Evolutionary Psychology 2.0

The Gentler, Broader Face of Modern Evolutionary Psychology

Posted Jul 17, 2015

With the publication of David Buss’ (1999) textbook titled “Evolutionary Psychology” (EP), a field was born. Granted, the ideas of this field have stewed in the minds of academics since at least the mid-1800s, but Buss’ seminal work gave the field the push it needed at the time to enter “full-blown” status.

From the outset, Buss described EP as a broad field of inquiry, focusing on all aspects of behavior from the perspective that behavioral patterns are the result of evolutionary forces. This said, as a prolific researcher, Buss' own work in the field focused largely on issues of human mating – and much of that particular work focused largely on issues of evolved behavioral sex differences. Buss should never be faulted for being too prolific of a researcher, by the way! But as I see it, his mountain of research shaped perceptions of the field – unwittingly. You see, many people outside of EP started to conflate EP with the study of evolved behavioral sex differences. Of course, sex-differences research is, conceptually, only a slice of EP – but, again, owing largely to Buss’ massive research program, many other academics saw EP and the study of evolved behavioral sex differences as one and the same.

Of course, none of this should be a problem – but there’s a catch. In a study I conducted with my then-undergraduate student, Dan Gambacorta (2010), we found that many people have a strong resistance to accepting the idea of evolved behavioral sex differences. The kinds of people who are so resistant to this idea tended to be people who:

  • Are very politically liberal
  • Are academics (especially in the social sciences)
  • Have no children

These features are often characteristic of academics at many universities and colleges across the nation (especially, of course, being an academic!). So you can see that if EP is being conflated with the idea of evolved behavioral sex differences, and academics generally don’t like that idea, then these same academics might not like EP (see Geher, 2014, for a detailed treatment of this issue).

Interestingly, our research found that, generally, academics had no problem with other facets of EP. For instance, the participants in the study were fine acknowledging that evolutionary explanations helped us understand the behavior of non-human animals such as dogs. Further, they acknowledged the utility of EP in helping us understand non-mating-related phenomena such as:

  • Fear of heights
  • Disgust at rotten food
  • The universal nature of human emotional expression

So … if EP is to overcome the resistance that it experiences among so many academics, perhaps the movers of the field need to re-market it a bit – emphasizing the fact that EP is NOT ALL ABOUT evolved behavioral sex differences – research on that topic is simply a slice of EP. EP is a way to understand any and all aspects of behavior.

Another important and relevant development in the field has been the advancement of what we refer to as Applied Evolutionary Psychology (best-captured by the existence of the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society, a society dedicated to using what we have learned from evolutionary psychology to help solve issues that are central to the human experience).

On the heels of these two developments – (a) the fact that research in EP now is clearly addressing many features of human psychology and (b) the fact that dedicated and serious efforts to apply EP to help improve the human condition exist – I propose that we are now entering a new phase in the history of the field.

Enter EP 2.0

EP 2.0 is evolutionary psychology – but with a broader scope than the field had when it first started. And with a more explicit focus on helping improve the human condition. As I see it, EP 2.0 is characterized by the following features:

  • EP 2.0 includes a focus on all aspects of psychology from an evolutionary perspective, including human social behavior, individual differences in behavior, developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, industrial/organizational psychology, the study of emotions, educational psychology, political psychology, and more. EP 2.0 examines the entirety of behavioral and psychological processes from an evolutionary perspective.
  • EP 2.0 includes a focus on social action research, as is often found in other brands of social science. With the advent of the Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society, the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society, and the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society, modern evolutionary psychologists are clearly (often) socially progressive and interested in using their work to help improve the human condition. The existence of such intellectual organizations and of scholars who hold such an applied focus is a hallmark of EP 2.0.

As my friend David Sloan Wilson has stated on a few occasions, we need to reclaim evolutionary psychology. Toward that end, I present to you EP 2.0. Broader, kinder, and gentler. I hope you like it as much as I do!

Acknowledgments: I thank David Buss for his extraordinary leadership in making this field what it is today and I thank David Sloan Wilson for his outstanding advancement of this field of inquiry that so many of us are so dedicated to.

References

Buss, D. M. (1999). Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (1st Edition). New York: Allyn & Bacon.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Geher, G., & Gambacorta, D. (2010). Evolution is not relevant to sex differences in humans because I want it that way! Evidence for the politicization of human evolutionary psychology. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 2(1), 32-47.