Evolutionary psychology – consciously living up to our inherited endowments

by Andreas Hejj


It is well known that psychology is the science of human behaviour and experience.

There are various paradigms of research and explanation mutually supporting one another in their attempt to provide help for the individual to better understand and reach his objectives and to live in harmonic relationships with his social environment. Each empirical science promotes progress through new models that can better explain and prognosticate certain aspects of reality than the older models. The new paradigm will gradually conquer the older one, until - in due course - yet a newer paradigm emerges, that will provide even more exact explanations of reality.

Thus it was anything but easy for the evolutionary psychology (EP) of the early 90ies to achieve acknowledgement from the well established cognitive psychology, as the cognitive revolution of the 70ies bribed people with the well received hypothesis that we analyse all the information we are bombarded with in a sober and rational way, just like a huge computer, to then make our best possible decision based on all the available data: We can understand anything and can take full control.

Yet human behaviour is often surprisingly irrational and this leads to profound doubt on this very little humane depiction of the human. So a young group of courageous researchers around Leda Cosmides, Margo Wilson, Margie Profet in the USA (and their colleagues in Germany, such as Doris Bischof-Köhler, Margarete Schleidt, Johanna Uher and others) have set out to expand the new branch of EP. This trans-disciplinary approach integrates findings available by the end of the 20th century from depth psychology, ethology, ethnology, comparative cultural anthropology, game- and system theory, neural networks, psycho-neuro-immunology and molecular genetics. As opposed to socio-biology EP is a hypothesis-lead experimental science.

The subject of EP are behavioural tendencies common to all people, the entire human race. This rules out the possibility of any discrimination (e.g. by descent of an individual). The term „race“ was used in the first half of the 20th century with strong political implications and with the known fatal consequences. (As this paper is intended for readers familiar with German history let us remember a less known example: The President of the American Psychological Association (APA), Stanley Hall, raised his voice against the first world war for the annihilation of what he called "the great Nordic race [Hall, G.S. (1917). Practical relations between psychology and the war. Journal of Applied Psychology, 1, 6-13]). In contemporary EP „Race“ does not occur, neither as a term nor as a concept.

If an evolutionary psychologist speaks about „evolved behavioural tendencies“ that have developed as adaptations to the environment of the early ancestors of all mankind, this implies in no way, that he is a Darwinist and that he believes that - for example - the Pharaohs of Egypt have evolved from local "monkeys". It implies only the assumption, that behavioural tendencies effective today do have a long history of their aetiology.

EP states clearly that a particular behaviour is elicited by a set of factors including environmental, historical, cultural and situational ones, as well as the individual's learning history, conscious reflexion and free will. This is accompanied by our „default sets“ to react to challenges that have been tackled successfully by our species for thousands of generations, i.e. to "automatically" react in a way that has proved to be adequate for millennia. Experiments by Öhmann, Erixon and Lofberg on the learning-theory concept of preparedness show for example, that we are able to learn to fear snakes much easier and far more durably than to fear houses. Our present day environment in an anonymous mass society is significantly different from that of the ancestral tribal society of the early stone-age in which certain behavioural tendencies that have proved to be advantageous a thousand fold could proliferate. Modern day humans have become estranged to the original life circumstances of our species, accordingly many an un-reflected "modern" behavioural tendency appears "strange". While under those circumstances it indeed made good sense not to become too intimate with a poisonous snake, today it causes more problems to young people if their fear of a possible encounter with a harmless snake will not allow them to take part in a camping excursion with their peers. Analyzing our present-day life alone, it is virtually impossible to explain why gossip about members of the "high society" is so eagerly read in the glossy pages. This keeping an eye on the chieftains of the tribe will only make sense viewed in the life-context of our ancestors.

Such „preferences“ are of great interest for the responsible social scientist if they contradict the basic rule of present-day democratic society to treat everyone equally. But this unfairness is the very danger we face, if we were to ignore or even deny the results of evolutionary psychology. Here is but one example: Asked weather the outer appearance of a criminal will have any effect on the sentence and the amount of punishment, judges answered with a definite "no". But presented with identical case descriptions combined with either the photo of a very good, or a very poor looking "defendant", you get a highly significant difference in favour of the good looking. Efran was able to replicate this finding regardless of the gender of the judges or that of the defendants. This is de facto discrimination based on outer appearance. As soon as this tendency is documented and the judges are made aware of it, they can consciously counterbalance it and the defendants will get a fair sentence. In analogy students can only expect to be examined in a fair way if the examiners have consciously reflected what reactions the students' styling would have elicited in them. Buss' findings demonstrate, that a highly elegant candidate in an Armani suit could be perceived by a male examiner as a high status competitor, who would have to be convinced that the examiner is the boss. The exam would be accordingly tough, unless the examiner is familiar with the relevant findings of EP and is able to consciously counterbalance this “temptation".

