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On the Origin of an Evolutionary Psychologist

The top 10 things to know to become an evolutionary psychologist.

Are you thinking about pursuing evolutionary psychology as a career? Here are ten important things to know to become an evolutionary psychologist.

I. What Do Evolutionary Psychologists Study?

Evolutionary psychology is the scientific study of human nature dedicated to discovering and understanding the psychological adaptations that evolved to solve ancestral survival and reproductive problems. Evolutionary psychology is not a specific topic of psychological study. Rather, it is a meta-theoretical perspective with which to view all psychological domains. Evolutionary psychologists focus on many and varied phenomena through an evolutionary lens, including the adaptive problems and evolved solutions associated with surviving, long-term mating, short-term mating, parenting, kinship, cooperation, aggression, warfare, and conflict between the sexes (Buss, 2012).

II. What Credentials Do I Need to Become an Evolutionary Psychologist?

A doctoral degree in psychology (or a related discipline such as evolutionary biology or biological anthropology) is usually necessary to pursue a career as an evolutionary psychologist. For those unable to gain entry into a doctoral program, acquiring a master’s degree in evolutionary psychology may be a good stepping stone toward access to a Ph.D. program.

III. What Kinds of Jobs Can I Acquire as an Evolutionary Psychologist?

Most evolutionary psychologists are employed in academia as researchers and instructors. A small but growing number of applied evolutionary psychologists are finding employment in marketing, business, law, and psychotherapy. For more information on applied evolutionary psychology see www.aepsociety.org.

IV. How Do I Choose Graduate Programs to Apply to in Evolutionary Psychology?

Evolutionary psychology is a relatively small field, but the number of places to pursue graduate study for it grows every year. A great place to start searching for a program is to consult the list of universities found here. Questions to help narrow the list to 5-10 suitable programs to apply to include:

  • What topic(s) do I want to explore?
  • In what universities are professors who have conducted similar explorations located?
  • How do my credentials (e.g., GPA, GRE scores, letters of reference, research experience) compare to the program’s expectations for incoming students? (Information on the median GRE scores and GPAs of admitted students for many schools can be found in the APA’s Graduate Study in Psychology 2013 guide.)  

V.  What is your Completely Biased and Unscientific Opinion on the Top Ten Places to Study Evolutionary Psychology in North America?

Hook 'em Horns!
Glad you asked. ;)

As a former Longhorn, I’m of course partial to the Individual Differences and Evolutionary Psychology program at the University of Texas at Austin. Other outstanding Ph.D. programs whose recent graduates landed quality academic positions include:

VI. What are the Most Helpful Courses to Take to Prepare for Graduate Study in Evolutionary Psychology?

As evolutionary psychology is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding human nature, a range of courses grounded in evolution would be useful, especially those in genetics, animal behavior, evolutionary biology, biological anthropology, and of course evolutionary psychology.   

VII. What Seminal Books Should I Read?

Evolutionary psychology is fortunate to claim many scientists heralded for their clear thinking and writing. Two notable examples are Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker and Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, both of whom are award winning authors who recently topped Prospect magazine’s list of world thinkers (World Thinkers 2013, 2013). Of their myriad contributions, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Extended Phenotype (1982) and Pinker’s How The Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) are “must reads” for aspiring evolutionary psychologists. Close readings of the field’s first textbook (Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind) and handbook (The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology) are also encouraged (Buss, 2005, 2012). A slightly dated but superb list of articles, chapters, and books to read to learn more about evolutionary psychology can be found here.

Four peer-reviewed journals to peruse are Evolution and Human Behavior, Evolutionary PsychologyHuman Nature, and Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. Evolutionary Psychology is an online journal that is free to access. Becoming a student member of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society is recommended because, for only $33 a year, members receive a free subscription to Evolution and Human Behavior and reduced rates for Human Nature and for the society’s annual conference (discussed below).

