One of the most profound realisations that everyone who discovers and embraces Darwinism is bound to make at one point or another is that the mind can be understood via evolutionary thinking. After all, the brain is not exempt from the evolutionary process. Like other bodily organs, it was molded over millions of years as a result of the selective pressures that were applied upon it, meaning that it was ‘designed’ for purposes of survival and reproduction under evolutionarily prevailing conditions of existence. This is true irrespective of whether we’re talking about the mental faculties of a human, panda bear, tiger, or any other animal. It’s almost impossible to overstate the profoundness of this realization, as it is arguably the foundational piece of information that is required to make sense of why we think, reason, and behave the way we do.
Why we do what we do: The evolutionary angle
The mind isn’t a blank slate at birth, devoid of any sort of behavioral preconfiguration. This really isn’t a controversial statement, as we all know that even young animals exhibit a number of signs of having what’s often called instincts. Human babies for example are not only naturally capable of crying (it’s not something they have to learn how to do), but it would seem that they instinctually know that crying is a means of getting attention and their immediate needs served, which is presumably why they do it. The brains of mothers, on the other hand, are programmed to respond to this behavior, more so than the brains of men (1).
Later on, as babies become a bit older, they slowly start moving higher up from the ground as they attempt to walk on two legs, as opposed to on four limbs. This is not something they’re told to do or consciously, after much thought, decide to try out; rather, it’s an endeavor they naturally/instinctually venture into as they grow bigger. The may be encouraged to walk by parents or relatives and be inspired by seeing walkers; however, even in the absence of such encouragement, chances are they’ll eventually come to move upright. This is not a given by the way, as we’ve certainly not always been bipedal.
Evolutionary Psychology (EP) posits that these types of behaviors, which appear intrinsic to the human design, are all rooted in our evolutionary past; built into us because they have historically conferred a Darwinian fitness benefit. It’s not difficult to understand the logic behind this conception. Let’s say that a baby never cries even when it needs or wants something (e.g., breast milk), and doesn’t naturally start to move on two legs as it gets older. Such a baby would obviously be at a disadvantage in the struggle for existence.
This concept extends into all other areas of life and also into adulthood. The reason we fear snakes and cringe at the smell of pathogen-heavy feces isn’t that we’ve been told to shun those things, but rather that we’re “programmed” to keep our distance. These behavioral settings weren’t deliberately put in place by a programmer; rather, they naturally came to be as a result of variation in reproductive success. A hypothetical human of the past who didn’t fear dangerous animals or keep away from potential sources of infectious illness would obviously be less likely to pass on his or her genes than someone who did shun those things; hence, his or her instincts (or lack thereof) would have been less likely to survive the passage of time.
When focusing on these types of behaviors, which obviously affect survival and reproduction, it seems quite obvious that our behavioral pattern has a biological, Darwinian premise behind it. What’s important to recognize though, is that Darwinian theory doesn’t just help explain our innate tendency to avoid things that are obviously bad for us, such as predators and pathogen-rich matter; it helps shed light on every aspect of our behavior, ranging from the origin of smiling and laughing to the reason women tend to be more picky with respects to their choice of sexual partners to why we tend to group together with others, as opposed to go through life in a solitary manner. In other words, it’s an extremely powerful tool.
The problem we face today is that our brain circuitry wasn’t designed for our modern, fast-paced way of life; rather, it was put in place by natural selection because it favorably affected human survival and reproduction in the past. This all-important fact helps explain a number of phenomena, ranging from why obesity is today a major problem in many parts of the world to why a lot of people feel dissatisfied with working behind a desk every day as part of big company structures to why a fairly significant number of young men get into car accidents every year.
The fundamentals of evolutionary psychology
So as to flesh out the concept of EP, I thought we’d turn our attention to a superb introductory piece on EP written by anthropologist John Tooby and his wife, psychologist Leda Cosmides, both of which are renowned for having spearheaded the field. Of note, they co-founded and co-direct the Center for Evolutionary Psychology (CEP), which is affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara.
In their EP primer, which is at the very top of the best overview articles on the topic I’ve ever read, EP pioneers Cosmides and Tooby outline the fundamentals of EP in a fairly non-technical, yet scientifically compelling way. The article is a gold mine of important information for understanding the human mind.
