10 Evolutionary Psychological Concepts That People Don’t Get

The erroneous portrayal of evolutionary psychology

Posted Dec 02, 2017

As I point out in Evolutionary Psychology 101, the field of evolutionary psychology, which seeks to utilize Darwinian principles such as natural selection, has demonstrated its power in helping to illuminate so many areas of the human experience — from politics to nutrition (see Bingham & Souza, 2009; Wrangham, 2009), to love and warfare (see Fisher, 2003; Smith, 2009), and beyond.

This said, evolutionary psychology has been famously under attack from a variety of sources — largely by academics from outside the field. (See Geher, 2014 for a summary.) To make matters worse, as is clearly documented in the new publication, Do ideological driven scientific agendas impede understanding and acceptance of evolutionary principles in social psychology? by Von Hippel and Buss (2017), many academics who are resistant to the field of evolutionary psychology hold grossly distorted and erroneous conceptions of the basic principles of the field. Given this fact, it’s no wonder that so many people misunderstand the basic ideas of evolutionary psychology. To help address this problem, following are 10 common myths about evolutionary psychological concepts:

1. Evolutionary psychology is all about human mating. Wrong.

While some evolutionary psychology focuses on issues of human mating, the field addresses concepts from across the spectrum of psychological content, including altruism, religion, love, memory, anxiety, group identification, and more — way more.

2. Evolutionary psychology is all about sex differences. Wrong.

While it is true that many findings related to evolutionary psychology have addressed sex differences in behavioral patterns, the idea that the study of sex differences and the field of evolutionary psychology are one and the same is off-base. The field of evolutionary psychology is about any and all psychological phenomena that can be illuminated via the application of Darwinian principles.

3. Evolutionary psychologists believe that the point of everything is for humans to consciously try to increase their number of offspring. Wrong.

This is a standard misconception about the field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychologists do, in fact, focus on how different behavioral patterns and psychological processes have the effect of increasing reproductive success. However, just as bright plumage in peacocks and the shrill mating call of spring peepers unconsciously have the effect of increasing reproductive success for those species, a variety of psychological features and processes have evolved in humans, because they unconsciously have the effect of increasing outcomes that would have been associated with reproductive success under the conditions that surrounded ancestral humans during evolutionary history. No evolutionary psychologists are trying to make the case that all of human behavior is just a huge conscious effort to increase our number of offspring. That is just not how it works.

4. Evolutionary psychologists are more politically conservative than most academics. Wrong.

In a free society, people have the right to hold whatever political opinions they like. This said, the idea that evolutionary psychology is somehow part of a conservative conspiracy is woefully inaccurate. In fact, research into the political attitudes of evolutionary psychologists has found that, on average, they tend to be just as politically liberal as academics in general (see Tybur et al., 2007).

5. Evolutionary psychologists believe that evolution creates perfectly optimized adaptations. Wrong.

Some people argue that evolutionary psychology is “wrong,” because not all people have adaptations that would be seen as optimal from an evolutionary perspective. For instance, some work in evolutionary psychology has found that men find a waist-to-hip ratio of .7 to be most attractive in females. Then some criticize evolutionary psychology by essentially arguing that if this were “true,” then all women would have waist-to-hip ratios of .7. Again, this is not how it works: Evolutionary processes do not create perfection — rather, they lead to outcomes that are, on average, more adaptive than the alternatives. And variability in traits exists for all kinds of reasons. The idea that evolutionary forces either lead to perfection, or else are “incorrect,” is simply misguided.

6. Evolutionary psychologists believe that culture has no effect on human behavior. Wrong.

Culture is, without question, a major part of the human evolutionary story, and as such, many evolutionists who study human behavior focus largely on factors associated with cultural evolution (see, for instance, Boyd, Richerson, & Henrich, 2011). Culture is a product of human behavior — and culture ends up being the result of its own evolutionary processes. With a framework regarding the evolution of culture in hand, evolutionists have the capacity to not only study the effects of cultural evolution, but also the effects of gene-by-culture interactions, which have played a major role in shaping modern humans. (See Wrangham, 2009, for great examples of this concept.)