VIII. What Conferences Should an Aspiring Evolutionary Psychologist Attend?

Attending an annual meeting of evolutionary psychologists and related scientists is a great way to learn about the field, contribute to it, and meet like-minded others. Conferences to consider attending include annual meetings of the:

  • Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES)
  • European Human Behavior and Evolution Association (EHBEA)
  • International Society for Human Ethology (ISHE)
  • NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS)
  • Evolutionary Psychology Preconference associated with the Society for the Study of Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP)

IX. How is Evolutionary Psychology Distinct From Other Psychology Sub-fields?

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Darwin, 1859, p. 459)

Evolutionary psychology explicitly embraces the grandeur that is viewing life through an evolutionary lens. Unlike most sub-disciplines of psychology, evolutionary psychology stands out for its perspective, breadth, and interdisciplinary nature. Evolutionary psychologists study a broad array of topics and use the methods and findings from many disciplines to illuminate human nature. The diverse nature of evolutionary psychology is reflected in the variety of scientists who attend its conferences and publish in its journals, including research psychologists of all stripes, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, biological anthropologists, sociologists, behavior geneticists, biologists, economists, political scientists, lawyers, historians, and literary scholars.

X. This View of Life

Although Darwin (1871) first explored human nature from an evolutionary perspective in the 1870s, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that evolutionary psychology as a formal discipline dedicated to the study of human nature originated. Although early psychologists like William James (1890) saw the importance of understanding evolution to understand the human mind, most 20th century psychologists paid evolution little mind. Thankfully, the dark days of exploring the human mind in ignorance of the process that designed it are over. The study of life was long ago catalyzed by recognizing that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (Dobzhansky, 1973, p. 125). The study of human life—our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and products—is now being explored with the explicit recognition that evolution did not stop at the neck, that natural selection’s fingerprints are on our bodies and brains. The evolution revolution in psychology has led the nascent field of evolutionary psychology to grow increasingly prominent over the past quarter-century (Cornwell, Palmer, Guinther, & Davis, 2005; Silverman & Fisher, 2001; Webster, 2007a; Webster, 2007b), due in large part to the empirical harvest that Darwin’s seminal theories have germinated (Buss, 1995, 2012).  

Darwin long ago opined that, “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation [natural selection]” (Darwin, 1859, p. 449). If you share Darwin’s belief that psychology should be grounded in the meta-theory of evolution by natural selection (Buss, 1995) and are passionate about understanding human nature through the empirical study of our mind in the light of evolution, then please do apply! Applicants who evidence the abilities to adapt to, survive, and thrive in the graduate school environment will, naturally, be selected to become the next generation of evolutionary psychologists.

Note: I am grateful to my former graduate advisor, David M. Buss, and to fellow Bussian Todd K. Shackelford for helpful comments on an early draft of this chapter, which should be appearing in J. G. Irons & R. L. Miller (Eds.) forthcoming Academic advising: A handbook for advisors and students.

References and Suggested Readings

American Psychological Association. (2013). Graduate study in psychology 2013. Washington,DC: Author.

Buss, D. M. (1995). Evolutionary psychology: A new paradigm for psychological science. Psychological Inquiry, 6, 1-30.

Buss, D. M. (Ed.). (2005). The handbook of evolutionary psychology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Buss, D. M. (2012). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Cornwell, E. R., Palmer, C., Guinther, P. M., & Davis, H. P. (2005). Introductory psychology texts as a view of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology’s role in psychology. Evolutionary Psychology, 3, 355–374.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species. London: Murray.

Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man and selection in relation to sex. London: Murray.

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1982). The extended phenotype. Oxford: W. H. Freeman and Co.

Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.The American Biology Teacher, 35, 125-129.

James, W. (1890). Principles of psychology. New York: Henry Holt.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York: Norton.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Viking.

Silverman, I., & Fisher, M. (2001). Is psychology undergoing a paradigm shift? Past, present and future roles of evolutionary psychology. In S. A. Peterson & A. Somit (Eds.), Evolutionary approaches in the behavioural sciences: Towards a better understanding of human nature (pp. 203-216). NY: Elsevier.

Webster, G. D. (2007a). Evolutionary theory’s increasing role in personality and social psychology. Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 84-91.

Webster, G. D. (2007b). Evolutionary theory in cognitive neuroscience: A 20-year quantitative review of publication trends. Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 520-530.

World Thinkers 2013: The results of Prospect’s world thinkers poll. (2013) Prospect magazine. Retrieved from http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/world-thinkers-2013/

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Copyright © 2013 Barry X. Kuhle. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of Psychology Today and the University of Scranton, or me, and certainly not the views of my friends, family, probation officer, gut bacteria, darkest thoughts, and personal mohel.

Barry X. Kuhle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Scranton.

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