Evolutionary Psychology Is a Superpower
Lessons from pioneers of evolutionary psychological science.
Posted Aug 28, 2018
While the recent Heterodox Psychology conference in southern California was filled with highlights, for me, the keynote address by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two pioneers in the field of evolutionary psychology, was a true centerpiece. Cosmides and Tooby are credited as two of the founders of the field of evolutionary psychology. And in their talk, they went into the details regarding the steps they took to pioneer this field under a mountain of political resistance. As two untenured young academics, Cosmides and Tooby, who realized the importance of applying Darwin’s ideas to issues of behavior, stood up, smiled at the rain, and pushed forward. Theirs is one of the most inspiring academic stories that I have ever heard. And the field of evolutionary psychology, which now regularly churns out research to help advance our understanding of the human condition, is the product of their courage.
While Cosmides and Tooby made several important points in their presentation, here, I focus on a statement by John Tooby that had us all sitting on the edge of our seats. He said this:
Evolutionary Psychology is a superpower.
Let that sink in. When John Tooby said these words in his presentation, I was like, “Yes! That’s it!” Of course, he wasn’t saying that it allows you to fly or to brachiate through mid-town Manhattan using spider webs. What he meant was essentially this: The evolutionary perspective allows you to think about any and all psychological phenomena in a broader perspective. It allows you to see a map of the entire forest as opposed to only the details of one part of one of the trees. It is a big-picture approach to understanding behavior that is fully inspired by Darwin’s take on the nature of life. Once behavioral scientists started studying behavior from an evolutionary perspective, things that had not made sense before started to make sense. Consider just a few such findings that have been unveiled by the superpowers of evolutionary psychology:
- Humans are disgusted by stimuli that have the capacity to decrease the probability of survival and/or reproductive success. In other words, we have a behavioral immune system just as we have a physiological immune system (see Schaller & Duncan, 2007).
- Obesity and resultant health issues such as cardiac disease are largely the result of an evolutionary mismatch between ancestral food offerings compared with modern, highly unnatural food offerings (see O’Keefe et al., 2006).
- Large-scale politics are a mess partly because the human mind only evolved to deal with small-scale politics (see Geher et al., 2015).
- Our species’ somewhat-polygynous ancestral past sheds light on such questions as why men die sooner than women do and why men prefer more variability in partners than do women (see Barash, 2016).
- Our deep history of reciprocal altruism helps us understand why we abhor cheaters in our social worlds - and how we actually have special cognitive processes dedicated to finding such cheaters (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992).
- Incest aversion has led to specialized cognitive architecture in humans (see Lieberman & Smith, 2012).
- The evolutionary perspective has cracked the code on love in humans (see Fisher, 1993).
The Evolutionary Perspective Allows Researchers to Turn on the Light
If you follow the field of evolutionary psychology (see my brief textbook, Evolutionary Psychology 101, for a quick introduction), then you know that the above list is a sliver. A small sliver. A sliver of a sliver.
The evolutionary perspective is deeply powerful. Given its stepped-back approach to understanding behavior, employing the evolutionary perspective as a researcher is truly comparable to turning on the light in a dark room when you are looking for something. Just as it would make no sense to conduct research in biology without considering evolutionary principles, we are now at a point in the field of psychology where it makes no sense to conduct research in the behavioral sciences without an evolutionarily informed approach.
When intellectual rogues such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby started to carve out the field of evolutionary psychology, they were working against the grain. They were paddling upstream for sure. It would have been much easier for them to have abandoned the evolutionary perspective and forged ahead with other research agendas that were more palatable within the prevailing intellectual environments. But you know what? They decided to be brave. And we now understand what it means to be human so much better as a result.
Special thanks to Leda and John for all of their amazing work over the years. The world needs trailblazers like you.
And yes, John Tooby is correct. If you are a student or scholar in the behavioral sciences, you might want to brush up on your evolution. After all, evolutionary psychology is a superpower.
Barash, D. P. (2016). Out of Eden: The Surprising Consequences of Polygamy. New York: Oxford University Press.
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.
Fisher, H. (1993). Anatomy of Love - A Natural History of Mating and Why We Stray. New York: Ballantine Books.
Geher, G., Carmen, R., Guitar, A., Gangemi, B., Sancak Aydin, G., and Shimkus, A. (2015) The evolutionary psychology of small-scale versus large-scale politics: Ancestral conditions did not include large-scale politics. European Journal of Social Psychology, doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2158.;
Lieberman, D. & Smith, A. R. (2012). It's all relative: Sexual aversions and moral judgments regarding sex among siblings. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 243-247.
O'Keefe JH Jr; Cordain L; Jones PG; Abuissa H. ( 2006). "Coronary artery disease prognosis and C-reactive protein levels improve in proportion to percent lowering of low-density lipoprotein". The American Journal of Cardiology 98 (1): 135–39. doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2006.01.062. PMID 16784936.
Schaller, M., & Duncan, L. A. (2007). The behavioral immune system: Its evolution and social psychological implications. In J. P. Forgas, M. G. Haselton, & W. von Hippel (Eds.), Sydney symposium of social psychology. Evolution and the social mind: Evolutionary psychology and social cognition (pp. 293-307). New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.