Certain key tenets are foundational to EP and widely accepted as being truthful by most specialists. That said, many different approaches to EP exist. Personally, I really like Tooby’s and Cosmides’ way of seeing things, as it overlaps with my own view of life. I’m not a psychologist, and don’t possess a deep understanding of the wiring of the human brain; hence, I generally don’t write much about the make-up/physiology of the brain. What I have written quite a bit about though is the evolutionary processes that shaped the way our brains work. In other words, I tend to view psychology from a bird’s eye perspective, as opposed to from the perspective of an engineer who’s trying to figure out which part of a device that causes a particular outcome.
Being a primer on evolutionary psychology, the article by Tooby and Cosmides relies heavily on this perspective. Below, I’ve included a set of statements that really resonated with me and that I think are particularly important when it comes to understanding the human mind…
Cosmides and Tooby start of bold and fresh with a hard-hitting statement that captures the essence of their article, as well as that of evolutionary psychology:
… the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. (2)
They then move on to draw attention to a major prediction that Charles Darwin made in his most famous book…
In the final pages of the Origin of Species, after he had presented the theory of evolution by natural selection, Darwin made a bold prediction: “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.” (2)
Moving on, they underscore the extraordinary importance and potency of Darwinism by emphasizing that…
… natural selection is the only evolutionary force that is capable of creating complexly organized machines. (2)
One of the key things that Tooby and Cosmides point out in their review is that it usually takes a long time for big evolutionary changes to occur, which is important to take note of, as it has major implications for our understanding of biology, health, and medicine. The following paragraphs perfectly summarize this idea:
Natural selection, the process that designed our brain, takes a long time to design a circuit of any complexity. The time it takes to build circuits that are suited to a given environment is so slow it is hard to even imagine — it’s like a stone being sculpted by wind-blown sand. Even relatively simple changes can take tens of thousands of years.
The environment that humans — and, therefore, human minds — evolved in was very different from our modern environment. Our ancestors spent well over 99% of our species’ evolutionary history living in hunter-gatherer societies. That means that our forebearers lived in small, nomadic bands of a few dozen individuals who got all of their food each day by gathering plants or by hunting animals. Each of our ancestors was, in effect, on a camping trip that lasted an entire lifetime, and this way of life endured for most of the last 10 million years.
Generation after generation, for 10 million years, natural selection slowly sculpted the human brain, favoring circuitry that was good at solving the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors — problems like finding mates, hunting animals, gathering plant foods, negotiating with friends, defending ourselves against aggression, raising children, choosing a good habitat, and so on. Those whose circuits were better designed for solving these problems left more children, and we are descended from them. (2)
If our brain circuitry was designed (in large part) to support a hunter-gatherer way of life, then why is it that we – contemporary humans – are capable of conducting tasks that no hunter-gatherer ever had to perform? Here’s what Cosmides and Tooby have to say about this principal issue…
… we are able to solve problems that no hunter-gatherer ever had to solve — we can learn math, drive cars, use computers. Our ability to solve other kinds of problems is a side-effect or by-product of circuits that were designed to solve adaptive problems. For example, when our ancestors became bipedal — when they started walking on two legs instead of four — they had to develop a very good sense of balance. And we have very intricate mechanisms in our inner ear that allow us to achieve our excellent sense of balance. Now the fact that we can balance well on two legs while moving means that we can do other things besides walk — it means we can skateboard or ride the waves on a surfboard. But our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not tunneling through curls in the primordial soup. The fact that we can surf and skateboard are mere by–products of adaptations designed for balancing while walking on two legs. (2)
Towards the end of their discussion, the authors also get into the nature vs. nurture debate, pointing out that the practise of thinking of genes and environment as being separate is based on a fallacy…
Every aspect of an organism’s phenotype is the joint product of its genes and its environment. To ask which is more important is like asking, Which is more important in determining the area of a rectangle, the length or the width? Which is more important in causing a car to run, the engine or the gasoline? Genes allow the environment to influence the development of phenotypes.
