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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:

  • evolved cognitive structures;
  • evolved psychological mechanism;
  • special learning mechanisms;
  • psychological mechanism devices;
  • mental mechanism devices;
  • functionally specialized computational devices; and
  • 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"

  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)