Darwin's Thoughts for the Graduates

How Darwin's Big Idea can empower the next generation

Posted May 28, 2013

I get to teach undergraduate and graduate students, across pretty much any and all academic areas, about how Darwin’s Big Idea – the principles of evolution – can shed light on who we are and what we can become. And I have some of the best students in the world – here at SUNY New Paltz. I’m pretty lucky.  

Today, yet another one of our graduate students (Rebecca Newmark) successfully defended her MA thesis – and is now on her way toward her role in making this world a better place. All graduates are charged with that, btw (in case you didn't know!) – and yeah, it’s a pretty big calling. In this time of commencement celebrations, I think we need to be clear that this is the deal. And I’m fully confident that Rebecca and the many other awesome graduates who are now on to the next step from the New Paltz evolutionary psychology experience, will work toward this goal.

In my role as director of New Paltz’s Evolutionary Psychology lab, I work to help my students see the relevance of Darwin’s ideas for understanding seemingly disparate phenomena. In other words, I teach my students how evolution ultimately relates to everything. And once my students see this fact, they often run with it – helping use a Darwinian approach to shed light on significant aspects of life and on the human experience. With this approach, my student Rebecca Newmark has shed light on how hormonal contraceptives may be changing the nature of female social behavior. My student Rachael Carmen is helping us better understand the complexities that underlie female orgasm. Mandy Guitiar is helping us better understand unconscious attitudes toward pregnant women. Melvin Philip is helping us better understanding the nature of mate choice of people who vary in sexual orientation. Grant Trouton is helping us better understand the nature of parental investment in modern contexts. And this is from just my current graduating group of MA students!

How can the ideas of evolution connect the highly varied aspects of the life experience? And how can Darwin's perspective help our graduates be better stewards to humanity?

To answer these questions, we need to first consider what evolution is. At its core, the principles of evolution are mathematical and logical in nature – as renowned biologist George Williams (1966, p. 22) put it, evolution is nothing more than “… a statistical bias in the rate of perpetuation of alternatives.” This seems complicated, but it’s not. It simply means that entities that tend to replicate themselves effectively will out-exist alternative entities in future generations. Things that copy themselves well will exist in the future – things that don’t replicate will not.

Wow – simple but powerful! We can apply this idea to culture – cultural ideas, such as musical genres, that are good at getting attention, will exist in the future – others will not. We can apply this idea to religions – religious groups that are good at maintaining themselves into the future and facilitating belief among many will exist in the future - others will not. And, of course, we can apply this idea to living things – organisms that are good at facilitating reproductive success will be more likely to exist in the future compared with alternative organisms. Simple and powerful and logical – I like this! And this basic idea has been applied by many graduates of the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab – leading to lots of great new insights about various phenomena – and lots of great students developing strong insights into the human condition.

Darwin’s ideas reach broadly – and this point cannot be understated. To explicate this point, I paste, below, the very start of my upcoming book, Evolutionary Psychology 101, which seeks to provide a basic and accessible introduction to the field of evolutionary psychology. This is, essentially, my attempt to show how powerful evolution is at connecting seemingly disparate phenomena:

“Let’s start with a puzzle. Think about how the following phenomena are connected to one another:

  • Emperor penguins have been shown to shove a follow emperor penguin into the water to test if seals or other predators are in the area (Marchant & Higgins, 1990).
  • The seed of a maple tree comes in a tidy package that resembles an outstanding helicopter blade – and in early Spring, the wind can carry these seeds quite a distance (Darke, 2002).
  • The single best statistical predictor of filicide (killing one’s child) in humans is status as a step-parent (rather than as a biological parent) (Daly & Wilson, 1988).
  • When a male lion takes over the harem of another male, he kills all cubs sired by the ousted male. Next, each adult female quickly copulates with the new male, often forcing abortions of fetuses sired by the first male (Packer & Pusey, 1983).
  •  The human expression of happiness, a smiling face, is interpreted unmistakably and accurately across the globe – regardless of the cultural background of the person smiling or of the person rating the smile (Ekman & Friesen, 1968)

So here we have it. On the surface, these phenomena are strikingly unrelated. Penguins pushing each other. Maple seeds falling in Spring. Parents killing children. Lionesses copulating with murderous lions. The universal nature of the human smile. What’s going on here? …”

From my perspective, the answer is simple – all these phenomena are connected by their evolutionary roots. The nature of human smiling and the nature of how maple pods fall – and the nature of why lions kill other lions – are all products of evolution. Why is Charles Darwin, who was born in 1809, still considered so foundational in our understanding of the world and our place in it? This is why: His Big Idea connects the entirety of life – and helps us understand humanity as part of the broader nature of life itself.

Darwin’s (1859) ideas have come to shed light on politics (Bingham & Souza, 2012), religion (Wilson, 2007), family (Geher, 2011), and countless other facets of humanity. What would Darwin say to the graduates of 2013? Probably something like this: Keep up the hard work – and never lose sight of the fact that humans are part of the extraordinary nature of life itself – governed by the same laws that govern all of life.

Want to make a positive difference from this point? Be like Charles Darwin. Work hard. Be humble. Be open-minded. Be respectful. And don’t be afraid of big and novel ideas – as such ideas may have potential to help us understand the world and our place in it – by leaps and bounds. Congratulations to the graduates of 2013 – Go out there and make a difference. Based on our understanding of evolution, you never know when a contribution of any size may lead to an enormous change in the playing field. May your contributions be positive and Darwinian in scope!


Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2012). Ultimate causation in evolved human political psychology: Implications for public policy. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 6, 360-383.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988) Homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Darke, R. (2002). The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

 Darwin, Charles (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1st ed.). London: John Murray. ISBN 1-4353-9386-4.

Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. V. (1968). Nonverbal behavior in psychotherapy research. In J. Shlien (Ed.), Research in Psychotherapy. Vol. III. American Psychological Association, 179-216.

 Geher, G. (2011). Evolutionarily informed parenting: A ripe area for scholarship in evolutionary studies. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 3(2), 26-36.

Geher, G. (2013). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Marchant, S., & Higgins, P. J. (1990). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds, Vol. 1A. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

 Williams, G. C. (1966). Adaptation and Natural Selection. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives. New York: Delacorte Press.