Indeed, the developmental mechanisms of many organisms were designed by natural selection to produce different phenotypes in different environments. Certain fish can change sex, for example. Blue-headed wrasse live in social groups consisting of one male and many females. If the male dies, the largest female turns into a male. The wrasse are designed to change sex in response to a socialcue — the presence or absence of a male. (2)
As I see it, the following quote, which closely relates to the evolutionary mismatch concept that’s heavily featured here on Darwinian-Medicine.com, captures the essence of the message the authors are trying to get across:
The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American — they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. (2)
Evolutionary psychology in a nutshell
So as to summarize the things I’ve brought up so far and illustrate what EP is all about, I’ve created the following infographic, which portrays the evolution of man and its relevance of human brain configuration.
What about the critique that has been raised against evolutionary psychology?
As a field, EP has grown a lot over the most recent decades. This is not to say that everyone is on board with the idea that psychologists should change their focus, directing it towards our evolutionary past though. Some people have expressed disapproval of EP.
The fact that EP has its detractors is to be expected, given the nature of the discipline. First of all, it’s a revolutionary discipline that goes against the grain. Psychologists have historically paid little to no attention to Darwin, natural selection, and evolutionary science in general; hence, it’s not surprising that an approach to psychology that has these things at its core has faced some criticism.
Secondly, some people, in particular religious individuals, are opposed to evolutionary ideas about the nature of life, and in particular the origin and development of man, often because they’ve grown up listening to the preachings of creationists who believe that man was created in God’s image. Thirdly, the discipline may be perceived as being degrading, in the sense that it doesn’t clearly separate humans from other life forms. It may give the impression that Homo sapiens is “just another animal”, albeit with somewhat more complex intellectual faculties than creatures such as spiders, tigers, and zebras, and that we’re biologically primed to act in a particular manner. This undoubtedly goes against many people’s perception of humanity and culture and ideas about free will.
On these grounds, I certainly understand why the discipline has come under the occasional attack. I’m not going to claim that none of the criticism that’s out there is worth considering or taking seriously. That said, personally, I wholeheartedly support the idea behind ES. It strongly appeals to me and my way of thinking.
What I’d like to point out is that nobody’s denying that there’s something distinct about the human brain. This is not to say that it wasn’t produced by the same types of processes as the brains of other animals; however, there’s no doubt that our species has a special knack for doing certain things, in particular things related to cultural innovation.
Furthermore, nobody’s saying that we’re puppets at the mercy of a master’s control, forced to act in a specific way. We obviously have the choice of consciously deciding for or against a particular behavior. We can touch dangerous snakes or eat excrement if we so desire. That said, there’s no doubt that our Darwinian selves greatly influence what we do in life. We’re certainly not constructed in such a way that we’re predisposed to consciously override our deeply rooted instincts & primal desires.
‘Move aside Freud, it’s Darwin’s time to shine!’
To an evolutionist such as myself, it seems absurd, bordering on unbelievable, that conventional psychology has historically been largely devoid of evolutionary thought, considering that the brain, like all other bodily organs, is a product of an evolutionary process. If one doesn’t consider the nature of this process, one is basically grasping in the dark when it comes to figuring our why we think and behave the way we do.
Darwinian insights could usher in a psychological reconceptualization, potentially turning psychology on its head by changing the way we view and approach the mind. By recognizing that “our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history”, as EP trailblazers John Tooby and Leda Cosmides elegantly put it, we immediately get a better understanding of where we should ideally direct our focus in our quest to unravel the mysteries of the mind.
Personally, I’d go as far as to say that the entire field of psychology should be based on evolutionary theory. Furthermore, I’m of the belief that psychiatry should be rooted in evolutionary insights as well, because as I see it, most mental illness can be attributed to evolutionary mismatch.
Darwinian medicine accomplishes this very thing. It’s unique in that it brings everything that has to do with health, well-being, and medicine, including psychology and psychiatry, together behind a shared robust framework composed of verified, foundational principles of evolutionary science. Disparate, scattered concepts, ideas, and beliefs created on the basis of nothing more than assumptions, conjecture, or personal feelings are discarded, whereas concepts that conform to the basic tenets of biology are embraced and refined over time.