Nutrition, chemical exposure, exercise, exposure to light and nature, microbial stimuli, and sleep. These are the dominant topics of discussion not only here on Darwinian-Medicine.com, but also in the health and fitness community at large. And rightly so: there’s no doubt that all of these things are of critical importance when it comes to producing a healthy, vibrant human. With that said, certain other things greatly matter as well, in particular the way we organize our social lives, how we approach the use of modern technology, and what we value, prioritize, and pursue in life.
These things are appreciated by many psychologists; however, they’re often glossed over by health & fitness enthusiasts, in part because they don’t have the same direct physical impact on our bodies as for example the food we eat or the sunlight we’re exposed to. That certainly doesn’t mean that they aren’t important though. Besides affecting our general health, they’re arguably of the utmost significance to anyone who’s looking to attain a sense of fulfillment in life. And who isn’t? Deep down, isn’t that what we’re all looking for?
The Darwinian roots of happiness
I’ve talked quite a bit about psychology here on the site; however, I haven’t devoted as much attention to the mental aspects of living a good life as I have to the more practical ones. That’s not because I don’t think they aren’t worth paying attention to, but rather that my background is in nutrition and fitness, not in psychology.
For that reason, and also because I haven’t previously interviewed a psychologist here on the site, I was excited to recently get a chance to talk to Glenn Geher, a psychologist whose blog Darwin’s Subterrenean World I warmly recommended a short while back. I was immediately impressed when I came across and read Glenn’s articles earlier this year, which I found to have a fresh, original feel to them. He’s one of the most interesting and noteworthy Darwinian psychologists I’ve come across to date. Few, if anyone, has impressed me more.
Fairly recently, he published a book that centers on what he refers to as Positive Evolutionary Psychology, which concerns the real-life applications of Darwinian psychological insights, and in particular cognizance pertaining to evolutionary mismatch. Perhaps needless to say, that’s right up my alley. Several times I’ve made the case that it’s not only futile to try to understand the human mind in the absence of Darwinian light, but that our evolutionary past holds countless clues as to what’s going to promote mental well-being in the present; hence, as I point out in my review of the book, I’m very much on-board with the idea behind Glenn’s approach.
As any Darwinist will know, it’s reproduction that ultimately matters in evolution, not mental well-being or happiness per se. With that being said, our state of mind matters indirectly by affecting our ability to survive and reproduce, and hence, our genes’ chances of being passed on. Emotional states and responses, such as the unpleasant feeling we get when touching a hot stove or the anxiety we experience when encountering a dangerous animal, evolved because they confer an adaptive value – or at least conferred one at the time when they were cemented by natural selection. Feelings of happiness and satisfaction may also be understood on this basis.
As Glenn says in Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life:
If you want to understand what factors lead to happiness, then you have to understand whatkinds of outcomes under ancestral conditions led to feelings of positive affect – outcomes such as positive relationship outcomes, success in obtaining resources, success in the lives of kin (such as the birth of a niece or a nephew), and so forth.
Personally, I’m of the belief that the things I mentioned in the very first sentence of this article, in particular the food we eat and the microbes we’re exposed to, are key pieces in the mental health puzzle. However, I obviously recognize that there are more pieces to the puzzle. That’s what I wanted to talk to Glenn Geher about. Most importantly, I wanted to hear his thoughts on the importance of social circumstances and connections, as well as the way we mentally approach and respond to life.
With that said, let’s jump in with the interview…
1. Please tell us a little about yourself. I’m particularly interested in hearing about your educational background and research work.
Like so many people, I started a psychology major (back in the day, at the University of Connecticut (UConn)) thinking that I’d become a therapist. Little did I know that the field psychology is HUGE and includes an extensive research and science-based component. I got hooked on that early on.
