What is Evolutionary Psychology?

Simply put: Evolutionary psychology is the combination of two sciences -- evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology. Introducing Evolutionary Psychology,  Dylan Evans & Oscar Zarate, Totem Books, New York, 2000

Another explanation:
Evolutionary psychology is the approach of explaining human behavior based on the combination of evolutionary biology, anthropology, cognitive science, and the neurosciences. Evolutionary psychology is not a specific sub field of psychology, such as the study of vision, reasoning, or social behavior.  It is a way of thinking about psychology that can be applied to any topic within it. "Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions," by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, from the new book, Handbook of Emotions, 2nd Edition, M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, Editors, NY, Guilford, 2000.

Another explanation:
Evolutionary psychology is the science that seeks to explain through universal mechanisms of behavior why humans act the way they do (See, Assumptions About EP to Help Guide You). Evolutionary psychology seeks to reconstruct problems that our ancestors faced in their primitive environments, and the problem-solving mechanisms they created to meet those particular challenges. From these reconstructed problem-solving adaptations, the science then attempts to establish the common roots of our ancestral behavior, and how those common behavioral roots are manifested today in the widely scattered cultures of the planet.
The goal is to understand human behavior that is universally aimed at the passing of one's genes into the next generation.

As defined by Tooby and Cosmides: "Evolutionary psychology is simply psychology that is informed by the additional knowledge that evolutionary biology has to offer, in the expectation that understanding the process that designed the human mind will advance the discovery of its architecture."   "(The Adapted Mind, Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J. (eds) 1992, Oxford University Press, New York)

At the core of evolutionary psychology is the belief that all humans on the planet have innate areas in their brains which have specific knowledge that help them adapt to local environments. These areas are highly specialized, and only activate when the information is needed. These areas give the brain specific algorithmic (step by step) instructions that have evolved from our ancestral pasts to adapt to all situations, including the situations that we face today. But since our brains were conditioned to live in deep history, as E.O. Wilson has named our ancestral past, and not to modern conditions, the result is a gray area between genes and culture that drives some humans into depressive states. The best essay that I have read concerning the dilemma concerning why we humans sometimes feel disconnected in our modern world  was Robert Wright’s Time magazine cover story of August 28, 1995, p. 50. The title of the essay: "The Evolution of Despair: a new field of science [evolutionary psychology] examines the mismatch between our genetic makeup and the modern world, looking for the source of our pervasive sense of discontent." To quote one particular gripping sentence: "Whether burdened by an overwhelming flurry of daily commitments or stifled by a sense of social isolation (or, oddly, both); whether mired for hours in a sense of life’s pointlessness or beset for days by unresolved anxiety; whether deprived by long workweeks from quality time with offspring or drowning in quantity time with them – whatever the source of stress, we at times get the feeling that modern life isn’t what we were designed for."

Well, if we are not suited for the modern world, how and why did we make it this far? Why don’t we heed the call of our "selfish" genes and say, the heck with it -- and fornicate like bunny rabbits in the streets? Because we would scare the horses off, silly.  No, I’m just kidding of course.  But it does bring up a most important point: That socialization norms and cultures at local environments do have greater influence on our behaviors than some behaviorists wish to admit.  

It is precisely questions like these that evolutionary psychology attempts to answer.

Modularity thinking may very well have had its first emergence with the work of Franz Joseph Gall (1758- 1828) who reasoned that the brain was divided into dozens of distinct capabilities.  It is from his work that older universities were divided into different "faculties," such as physics, math, psychology, etc. Harvard's Howard Gardner in 1983 made an attempt to classify such capabilities, but he calls them "intelligences," and his approach is from an educational one rather than a evolutionary biological one.  Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Basic Books, 1983, NY.

But the credit for the modern revival of the modularity of the mind approach can be given American philosopher and psychologist Jerry Fodor (b. 1935) In his book, The Modularity of Mind, he did not see hundreds of modules, and proposed that there were only a dozen or so. 

