Gould timeline approaches to evolution to once again frame your knowledge that the architecture of the human brain, and thusly, the mind, is there in place because it has successfully addressed adaptive problems.

Cosmides and Tooby's evolutionary approach to understanding emotions begins with the elementary knowledge that we are constantly bombarded every second of our lives with outside stimulation and must somehow "cherry pick" the stimulation that best suits our survival and those that carry our genes. A perfect example is a mother hearing the call for help from her child in a inner-city playground while her ears are also being bombarded with the usual cacophony of neighborhood noises. The mother's ability to "activate" and focus on her child's cry while "deactivating" other noises leads us to the conclusion that there is an override system in place. Cosmides and Tooby teach us:


"To avoid such consequences, (of being flooded with multiple stimuli) the mind must be equipped with superordinate programs that override some programs when others are activated. (And), Furthermore, many adaptive problems are best solved by the simultaneous activation of many different components of the cognitive architecture. ...Again, a superordinate program is needed that coordinates these components, snapping each into the right configuration at the right time. Emotions are such programs."

Handbook of Emotions, 2nd Edition, p. 92.

To continue with our analogy, once the mother hears her child's cry with the sensory equipment designed for receiving this information, her mind and body are flooded with the chemical "signals" designed to inform her of possible danger or of any possible demands, conditions, situations, or event types. These signals, or components, are what we call "emotions." In this case, the most likely response is for the mother to emit vocal calls of distress in emoting angst, (to let the child know she is coming), and for her to perceive body chemicals designed to move her to the scene and rescue the child. After the incident, it is likely that her mind muses about thoughts of "what if" related possibilities, and these burn into her memory the lesson to be learned to avoid such an incident next time. Most likely, she would also feel "mixed emotions" of fear, grieving, and anger as her mind goes over the incident, the possibilities involved, and processes the incident into long-term memory.

What Comides and Tooby are telling us in their precise language is that these "superordinate programs" in our minds are similar to operating systems, or "platforms" in computer programs that "activate" or "deactivate" different mechanisms at precise moments. And, emotions would be the various, yet specific software programs, or "components" that we would tap into to solve specific adaptive problems we are faced with. With this thought in mind, please very close attention to this next part where Cosmides and Tooby state the following:

According to this theoretical framework, an emotion is a superordinate program whose function is to direct the activities and interactions of the subprograms governing perception; attention; inference; learning; memory; goal choice; motivational priorities; categorization and conceptual frameworks; physiological reactions (e.g., heart rate, endocrine function, immune function, gamate release); reflexes; behavioral decision rules; motor systems; communication processes; energy level and effort allocation; affective coloration of events and stimuli; recalibration of probability estimates, situation assessments, values, and regulatory variables (e.g., self-esteem, estimations of relative value of alternative goal states, efficacy discount rate); and so on.

Handbook of Emotions, 2nd Edition, p. 93.

Once again in attempting to restructure your thinking as you learn this theoretical framework from your non-scholarly memories and training, think of emotions as several orchestra leaders conducting their own band; put all these bands, say -- jazz, swing, classical, hard rock -- and locate them in the same, yet large orchestra pit in the same auditorium -- your mind. They can't play at the same time or else they would confuse us with their message, but playing separately, each in response to the evolutionary demands that brought them into existence, sends us their "emotional response" to the situation at hand. In its simplest meaning, emotions are the liquid catalysts that flow throughout our bodies that "activate" as well as the glue that "deactivates" thoughts and actions.

In conclusion of this section, Cosmides and Tooby attempt to teach us that you must understand that emotions were designed to function in response to 

"evolutionarily recurrent situations"; clusters of repeated probabilistic relationships among events, conditions, actions, and choice consequences that endured over a sufficient stretch of evolutionary time to have had selective consequences on the design of the mind..." And that, Each functionally distinct emotion state -- fear or predators, guilt, sexual jealousy, rage, grief, and so on -- will correspond to an integrated mode of operation that functions as a solution designed to take advantage of the particular structure of the recurrent situation or triggering condition to which that emotion corresponds.,

  Handbook of Emotions, 2nd Edition. pp. 100 & 101. 

What makes the evolutionary approach so profitable is that if we isolate and identify the distinct emotions, we can then most likely reconstruct the ancestral condition, and thus the brain architecture responding with these specific emotions.

Copyright, Evolution's Voyage, 1995 - 2009