Scientifically studying human behavior was so interesting to me right off the bat. I then went on to get my PhD in experimental social psychology at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). I met my wife, Kathy, there – she was in my same program. And I developed a lifelong love of research and teaching in the behavioral sciences. And Kathy and I went on to get married and have two awesome kids – and we ultimately settled at SUNY New Paltz, a really strong university with a large focus on undergraduate education and research. And lots of hiking trails in some amazing mountains. Perfect place for me and my family!
2. How did you first become interested in evolutionary psychology?
I took a class by Ben Sachs at UConn. It was simply titled “Animal Behavior” – but it was all about how evolutionary principles can shed light on behaviors across behavioral domains and across species. I was hooked. A few years later, I heard David Buss speak about his book Evolution of Desire (when I was at UNH). That did it for me. I’ve never thought about the human experience the same again.
3. If you were to describe what evolutionary pscyhology is to someone who has never heard of it before, what would you say?
It is the idea that the best way to understand human behavior and mental processes is to step back and consider why our mental and behavioral processes evolved to characterize us in the first place. What evolutionary forces led to such psychological outcomes as long-term memory, our tendency to be depressed after losing a loved one, the excitement we get around a new lover, the biases we bring in making predictions about our future finances, and on and on. As I see it, every last bit of psychology can be understood in terms of how the processes that characterize us now had some kinds of benefits for survival and/or reproduction under ancestral conditions.
4. One of the things I really like about your work is that you not only seek to elucidate and explain the evolutionary causes of human behavior, but that you’re also utilizing evolutionary insights as a means to figure out what it takes to live a good life. To a Darwinist such as myself, this immediately comes across as being a natural, sensible approach to psychology and ‘life planning’, seeing as our brain circuitry and emotional wiring, which affect our genes’ chances of being passed on by influencing not just our own ability to survive and reproduce, but also that of our genetic relatives, were shaped over evolutionary time by natural selection. However, to people who are unfamiliar with Darwinian theory and evolutionary psychology, the concept may come across as foreign and unorthodox. For that reason, it would be great if you could describe the rationale behind it, from your point of view. Why is it fruitful to have Darwin’s revelations in mind as we search for ways to enhance our mental well-being and experience of life?
Great question. Darwin’s ideas have the power to really advance our understanding of what it takes to live a good life. So, for instance, we know that our kids are important. But from an evolutionary perspective, we can understand why this is. Human offspring are the primary vehicles that advance our particular genes into the future. So next time your alarm goes off so that you have to wake up your teenage son for high school – and he doesn’t want to budge. And then your daughter starts screaming because she can’t find the shirt she wanted to wear and accuses you of losing it in the laundry … etc., maybe take a step back and remember that, from an evolutionary perspective, loving, effective parenting is, at the end of the day, as important in the broader human experience as is anything. This kind of insight, which follows from the ideas of Positive Evolutionary Psychology, may help people reframe some of the things in their lives that seem difficult in the moment. Certain things in life matter more than others do. The evolutionary perspective tells us why.
5. The concept of evolutionary mismatch is of central importance to not only medicine, but also to psychology, in that it sheds light on both physical and mental aspects of the human condition. What specifically does the concept offer in the context of evolutionary psychology?
Mismatch is so critical partly because we are often unaware of it. We are, so to speak, the fish in the fishbowl. For instance, college students today are among the first people ever to have the internet and cell phone technology available to them during their entire lives. They don’t know anything else. But cell phone technology is very mismatched from ancestral conditions. While cell phones have perks, they have psychological liabilities as well. For instance, bullying is now easier than ever because it is easier to be mean to someone behind a screen – especially if you hide your identity. Infidelity is now easier than ever, for similar reasons – and families across the globe are being shattered as a result. And people are spending less time out in nature, thanks to cell phone addiction, which is at pandemic levels. Without the concept of mismatch, you simply wouldn’t see all this or realize the nature of the problem. The fact is that when some modern technology is highly mismatched to the ancestral conditions that surrounded human evolution, problems are very likely to emerge.