But unlike Fodar, many evolutionary psychologists believe that the brain is divided into hundreds, perhaps, thousand of these specific behavioral modules.  Some scientists speculate that these areas are attachments to long-term memory areas and assist in problem-solving.
These areas of the brain have been given a variety of names:

From his masterful introductory textbook, Evolutionary Psychology: Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind,  Professor David Buss lists six properties of "evolved psychological mechanisms"

  1. An evolved psychological mechanism exists in the form that it does because it solved a specific problem of survival or reproduction recurrently over evolutionary history

  2. An evolved psychological mechanism is designed to take in only a narrow slice of information.

  3. The input of an evolved psychological mechanism tells an organism the particular adaptive problem it is facing.

  4. The input of an evolved psychological mechanism is transformed through decision rules into output.

  5. The output of an evolved psychological mechanism can be physiological activity, information to other psychological mechanisms, or manifest behavior. 

  6. The output of evolved psychological mechanism is directed toward the solution to a specific adaptive problem. pp. 47-49.

But the term, "module" seems to be winning the cultural name race.

The ability to find the precise locations of these algorithmic modules or  is still years away, but the general location of these areas has been culled from brain scans which locate neural activity, and from the study of behavioral dysfunctions resulting from brain damage or other malfunctions.

Knowing how these areas work in relation to the environment and the culture in which the human organism finds itself are the other areas of research in which evolutionary psychology shows the greatest promise. These spheres of research aim at configuring behavior models based on primate studies, hunter-gatherer research, and anthropological evidence into the best possible problem-solving probabilities of our ancestral behavior patterns. It is from these studies that evolutionary psychologists build behavior probabilities into our modern cultures and show us why we do the things we do -- based on biology.

For me, the reason that evolutionary psychology is important is that, scientists and scholars alike are finally all collaborating together to form a consensus on how the human brain, and thus human emotions, have evolved. Once we know how such emotions as prejudice, hate, and anger evolved, we, as humans, can begin to change these negative behavior mechanisms. We do this by being self-aware of, then controlling, the emotions that flow from our brain. It is this self-awareness and self-control that makes us human. So you creationists have nothing to fear from scientists who want to push humankind's creation timeline back to include our primate cousins. We are separated from the animal within us by our higher consciousness. We have demonstrated that we can control our emotions and thus change our external behavior patterns. But we all must acknowledge that we are still attached by the flesh to our primal past.

From an evolutionary timeline, we don't have much time left before we begin to make deliberate genetic mutations.  There are three periods of evolution.  The first you are familiar with: Natural Selection.  Here, hereditary defects are weeded out without human consciousness.  The second is Deliberate Manipulation: the elimination of genetic defects through deliberate manipulation of the genes.  The third: Volitional Evolution: The deliberate mutation of genetic structure through Gene Therapy. (God help us...please study the history of Eugenics)

In Praise of Charles Darwin

Even though I have difficulty with some points of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, I have no doubt of the effect his theory has had on our self-awareness. Darwin's theory of natural selection is monumental in the behavioral direction of this planet's future. Like Galileo before him, Darwin and his evolutionary theories have been, and are still, under attack by religious forces frightened by the thought of a world where their authority and their right to speak for God is diminished. I understand the fear that fuels their passion: they may lose influence. In particular, the fear of the diminution of the family and the chaos ensuing if such theories are accepted do not fall on dispassionate ears. But I also understand the importance of evolutionary psychology and the discoveries that this new science is bringing to our world in truly learning human behavior. Most human suffering, including the possibility of global conflict, occurs because of our ignorance of how behavior mechanisms evolved. This requires the acceptance of evolutionary theory. In 1609, when the church condemned Galileo to house arrest for life, the churchmen refused to look through Galileo's telescope and see the logic of his arguments. The church insisted that the poor found comfort in their God and refuge from the misery that surrounded them by remaining ignorant. Ordinary people, of course, found out about Galileo's theories anyway. The truth can not be suppressed forever.

My fondest wish is that somehow I could convince our religious cousins that science is merely filling the exacting evolutionary need that God gave all of us -- the need for convincing answers before we take our next step. The need for God endured after Galileo's theory was brought out of the darkness of ignorance, and it will endure when the battle over evolution vs. creationism is over. Families in all communities will still require the comfort and wisdom of their religious leaders; the formation of morals and cultural behavior models will always be their provenance. It is time, however, to see the overwhelming logic before them by accepting the evolutionary theory. I know that it will be a new beginning, not an end, for religion. For me, this step is wanted, needed, and eagerly awaited for. And it is for this reason that I give praise to Darwin and make a call for religious support for the next battle: The battle against those who support eugenics and genetic engineering in their attempt to "improve" the human species. That is God's provenance.

