Darwin's Guidance for 2021

5 evolution-infused suggestions for living the good life in 2021.

Posted Jan 01, 2021

Niko_Shogol / Pixabay
Source: Niko_Shogol / Pixabay

Sure, 2020 was a mess. And as I type on the first morning of 2021, as far as I can tell, the COVID pandemic still rages, the world political situation is still a mess, and I'm still driving a 2004 Nissan Sentra. The ball dropping in Times Square last night didn't erase all of these facts as so many of us had hoped.

For humans, as is true for members of any species, life has always been a struggle. Sometimes it's just worse than it is at others.

In our recent work in a field that we are calling positive evolutionary psychology, Nicole Wedberg and I use foundational principles of the evolutionary behavioral sciences to spell out what the good life looks like from an evolutionary perspective. Here, I present five suggestions for living that follow from this broader idea of positive evolutionary psychology. I hope you find them helpful as you and yours navigate the often treacherous waters of life.  

1. Be honest.

Be honest with yourself and with others. Humans have a deep evolutionary history of spotting lies and deception. And, in short, lies and deception generally don't make people very popular. In fact, our minds have systems that are finely honed to detect liars and cheaters among us (see Cosmides & Tooby, 1992). Be honest with yourself and with others in your life, even if it might seem difficult. There's no doubt that, ultimately, you'll be happy to have taken this approach. 

2. Don't expect perfection from yourself or others.

Mistakes are an inherent part of life. And this truth goes all the way down to the DNA-replication process itself (see Dawkins, 1976). Sure, hold high standards for yourself and for others, but always allow room for mistakes along the way. If you're anything like me, you're guaranteed to, largely unwittingly, make lots of mistakes of all kinds of sizes in 2021. And this is true of those around you as well. And that's OK. That is part of living. Make room for imperfection in yourself and others. 

3. Make amends.

Across the human experience, social conflict of various kinds has emerged regularly. Betrayal, ostracism, deception, emotional manipulation, and more. The human experience is not all peaches and cream—and it never has been. Humans evolved a psychology for living in small-scale groups with others who should expect to interact with one another extensively across life. This is, in important ways, a foundational feature of the ancestral environment that shaped our evolution.

Given this fact, we've evolved a broad array of moral and emotional processes that serve to help us keep connected to others for our own good (see Trivers, 1985). Making amends with others on the heels of social conflict has always been an important part of the human experience. And while it is often a difficult thing to do, it also often has long-term benefits for oneself and for one's broader community. 

4. Forgive.

Along with making amends with others for mistakes that we have made as we're navigating through life, we've evolved a psychology that pertains to forgiving others who've slighted us, in some form or another, as well (see Geher et al., 2019). While forgiveness may not always be possible (see De Jesus, 2020), genuine forgiveness often has both proximal benefits (making the forgiver feel better about things) as well as ultimate benefits (keeping close relationships intact as we engage in our life journeys). 

5. Love.

Without question, love is a real thing, with well-documented neural correlates (see Acevedo et al., 2019). The experience of love is perhaps the ultimate in our evolved psychology for staying close to others and to securing support through life. In a truly loving relationship, one becomes so enamored with another that fulfilling a loved one's needs and wants becomes a primary goal for oneself. When people experience true love with another, they have someone in their corner in a very foundational sense. The power of love (to cite Huey Lewis!) cannot be understated in its ability to provide all kinds of benefits in life. In 2021, let yourself love and be loved. It's in our evolutionary history to do so. For good reasons. 

Bottom Line

The more you live, the more you come to find that life can be hard as nails. 2020 gave everyone, all eight billion of us, a powerful lesson in this fact. 

But life experience also teaches us about the silver linings that appear along the way. And so many of the good things in life, such as the ability to make amends and the capacity for true love, are deeply embedded in our evolutionary history. This is the entire point of the field of Positive Evolutionary Psychology, and I think it's a wonderful way to understand and appreciate the human experience. 

At the end of the day: Be honest. Don't expect perfection. Make amends when appropriate. Forgive when appropriate. And allow yourself the capacity to love. You and those around you will be better off for all of it.

Happy New Year from Darwin's Subterranean World. Thanks for all the support from my readers over all these years—it truly means a ton to me.  

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Acevedo BP, Poulin MJ, Geher G, Grafton S, Brown LL.  (2019). The neural and genetic correlates of satisfying sexual activity in heterosexual pair‐bonds. Brain Behav. 2019;e01289. https://doi.org/10.1002/brb3.1289

Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive adaptations for social exchange. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1976/1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

De Jesus, A. R. et al. (2020). Betrayal, Outrage, Guilt, and Forgiveness: The Four Horsemen of the Human Moral Experience. A presentation given at the biennial meeting of the Heterodox Psychology Conference in Orange, CA. (all authors as follows: Amelia R. De Jesus, Edward Maurer, Nikoleta Alijaj, Michele Cristo, Ann Marie DeBonis, Nicole Elyukin, Glenn Geher, Sydney Huppert, Danielle Kruchowy, Kelly Nolan, Miriana Ruel, Aliza Santos, Baylee C. Spackman, Adrianna Villegas, Kerri Widrick, Cody Wojszynski and Victoria Zezula; Department of Psychology, SUNY New Paltz)

Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Geher, G., Rolon, V., Holler, R., Baroni, A., Gleason, M., Nitza, E., Sullivan, G., Thomson, G., & Di Santo, J. M. (2019). You’re dead to me! The evolutionary psychology of social estrangements and social transgressions. Current Psychology. doi: 10.1007/s12144-019-00381-z

Trivers, R. (1985). Social evolution. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.