What Are We Here For?
Seeing our evolutionary history in an olive pitter.
Posted Feb 23, 2016
“What the heck is that thing?” “And what are the different parts of it used for?”
These are the questions that I asked of students in a recent Evolutionary Studies Capstone class. I got lots of innovative answers:
- It’s used to measure body parts?
- An apple corer!
- Used to work on cars?
- It’s designed to conduct biopsies on humans...maybe?
Good answers. But: No, no, no, and no. This thing is an olive pitter.*
So let me ask you this: Once you know the function, or the purpose of this thing, don’t you see it differently? Look again at that picture. Now you can totally see: You put the olive on the little cup-like bit, squeeze, the dagger-like bit comes through the olive, takes out the pit—release, and there you have it!
Once everyone knows it’s an olive pitter, it’s like magic: You totally get it. Not only do you understand the function of the entire tool, in a holistic, gestalt sense, but you also understand the purpose of the different elements of it. Once you know what it’s for—once you understand its function—you understand the whole thing. (I borrow this example from renowned Harvard evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker, who discusses it in his book, How the Mind Works.)
Olive Pitters and Adaptive Behavior in Humans
You might be thinking, "Well, that’s kind of cool, I guess, but how does it relate to human psychology? And what does it have to do with ‘evolutionary psychology’ in particular?”
Here’s your answer:
Behavioral (or psychological) scientists are in the business of explaining the processes of human mind and behavior. We ask questions such as:
- What is the nature of emotional experience?
- Why do people prefer foods that put them at risk for obesity?
- Why do kids whine?
This set of questions is intentionally varied, speaking to disparate facets of the human psychological experience. The great thing about the evolutionary perspective in psychology is that this perspective starts with the question of "What is this for?” (See my brief introductory book on the topic, Evolutionary Psychology 101 (Geher, 2014).) From the evolutionary perspective, humans are, simply, evolved organisms. And all evolved organisms exist because their ancestors had a host of qualities that facilitated survival and/or reproduction. So each of us exists because our ancestors, going back billions of years, were effective at surviving and reproducing.
That’s what a human is for.
As to what behavior is for, from an evolutionary perspective, the answer is much the same. Human behavioral processes evolved because they helped ultimately confer adaptive advantages to our ancestors. Behavior is often best conceptualized, then, as having some adaptive value. Our behaviors evolved to help facilitate survival and/or reproductive success.
That is what behavior is for.
As with our olive pitter, knowing what a human is for and what behavior is for suddenly sheds light on the entirety of human psychological experience. Consider these three examples:
What is the nature of emotional experience?
Emotionality makes life hard. Wouldn’t it be easier sometimes if we were all like Mr. Spock? So why does our emotion system exist? It turns out that scholars who have studied the emotion system from an evolutionary perspective (see Ekman & Friesen, 1968) have found a host of adaptations that underlie the emotion experience. The subjective aspect of emotions drives us to move toward things that are ultimately beneficial for us (e.g., kind family members who confer benefits to us) and avoid features of the environment that could adversely affect survival and/or reproduction (e.g., poisonous snakes). What is the emotion system for? It’s for facilitating survival and reproduction. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage. That’s what it’s for.
Why do people prefer foods that put them at risk for obesity?
Without an evolutionary perspective, our preference for chocolate cupcakes over kale makes little sense. But once we look at nutrition from an evolutionary perspective (see Robb Wolf’s (2010) work on this concept), we suddenly realize that even our unhealthy food preferences are part of our evolutionary heritage. Under ancestral conditions, famine was common—and under these conditions (which typified 99% of human evolution), a preference for high-fat food was adaptive. Our preferences now still reflect this, even though, sadly, modern food offerings are mismatched from ancestral food offerings that ultimately shaped what we like to eat now. Why do we prefer foods that put us at risk for obesity? Because such preferences provided survival and/or reproductive benefits to our ancestors. That’s what they're for.
Finally, why do kids whine?
No one likes whining, at least last I checked. In fact, Chang and Thompson (2011) found that hearing a kid whine—even in a language that you don’t know—is more annoying than just about any other auditory stimulus. We! Can’t! Stand! It! Then why is it so prevalent? From an evolutionary perspective, this one is easy: Kids need parental care—they need attention and resources from grown-ups. Whining has acoustical qualities that, much like infantile crying, make it very hard to ignore. While this may be annoying, it’s also adaptive. Whining helped our ancestors survive and/or reproduce. That’s what it’s for.
You could probably spend years with an olive pitter without realizing what in the world this thing is for. But once you understand its function, you can immediately understand the whole thing from top to bottom. The evolutionary perspective on humans has a similar effect. Without this understanding of why humans exist and why our behavior exists, we’re looking at an olive pitter without knowing what the heck it's for. The evolutionary perspective sheds necessary light on what a human is and, as a result, what behavior is. Without this perspective in psychology, we’re working in the dark.
- Chang, R. S., & Thompson, N. S. (2011). Whines, cries, and motherese: Their relative power to distract. Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, 5, 131-141.
- 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.
- Pinker, S. (1997). How the Mind Works. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
- Wolff, R. (2010). The Paleo Solution. Las Vegas, NV. Victory Belt Publishing.
*BTW, my star student Amy, who leads a double life as a waitress at a local restaurant, ultimately figured out that this was an olive pitter!