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Evolutionary Psychology

Why do we act the way that we do, so typically human? Without applying evolutionary theory there is no scientific way to say whether a behavior is adaptive (serves a purpose) or not (see Intentional Design.) Ordinary psychology is to evolutionary psychology as geography is to geology. Geography describes the shape of the land, while geology is concerned with the processes that shaped the land—how it got the way that it is. Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain human motivations and behavior as being the consequence of evolution. Behaviors and capacities are assumed to be adaptive: to enhance survival and reproductive success.

Evolutionary psychology is a large and rapidly growing field, and we won't attempt to summarize it here. See Evolutionary psychology and books such as The Happiness Hypothesis and The Tangled Wing that apply the perspective of evolutionary psychology to understanding the human condition. What we will try to do is provide some high level context for understanding evolutionary psychology, especially concerning criticisms from outside the field, controversies within the field, and the scientific reasons for the apparent preoccupation with sensitive issues such as sex differences in behavior or unpleasant behaviors such as selfishness and deception.

What We Think

Some sort of evolutionary psychology is required to understand the subjective human experience, but we believe that aspects of the evolutionary psychology first proposed in the 1990's (see History of evolutionary psychology) are incomplete or have misplaced emphasis:

  • The assumption that human evolution effectively stopped 10,000 or more years ago, and the associated idea of mismatch, that puzzling and non-adaptive current behaviors may have once been adaptive in that ancient environment. The emergence of genetic/cultural coevolution theory, in combination with genetic evidence and the surprising effectiveness of animal breeding experiments strongly suggest some degree of recent human evolution. At the same time, coevolution theories have found that some behaviors make a great deal more sense when people are viewed in their context as cultural animals.
  • A general neglect of culture and the importance of Cultural Evolution, resulting in a strong tendency toward genetic determinism. Evolutionary psychology does propose that our psychological commonalities are a consequence of our genetic heritage. There is no blank slate, but this doesn't create as tight a “leash” on human behavior as some evolutionary psychologists suppose. This strong position on the Nature Versus Nurture debate has burdened evolutionary psychology with heartfelt opposition.

Evolutionary psychology has also been hampered by an interpretive gap. Some proponents (such as Richard Dawkins) have undermined acceptance by coming across as arrogant iconoclasts (see Smarty-Pants Critique.) The sort of mechanistic evolutionary explanations offered by evolutionary psychology seem to demean and deny the Reality of fundamental human motivations and feelings. We believe that a more nuanced story can help by explaining the relationship between Mind and the brain through concepts such as Emergence (see Level Map).

So it's all about Sex?

Why are evolutionary psychologists so obsessed with sex? Isn't that rather juvenile? And why have they put forward those politically awkward arguments about the innateness of behavior differences between men and women? The answer is that evolutionary theory tells us that if there is anywhere that we would expect to find a strong selective influence on behavior it will be in behavior related to reproduction itself, and sex is a crucial part of human reproductive behavior. Humans have quite a few peculiarities in their reproductive strategies which evolutionary psychologists have connected to differences in male and female behavior (see Sex Differences).

To many it seems nonsensical to propose that having lots of grandchildren is the intention underlying all human behavior because:

  • Especially in the modern world, most of our daily activities don't advance our supposed reproductive goal in any obvious way (reading People magazine), and in many cases clearly reduce the prospects for our continued survival (binge drinking, running for president.)
  • When you ask people what their intention is they will hardly ever mention reproductive success. If you press someone for the ultimate top-level goal it will usually be either emotional (because I love her), moral (it was the right thing to do) or spiritual (it gives meaning to my life.)

Evolutionary psychologists reply that:

  • Many apparently unproductive activities either do advance our reproductive success (in ways that are either subtle or politically incorrect), or were adaptive up until recently, or can be regarded as an incidental side-effect of important adaptive behaviors, and
  • That we behave as though reproductive success were our intention even though this is not an intention that we are conscious of (see Intentional Opacity). Evolutionary psychologists are particularly interested in explaining why we have the emotions and motivations that we do.

