Evolutionary psychology (EP) is the study of cognition and behavior in the context of human evolution. It identifies and examines psychological traits that evolved through adaptations of ancestral huntergatherers in Africa. EP assumes that the human brain has been shaped by genetic variations that enabled early humans to survive and reproduce to pass on their genes. Of particular importance are genes that promote the survival of mates and close relatives (kin selection), as well as genes for language and cooperation. With the decoding of the human genome, EP has become increasingly influential.
EP combines evolutionary biology, anthropology, and animal behavior (ethology) with human cognitive science, behavioral genetics, and other fields to create a metatheory of human cognition and behavior based on adaptation and Darwinian natural selection. Because EP assumes that cognition and behavior are based on adaptations that increase survival, it has been applied to many different human attributes, including cognitive development and reasoning, language, emotions, social behavior, culture, economics, and political science. Rather than a distinct field of psychology, it is a perspective that its adherents hope will unite—or at least break down barriers between— the diverse historical and somewhat arbitrary subfields of psychology, including cognition, perception, development, and social psychology.
The principles of EP are drawn from biology:
In the 1970s, the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson (1929–) established the new field of sociobiology, based on his groundbreaking studies of social insects. Subsequently, he extended his analysis of the biological basis of behavior to vertebrates, primates, and humans and to the evolution of human culture and the human mind. Despite a backlash in the 1970s and 1980s regarding the biological or genetic determinism inherent in sociobiology, it reemerged as evolutionary psychology, bolstered by dramatic advances in human genetics, evolution, and physical anthropology and popularized by psychologist Steven Pinker (1954–) and others with the slogan: “Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind.” These new evolutionary psychologists viewed the human mind as computer software written by natural selection to form a universal human nature.
Although overzealous claims that natural selection was the key to all human behavior continued to repel many psychologists and other scientists, with the ushering in of the so-called age of the human genome, the time seemed ripe for the application of biological studies to psychology. Thus, in the twenty-first century, EP itself evolved from a fringe theory to occupy a central position in both academic and pop psychology.
Although EP remains far removed from its promise as the unifying basis of psychological science, it has contributed to and influenced various areas of psychology:
EP has also influenced clinical psychology. EP's discovery of adaptive individual differences was applied to personality disorders. Furthermore, EP has redefined disorders such as depression and anxiety, as well as sexual and eating disorders, as the failure of adaptively evolved mechanisms to function properly. It provides a basis for examining relationships between mental disorders and mismatches between modern and ancestral environments. For example, social anxiety can be seen as a motivation for behavior that prevents the loss of social status within a group, but a malfunction of social anxiety can become social paralysis.
EP has generated much criticism and controversy. Although some of the controversy is due to misconceptions among both psychologists and the general public, evolutionary hypotheses contradict traditional psychological theories. There also have been concerns about the validity of some of the science underlying EP, and some of its empirical results have disturbing implications.
The theory that human traits have been maintained and spread through the population because they provide a reproductive advantage is a concept that is easily abused and is frequently invoked for traits with no evidence. Stephen Jay Gould (1941– 2002), the Harvard paleontologist and science writer, warned that although sociobiology was fine for social insects, applying evolutionary concepts to human behavior and culture was full of potential pitfalls. Indeed, some evolutionary psychologists have used evolution and natural selection to explain virtually all aspects of human behavior, cognition, and culture, from sexuality and religion to visual arts and novels, with implications for law, medicine, economics, business, and education. However, evolution is nowhere near as straightforward as EP often implies; rather, it is a complex process, full of pitfalls and compromises and subject to a myriad of environmental factors, as well as chance. Given how little is actually known about human evolution, using natural selection to explain the origins and persistence of the world's religions, for example, seems a stretch to many critics. Nevertheless, evolutionary psychologists continue to speculate and extrapolate in ways that many scientists find objectionable.
Critics have also charged that EP is preoccupied with sex and the female body, and many feminists claim that it contradicts the innate equality of the sexes. Whereas Darwin's ideas about male superiority and the evolution of the sexes were a product of his time, EP tends to focus on the differences in what males and females look for in a mate. Some evolutionary psychologists have concluded that males look for youth and physical attractiveness (signs of fertility) and are more interested in casual sex (to pass on their genes as often as possible), whereas females value wealth and status (to help ensure the survival of their children). These psychologists also have argued that sexual jealousy differs between men and women as a result of natural selection: Men are more interested in sexual fidelity (to ensure that it is their genes that are passed on), whereas women are more interested in emotional fidelity (to ensure that fathers will support and ensure the survival of their children). However, these ideas do not account for different sexual mores in different cultures or for the rapidity with which sexual mores can change. EP further suggests that males are the chasers, and females are the choosers. This assumption has led to speculation that humor developed as a male trait (like size and strength) for signaling desirability through intelligence and creativity. To many people, this sounds like the discredited notion that intelligence is a male trait.
Other critics of EP point out that knowledge of ancestral human life is far too limited to be applied to modern life and that EP is guilty of the same biases that affect other fields of psychology. For example, much psychological research is conducted in Western, industrialized countries, often with American college students as subjects—perhaps not the best method for identifying universal human characteristics.
Nevertheless, many evolutionary psychologists have progressed beyond these simplistic explanations and acknowledge that far more complex evolutionary mechanisms are at work, as well as huge variations that have arisen in response to local environments. Not only did humans evolve in highly variable climates under changing environmental conditions, but human activities altered those environments in different ways in different places. Thus, EP is beginning to consider behavioral flexibility, social learning, and cultural development, and the changes these have wrought over time.
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