Positive Evolutionary Psychology
How Darwin's ideas can help us lead the good life.
Posted September 4, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
After years of work, Nicole Wedberg and I have completed our book Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin's Guide to Living a Richer Life. And of course, we're pretty happy about this news.
I've been teaching and researching the topic of evolutionary psychology going back to the 1990s. This field, built on the shoulders of giants such as David Buss, Leda Cosmides, Gordon Gallup, Dave Schmitt, John Tooby, and David Sloan Wilson, utilizes Darwin's big idea to help shed light on all features of the human psychological experience.
In developing the idea of Positive Evolutionary Psychology (described herein), we seek to essentially apply the work of evolutionary psychology to questions of positive psychology. Positive psychology is all about how to cultivate the positive aspects of the human experience: Love, kindness, gratitude, community, and more.
Our book is designed to merge these two fields to utilize the power of evolutionary psychology to shed light on the positives of our lives. In short, we are hoping to provide guidance on how Darwin's ideas can help us live richer lives. Following is an abridged version of the final chapter, "Darwin's Quick Tips for Living a Richer Life":
Positive Evolutionary Psychology Reconsidered
Every now and again, great ideas that have strong potential to connect with other great ideas progress independently. Until Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr made the connection between Darwin’s ideas on natural selection and the nature of DNA, work in evolutionary biology and work on genetics progressed independently from one another (see Mayr & Provine, 1980). When such great scholars as Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Steven Pinker, and David Buss connected modern empirical human psychology with evolutionary biology, the field of evolutionary psychology was born. The modern field of applied behavior analysis owes to the marriage of behaviorism and work in the field of special education. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups merge peanut butter and chocolate ... and so forth. Sometimes, stepping back and thinking in new ways about the interconnection among existing ideas is a great way to advance our understanding of the world and our place in it.
This book outlines such an intellectual marriage. Evolutionary psychology and positive psychology are two of the most cutting-edge fields in the behavioral sciences. Each is the subject of multiple textbooks—and each is taught as a content course in college classrooms around the world. Further, to our minds, the goals of these two areas of inquiry are fully compatible with one another. As a basic area of intellectual inquiry, evolutionary psychology seeks to help advance our understanding of behavior by applying evolutionary principles. Positive psychology has a primary goal that is a bit more applied in nature. The basic goal of positive psychology is to help elucidate the positive aspects of the human psychological experience, including understanding factors that increase well-being at the individual and community levels.
As an area of scientific inquiry, evolutionary psychology has been famously effective and powerful in helping to shed light on such important human domains as physical health, psychological health, education, politics, and intimate relationships—among others. It only makes sense that the evolutionary approach in psychology would prove so productive given how famously insightful Darwin’s ideas related to the nature of life are.
The basic idea of positive evolutionary psychology is simply the application of the evolutionary psychological approach to questions that bear on the field of positive psychology—how the evolutionary approach can help people to lead the good life, so to speak. Throughout the pages in this book, we have outlined various ways that the evolutionary psychological approach can inform the good life on which positive psychologists focus their efforts.
Implications for Living
Life is hard—there is no denying this basic fact. The human emotion system is not perfect. People betray one another at times. We are regularly surrounded by supernormal, evolutionarily mismatched stimuli, such as baked goods, tobacco, and McDonald’s, that entice us to make poor decisions that affect us adversely down the line. Human health is never perfect—and loss is an inherent part of living. Life is hard.
This all said, we are hopeful that this book provides some pathways to living that help make the ride positive and worth it. If you are reading this book as a self-help manual, this section is for you.
Work on human health that takes a Darwinian approach has been famously productive. A core theme in this area pertains to evolutionary mismatch—our bodies were not shaped by evolutionary forces to live in modern contexts. For the lion’s share of human evolution, our ancestors ate only natural food (if food was available at all!), and these nomads exercised regularly out of necessity.
Implications: As much as you can, you should try to eat and exercise as our ancestors did. Some people make a big stink about the Paleo lifestyle and try to say that the idea is something of an overstatement. Perhaps this is so, but the facts are as follows: Eating only non-processed food is a great way to stay in shape. Exercising by walking, running, and lifting weights—which mimics the daily routine of our ancestors—is also a great way to stay in shape. On the other hand, leading a sedentary life and eating a diet that is primarily comprises processed foods is a recipe for obesity, cardiac failure, and Type 2 diabetes.
Our modern world has us surrounded by stimuli that mismatch our ancestral environments. And mental health problems famously track environments that are filled with instances of evolutionary mismatch. To lead a life typified by mental hygiene, you’d be wise to make some lifestyle changes to help get your day-to-day environment relatively free of mismatch.
Implications: Humans evolved to be close to kin, so stay connected with your kin! From an evolutionary perspective, it is quite true that blood is thicker than is water. We evolved as a communal ape, so make sure that you play a role in your community: volunteer, join an organization, organize events that bring people together, etc. From a Darwinian perspective, wealth is not based on money; rather, wealth is based on the connections that you have and the mark that you leave on the world. Finally, watch out for addictions. So many of the things that people are addicted to these days did not even exist under ancestral conditions—and we are addicted to them precisely because they reflect stimuli in high doses that would have been appealing to our ancestors for evolutionary reasons. Take a break from your cell phone! And take steps to break any other addictions that you might have. Remember, tobacco, alcohol, and pornography are all post agrarian technological advances that did not exist during the lion’s share of human evolution. Treat with some level of skepticism any evolutionarily unnatural technology.
