Evolutionary Psychology: Definition and Meaning

It is a relatively new field of study that has received much attention recently. This interdisciplinary field draws on principles from evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, and other social sciences to understand how human behavior has evolved. It attempts to explain why certain human traits and behaviors have developed and how they have changed over time.

Origins of Evolutionary Psychology

The origins of evolutionary psychology can be traced back to the work of Charles Darwin, who proposed that all living organisms, including humans, evolved through natural selection. In his book, "The Origin of Species," written in 1859, Darwin briefly describes how humans have developed specific psychological adaptations due to natural selection in response to the challenges and opportunities presented by our environment throughout evolutionary history.

Darwin's theory of natural selection is based on the idea that there is variation in traits such as size, shape, and behavior within any organism. Some variations may provide an advantage for surviving and reproducing in a particular environment, while others may not. Those individuals with advantageous traits are more likely to survive and pass on their traits to their offspring, leading to a gradual change in the characteristics of the population over time. These adaptations may include cognitive processes such as perception, memory, language, decision-making, and social behaviors like cooperation, aggression, and mate selection.

The publication of "The Origin of Species" caused significant controversy in Victorian society, as it challenged traditional beliefs about the creation of life and the role of God in the natural world. However, Darwin's theory has since become widely accepted, especially in psychology, and has profoundly impacted our understanding of the history and diversity of life on Earth.

Core Principles of Evolutionary Psychology

The discipline of evolutionary psychology was founded on several core principles that combine a traditional understanding of psychology with evolutionary biology ideas about how our brain functions. These principles are as follows −

  • The human brain's purpose is to process information, and in doing so, it produces responses to both external and internal stimuli.

  • The human brain has adapted and has undergone both natural and sexual selection.

  • The parts of the human brain are specialized to solve problems that have occurred over evolutionary time.

  • Most of the human brain's functions are performed unconsciously. Even problems that seem easy to solve require very detailed neural responses at an unconscious level.

  • Many very specialized mechanisms make up the whole of human psychology. All of these mechanisms together create human nature.

Role of Sigmund Freud

The narrative of Freud is an intriguing one in psychology's past. Because of the emphasis he placed on the part that parents and families play in forming a person's personality, he is seen by many as the personification of cultural relativism. Freud should be included, nevertheless, for two reasons. Secondly, unlike many later psychologists, Freud was concerned with more profound issues; he was more interested in understanding why individuals acted in specific ways rather than just how.

Second, while many of these stories were anti-Darwinian (such as the Oedipus complex, in which a boy wants to kill his father), some of his theories are far more in line with modern Darwinian psychology. For instance, Freud's belief that our conscious selves may be wholly unconscious of our "actual" intentions is repeated in Robert Trivers's theory of self-deception. Freud also believed that our conscious selves might be unaware of our inborn urges, including the sexual imperative.

The core of Dawkins' "selfish gene" explanation of behavior is that humans are only transitory carriers for our immortal genetic material or genes as we may today refer to them. Dawkins even refers to the person as a "vehicle" when describing them.

Methods for Evaluating Evolutionary Theories

One is to utilize twin and adoption studies to undertake behavioral genetics research to distinguish between the effects of genes and the environment. This kind of research assumes that since identical twins have the same genes, any discrepancies between them must result from external factors. Behavioral geneticists have determined the degree to which genes are linked in a wide range of traits and behaviors, such as intellect, personality, obesity, addictive behaviors, and so on, by comparing identical twins to non-identical twins non-twin siblings. A behavioral genetics study can show that behavior is genetically driven but cannot determine whether the feature is an adaptation.

The comparative technique is a second approach that aims to tackle the issue of adaptation more directly. Several other creatures, including humans, are subject to comparable economic pressures. Each must locate and eat food, find a partner, raise children, and so on. Human and non-human animals probably have commonalities in handling these specific difficulties (or, more accurately, how natural selection solves the problems for them). This is especially true of the apes, the closest human cousins.

So, looking for analogs in primates and other animals is one technique to evaluate an evolutionary hypothesis. As it may be presumed that non-human animals live in settings comparable to their ancestors, it is simpler to test whether specific behaviors are adaptable in non-human animals than humans. As a result, evolutionists may examine particular features to see whether, generally speaking, they cause a person to have more viable children.

Computer and mathematical modeling is the fourth technique. In this study, scientists construct an abstract universe where "individuals" with distinct "traits" contend with one another for supremacy. This provides researchers with some insight into the specific qualities or trait combinations that are ideal, as well as how several features may interact. According to one outcome of this research, the success of a given character may be relative rather than absolute.

In other words, a particular characteristic or acting style may depend on other qualities in the environment and what other individuals are doing. For instance, freeriding—taking advantage of social trade without giving anything back—can be a very effective strategy for one person, but only if there are few other free-riders. Freeriding becomes ineffective as the number of free-riders rises because cooperators either refuse to engage in social trade or grow more skeptical.

Modern-day Situation of Evolutionary Psychology

The modern field of evolutionary psychology emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a group of researchers, including Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, David Buss, and Martin Daly, began to apply the principles of evolutionary theory to the study of human psychology. These researchers argued that many of the human brain's cognitive mechanisms, such as language, memory, and social behavior, evolved because they conferred some adaptive advantage to our ancestors.

Since then, evolutionary psychology has proliferated, with researchers exploring various topics, including mating behavior, aggression, altruism, emotion, and personality. While there is still some controversy surrounding the field, many researchers believe that evolutionary psychology offers valuable insights into the nature of human behavior and cognition.

Life Applications of Evolutionary Psychology

This discipline of psychology can offer insights and explanations for various aspects of our daily lives, including −

  • Parenting − Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans have evolved to be highly invested in the well-being of their offspring. This may explain why parents are often highly protective of their children and make significant sacrifices for their benefit. This can help the parent adopt a better parenting style toward the child.

  • Emotional Reactions − Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans have evolved to experience certain emotions in response to specific situations, such as fear in the face of danger or anger in response to a perceived threat. These emotional responses may have been adaptive in the past but can sometimes be maladaptive in modern times.

  • Food Choices − Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans have an innate preference for sweet and fatty foods because these types of foods are more scarce and valuable in our ancestral environments. However, this preference can lead to unhealthy eating habits in modern times, where these foods are more widely available.

  • Risk-Taking − Evolutionary psychology also suggests that humans have evolved to take risks in situations where the potential benefits outweigh the potential costs. For example, early humans had to take risks to hunt for food or protect their tribes. However, this natural inclination towards risk-taking can also lead to dangerous behaviors, such as substance abuse or reckless driving.

  • Mate Selection − Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans are naturally drawn to certain physical and personality traits in potential mates, such as symmetrical facial features, signs of good health, and kindness. Natural selection may have favored these traits because they indicate a potential partner's genetic fitness and ability to provide resources.

  • Gender Differences − Evolutionary psychology suggests that males and females have evolved different psychological and behavioral traits due to differences in reproductive strategies. For example, males may be more inclined towards aggression and risk-taking to compete for mates, while females may be more nurturing and invested in childrearing.


Despite all the criticisms, this discipline has significantly impacted our understanding of human behavior. It has provided valuable insights into various areas, including social behavior, cognition, emotion, and mental health. As the field continues to develop, it will likely remain an essential area of research for years to come. It will continue to provide valuable insights into the complex interplay between biology, psychology, and culture.

Updated on: 11-Apr-2023


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