Evolutionary Psychology


Evolutionary Psychology, the notion that the human mind is the product of evolution and has therefore developed innate psychological mechanisms that are typical of the human species. This relatively new field of study stands in marked contrast to the standard social science model (SSSM) which has tended to portray the human mind as a general-purpose computer to be programmed by random, culture-specific determinants (the “blank slate” thesis).

This new branch of psychology grew out of developments in the late 20th century in a number of quite disparate disciplines including evolutionary biology, paleoanthropology, and cognitive psychology. Evolutionary psychologists have used findings from each of these fields of research to argue that a universal human nature lies just below the surface of cultural variability.

While the SSSM emphasizes the flexibility of human learning, social environment, and random cultural processes, evolutionary psychologists believe that such flexibility consists of a number of tendencies to learn particular skills and to do so at various, specific ages. Evolutionary psychologists do not dispute the importance of learning but attempt to explain the process in terms of innate mechanisms. Likewise, evolutionary psychology stresses the importance of culture, but, rather than defining culture as a random force, it sees it as the way in which humans are aided in acquiring skills that potentially enhance fitness and, therefore, the ability to survive longer than others and produce fit offspring.


Evolutionary psychology draws heavily on the Darwinian principles of natural and sexual selection, proposing that these are the mechanisms that have led to the development of modern human behaviour. Natural selection favours characteristics that aid survival and reproduction, while sexual selection favours those traits that help individuals gain access to mates. These processes are believed to have led to the evolution of the modern human species late in the Pleistocene epoch some 200,000 to 10,000 years ago, when our ancestors lived in extended families of hunter-gatherer tribes.

Evolutionary psychology overlaps with and, in part, grew out of sociobiology, which focuses on the biological basis of social behaviour. The former, however, places a greater emphasis on the relationship between evolution and the development of psychological mechanisms, while the latter concentrates on the adaptive significance of social behaviour. Both subject areas, however, draw on studies of other animal species in order to help understand the evolutionary significance of human social behaviour.


As a young science evolutionary psychology has so far been concerned more with theory than with empirical findings. Despite its current emphasis on theory over data gathering, the field does consist of more than speculation about the relationship between Darwinian theory and human nature and attempts are being made to produce testable hypotheses. However, critics question the level to which evidence acquired from the research is trustworthy. Three of the areas of recent hypothesis testing are related to language development, to differences between men and women in mate preference, and to different ways individuals adapt their behaviour during the social exchange.

A Language

Proponents of the evolutionary approach, such as Steven Pinker, have suggested that language is an adaptive trait that develops during a sensitive period of childhood between the ages of one and six years. After surveying a variety of cultures, Pinker argues that, not only is this time-course for language development a universal trait but also that the development of grammatical complexity is a cross-cultural phenomenon that demonstrates a remarkable degree of uniformity. All cultures studied have verbal languages which contain nouns, verbs, word and phrase structures, cases, and auxiliaries: to Pinker, this suggests a universal grammar or “language instinct”. Cross-cultural studies are important to evolutionary psychology since fundamental similarities between widely separated societies may suggest a common evolutionary ancestor.

B Mate Preference

In a similar, but more controversial vein, cross-cultural studies have been used to elucidate differences between men and women in their choice of a mate. These studies focus primarily on male and female biology. Since women have a reduced period of fertility and since they make a greater investment in reproduction compared to men, evolutionary theory predicts that men will favour youthfulness as an attractive feature in women, while women will favour resources over youthfulness in men. Both predictions are supported by the cross-cultural studies of David Buss, who surveyed over 10,000 people from 37 different cultures. Buss reported that men universally placed physical correlates of nobility (or youthful attractiveness) as the most important feature in a potential mate. In contrast, females rated status and resources as the most important features for a male partner. Evolutionary psychologists claim that this is because during the period when people dwelt on the savannah, a male could produce more surviving offspring by pairing with a young woman with a maximum number of fertile years ahead of her, while a female could make the best of her childbearing years by choosing a male who, through his power, network of allegiances, and resources, could give her offspring the best chance of survival; such a male is likely to be older than herself.

C Cognition and Social Exchange

In addition to cross-cultural surveys, a number of evolutionary psychologists have begun to make use of problem-solving methods to uncover constraints and abilities that people demonstrate under particular social circumstances. If the central, fitness-enhancing premise of evolutionary psychology is accurate, then we would expect people to be better at learning important social tasks than other, socially irrelevant, ones. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby used decision-making tasks to study the relationship between cognitive (understanding) abilities and social exchange. Their studies have demonstrated that people who are unsuccessful in completing a task of logical reasoning are, however, suddenly able to do so when the task is redefined as a matter of social exchange (for example, the detection of “cheats”). From these experiments, Cosmides and Tooby propose that the reasoning procedures that people have developed as a species are evidence of evolved information-processing capacities that are specific to social exchanges, rather than the hallmark of a highly logical, problem-solving mind.


Some of the implications of these findings have led to concerns on social and political grounds. In particular, the notion that males and females differ on some inherently psychological dimension has alarmed some social scientists, social psychologists, and feminists who argue that evolutionary psychology seeks to maintain an unfair gender role status quo, and reinforces gender stereotyping through a form of biological determinism. While evolutionary psychologists point out that findings based on nature should not preclude an appreciation of the importance of nurture, and that people can always intentionally alter the relationship between the sexes by social and educational means, they argue nevertheless that social reformers will not make their task any easier by ignoring the findings from evolutionary psychology. The problem here is that it suggests another form of mental programming based on current genetic trends, which could imply that people’s behaviour is predestined. It also implies that men and women have not evolved socially beyond their animal origins.

Having drawn upon cognitive psychology, the task now facing evolutionary psychology is to feed back into other areas of the discipline. Clearly neurological and comparative branches of psychology are likely to be sympathetic to a Darwinian approach. The area in which evolutionary psychology could potentially have the greatest impact, however, is social psychology, but this field as a whole has not been unequivocally favourable to the evolutionary approach. This is probably owing, in part, to the ways in which Darwinian theory was grossly misused in the first half of the 20th-century when Eugenics—selective breeding of human beings—and Fascist theories of a master race were based on pseudoscientific ideas.

Contributed By:
Lance Workman

Credited Images: aliexpress