Evolutionary psychologists are often asked weather we are „slaves“ of our well established behavioural programmes. The answer is: in no way! Even if confronted with the most attractive person of the appropriate sex we are able to consciously hold back our arising romantic interest and say "no" if this encounter is a professional one and not intended as a relationship. On the other hand we have yet to see the woman or man who is able to fall in love by a conscious decision alone if the partner does not manifest any signs making obvious, that (s)he would have made an excellent mother / father of healthy children in the stone-age.

Many a time EP is misrepresented claiming we had only one adapted pattern of behaviour for a certain situation. In reality a large number of behavioural tendencies is available for the scores of constellations our ancestors were confronted with. As such, our inherited repertory of behaviour patterns resembles a cook-book closer than it does a single recipe. The discoveries of EP may contribute towards setting up conditions that will open the book at the page we prefer. In order to encourage people to practise cooperation and solidarity, it may prove to be more effective to understand the life-saving evolutionary relevance of these types of behaviour and to design the present situation accordingly than to threaten with a moral pointing finger. Thus it is the aim of EP to make people familiar with those conditions that will help him consciously avoid behavioural tendencies now judged as inadequate and to take full advantage of his "inheritance": the treasure-chest of experience of his forefathers.


Basic textbook:

Barkow, J., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). The adapted mind. Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Oxford: University Press. 


Excerpts from: Controversies surrounding evolutionary psychology by Edward H. Hagen, Humboldt-University Berlin (Entire text)


Political correctness

In 1632, Galileo’s Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic & Copernican was published in Florence. The Dialogue effectively argued that Copernican theory was the factually superior theory of cosmology. Because the major moral/political power of the day, the Catholic Church, had grounded its authority in the Ptolemaic theory, Galileo’s Dialogue was a threat. Galileo was summoned before the Inquisition in 1633, found to be vehemently suspect of heresy, forced to formally abjure, and condemned to life imprisonment.

Like the Church, a number of contemporary thinkers have also grounded their moral and political views in scientific assumptions about the world. In the current case, these are scientific assumptions about human nature, specifically that there isn’t one (Pinker 2002). Theories calling these assumptions into question are, like Galileo’s Dialogue, a threat. The problem, of course, is not with those who claim that there is a human nature, it is with those who have succumbed to the temptation to ground their politics in scientifically testable assumptions about humans. This is especially unwise because the science of human psychology is currently quite undeveloped.

There are few solid facts and no proven theories about our behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Any set of assumptions will undoubtedly be challenged by future research. Yet the inevitable research that calls into question assumptions underlying popular moral and political views will, in effect, be heresy, and heresies are, as a rule, viciously attacked. As long as important political and moral views are grounded in scientific hypotheses, a true science of human cognition and behavior will be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to achieve.


Is evolutionary psychology racist or sexist?

Perhaps the most important enlightenment value, one intimately bound up with the blank slate view of human nature, is that of human equality. If EP poses a severe threat to the blank slate, and it does (Pinker 2002), does it not also pose a severe threat to this rightly cherished value? Let me put off answering this question for a moment, and first explain what EP says, scientifically, about the equality of human capabilities. The answer is simple and by now easily guessed by the reader. Across the globe, human bodies are, in their functional organization, virtually identical. People in every population have hearts, lungs, and livers, and they all work the same way. A pan-human anatomy is a solid empirical fact. EP proposes that the same evolutionary processes that lead to a pan-human anatomy also lead to a pan-human psychology (Tooby and Cosmides 1990; see Wilson 1994 for a partial critique). Notwithstanding the above, it is possible for different populations to possess minor adaptive physical differences like skin color, so it is also theoretically possible for different populations to possess minor adaptive cognitive differences, though no such differences are known to exist. Just as anatomists have prioritized a focus on pan-human anatomy, EP has prioritized a focus on pan-human psychology.

