What Evolution Teaches us about POSSIBILITIES

Posted Apr 26, 2016

Photo by Dr. Maryalice Citera; used with permission
Source: Photo by Dr. Maryalice Citera; used with permission

In the Psychology Department at SUNY New Paltz, we have a long-standing intra-departmental kickball tournament. It’s sort of a tradition - and we see it as playing a large role in building community and in making connections among the undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in the department.

This tournament has been going on, for the most part, since 2009. It generally includes research teams with faculty research directors taking the roles of team captain. It has gotten heated at times. On more than one occasion, a call has been contested vocally. It is not 100% peaches and cream. But I’d have to say that, for the most part, this event, the brainchild of departmental member Corwin Senko, truly leads to a great community experience each time - connecting folks to the broader academic community while getting students and faculty to work collaboratively in a team-based manner.

Winning, of course, is not the bottom-line goal here - but it never hurts. Prior to the 2016 tourney, the team based on my evolutionary psychology lab (Team Pleistocene) has become adept at taking second place. That’s right, we’d never won the cool trophy - not until this year!

One lesson of the evolutionary approach to being human is that, of course, just about anything truly can happen. Most evolutionary models of complex behavior not only (1) include a large number of variables that exist at multiple conceptual levels, but such models also include (2) some “error” term - which is essentially a portion of the variability in the outcome that cannot be explained well by any of the variables in the model.

Put another way, there are a ton of things that affect any single outcome - and understanding this point genuinely leads to the important (and highly transferable) idea that, within certain parameters, lots of things are possible. And that right there is a pretty powerful message to instill in a bright young person who is still figuring things out (such as a college student) - or in just about anyone, actually.

Given this take on being human, I thought it would be useful to come up with some evolution-based ways to clearly see the point that, in life, at every turn, just about ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. This insight can help you prepare for all kinds of contingencies in your life - and perhaps it can help build a resilient approach to living.

Here are five concepts from an evolutionarily informed take on what it means to be human that speak to the fact that, when it comes to life, anything can happen.

5. Across large (geological) periods of time, complex entities can evolve from simple forms.

The human visual system; the ability for chimpanzees to create social coalitions; the false eyes that emerge on butterfly wings; emotion-detection abilities in canines; the peacock’s tail; the ability for humans to use language; etc. This stuff is ultimately descended from “primal ooze” of millennia ago. Look at what has evolved over the past several billion years on this planet! #anythingcanhappen

4. Nearly all patterns have their exceptions.

Most findings in the field of evolutionary psychology, such as the fact that people are better at using logic when they are primed to think about social contracts compared to at other times (see Cosmides & Tooby, 1992 in Barkow et al., 1992), are based on inferential statistics and, thus, include some number of cases that defy the general trend. #anythingcanhappen

3. Prosocial behavior can evolve across many species.

In spite of the “highly selfish” nature of evolutionary forces (see Dawkins, 1989), behavioral patterns that are typified by the helping of others (e.g., parenting, helping of siblings, reciprocal altruism among non-kin, coalition-building, etc.) can emerge from evolutionary forces - and such patterns have emerged several times in the evolutionary record - particularly in the evolution of humans. #anythingcanhappen

2. An organism (such as you and I) can evolve to understand how evolution shaped that organism in the first place.

Given the blind nature of evolutionary forces such as natural selection, think about how unlikely it would be for an organism to evolve such neural capacity so as to be able to ponder and to, largely, understand the nature of its own existence. Wow! #anythingcanhappen

1. Randomness exists at all levels.

All evolutionary processes, such as natural selection, require some level of randomness in order to take place. Without random genetic mutations, the grand speciation that has led to such beautiful forms as tulips, falcons, and great white sharks would have never taken place. #anythingcanhappen

Bottom Line

As Darwin famously stated in his 1859 treatise on the origins of life, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” He was not kidding. To rephrase that point in modern, hash-tag-based lingo: #anythingcanhappen. Perhaps appreciating this fact might spark a splash of inspiration for folks like you and me.


Dedication: This blog is dedicated to the formidable 2015/2016 New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab, including: Aron Wiegand, Brianne Rawlins, Brittany Mabie (what if she played on our team?), Chris Farrington,Haley Dillon, Jackie Eisenberg, Katrina Lippolt, Kian Betancourt, Lauren “Buster” Smith, Liz Levy, Matt Chason, Maureen McCarthy, Nate Postol, Rich Holler, Stephanie Padich, Vania Rolon, Victoria Freeborn, and Team Captain / Lab Supervisor / Fearless Leader Nicole Wedberg. #anythingcanhappen


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

Darwin, C. (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.

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

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