Can We Answer Life's Big Questions?
Insights gained from a big-picture approach to what it means to be human.
Posted Oct 27, 2015
Evolutionary psychology is an approach to understanding behavior in terms of evolutionary principles—seeing modern human behavior as the result of natural evolutionary processes that have shaped the human mind over eons (see my brief textbook on this topic, Evolutionary Psychology 101). Given this big-picture approach to understanding behavior, the evolutionary perspective in psychology is uniquely positioned to address “the big questions."
Why is there so much sadness in the world?
Life is not always easy. Humans across the globe have the capacity to experience negative emotions such as anger and sadness (see Geher, 2004). In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, it turns out that we are much better off having the capacity for sadness than we would be to have no sadness at all. Negative emotional states such as sadness and depression are part of our evolutionary heritage—and they evolved to provide important signals to ourselves. For instance, after the loss of a close relative, sadness motivates behaviors to connect with other relatives and close friends—playing a role in facilitating much-needed social connections for one’s future.
Is there an after-life?
From an evolutionary perspective, there are important aspects of humans that transcend time and generation. One’s genes are sort of important to who a person is. Via such mechanisms as reproduction, child-rearing, and aiding kin across your lifespan, you take steps (often unwittingly) to help ensure that your particular constellation of DNA will have a place in the future. Your DNA goes back millions of years and variants of it will likely continue for a while longer, well after you depart this earth.
And this is not to even mention cultural transmission—another significant part of the human evolutionary story. So much of who we are can be understood in terms of the cultural products we create (songs, books, and essays, etc.). It can also include more basic kinds of products, such as a special way to tie a fishing knot you learned from your Uncle Saul, or a trick to opening a bottle of beer that you learned from your friend Todd in college. Things we teach others transcend us and have the capacity to exist well beyond our own life. So, in a way, yes, evolutionists do believe in an after-life.
Is there a higher being?
Efforts to eradicate religion from society have always failed. Humans are the religious ape—there is no question about it. While thousands of religions exist across the globe (see Wilson, 2002), there are some basic features that characterize all of them. Religions tend to include some kind of supernatural beliefs (such as the belief in a god or gods). But religions also tend to include a battery of rules on how to behave—with many of these rules encouraging other-oriented behavior (e.g., "thou shalt not kill") while discouraging selfish behavior. So, as to the question of a higher being, from the evolutionist's perspective, it’s probably fair to say that there are thousands of culturally-specific higher beings found all around the world. And as they are embedded in religious doctrines and policies, these culturally-specific higher beings (at least as concepts) play important roles in shaping the rules and social outcomes of many cultures.
Will we ever live to see a world with no war?
Probably not. Scholars who study warfare from an evolutionary perspective, such as David Livingstone Smith (2009), provide evidence that warfare has always existed in humans: There is always some war or another going on somewhere in the world. This is not to say that peace is not possible. But there are lots of things working against it. Ethnocentrism and xenophobia, for instance, may be the kinds of nasty products of our evolutionary heritage that stand in the way of large-scale peace. A long history of male/male physical competition and male-on-male group warfare steeped in human history similarly doesn’t offer much room for optimism. This said, we can take steps toward peace—and probably should! The field of evolutionary psychology includes much in the way of facilitating altruistic behavior and teamwork (see Wilson, 2011). It also provides insights into advances in such important fields as education and health. Joining with other scholarly traditions, such as action-oriented sociology, evolutionary psychology may well hold a key to helping create a relatively peaceful future for our offspring and our offspring’s offspring.
Is harmony between men and women possible?
Sure. While there are inherent differences between men and women, there are also inherent similarities between men and women (see Buss et al., 1990). For instance, while men across the globe focus on physical characteristics in mates more than women do, both men and women describe kindness as a feature essential in a partner. Further, from an evolutionary perspective, men and women have much in the way of shared evolutionary goals. Forming happy, long-term pair bonds and providing a supportive context for raising children are goals that cut across gender lines—not to mention the fact that there is probably more within-gender variability on most important dimensions than there is between-gender variability. That is to say, a man probably differs more from other men in his world compared with how much men differ from women on average—and vice versa. Do men and women always get along? No—but not all men get along with other men and not all women get along with other women. Seeking harmony between the sexes is really just part of a broader issue of seeking ways to create harmony among people in general. From the evolutionary perspective, there’s not really a battle of the sexes going on.
What is the point of life?
From the evolutionary perspective, life is seriously precious. From this perspective, the entirety of the living world is inter-related—and we all ultimately come from common ancestors going back billions of years. So when you hear the robin singing in the morning, marvel at the beautiful moss-laden Douglas Fir trees of the Pacific Northwest, or relish in picking wild blueberries when hiking in the summer, remember that from an evolutionary perspective, those songbirds, trees, and bushes are all importantly related to you. We are all part of the entirety of life. So caring for all of life, including other humans, pets, and living elements of the landscape and the environment comprise, from this perspective, a reasonable approach to living.
Also, evolutionists point out that humans evolved as a group-ish species—we are descendants of long lines of ancestors who worked together, across kin lines, to create products, such as civilizations, that could only be achieved by an unprecedented kind of teamwork. This feature of being human tells us something about the point of life: Giving back to others. Helping others in need. Working with others toward common goals. These are the things that define our particular class of group-ish species. At the same time, these other-oriented values, which are steeped in our evolutionary history, provide us with some insights into the point of life.
We’re all interested in the big questions. Evolutionary psychology naturally goes there. This perspective starts by considering humans as part of the natural world and then develops from that point. It's a big-picture approach to what it means to be human. Hopefully, I have shown here that this field has the capacity to provide significant insights into the big questions of life.
Buss, D. M., Abbott, M., Angleitner, A., Biaggio, A., Blanco-Villasenor, A., BruchonÂSchweitzer, M [& 45 additional authors]. (1990). International preferences in selecting mates: A study of 37 societies. Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology, 21, 5-47.
Geher, G. (Ed., 2004). Measuring Emotional Intelligence: Common Ground and Controversy. New York: Nova Science Publishing.
Smith, D. L. (2009). The most dangerous animal. New York: St. Marten’s Griffin
Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (link is external)
Wilson, D. S. (2011). The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. New York: Little, Brown and Company.