What is Evolutionary Psychology?

 William A. Spriggs

  What is Evolutionary Psychology?

Evolutionary psychology is the science that seeks to explain through universal mechanisms of behavior why humans act the way they do. Evolutionary psychology seeks to reconstruct problems that our ancestors faced in their primitive environments, and the problem-solving behaviors 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 ultimate goal is behavior 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."

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, when activated, give the brain specific algorithmic (step by step) instructions that have evolved from our ancestral pasts to adapt to all situations that we now face as humans. Some scientists speculate that these areas are attachments to long-term memory areas, and assist in problem-solving.
These areas of the brain have a number of names:

The ability to find the precise locations of these algorithmic modules 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 dsyfunctions 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.
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Biologists tell us that the DNA difference between humans and our chimpanzee cousins is only 1.4% -- that means we share 98.6% of our genome.   This magnificent pen and ink reproduction by renowned Utah artist Gregory Frehner will astound you.  Both species are linked together by DNA helixes in artistic interpretation.  Available only at this location on the planet. Click on image above to go to my Amazon.com zShop listing for worry-free credit card shopping.
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 ancestral 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.

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." But, 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.  He was even doused with a bucket of ice water by students at a lecture he gave.  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 rise 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.

 "(The Adapted Mind, Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J. (eds) 1992, Oxford University Press, New York)

William A. Spriggs


Copyright 1997 State University of Campinas