What Is Evolutionary Psychology?

Evolutionary Psychologists Believe Natural Selection

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Evolutionary psychology is a way of thinking about human behavior and that incorporates the effects of evolution.

Proponents of this psychological approach posit that as our ancestors confronted problems, they developed ways of solving those problems. Through the process of natural selection, those who adopted the solutions gained advantages, such as better health or a longer lifespan, allowing them to produce more offspring.

Evolutionary psychologists seek to explain people's emotions, thoughts, and behaviors through the lens of natural selection, based on Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution Through Natural Selection, just like evolutionary biologists do when they want to explain an organism's physical features.

The most successful solutions applied by our hunter-gatherer ancestors developed into basic instincts. We no longer need to consciously think about certain behaviors, as they simply “come naturally.” Those behaviors are tempered by input from our culture, family, and individual factors, but the underlying behaviors are instinctual.

The Five Principles of Evolutionary Psychology

To an evolutionary psychologist, the science of psychology is a branch of biology. There are five basic principles of evolutionary psychology:

  1. Your brain is a physical system that instructs you to behave in a manner appropriate to your environment
  1. Natural selection designed the neural circuitry in your brain, which helps you solve problems in an appropriate manner 
  2. You are mostly unaware of the processes of the neural circuitry and rely on consciousness to guide you, which may be misleading. Meaning, you are consciously are aware of the conclusions resulting from complex neural circuitry, but not the process.
  1. Neural circuits are specialized to solve different adaptive problems. For example, the circuitry involved in vision is not the same as for vomiting. 
  2. Your skull is modern, but your mind is still in the stone age when we were all hunters and gatherers.

Evolutionary Psychology Explains Simple Topics

At its most basic level, evolutionary psychology explains relatively simple topics. A common example is language acquisition.

All humans, assuming you have normal physical structure, are capable of learning language. At some point in history, early man developed language skills beyond grunting and pointing. The ability to communicate complex thoughts was important for survival, and so language acquisition abilities evolved. Which language or languages you learn depends on the language spoken in the home and neighborhood, demonstrating the importance of cultural input.

Evolutionary Psychology as an Explanation of Some Specific Phobias

More complex evolutionary psychology theories attempt to explain more complicated behaviors.

For example, many research studies show you are more likely to fear snakes and spiders than other predatory animals such as lions and tigers.

From an evolutionary point of view, this may be due to the fact that snakes and spiders are more difficult to spot. It made sense to our ancestors to look carefully for poisonous creatures before sticking their hands into woodpiles or overgrown brush. Over time, that caution became an instinctive human reaction.

Examples: Jill has been afraid of spiders since she was a toddler. After determining that she had never been bitten or seen someone bitten by a spider, her therapist explained that according to evolutionary psychology, Jill's fear might be an instinctive reaction.

Sources

Cosmides and Tooby. University of California Santa Barbara Center for Evolutionary Psychology: Evolutionary Psychology - A Primer

Mitchell, Melanie. Santa Fe Institute: Can Evolution Explain How the Mind Works? A Review of the Evolutionary Psychology Debate (1998)

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