Humans evolved to have several classes of strong relationships with others. We evolved to have special relationships with and kin, but we also evolved as a partly coalitional ape, forming important alliances with people outside one’s kin group. We also evolved a distinctive set of adaptations related to mating and intimate relationships, and cultivating positive relationships on this front is critical for effective functioning.
Implications: Getting along with others is an essential part of being human. Seeing past flaws of others in many cases is critical in forming important relationships that are foundational to success in all facets of life. When it comes to intimate relationships, realize that mating systems that approximate monogamy run relatively deeply in our species. While monogamy is not the only game in town when it comes to human mating, it is very common and makes a good bit of evolutionary sense vis-à-vis the importance of biparental care connected with childrearing. So don’t take your partner for granted—and always try to follow the Golden Rule when it comes to those who are closest to you in your world. There will be long-term benefits to such an approach.
From an evolutionary perspective, parenting is as critical a domain as any when it comes to all aspects of living. Our offspring are our ultimate vehicles for getting our genes into the next generation. Kids are evolutionary product sine qua non when it comes to being human.
Implications: Don’t take parenting for granted. And in raising your kids, always keep an eye on the issue of other-orientedness. Humans evolved to be other-oriented, but this is largely mediated through social learning and good parenting. Kids need to learn that they are part of something bigger and that other-oriented behaviors that have short-term costs are likely to have long-term benefits. And make sure to have fun with your kids because they do grow up in the blink of an eye.
From the work of Bingham and Souza (2009) and Wilson (2007), we know that humans are communal apes. Forming communities that often cut across kin lines is a foundational aspect of being human. There is nothing more rewarding than playing an important role in a well-functioning community. Working together, a group of individuals can achieve nearly anything. And there are so many different communities out there that getting importantly involved in some community is easy to do. Get involved, volunteer, and take part in something that reminds you of the fact that you are part of something greater. You will benefit as a result—and you will help others along the way.
Implications: Humans are communal apes, so it is important to make sure that you are connected to others in communal ways. If you are having trouble fitting in with some community, it would likely benefit you to be proactive, looking for organizations in your region, or even online, that relate to your interests and experiences. There are tons of organizations and communities out there, and they are nearly all looking to increase membership. Remember that you are a communal ape, so take advantage of this fact!
Humans evolved to have a strong foundation of social connections. Under ancestral conditions, these connections existed within small, tight-knit communities. Our minds evolved to exist in such a context.
Implications: Be careful when it comes to cutting people out of your life. While some acts may be truly unforgivable, social estrangements were very costly for our ancestors during human evolution, and modern responses to estrangements clearly show the vestiges of this ancestral reality. Forgiveness is a critical feature of our evolved psychology. And at the end of the day, let’s face it—none of us is perfect. None of us is even close. People who have fewer social estrangements in their worlds do better in so many ways than do those who have many estrangements. There is a lesson in there.
Religion and Spirituality
Religion is not perfect, but it is a basic feature of being human. Religion likely evolved to keep behaviors within a community in check to cultivate behavioral patterns in which people would work toward the common good. There are, of course, many kinds of human communities, such as Humanist groups, that focus on an other-oriented approach without the inclusion of formal religion. This said, it seems that humans need community—whether it comes from religion or otherwise.
Implications: Social connections and community are critical features of living the good life from an evolutionary perspective. Religions likely emerged partly as mechanisms to provide community and to cultivate an other-oriented approach to life. If you are religious, understanding this important function of religion may well help you get the most out of your religious experiences. And if you’re not religious, as is likely true of many readers of this book, note that developing important social connections with others and cultivating an other-oriented approach to life is, based on our evolutionary heritage, critical to getting the most out of life.
Positive psychology is concerned with best understanding how people can live the good life—by advancing our understanding of personal and community well-being. Based on Darwin’s big ideas, evolutionary psychology is focused on using evolutionary principles to help us best understand all aspects of human behavior. Positive evolutionary psychology, introduced here, is our effort to marry these two fields—providing a framework for thinking about how the goals of positive psychology can be elucidated by the field of evolutionary psychology.
At the end of the day, we all seek answers. Life is fleeting, and we are all motivated to make it count. Positive psychology focuses largely on how we can cultivate the positive aspects of the human experience. Evolutionary psychology is a remarkably powerful set of intellectual tools designed to help provide insights into the entirety of human behavior. Positive evolutionary psychology, presented here, is the marriage of these two fields—designed with the ultimate goal of using Darwin’s powerful insights to help improve the human condition.
Here is to our shared future.
NOTE: Parts of this post were adapted from the book Positive Evolutionary Psychology (Oxford University Press, 2020). These sections were used with expressed permission from the publisher.
Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge.
Mayr, E., & Provine, W. (Eds.). (1980). The evolutionary synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s cathedral: Evolution, religion and the nature of society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives. New York: Delacorte Press.