Similarly, male and female bodies are identical in most ways, but profoundly different in some. Male and female hearts are essentially identical, but testicles are very different from ovaries. EP proposes that the same is true of the brain. Male and female cognitive abilities are likely to be identical in most respects, but to differ fundamentally in domains like mating where the sexes have recurrently faced different adaptive problems (Buss 2004).

If you consider these implications to be racist or sexist, then evolutionary psychology is racist or sexist. Nothing in evolutionary theory, however, privileges one group over another, or males over females. Are ovaries superior to testicles? The question is meaningless. Are male mate preferences superior to female mate preferences? The question is equally meaningless.


Is evolutionary psychology a form of genetic determinism?

Critics often accuse evolutionary psychologists of genetic determinism, and, in one sense, they are right. It is telling evidence of a pervasive dualism, though, that anatomists escape this abuse. Although the processes whereby genetic information directs the development of bodily functions are still largely unknown, there are compelling empirical and theoretical reasons to believe that there are genes for arms, legs, and lungs. Because all humans (with rare exceptions) have arms, legs, and lungs that are built the same way, we can surmise that we all share essentially the same genes for these limbs and organs. The universal architecture of the body is genetically specified in this sense. Since psychological adaptations like vision are no different from other adaptations in this regard, they, too, are genetically specified human universals.

This, however, is not what is usually meant by ‘genetically determined.’ Sometimes what is meant is that behavior is genetically determined. But genetically determined mechanisms does not imply genetically determined behavior. Just as a genetically determined universal skeletal architecture of bones and muscles can perform a huge variety of new and different movements, so too can a genetically determined universal psychological architecture that evolved to be exquisitely attuned to local environmental circumstances produce countless behavioral outcomes in different individuals with different experiences and in different situations. If the brain had only twenty independent mechanisms, each of which could be in only one of two states set by local environmental conditions, the brain would have 220 , or about a million, different states and, potentially, a corresponding number of different behaviors. Because the EP model of the brain posits a very large number of innately specified mechanisms (perhaps hundreds or thousands), most of which are sensitive to environmental conditions, the brain could potentially be in any one of an astronomically large number of different states with different behavior outcomes, even if many of these modules were not independent of one another. EP’s model of a genetically determined, massively modular brain predicts far too much behavioral flexibility and diversity, not too little.


Why do people hate evolutionary psychology?

Slavish support for reigning political and moral attitudes is a sure sign of scientific bankruptcy. It is reassuring, then, that EP has something to offend just about everyone. Surely you, the reader, if you are not already a jaded evolutionary psychologist, are offended by at least one of EP’s speculations that there might be innate, genetically based adaptations hardwired into our brains for rape, homicide, infanticide, war, aggression, exploitation, infidelity, and deception.

I know I was. If, further, you would like to see these plagues wiped from the face of the earth, you might understandably be sympathetic to critics who advance something like the following syllogism, which appears to underlie most criticisms of EP:

I [the critic] want political change, which requires changing people. Evolutionary psychologists argue that people have innate and unchangeable natures, so they must therefore be opposed to social or political change, and are merely attempting to scientifically justify the status quo.

If EP predicted that social or political change were impossible, then it would be wrong on its face. The tremendous amount of social and political change over the course of human history is irrefutable. This is no real mystery. Consider a hypothetical population of organisms whose ‘natures’ are completely genetically specified and unchangeable. Suppose, further, that these organisms have a number of identical preferences and desires, all unchangeable, but, because resources are limited, not all individuals can fulfill their desires. These creatures are therefore often in conflict with one another. Suppose, finally, that these organisms have the ability to negotiate. It is not hard to see that even if individuals’ natures are unchangeable, social outcomes are not. Because our hypothetical organisms are able to negotiate, they are (potentially) able to form social arrangements that are equitable, fairly dividing resources and punishing individuals who violate these agreements. When circumstances change, new agreements can be forged.

Circumstances will change, so social change is inevitable despite the creatures’ unchangeable natures. In fact, it is their genetically determined, unchangeable cognitive ability to negotiate that guarantees social change! Because humans, too, can negotiate, and can also dramatically ‘tune’ their individual, innate, psychological architectures based on their past experiences and current circumstances, the possibilities for social change are multiplied thousand fold.