The application of Darwinian ideas to the human experience has found itself riddled with controversy. People have argued that this approach to understanding behavior is politically incorrect, sexist, and even evil (see Winegard et al., 2014; Geher, 2006). As Nicole Wedberg and I argue in our new book, Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin's Guide to Living a Richer Life, it really doesn't need to be that way.
For the remainder of this post, I ask that you suspend any such concerns about evolutionary psychology that you may hold yourself. And consider this possibility: Regardless of any liabilities or problems that might be found in the evolutionary approach to human behavior, perhaps the application of Darwinian principles to behavior has proven itself to shed important light on issues that concern all of us — light that has, perhaps, led to advancements in the understanding of the human condition.
If you don’t think that a single good thing can come from the application of evolutionary principles to human behavior, I suggest you stop reading here. But if you’re willing to consider the possibility that, regardless of any issues with this approach that you might hold, evolutionary psychology has something to offer, then perhaps read on.
Below are 10 insights into the human experience the follow from evolutionarily informed research —insights that would not be possible without scholarship in the field of evolutionary psychology.
- The expression of human emotions shows fundamental similarities wherever you go (Ekman & Friesen, 1986).
- The human mind easily turns toward tribalism, regardless of political orientation (Haidt, 2012).
- While religions vary wildly in many ways across the globe, nearly all religions include a basic set of processes designed to cultivate an other-oriented approach (Wilson, 2002).
- When it comes to the human social experience, the human mind responds very much as if we still live in small nomadic clans consisting of no more than 150 or so people (see Geher et al., 2019).
- Worldwide politics are partly such a mess because the human mind evolved to deal with small-scale political situations, not large-scale political situations (see Geher et al., 2015).
- While the details of art vary wildly across human groups, several forms of art universally exist across the globe, suggesting that the experience of art is rooted deeply in our evolutionary history (Miller, 2000).
- “Diseases of civilization,” such as Type-II diabetes, go hand-in-hand with the large-scale prevalence of processed (non-natural) foods. The concept of evolutionary mismatch helps us understand why (Giphart & Van Vugt, 2018)
- Many unpleasant physical symptoms, such as nausea found in pregnant women or fever that emerges in response to a bacterial infection, can be best be understood as evolved adaptations (Nesse & Williams, 1994).
- Moral emotions such as guilt, outrage, and forgiveness, are intimately tied to the concept of reciprocal altruism, or the tendency for humans to develop long-standing relationships with others based on mutual helping and trust, which is a basic principle in the field of evolutionary psychology (Trivers, 1971).
- We can understand the extraordinary value that people put on their children based simply on the evolutionary idea that one’s children are the primary vehicles for advancing his or her genes into the next generation (see Dawkins, 1976).
The human experience is rich, including such diverse facets such as emotions, health, social relationships, parenting, betrayal, forgiveness, politics, and more. The evolutionary approach to understanding behavior (i.e., evolutionary psychology) has, without question, shed important and novel insights into each of these domains—and beyond.
Have a problem with evolutionary psychology? Don’t think you like it for this reason or that? Someone once told you that it's bad?
OK, I’m not going to argue that this approach to understanding behavior is the cat's meow. But I will say that it has famously proven to shed extraordinary light on the human experience that we all share.
Want to understand what it means to be human? You’ll do yourself an extraordinary disservice by dismissing Darwin’s big idea completely.
NOTE: This article has been translated into Spanish and reposted by the Ibidem Group
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1986). A new pan-cultural facial expression of emotion. Motivation and Emotion, 10, 159-168.
Geher, G., Rolon, V., Holler, R., Baroni, A., Gleason, M., Nitza, E., Sullivan, G., Thomson, G., & Di Santo, J. M. (2019). You’re dead to me! The evolutionary psychology of social estrangements and social transgressions. Current Psychology. doi: 10.1007/s12144-019-00381-z
Geher, G., Carmen, R., Guitar, A., Gangemi, B., Sancak Aydin, G., and Shimkus, A. (2015) The evolutionary psychology of small-scale versus large-scale politics: Ancestral conditions did not include large-scale politics. European Journal of Social Psychology, doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2158.
Giphart, R. & Van Vugt, M. (2018). Mismatch. Robinson.
Haidt, J. (2012) The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon.
Miller G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature, London, Heineman.
Nesse RM, Williams GC: Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, Times Books, New York, 1994.
Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.
Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Winegard, B. M., Winegard, B., & Deaner, R. O. (2014). Misrepresentations of evolutionary psychology in sex and gender textbooks. Evolutionary Psychology, 12, 474-508.