Here’s another example. These days, female body image is a major problem. Even some of the most physically beautiful women out there today are dissatisfied with their bodies. And this kind of dissatisfaction famously leads to all kinds of emotional and social problems. Well here is a mismatch that relates to this issue. Under ancestral conditions, women generally only saw other women in their clans. Only a few. And without makeup or clothing from Forever 21. Nowadays, the average woman in a Westernized country sees hundreds or thousands of ideal, or even overly ideal, female bodies every single day. This is a major mismatch. And it has harmful effects.
6. In relation to the mismatch concept, what are currently the most serious threats to the human psyche as you see it?
Oh gosh, there are many. Here are three: The lack of exercise is a problem. I try to run and lift weights five times a week. But I have to make myself do that. Many of us pay top dollar for a gym membership. People pay hundreds of dollars to participate in a marathon. Under ancestral conditions, exercise was, simply, part of everyday life. A second is food: Americans today eat more processed than natural food. And obesity, Type-II diabetes, and heart failure – diseases of “civilization” – are the result. Here’s another one: Our education system is completely unnatural. Under ancestral conditions, kids learned and played in the same breath. And they ran all day long in mixed-age groups of kids. Standard modern public education is totally mismatched from these conditions. And what do we do when a kid isn’t able to handle modern education? We label that kid and get him or her on medication. Welcome to the new world.
7. Evolution, and perhaps Darwinism in particular, has by some been seen as representing a gloomy outlook and depiction of life in which competitiveness and selfishness, as opposed to generosity and altruism, are the prevailing forces, in part because of its association with the phrase “survival of the fittest”. By default, competition and biological arms races are inherent to evolution; however, that’s not the same as to say that a self-centered strategy is necessarily the one that’ll get you the furthest. Actually, in some species, such as ours, ‘the every man for himself approach’ almost always backfires and is generally not representative of how people are wired, as highlighted by the following profound statement from your book: “To some extent, selfish genes in humans have created altruistic apes who focus largely on what they can do to help others and build strong and positive communities.” So as to draw attention to this important issue and potentially overturn some of the specious connotations that the whole evolution thing is known to bring up, it would be great if you could elaborate a bit on this concept. Is human evolution actually a testament to the virtues of kindness, love, and generosity?
We’re a funny ape. As is the case with any organism, we evolved with a suite of adaptations that benefit our own survival and/or reproduction directly. We are afraid of snakes and after puberty, we are attracted to certain others as potential mates for ourselves. But we also have a long history of living in communities – communities that cut across lines of kinship. And for this reason, cooperation and prosocial behavior emerged as foundational parts of our evolutionary story. We like others who cooperate. We like others who help others. We like others whom we can trust. And so forth. There is a lot of love and kindness in the human experience. And evolution is largely responsible for this.
8. On another note, one can’t deny that life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. This is perhaps particularly evident in this day and age, where people are repeatedly exposed to animosity and violence, not just through movies, TV shows, and video games, but also through online chat forums and comment sections, which frequently allow for anonymity, as well as the news, which delivers a condensed package of hate, conlict, and war from all over the world, giving a pretty dark, grim impression of life. Personally, I feel I’ve benefitted from detaching somewhat from this evolutionarily novel aspect of the human condition by being more conscious of what I expose myself to, so as to not soak up so much negativity. Furthermore, I’m of the belief that much of the turbulence and dissension we’re seeing is rooted in evolutionary mismatch. We’re simply not wired to live in isolated compartments (e.g., small apartments) as part of huge, fast-food heavy and digitally connected multiethnic societies governed by people we do not know. What are your thoughts on this larger issue of modern living? Is there anything in particular that you feel people should be aware of?