In praise of William D. Hamilton

With the exception of the ethology movement in the 1950s, there was very little contribution to the advancement of the evolutionary perspective until a brilliant graduate student at Oxford University named William Hamilton proposed a revision of evolutionary theory which he called "inclusive fitness theory." Although his work was originally rejected by his professors, (probably because the work was highly mathematical), it was finally accepted and published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology in 1964.

Hamilton argued that natural selection was too narrow in its interpretation and his theory of inclusive fitness stated that characteristics that cause an organism's genes to be passed from generation to generation are favored by national selection, regardless whether the organism produces offspring. Hence, the view that classical fitness -- the measurement of direct reproductive success was too narrow to describe natural selection.

To put it in more simply, it means that you don't have to produce children directly in order to help one's gene line. If you have brothers, sisters, nieces, or nephews, you can help these individuals pass their genes into the next generation because they carry copies of your genes. Hamilton reasoned mathematically that genetic relationships are as follows: brothers and sisters 0.50, grandparents and grandchildren, uncles and nieces, 0.25 first cousins 0.125, and lastly, second cousins 0.0625. Hamilton's inclusive fitness sparked a revolution in what may be called "gene's eye thinking." In other words, if you were a gene, what are your tasks before you? It is generally agreed that Hamiltion's "gene's eye view" gave rise to Richard Dawkins seminal book, The Selfish Gene, which sparked further interest in the evolutionary perspective.

It is for William Hamilton's theories and advancement of the evolutionary perspective that I praise him in this section.

In Praise of Jane Goodall

If anyone who has influenced our human connection to our primate cousins the most, and delivered that message in an easy to understand manner, it would have to be Jane Goodall. Born April 3, 1934, it seemed almost from the start that this beautiful, vastly inquisitive little girl was being picked by fate to be groomed for her task ahead. Born in the heart of London, and then raised on her very modest family estate, the "Birches," in Bournemouth, Ms. Goodall was fascinated with nature and animals, and she was encouraged at every opportunity by her family to expand her knowledge into any subject that fascinated her. Religion also played a large part in the young woman's life; nurtured in Christianity and reinforced with the close bond of a strong matriarchal family, she learned the power of prayer along with the human values of compassion, courage, honesty, and tolerance.

In her autobiographical book, Reason for Hope, 1999, Ms. Goodall tells us the story of her first stuffed animal, Jubilee, a large, stuffed baby chimpanzee, created to commemorate the first chimpanzee to be born at the London Zoo. But it was the adventure stories of Tarzan the Ape Man, by Edward Rice Burrourghs that gave her the real inspiration to go to Africa and do everything she could to help the animals. There, in the days before television and Harry Potter books for young adults, she climbed up and sat in an old tree in her back yard and let her young mind soar while she read the adventure stories of the African hero. She even reveals to us a tinge of jealously that mixed with her fantasy life when Jane arrived on the scene in those African jungle adventures.

Her family, not having money for a higher education, and her skills at a foreign language poor, which meant not getting a scholarship, she was desperate as how she would get to Africa. On the advice of her mother that she become a secretary because, "...secretaries can work anywhere," Ms. Goodall set off for London at the age of 19 to learn secretarial skills. There, she spent most of her free time exploring art galleries, especially the Tate, and the Natural History Museum; she took full advantage of the city's cultural atmosphere. But it was not until she received a letter from an old school friend inviting her to visit the family farm in Africa that her life truly changed.

Saving up for two years by scrimping every penny, Ms. Goodall set off for the African continent at the age of 23. By a set of unique circumstances, Ms. Goodall was introduced to Richard Leaky who was so impressed by her knowledge of primates and natural history that Leakey offered her a job as his personal secretary on the spot. One suspects that Leaky had a larger plan behind hiring Goodall because Leaky believed that females were more patient and deliberate in their scientific observations. The reason I say that he may have a had a master plan is that Jane Goodall was just one of a triad of female observers organized and financed by Leaky. (Diane Fossey was sent to Rwanda to study gorilla, Birute Galdikas was sent to Indonesia to observe orangutans, and Goodall to Gombe National Park to observe chimpanzees -- they were called the "Leaky Girls.") Within two years, Leaky sent his protégé into the jungle to study the chimpanzees.