Selfishness, Violence and Prejudice

Another objection to evolutionary psychology is that it paints such a bleak picture of the human condition. Why are evolutionary psychologists so interested in unpleasant behaviors such as competitiveness, selfishness, deception, self-promotion, cheating and violence? Most people are kind, decent, peaceful and law-abiding, yet evolutionary psychologists explain self-serving and violent behavior as just another strategy for reproductive success. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology has had big problems with altruism, and at time seems to say that everything we do either has some hidden selfish motive (such as favoring relatives) or is basically a mistake.

The convergence of evolutionary psychology with anthropology and social psychology has resulted a tentative solution to the “problem of altruism”, but only by pushing the violence and competition up a level, so that it is now between social groups. Paradoxically, one of the clearest examples of altruistic behavior is risking death in battle to defend the community. Furthermore, evolutionary social psychology argues that humans are not only innately selfish, but also innately groupish, tending to favor whatever group we find ourselves part of. This is unpleasantly like racism and other forms of prejudice.

The question of morality and whether humans are basically good or evil is big enough that it must be discussed elsewhere (see Good Or Evil?). Here we ask why evolutionary psychology is so obsessed with the unsavory side of human behavior. Some degree of selfishness is necessary to sustain human life; with no selfishness there is no life, and the moral discussion is cut short. Given selfish motivation, there is no need to suppose that lying, cheating and stealing are innate—the advantages are so obvious that they could be rediscovered by each generation. The truly interesting question is why beneficial cooperation is the norm and selfish abusive behavior is so rare; this is a major question that evolutionary psychology seeks to answer. If people are basically good, then that demands an evolutionary explanation.

Internal Controversies

The most fundamental weakness of evolutionary psychology is that it often relies on speculations about what might have happened in the distant past. It is at risk of incorrect explanations of the status quo, and these can be misinterpreted as justifications for the status quo (see Just-So Stories). Even within evolutionary psychology there is considerable dispute about whether behaviors such as music and religion are adaptive or not, and to what degree they are hard-wired. This distinction is in fact somewhat ill-founded, because as Daniel Dennett points out in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, all adaptation is exaptation. This means every feature or behavior of an organism must have its origin in a feature that was purely accidental, or served a different purpose. While it is clearly true that many of an organism's structures and behaviors serve purposes, there are also many traits with no clear purpose. It may serve no purpose at all, or might have multiple minor benefits.


charles brough, 2012/10/23 09:24, 2012/11/23 08:19

The Development of Consciousness

The Ancient Sapiens who preceded us did not have lingual speech and lived by a list of social instincts common to most small-group mammals. These instincts include the Alpha's protectiveness, that of the mother's compassion and caring for the young, the male's hunting team bonding and love-of-the-hunt, the seeking of pecking-order status, reciprocation, and others. In total, they add up to a brain-stem, small-group, social-instinct mind which still exists in us and which we sometimes now call the subconscious. As with other mammals, its will is comm-unicated through body language, guttural signals, eye contact and/or gestures.

Millions of years of evolution had fitted us to exist only in the small hunting gathering groups of less than a hundred individuals each. We evolved language because living in larger groups with the ability to trap and kill larger game, or whole herds of them, served the natural selection enabling of our species to grow in numbers.

However, we had to evolve speech in a special way. We had to form it into ideological systems that focused our feelings into a larger-sized “group-think” so we could fool ourselves into sensing the larger groupings as being natural to us. Since the individual is, by nature, instinctively geared to serve our small groups (such as we are to our sports team, church group, fraternity, class, etc.), it was essential to infuse us with a larger-group, “for-the-common-good”-orientated way-of-thinking. We had to be made to focus our social welfare feelings towards the larger group in order to feel apart it and, hence, to feel the same security, sense of belonging and of community in it that we did in the smaller groups. With language based ideological systems, we had to evolve a way to force human thinking along large-group socially constructive lines. And in the process , we had to develop a second mind, the one now referred to as the “conscious.” When we think, we use images, recall, we are aware, but we think only in words. We had developed another way of thinking, another mind.

There still exists the brain-stem subconscious mind which continues to serve us by rationalizing. Each of us is instinctively motivated and alert to our own primal needs. It is always ready to manipulate our conscious thought in whatever way enables us to best serve the common, large-group, good in a way that also provides for us and promotes, or at least preserves, our own individual in-the-larger-group's pecking-order status.