Modern living includes a hodgepodge of evolutionarily familiar stimuli and evolutionarily novel stimuli. Family and intimate relationships, for instance, are evolutionarily familiar. If you have a mate or kids, then your interactions with those individuals likely play out scripts that go deep in human evolutionary history. But we also find ourselves with all kinds of things that were not on the scene during the lion’s share of human evolutionary history. Isolated apartments in big cities. Being surrounded by strangers. Having a smart phone in your pocket that can, at any moment, answer any question that you might have. Having enough unhealthy food in your environment to put 30 extra pounds on you in a month’s time. These are the mismatches. I’d say that the angle of Positive Evolutionary Psychology helps us see the natural features in our world versus the mismatches and it encourages us to think about the potential downsides of the mismatches.
9. One part of your book Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to a Richer Life that I find particularly refreshing and original is the part about religion. Unlike some other evolutionists, you don’t condemn religion, but rather seek to understand why it exists by getting at the potential evolutionary benefits it may have offered, and perhaps still offer. Personally, I’m not religious; however, I very much like this approach, which certainly seems a lot more constructive than just launching an all-out attack on religion. Could you briefly talk a bit about this issue, in particular about how things like spirituality, faith, and supernatural beliefs could potentially add a sense of meaning and purpose to someone’s life?
Sure, I have to say that much of my thinking on this is influenced by my friend and collaborator, David Sloan Wilson (author of, among other things, Darwin’s Cathedral). The angle that David takes, that I share, is that condemning religion is simply not productive. The lion’s share of people in this world are religious. And that will always be true. Instead of lambasting all of them, how about trying to understand where they are coming from – using an evolutionarily informed approach? What function does religion serve? And what function did it serve for our ancestors?
A bottom-line function of religion seems to be this: Getting people to inhibit selfish behaviors and emit other-oriented behaviors. All religions seem to have this kind of thing going on. And it often leads to effective groups – groups that have group-level benefits, but that also have benefits that feed back and help the individuals within the groups.
Being highly respected within one’s religious community likely means (a) that you’ve sacrificed much of yourself for others, but it also likely means (b) that others trust you, respect you, and like you – and want to connect with you. So the effects of religious activities have group benefits that may ultimately funnel down to individual benefits. Via this process, religious institutions tend to be very good at cultivating community in the broad sense.
10. As part of your writings, you provide a number of evolution-based suggestions for living a better life. Among other things, in relation to some of the things mentioned earlier, you say that from an evolutionary psychological point of view, it makes good sense to focus on giving/contributing rather than taking and pursuing meaningful connections and experiences rather than money and material goods, although a certain amount of the latter is obviously required to live in the modern day and age. This view, which you bring home in the book by saying that “From a Darwinian perspective, wealth is not based on money – rather, wealth is based on the connections that you have and the mark that you leave on the world”, really resonates with me and accentuates my feeling that we as a society place far too much emphasis on personal property and material goods. This brings me over to my question… Let’s say that a person came up to you and asked if you could give him five tips pertaining to the way he thinks, interacts with others, and organizes his affairs that could potentially help him become happier and more content with life. What kind of suggestions would you offer him?
Sure, here are five tips that I’d give to just about anyone vis-à-vis the ideas from positive evolutionary psychology:
- Make healthy choices when it comes to food and exercise. Try to eat only natural foods and try to get as much exercise in a week that would be typical for any nomad around the world today.
- Be honest and helpful. These days, especially with modern communication technologies, deceit (such as illicit affairs) and anti-social behavior more generally are easier than ever. But they come with costs. Shooting for true honesty and prosociality will help those around you and will ultimately lead to benefits that flow back to you.
- Stay connected with family. Kin have a special place in our worlds when we are thinking from an evolutionary perspective. As best as you can, treat your kin like the evolutionary gold that they are.
- Treat your spouse like gold. A long-term romantic partner is a highly critical member of your world from an evolutionary perspective. This person might share offspring with you. And this person may well be deeply interconnected with you across a broad array of communities that you find yourself in. Take the time to step back and shower your spouse with love. 50% of marriages end in divorce. Shoot for the other 50% as best you can.