As Ms. Goodall became more familiar with the chimps she started giving them names; an unforgivable scientific practice at that time, as "animals" were supposed to be "numbers." This is done to keep a detached view of the subject and not skewer observations. But, not only did she give them names, but she saw in them vivid personalities and human-like emotions -- an even greater sin. This all came about because Ms. Goodall was not schooled in the educational science factories we call universities; her religious and moral upbringing lead to compassionate observations and saw the chimps as kindred spirits; she merely recorded what she saw and believed deeply in her observations as the truth. Science and all of humanity are better off today because of her "unscientific" observations. As Ms. Goodall observed and confirmed other primatologists observations, the chimps have behaviors similar to all the human cultures on the planet. Chimpanazees have been seen kissing, embracing, holding hands, patting each other on the back, swaggering, tickling, kicking, and fighting. But her greatest observation came one day when she saw David Graybread using a tool to extract termites from the soil. But of course, no one believed her until a National Geographic photographer captured the chimpanzees of Gombe using the tools she described.

Because of her love for nature and animals; determination to seek her goal; patience in observations; willingness to endure criticism from "degreed" colleagues for her findings; courage in the face of snide remarks about being "The Geographic Covergirl,"  and, most of all, because of her dedication to making this a safe planet by educating the youth of our planet, I give praise to Ms. Goodall at this web site. She has given all of us a reason to hope for a better future.

In Praise of Edward O. Wilson

In his 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, E.O. Wilson brought together evolutionary perspective to the social sciences.  He was soundly shouted down by a loud chorus of protesters that basically said that Wilson wanted to reduce society to the laws of genetics.  In his book, he referred to his synthesis as: Sociobiology.  While giving a speech at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1978, Mr. Wilson was unceremoniously dumped with a pitcher of ice water.  The praise that I offer is that it took courage to pronounce his theories to a comfortable and politically correct world.  We need more people of Wilson's wisdom and experience to lead us from the darkness of our hidden behaviors, and who forge new pathways through confusion.  Continuing research into neuroscience and social studies have supported most of his theories.  Today, my only complaint is that Wilson has never really embraced the word usage of   "evolutionary psychology" and prefers that we consider it nothing more than "human sociobiology".  Sorry, big guy.  And you want to know why?  Because in the world of the common person, we do not have time for big fancy words that leave us isolated and lost.  The brain's job is to take complicated descriptions, formulas, theories, problems, etc. and reduce them into the simplest and fastest method of transmitting and conferring that  information into action we feel is best suited for us. (There's even a word for the process in the brain: Reification). In the old days of our ancestors, it meant survival.  The phrase evolutionary psychology has two words that help the brain frame the meaning of the synthesis perfectly.  Case in point.  On Nov. 20th, 1998, I received the following email:

"What a FANTASTIC site you have.  I'm daydreaming on the bus and the phrase "evolutionary psychology" pops into my head.  I go on-line. The first site I choose (from Yahoo!) is yours.  I don't need to go anywhere else. THIS NEVER HAPPENS TO ME!   Usually I spend hours surfing, and by the time I find something, I'm tired.  With you I can spend my time learning! Thank you." Marge Dolane. 

Another case in point: The official journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society is called Evolution and Human Behavior.  It was formerly: Ethology and Sociobiology.  We are not getting less intelligent as a species, but that practical people are having more influence.  I shall not listen to arguments of "dumbing down" the science.

I think that I may know the reason for Wilson's reluctance.   Every scientist wants credit for his or her own theory formation or discovery, and this esteemed scientist is no different.  But one of the tests of a great scientist is the humility in which he or she presents themselves to the world.  So, as far as I am  concerned, Mr. Wilson, I praise you for your insight, wisdom, and courage.   And, at least at this web site, you are the father of evolutionary psychology.