Charles Brough, October 2012

Robert MacLachlan, 2012/11/23 12:13, 2012/12/08 19:13

There are different meanings of consciousness, and some forms of consciousness we share with other animals (such as “not being unconscious”, see The Feeling of What Happens) I certainly agree that consciousness as we refer to it here is evolutionarily recent, is intimately tied to our capacity for language, and the evolutionary adaptive value has to do with facilitating complex social interactions. That is a mainstream view in evolutionary social psychology (see for example The Cultural Animal).

There are however some things you're saying that are out of line with the my sense of the Scientific consensus. One is that you seem to be saying that consciousness (and presumably language) only arose together with social coordination of groups larger than 100 people. It is hard to know with certainty the minds and lifeways of prehistoric people, but it pretty widely accepted, and is indeed one of the main premises of 1990's evolutionary psychology, that people with basically modern minds arose living in tribal groupings very similar to still-existing or historically documented hunter-gatherer groups.

The big transition in lifeways and government related to larger group coordination occurred much more recently (about 5000 years ago, see Meta-Evolution). Proponents of evolutionary psychology such as Stephen Pinker argue against any significant change in human nature in the past few thousand years. This stock EP assumption has increasingly been challenged, but largely at the margins. Do you envision a significantly different past than this, or do I misunderstand you?

There is less solid evidence here, and less scientific consensus, but it also seems that your understanding of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind differs from ours. You seem to be equating the unconscious with the pre-human mind, and directly state that consciousness is a completely separate system. There are many threads of scientific evidence pointing in the direction that the human unconscious has been greatly expanded, and that this continues to be the place where most of the action is. See The Interpreter Theory and The Argumentative Theory. It is also clear in practice that the conscious mind is in no way independent of unconscious judgments, emotions and motivations. In this view the “rationalizing” interaction of the conscious and unconscious is not an unfortunate relic but actually the main thing itself. A simplistic way to put this would be that “all reasoning is rationalization”, though it gets more complicated when you put people in the social context that is the natural environment for humans. See for example Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind.

Ross Brandli, 2015/01/10 08:02

To state that human behavior has a purpose is the first mistake. Perhaps it is more helpful to think of human behavior as the end result of the competitive pressures of the environment. Once freed from the awkward task of trying to prove the purpose of say selfishness let's just assume it exists because the historical pressures of the environment favored selfishness. This is the essence of evolution and I believe a ponit this article misses or at least gets confused about in places.

Robert MacLachlan, 2015/01/18 13:41, 2015/01/18 13:42

It's common in evolutionary thinking to say that adaptations have a purpose. An evolved organism has an overall function to perpetuate itself, but its design has many supporting subfunctions, each of which we can see has identifiable purposes. For example, the heart has the purpose of pumping blood. See Intentional Design. Clearly this is not the same thing as a subjective sense of purpose in life, and related religious beliefs about purposes given by God, and so on. In an evolutionary materialistic view, this is an example of Intentional Opacity. Parts of evolved designs do usually have purposes, but these are not always obvious.

Selfishness and altruism are key concepts in evolutionary psychology. Of the two, the selfish side of the behavior range is much the easier to explain. Each individual is in a uniquely good position to assess what their own personal needs and potentials are. Individual survival would not be possible without self-interested behavior, and groups need individuals. Self-interested behavior only becomes selfish when it is excessively heedless of the consequences to the group. I need to work more on articulating this view. Even within the EP community there is some confusion and bad messaging. Our position is that people are indeed altruistic in certain situations, but in almost all situations also have some eye out for their self-interest. This constant situational evaluation makes sense as a consequence of evolved behavior, so we can say that both self-interested and altruistic behavior have purposes.

Adrian Meades, 2016/08/10 15:10

I am currently managing a campaign aimed at raising awareness and understanding of hagioptasia - a largely unknown or misinterpreted function of the human mind - and we are excited to have now produced a 2 minute video to help us in this challenge. Of course we are eager to share the video as widely as possible, and any help with this would be greatly appreciated.

The video “An Introduction to Hagioptasia” can be found on Youtube:

With very best wishes

Adrian Meades

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analysis/evolution/evolutionary_psychology.txt · Last modified: 2014/02/14 10:11 by ram