- Try to not fully cut people out of your life. Under ancestral conditions, social estrangements had devastating effects on people. In a small clan, being cut out of the life of just one person could have had dramatic ripple effects that could have threatened one’s very survival. In our modern world, our psychology regarding estrangements is not much different. Our research showed that the number of estrangements one has in life is strongly predictive of all kinds of adverse consequences.
11. What aspects of positive evolutionary psychology do you feel you have personally derived the most benefit from implementing into your daily life?
I think quite a lot about trust, estrangement, forgiveness, and connections to others in my world. When you hit mid-life, you run into all kinds of social and personal difficult situations (whether you like it or not). For me, having a deep, evolution-based understanding of our psychology surrounding community and connections among people has the capacity to help me process and deal with all kinds of social situations. Hopefully with at least some effectiveness and perspective.
12. If you were to craft a short and concise message/statement that captures the essentials of practical or positive evolutionary psychology, and hence, may help guide people towards a more fulfilling life, then what would you come up with?
When going through life, realize that, like all of us, you are the product of eons of human evolutionary history. Under the lion’s share of human evolution, people lived in small groups surrounded by kin and by others with whom they had long-standing relationships. And there were no cell phones or cookies. Our psychology evolved for these kinds of conditions. If you seek happiness, meaning, and purpose. And you seek to make a positive difference in the communities that surround you, it is helpful to step back and realize that our minds evolved for conditions that, in many ways, are mismatched from our modern worlds. If you want to cultivate a positive life for yourself and your family, it is helpful to understand where we came from.
13. As a researcher, lecturer, and thinking man, you’re already at an advanced level in your area of work. That said, there’s always something new to be learned or discovered. What are some of the most important realizations or findings pertaining to evolutionary psychology that you’ve made recently?
Much of the recent work of my lab surrounds the evolutionary psychology of how we deal with transgressions and betrayals from others in our social circles. We’ve published a few studies on this topic so far, and we have two more that are currently in the works. Some of the main findings from all of this research is as follows:
- The more estrangements someone has in life, the worse his or her life is – across the board
- If you trespass against someone in your world, realize that forgiveness is not an easy feat and it is actually rarely truly implemented – especially if the transgression is major and personal
- Developing a reputation as someone who is genuinely trustworthy within a small community is golden
14. Anything else you’d like to add?
Eirik, I’d like to thank you for taking my work seriously and for all of these very thoughtful questions. The Darwinian Medicine site that you oversee is an extraordinary resource for people from all kinds of backgrounds: Health professionals, behavioral scientists, mental health workers, interested laypeople, and more. Keep up all the great work!
More from Glenn Geher…
(Disclaimer: Amazon affiliate links)
Selected blog articles
- “Zombie Nation“
- “Positive Evolutionary Psychology”
- “Why Cutting People Out of Your Life Can Be Bad for Your Health”
- “Understanding Evolution Makes You Smarter”
- “The Dark Side of Cell Phones”
- “Muscling Through the Tough Times”
- “Evolutionary Mismatch Explained”
- “Is Natural Living Reserved for the Rich?”
- “Why Comic Book Heroes Are Sexy”
- “Darwin’s Bucket List”
Selected scientific publications
- “You’re dead to me! The evolutionary psychology of social estrangements and social transgressions“
- “The evolutionary psychology of small-scale versus large-scale politics: Ancestral conditions did not include large-scale politics”
- “Playing Smart: The Mating Game and Mating Intelligence”
- “Divorce Patterns and the Male-to-Female Mortality Ratio: Is Midlife Crisis the Death of Men?”
- “Evolution Integrated Across All Islands of the Human Behavioral Archipelago: All Psychology as Evolutionary Psychology”
- “Walking the Walk to Teach the Talk: Implementing Ancestral Lifestyle Strategies as the Newest Tool in Evolutionary Studies”