In Praise of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby

In the field of evolutionary psychology, much is owed to the anthropologist John Tooby and the psychologist Leda Cosmides. It was their essay, "The Psychological Foundations of Culture" (The Adapted Mind, Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J. (Eds.) 1992, Oxford University Press, New York), that unified the science into a self-believing entity. Their argument that the principles of evolutionary theory were being ignored due to the major influence of the SSSM, (Standard Social Science Model) and should be reexamined. This "standard" proposed that humans were born with a general-purpose brain lacking in innate, hard-wired instructions (nature), and required "filling" with instructions by those around it, (nurture). To Tooby and Cosmides, this failure to view the science of biology in psychology was due primarily to humankind's attempt to be kind and "politically correct" that influenced the social norms that moved society in the 60s and 70s. Their premise in the Psychological Foundation of Culture essay was to rewind the clock back to our primate origins and to renew our search for human behavior today equipped with the new knowledge from multidisciplines, and, "...Therefore, to understand the relationship between biology and culture one must first understand the architecture of our evolved psychology." (Ibid., p. 3).  It was from this premise that gave rebirth to the "modular" brain theory and the basis of evolutionary psychology. It is for this reason that I give praise to these two brave individuals who must endure the slings and arrows of criticism of popular culture in order to defend their beliefs. I think that their vision of the future of evolutionary psychology gives direction and purpose to the science and says it all:

"Just as one can now flip open Gray's Anatomy to any page and find an intricately detailed depiction of some part of our evolved species-typical morphology, we anticipate that in 50 or 100 years one will be able to pick up an equivalent reference work for psychology and find in it detailed information-processing descriptions of the multitude of evolved species-typical adaptations of the human mind, including how they are mapped onto the corresponding neuroanatomy and how they are constructed by developmental programs."  Ibid., p. 68

It is for this vision and courage that I praise them in this section., William A. Spriggs, May 19, 1999

Addendum: On October 22, 1996, Pope John Paul II, the spiritual leader of the planet's Roman Catholics, in addressing the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences meeting in Rome, basically stated that the Roman Catholic Church does not have any objection in the teaching of evolution to its children. He stated, that as long as the spiritual soul of man emerged from the living building blocks that God created, then the Church has no objection to the physical voyage that man has traveled.

Liberal vs. Conservative

In the New York Review of Books of June 12, 1997, and in the following issue on June 26, 1997, the esteemed Harvard paleontologist, Steven Jay Gould attacked evolutionary psychology in two monumental articles. The first article was titled "Darwinian Fundamentalism," and the second was titled "Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism."  In his first article he writes: "Moreover, a larger group of strict constructionists are now engaged in an almost mordantly self-conscious effort to "revolutionize" the study of human behavior along a Darwinian straight and narrow under the name of "evolutionary psychology."  He argues that the '"ultra-Darwinists" share a conviction that natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution, and that adaptation emerges as a universal result and ultimate test of selection's ubiquity."  He basically continues his argument in the June 26, 97 article by further arguing his belief that we evolved in more than just the process of natural selection. 

I agree with most of Steven Jay Gould's position.  The only fault that I can find is that he does know that there are those of us within evolutionary psychology who agree with him, but we are not ready to throw out the baby with the bath water by excluding all that has been written about evolutionary psychology.  (I guess part of that reason is that I, and others, have no real clout nor status in the movement -- yet). I understand and share his diverse view of evolution, and also share his fear of the conservatives within the movement.  I strongly disagree with the argument of the selfish gene as the exclusive form of genetic transmission; that behavior is largely contained within operating systems of our varied cultures and those that dominate those cultures.  I suppose, in some way, you could consider Evolution's Voyage and my own position as the liberal side of evolutionary psychology as opposed to the conservative, Darwinian fundamentalists.

Well, guess what.  As of April 2000,  I am no longer alone in my liberal viewpoint concerning the evolutionary approach.  Peter Singer, one of the most liberal philosophers on the planet has written a new book called: A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation, Yale Univ. Pr. April, 2000.

Here is a brief book description from Amazon.com: 
Book Description
a Darwinian Left, Peter Singer argues that the political left has misunderstood Darwinian ideas and as a result been hostile to the application of Darwinian thinking to politics. Those on the political left who seek a more egalitarian society should instead embrace evolutionary ideas and learn how to use evolutionary thinking in order to build the kind of cooperative society sought."

Since I know that you are ready and anxious to start your evolutionary voyage and change the social fiber of our planet, you can purchase the book at our affiliate retailer, Amazon.com, by clicking on the book's title.

A purchase helps to keep Evolution's Voyage free.

Origin: June 19, 1996

Updated: February 2004



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