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
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.
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,
A MORE DETAILED EXPLANATION:
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
Wrightís 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 lifeís 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 Ė whatever
the source of stress, we at times get the feeling that modern life isnít
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 donít 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, Iím 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
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
These areas of the brain have been given a variety of names:
- evolved cognitive structures;
- evolved psychological mechanism;
- special learning mechanisms;
- psychological mechanism devices;
- mental mechanism devices;
- functionally specialized computational devices;
- Darwinian algorithmic mechanisms
From his masterful introductory textbook,
Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, Professor
David Buss lists six properties of "evolved psychological mechanisms"
psychological mechanism exists in the form that it does because
it solved a specific problem of survival or reproduction recurrently
over evolutionary history
psychological mechanism is designed to take in only a narrow slice
The input of
an evolved psychological mechanism tells an organism the particular
adaptive problem it is facing.
The input of
an evolved psychological mechanism is transformed through decision
rules into output.
of an evolved psychological mechanism can be physiological activity,
information to other psychological mechanisms, or manifest behavior.
of evolved psychological mechanism is directed toward the solution
to a specific adaptive problem. pp.
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)