7. Evolutionary psychologists believe that we should all eat raw meat. Wrong.

I recently read something from a critic of evolutionary psychology suggesting that this is how evolutionary psychologists see things. Simply put: This is nonsense. In fact, based on the work of Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham (2009), it is clear that cooking via the use of controlled fire goes back more than 1,000,000 years in humans. Our digestive system is, without question, shaped for eating cooked foods — this is actually a substantial part of the human evolutionary story. Suggesting that evolutionary psychologists think that people should eat only raw foods is just wrong.

8. Evolutionary psychologists believe that people evolved to be selfish across the board. Wrong.

While evolution is known as selecting qualities of organisms that advance the interests of the organism itself, in humans, a broad array of features that focus on helping others and advancing the good of one’s broader group have, without question, been selected across human evolution. Evolutionary psychologists famously study such processes as altruism and gratitude. In fact, the emerging field of positive evolutionary psychology (see Geher & Wedberg, in press) is all about how we can use the powerful framework of evolutionary psychology to help advance the positive aspects of the human condition, such as happiness, gratitude, flourishing, and community.

9. Evolutionary psychologists focus on inherent genetic differences across different races. Wrong.

I don’t know a single evolutionary psychologist whose work focuses on this issue. Evolutionary psychologists largely examine questions of the human condition broadly defined — focusing on all people as having a similar evolved nature, across time, place, and ethnicity. I once talked to a sociologist at my school and asked her if she was going to attend a talk on our campus by the renowned evolutionary psychologist David Buss. He was set to talk about the evolutionary psychology of homicide, which related to content that this colleague studied in her own work. She laughed at me and said that she already knew what he was going to say — that all evolutionists who study crime take the approach that crime is committed by members of minority groups, because such groups are genetically inferior, or something like that. I was totally shaken. First, this is not at all what David Buss spoke about, and, second, I don’t know a single evolutionary psychologist whose work would take the approach that this sociologist was talking about. This is simply a misrepresentation of the field.

10. Evolutionary psychology is essentially pop psychology. Wrong.

I have no clue how people get away with saying this. Evolutionary psychology has an entire suite of international peer-reviewed academic journals, many of which have extremely high-impact factors and rejection rates (such as Evolution and Human Behavior and Human Nature). Evolutionary psychologists, in fact, have been shown to use scientific and statistical techniques that are, on average, more advanced than is typical in the behavioral sciences (see Tybur et al., 2007). And our intellectual societies, such as the Human Behavior and Evolution Society and the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society, have rigorous peer-review processes for work presented at their annual meetings. Say what you want about the field, but if you say that it is essentially “pop" psychology, you would be wrong.

Bottom Line

Darwin’s ideas on the nature of life represent the most important and powerful concepts in the natural sciences. Psychologists who have utilized Darwin’s ideas to ask and answer questions about human behavior have successfully shed light on all aspects of the human condition. The resistance to the field of evolutionary psychology within academia is unfortunate for various reasons. As is clearly demarcated by Von Hippel and Buss (2017), this resistance rests largely on a suite of faulty assumptions about the field.

If you're interested in advancing our understanding of the human condition, you dismiss, misportray, or demonize Darwin’s ideas to the detriment of the behavioral sciences as a whole.

Facebook image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

References

Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.

Boyd, R., P. J. Richerson, and J. Henrich. Rapid cultural adaptation can facilitate the evolution of large-scale cooperation, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 65:431–444, 2011

Fisher, H. (1993). Anatomy of Love - A Natural History of Mating and Why We Stray. New York: Ballantine Books.

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

Geher, G., & Wedberg, N. A. (in contract). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, D. L. (2009). The most dangerous animal. New York: St. Marten’s Griffin.

Tybur, J. M., Miller, G. F., & Gangestad, S. W. (2007).  Testing the controversy: An empirical examination of adaptationists’ attitudes towards politics and science.  Human Nature, 18(4), 313-328.

Von Hippel, W., & Buss, D. M. (2017). Do ideological driven scientific agendas impede understanding and acceptance of evolutionary principles in social psychology? In J. T. Crawford & L. Jussim. (Eds.), The politics of social psychology (pp. 7-25). New York: Psychology Press.

Wrangham R (2009). Catching fire: how cooking made us human. Philadelphia, PA: Perseus Books Group.