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Rejecting Evolutionary Psychology Is Rejecting Evolution

Evolution does not stop at the neck

When did “evolutionary psychology” first emerge? Was it with the publication of David Buss’ textbook titled “Evolutionary Psychology” in 1999? Maybe it was the publication of Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby’s (1992) “The Adapted Mind.” Or was it with the publication of Robert Trivers’ (1985) “Social Evolution?” Maybe Dawkins’ (1976) classic “The Selfish Gene?”

Actually, the basic idea of evolutionary psychology, which is simply the notion that human behavioral patterns are largely the result of natural evolutionary forces (see Geher, 2014), goes back at least as far as Darwin. Consider his book, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” (Darwin, 1872). In this book, Darwin carefully considered the adaptive function of emotional experiences and expressions from an evolutionary perspective. If that’s not “evolutionary psychology,” what is?

Many of us, who describe ourselves as “evolutionary psychologists,” fully embrace the power of evolution to help us better understand human behavior and our place in the world. Using the powerful lens of evolution to help inform questions of behavior and psychology, the following facts about human nature have been illuminated:

  • Human emotional expressions are consistent across the globe – suggesting a strong evolved substrate to human emotional experiences (see Ekman & Friesen, 1968).
  • Helping of others is, more often than you might think, rooted in either kin connections (see Hamilton, 1964) or in expectations of reciprocity (see Trivers, 1971).
  • Many aspects of human cognition were shaped for social worlds that included only about 150 individuals (see Dunbar, 1992)
  • Men are more likely to die of risky behavior during young adulthood, by a wide margin, than are women – a fact that can be well-explained by Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection (see Kruger & Nesse, 2006).
  • And more. A lot more.

Evolutionary psychology is a tour de force in modern academia, and this area has shown extraordinary potential for shedding light on issues across the scope of the human experience.

This said, for various historical and political reasons, not everyone loves evolutionary psychology (see Geher, 2006). In fact, many academics report that they “believe in evolution” but that they “reject evolutionary psychology” (see Geher & Gambacorta, 2010). From where I stand, the fact that a large proportion of academics reject evolutionary psychology is a significant hurdle to the advancement of knowledge regarding what it means to be human. And, not surprisingly, perhaps, I see this as a shame.

What does it mean to “accept evolution” but to reject “evolutionary psychology?”

As an academic who strongly embraces evolutionary psychology, I often find myself thinking about this idiosyncratic question – what exactly does it mean to accept evolution but to reject evolutionary psychology? Here are some possibilities:

  • This may signify the acceptance of Darwin’s ideas related to the origins of life but not his ideas on the evolutionary roots of behavior (such as those found in “The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals”).
  • This may mean that evolution applies to the behavior of all animals except for humans.
  • This may mean that the highly complex human nervous system is somehow not the result of evolution – but the rest of the human body is.
  • This may mean that evolution applies to most of the human body, except for the neck and up.*

Honestly, I am still trying to figure this out! But, this said, I think it’s important for people to know how powerful evolutionary principles have been in helping elucidate issues that are central to the human experience – from helping us understand education, to physical health, to mental health, to warfare (see Geher, 2014). Want to develop your best possible toolbox for understanding the nature of human behavior? I strongly recommend that you allow Darwin’s ideas into that toolbox.


Barkow, J., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation` of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London, UK: John Murray.

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

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W.V. (1986). A new pan cultural facial expression of emotion. Motivation and Emotion, 10, 159-168.

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

Geher, G. (2006). Evolutionary psychology is not evil … and here’s why …Psihologijske Teme (Psychological Topics); Special Issue on Evolutionary Psychology, 15, 181-202.

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.

Hamilton W.D. (1964). "The genetical evolution of social behaviour. I". J. Theor. Biol. 7, 1–16.

Kruger DJ, Nesse RM (2006) An evolutionary life history understanding of sex differences in human mortality rates. Human Nature,74 (1): 74-97.

Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.

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


*I owe this metaphor to a conversation I had with David Buss when he visited New Paltz in 2006

... or as my student Derek DeCarr wrote in a recent BlackBoard posting, "To deny evolutionary psychology as is done in Standard Social Science Model is to deny evolutionary forces as a whole."