Evolutionary Psychology Permeates Everyday Life

Ten ways that evolution matters every day

Posted Mar 20, 2018

Rawpixel com/Shutterstock
Source: Rawpixel com/Shutterstock

One of the core hurdles to teaching evolution is the fact that people don’t tend to see the connections between evolutionary principles and their everyday lives (see Wilson, 2007). As someone who has been teaching courses in evolutionary studies for over two decades, I actually see evolution in just about every situation I come across (see Geher, 2014). Here is a demarcation of a typical American day, annotated with evolutionary concepts throughout.

Sally is a pretty typical American. Here is her Tuesday:

1. Why we love our kids.

7:00 a.m.: Sally wakes up and struggles to get her two high-school-aged kids awake and out the door. While she loves her kids dearly, she sees this process as something of a hassle at times. Make my breakfast! Sign this form! Can I you pick me up at 3:15 so I can go to the mall? Give me money!

Did you know that before the advent of modern health care, 50 percent of humans never made it to age 1? And 80 percent of humans never made it to age 18 (see Volk & Atkinson, 2008)? In a species like ours, where we have few offspring and invest a lot of time and energy into them, this is highly relevant — and it speaks to why we are willing to do pretty much anything for our kids today.

2. Why it’s hard to hit the gym.

8:00 a.m.: Sally gets on the treadmill. She promised herself at New Year's that this year she was going to use the treadmill at least five times a week. Secretly, she hates going on the treadmill and would rather let it collect dust!

Did you know that under pre-Westernized conditions across the globe, humans might travel up to 20 miles in a typical day (see Platek et al., 2011)? A sedentary lifestyle was not an option for the lion’s share of our ancestors during human evolution. We now are able to have a fully sedentary lifestyle, but since our ancestors’ bodies did not evolve with this lifestyle in mind, whether we like it or not, these days we must make ourselves use the treadmill, go to the gym, join a gym, etc. 

3. Why we prefer cookies.

8:30 a.m.: Sally goes downstairs for breakfast. She can’t help herself and eats two cookies that were on the counter, instead of the bowl of fruit that she’d planned on eating. They were right there!

Did you know that our preference for foods that are high in sugar and high in fat evolved under conditions that are highly mismatched from the food offerings of today’s world (see Guitar, 2017)? We evolved to prefer such foods, in fact, because they were rare, and drought and famine were common during most of the time of human evolution. So we evolved preferences for food that would have helped our ancestors make it through famines. Processed foods came much later, only to exploit these evolved food preferences.

4. The cosmetics industry betrays our evolutionary history.

9:00 a.m.: Sally gets herself ready, applying some new “miracle cream” designed to reduce wrinkles. She hopes it really works!

Do you know that features in women that are considered “attractive” often map onto relatively youthful features, such as smooth skin? This is because women have a limited reproductive window in life, and signs of aging unconsciously signal a lack of fertility — and modern cosmetic products tell this tale (see Buss, 2003).

5. Everyone likes an altruist.

9:30 a.m.: Sally miraculously walks into her weekly meeting at work right on time. Today’s entire agenda is about forming a team of people from her department to be part of a new charity drive that the administration is pushing for all departments, trying to brand the business as “caring and good for the community.”

In spite of our many evolved selfish tendencies, humans are a communal ape, and we have been in the business of helping others for a long time. Helping others seems to have many different evolutionary pathways, and one of them seems to have to do with appearances — people and businesses that come across as altruistic are rated more positively than those that do not come across as altruistic (see Miller, 2000).

6. No one likes a cheater.

11:30 a.m.: Sally, who doesn’t like coffee, overhears something of a disagreement among two colleagues in the break room. Apparently, there is an informal rule that all of the coffee drinkers are supposed to rotate in buying cream for the coffee. Well, it sounds like the one guy seems to think he is always buying cream, and that the other guy, hapless in the moment, may be guilty of being a half-and-half sycophant in the workplace!

Humans evolved with a long history of reciprocal altruism, helping others with the expectation of help in return (see Trivers, 1971). In a social system that is typified by reciprocal altruism, individuals often count who has done what, making sure so as not to be taken advantage of. And calling out someone who is gaming the system, referred to as “altruistic punishment,” is standard stuff in any human community.

7. Why we love nature.

1:30 p.m.: Sally meets up with her friend Anna, and they go for a half-hour walk outside. Sally finds that if she just stays in her office all day, she can’t handle it! She loves a good sunny day and loves to walk around in nature, seeing the trees, the birds, the flowers, the streams, and more. She and Anna try to take walks together once a week.

Across most of human evolutionary history, our ancestors were outside. And they relied upon all kinds of things found in nature for basic survival. Our minds are the products of these experiences today — which is why we tend to do better when we make a point to get some outdoor time (see Wilson, 1984).

8. Kids evolved to be free.

3:15 p.m.: Sally picks up her son and drops him and a friend off at the mall. She hopes that they don't get into any trouble.

Under ancestral conditions, kids surely spent time without grownups (see Gruskin & Geher, 2017). In fact, in modern nomadic tribes around the world today, it turns out that kids spend the lion’s share of their day playing with other kids — without a grownup in sight (see Gray, 2011). This is how “education” actually took place for our ancestors during the core of human evolutionary history.

9. We evolved to be close to kin.

5:45 p.m.: Sally calls her sister in Iowa. They laugh and laugh about all kinds of things for a good half hour. They both wish that they lived closer to each other.

Under ancestral conditions, humans formed small bands, typically capped at about 150. These bands included many kin who would have varied from one another in degree of relatedness (see Dunbar, 1990). It was not until after the Industrial Revolution, which is considered very recent from an evolutionary perspective, that people started to live far from their kin.

10. We evolved to share with family.

7:30 p.m.: Sally and her husband prepare a nice dinner for the family. And the family of four sit around and appreciate the food and one another’s company. A nice way for everyone to end the day.

The sharing of food has always been an important part of human social living. It signals care and love. And it signals an other-oriented approach. And these are all qualities that have emerged as important evolved features of our social worlds today (see Geher, 2014).

Bottom Line

Most people don’t realize it, but evolution is highly relevant to our everyday lives. From the kinds of foods we eat to the kinds of experiences we seek out, we can thank evolution for shaping what happens in our worlds each and every day. This fact puts us on the same footing as the entirety of life. And it is a beautiful thing.

References

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.

Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised edition). New York: Basic Books.

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

Gray, P. (2011). Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books.

Gruskin, K., & Geher, G. (2018). The Evolved Classroom: Using Evolutionary Theory to Inform Elementary Pedagogy. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 12, 1-13.

Guitar, A. E. (2017). Evolutionary Medicine: A not so radical (but absolutely necessary) Paradigm for Modern Health and Behavior, Presentation in Annual EvoS Seminar Series at SUNY New Paltz

Miller G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. London, Heineman.

Platek, S., Geher, G., Heywood, L., Stapell, H., Porter, R., & Waters, T. (2011). Walking the walk to teach the talk: Implementing ancestral lifestyle changes as the newest tool in evolutionary studies. Evolution: Education & Outreach, 4, 41-51. Special issue on EvoS Consortium (R. Chang, G. Geher, J. Waldo, & D. S. Wilson, Eds).

Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.

Volk, T., Atkinson, J. (2008). Is child death the crucible of human evolution? Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2(4), 247-260.

Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge (link is external): Harvard University Press (link is external).

Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think. New York.