Barriers to Applied Evolutionary Psychology

Don't shy away from applied behavioral science just because there are critics

Posted Jan 17, 2017

PIRO4D / Pixabay
Source: PIRO4D / Pixabay

As I develop in my career, I find myself increasingly interested in ways that evolutionary psychology can help provide solutions to life’s many problems. With the advent of applied evolutionary psychology (see the work of the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society, AEPS), we now have a strong and organized scholarly effort designed to help advance evolutionarily informed research that sheds light on issues of humanity. Work in the broad field of applied evolutionary psychology pertains to such areas as clinical psychology, urban design, women’s health, nutrition, and more. If you follow my work, you know that I’m super-excited about this movement and hope to continue to make contributions in the field.

When thinking about any area of applied scholarship, we have to be careful about the possible conflation of “is” and “ought.” That is to say, it’s important that applied evolutionary psychologists don’t fall into the naturalistic fallacy trap in their efforts to help make the world a better place. From the perspective of an academic, this is a critical point. Herein, I offer some explanation and guidance on this front.

The Naturalistic Fallacy and Applied Scholarship

One of the main problems that evolutionary psychologists run into pertains to the “naturalistic fallacy” (see Pinker, 2002; Geher, 2014). This fallacy essentially exists when someone looks at a piece of basic evolutionarily informed scholarship, designed to provide insights into HOW THINGS ARE and then mis-interprets the findings as being all about HOW THINGS SHOULD BE. So, for instance, in research on the evolutionary psychology of warfare (see: Liddle, Shackelford, & Weekes-Shackelford, 2012; Geher & Wedberg, 2016), evolutionary psychologists have pointed out that warfare has strong evolutionary roots in tribalism in our species. Importantly, such scholarship is designed as an EXPLANATION of war (that warfare is partly an extension of our evolved tendencies toward tribalism). This scholarship is NOT a JUSTIFICATION of war nor is it in any way CONDONING war. Saying that something is natural is not the same as saying that it is how things should be. This erroneous kind of reasoning, which is often found in arguments against evolutionary psychology, is the naturalistic fallacy.

It strikes me that applied evolutionary scholarship may be vulnerable to accusations of the naturalistic fallacy. Applied evolutionary psychology essentially seeks to help solve particular problems (such as coming up with ways to improve mental health) by using the powerful framework used in evolutionary psychology.

Now whenever someone is engaging in applied scholarship, there is an often-unwritten subtext - regarding how things SHOULD be. Evolutionary psychiatrists, for instance, are aligned with psychiatrists in general insofar as they try to improve mental health—they think that, generally speaking, mental health should be a value that we strive to facilitate in others. Similarly, scholars in the field of evolution and health believe that physical fitness is a value and that people SHOULD work toward being physically fit.

Given how the naturalistic fallacy is based in the conflation of how things ARE versus how things SHOULD BE, it makes sense that some folks might be skeptical of any and all applied evolutionary scholarship.

From my perspective, there is no problem. Applied scholarship that is done well simply utilizes findings and techniques from basic areas of scholarship to help advance particular causes. What’s important is that the researcher’s social goals do not drive or interfere with the research itself. So this is, actually, another area where applied evolutionary scholarship (or any applied scholarship) gets tricky (for a great video on this topic, check out Jonathan Haidt’s recent talk at SUNY New Paltz).

Physics and Engineering: An Analogy

An analogy that can help elucidate these issues can be found in the relationship between physics and engineering. Physics is an inherently basic area of scholarship with physicists seeking to best understand the nature of the physical world. Engineering is essentially applied physics. Engineers use findings from physics to help solve specific problems—problems that are defined by people. For instance, an engineering team might work to create a bridge across a river to improve the transportation in a particular locality—with the design work based on a variety of formulas developed by basic physicists. They are using the work of the basic scientists for a particular purpose.

This is exactly what applied evolutionary psychologists are doing in their work—taking the findings from basic evolutionary psychological research, and applying these findings to help move toward particular goals that they deem important.

Bottom Line

Hey, if you are interested in the field of applied evolutionary psychology, you’ve got some barriers ahead of you! Folks who don’t like evolutionary psychology may not be particularly supportive of your work because your work is rooted in evolutionary psychology. Folks who are die-hard basic evolutionary psychological researchers might accuse you of making the naturalistic fallacy—or of having a social or political agenda that is driving your scholarship. These are things to be mindful of in the field. This said, if you are dedicated to the idea of using the powerful framework of evolutionary psychology to help make the world a better place, you know you’ve got my full support—and I say that (while being mindful of these issues) you smile at the critics and move forward. You’re only here once. Make it count.


Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Geher, G., & Wedberg, N. A. (2016). Evolutionary Psychology and Warfare. In P. Joseph (Ed.). SAGE Encyclopedia of War: Social Science Perspectives. Los Angeles: Sage.

Haidt, J. (2016). Truth versus Social Justice University. A lecture given at the State Unviersity of New York at New Paltz.

Liddle, J.R., Shackelford, T.K., & Weekes-Shackelford, V.A. (2012). Why can’t we all just get along? Evolutionary perspectives on violence, homicide, and war. Review of General Psychology, 16, 24-36.

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate . New York, NY: Viking.