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What Good Is Evolutionary Psychology?

An ability to hold our instincts up to the light, rather than naïvely accepting their products in our consciousness as just the way things are, is the first step in discounting them when they lead to harmful ends.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Big ideas often rock the boat, but few have rocked it as thoroughly as the idea of evolution by natural and sexual selection. The notion that humans evolved from non-human ancestors, through the survival of some mutations at the expense of others, offends countless cherished ideologies. Natural selection insults the religious conviction that our existence is divinely sanctioned, disturbs the progressive belief that selfish competition is a modern aberration, and disorients the widespread desire to find purpose and morality in the natural world. Given these transgressions, it’s no wonder that evolution has serious public relations issues.

Evolution stirs up its strongest opposition when used to interpret the human mind in the field of evolutionary psychology. Ever since Alfred Russel Wallace (co-discoverer of natural selection) first argued that evolution could not explain human mental traits, people have shuddered at attempts to do so. The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky—who, somewhat infamously, rejects the notion that language evolved through Darwinian evolution—has said that evolutionary psychology is virtually useless. In the media, the field is frequently cast as a right-wing method for preserving white patriarchy. Even some evolutionary biologists, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, have disparaged it as a realm of barren speculation.

Critics generally object to evolutionary psychology for two related reasons. Firstly, since the human mind is so complex, we’re damned to conjecture whenever we search for the selection forces that shaped it. Secondly, since this conjecture often serves to preserve an unjust status quo, the entire field is a dubious enterprise.

Now, never mind that a Darwinian outlook is the only way to account for complex biological design, or that most evolutionary psychologists are actually quite liberal, or that a description of human nature is not a prescription for modern-day behaviour. In writing off evolutionary psychology, critics may be wrong on any of these points. But in sullying the reputation of the field, they’re going beyond mere scientific or philosophical blunder. By spreading word that evolutionary psychology is racist, sexist, or fascist, they’re depriving society of a valuable perspective for improving much of life.

Though rarely marketed as such, evolutionary psychology is essential wisdom for anyone seeking to understand themselves, others, or our place in the cosmos. Without an understanding of the selection pressures that shaped our minds, much of human existence is frustratingly bewildering. For instance, why are we so often crippled by self-image issues? Why do we spend our lives chasing status instead of serenity? Why do we waste so much time on celebrity gossip? Why do we often prioritize outer beauty over inner qualities? And why do we doggedly pledge allegiance to political parties? Unless we invoke evolution, we cannot hope to fully answer these questions. Instead, we’re apt to view others (and sometimes ourselves) as irredeemably shallow, insecure, and infuriating.

By adopting a Darwinian viewpoint, however, we can make sense of much that was previously senseless. Human minds evolved on the African plains of the Pleistocene in small tribes of illiterate, technologically deprived, highly social primates, who were unusually dexterous and inquisitive. The conditions in which our minds blossomed were markedly different from the world we inhabit today.

There was little in the way of charity or welfare, meaning that social ties often spelled the difference between life and death. Thus, those who paid little heed to their social image quickly found themselves removed from the gene pool. Since tribes were small, gossip was an effective way of staying informed about consequential social developments. This was before the time of People Magazine and Us Weekly, when high-status members of one’s tribe actually influenced survival and reproductive prospects. Back then, abstaining from gossip was a potentially fatal error. Medicine was rudimentary in our evolutionary Eden, so health counted for even more than it does today. When searching for sexual partners or long-term friends, facial symmetry and proper body proportions (ie. physical beauty) were well worth considering. If a person’s beauty happened to be marred by injury, infection, or improper development, one risked committing resources to a partner who might be unable to reciprocate. And finally, because we lived and died by our tribe, solidarity mattered. Before the emergence of reliable peace treaties, free trade, and justice systems, it made sense to view foreigners with prejudice, at least initially.

As these examples show, many of the irrational forces that conspire against us today—including xenophobia, a self-conscious obsession with beauty, and toxic celebrity culture—have rational roots in our evolutionary past. Critics of evolutionary psychology often fear this line of thinking, worrying that it somehow grants licence to humanity’s baser instincts. But people are generally aware that what was once adaptive is not necessarily good. For instance, upon hearing that our craving for sugar made sense in prehistoric times, few people rush out to the sweets aisle. If anything, spotting the evolutionary logic behind our sweet tooth makes us more critical of it, not less. Far from turning people into liars, cheaters, and thieves, evolutionary psychology actually informs our efforts at self-improvement.

Modern civilization has many problems that need fixing, all of which relate, in some way, to the minds bequeathed to us by evolution. If we hope to live in the best possible world, it’s not enough to merely recognize and criticize our problems—we also need to understand them. Absent understanding, problems can seem overwhelming, tempting us to lash out in frustration or give up to fatalism. And as of late, the world seems to have become preoccupied with both. Evolutionary psychology shines a light on societal ills, illuminating some of their logic. In this way, it helps replace blind frustration with genuine understanding, paving the way for meaningful change.

Of course, a Darwinian outlook alone will not solve our problems. But if readers doubt the power of such a perspective, I invite them to partake in the following experiment: the next time you find yourself frustrated by irrational human behaviour, draw back and take a Darwinian stance. Wonder about the evolutionary context that might have favoured such conduct. Ask whether it could have been adaptive in prehistoric times. See if you can decipher its evolutionary rationale. Whether you’re aggravated by your feuding children, disheartened by the posturing of politicians, or disgusted by gossip magazines in checkout lines, you might find that some evolutionary curiosity dispels a bit of your unproductive dismay, freeing you to think more clearly.

Now imagine this experiment scaled up, supplemented and refined by knowledge of anthropology, archaeology, cognitive science, game theory, and the like. Such an undertaking has the potential to clarify much about human existence. Because our minds owe their virtues and vices to ancestral conditions, we cannot understand our present without turning to our past. Hoping to comprehend modern life without recourse to evolution is like hoping to comprehend chemistry without recourse to physics. Try as we might, we’ll never get the full picture.

And just as we can turn an evolutionary lens on others, so we can turn one on ourselves. By grasping how the past has shaped our minds, we can manage our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour more skilfully. We frequently suffer at the hand of our instincts, drives, and desires, which evolved, not to make us happy, but to spread our genes. (To be precise, nothing actually evolved “to do” anything—rather, adaptations endure simply because they haven’t yet ceased existing.) When asked, most people would say that they want to find happiness, despite the fact that their moment-to-moment wants bring little of the sort. We tend to crave fleeting pleasures that leave little lasting satisfaction. This is largely because, as the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller wrote in The Mating Mind, “[e]volution’s job is to motivate us, not to satisfy us.” By keeping this in mind, we can cognitively distance ourselves from drives and desires that are more suited to surviving in the Pleistocene than to finding meaning in modern times.

Science is at its most noble when it enlightens and improves the human condition, thereby liberating us with greater self-knowledge and understanding. To write off evolutionary psychology as a scientific backwater would be to miss out on one of the most intimate sources of wisdom presently available to us. Yet many people find self-knowledge a frightening prospect. Those who cower before the gates of self-discovery will always be with us. We must not let them deter those of us who yearn to know ourselves.

 

Tristan Flock is an engineering student and writer with a BSc and a JD. You can follow him on Twitter @tbonesbeard

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