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What Evolutionary Psychology IS and what Evolutionary Psychology IS NOT
(by Glenn Geher)

Evolutionary Psychology IS an explanatory framework that has implications for understanding all psychological phenomena. It essentially conceptualizes humans as products of natural selection -- thereby NOT conceiving of our species as somehow immune from the laws that govern the natural world. It is thereby a humbling perspective in some respects.

In any case, this perspective conceives of human behavior as resulting from the human nervous system - including the brain - which was, according to this perspective (and to most modern scientists who study psychological phenomena), shaped by evolutionary processes such as natural selection. 

If the nervous system were shaped by natural selection, then individual humans with certain neuronal qualities in our ancestral past (e.g., those with features of the autonomic nervous system) were more likely to survive and reproduce compared with conspecifics (other humans).

Ancestral humans with features of the Autonomic Nervous System were more likely to respond optimally to immediate threatening stimuli in situations (e.g., running from a predator). Thus, they were more likely to survive than others with less advanced autonomic nervous systems. A simple logical truth is that being more likely to survive necessarily increases the likelihood of reproduction (corpses are not very good at successfully mating). As such, this (partly) genetically shaped feature of human anatomy (with integral implications for human behavior), the Autonomic Nervous System, was 'naturally selected' and has thereby come to typify our species.

This same reasoning applies to all domains of psychology. Human behavioral patterns are part of the natural world -- and human beings are living organisms that have come about (I believe ... strongly) by evolutionary processes. As such, attempts at understanding such basic aspects of the human experience -- mind and behavior -- without understanding the broad evolutionary factors that have given rise to our species and, ultimately, to our psychology, is simply misguided. We can do better in understanding human psychology by understanding the nuances of evolutionary principles. 

From my perspective, these are the basic ideas of Evolutionary Psychology.  Note that I provide a list of resources (developed by others) to introduce you to this field in a later section of this page.


Evolutionary Psychology IS NOT a lot of things. It is not designed with a political agenda. It is not inherently sexist. It is not evil. It is a framework for understanding human behavior that, in my opinion, has the capacity to unite all areas of psychology moreso than any other paradigm that has existed in the discipline of psychology. It is not driven by ideology; it is driven by the basic scientific motive of increasing understanding of the natural world.

See Ed Hagen's chapter on the 'controversies that surround Evolutionary Psychology' for a great summary of what Evolutionary Psychology IS versus what critics often erroneously think it is.

Based on a conversation that emerged in my Social Psychology class, I want to focus specifically on the distinction between Evolutionary Psychology and Eugenics here. Simply put, Evolutionary Psychology is absolutely NOT synonymous with Eugenics. Period.

Eugenics is
all about how human societies SHOULD selectively breed people so that only relatively fit individuals are the ones to reproduce so as to create an optimal species. What a yucky idea this eugenics is!  Further, how far from Evolutionary Psychology it is. Consider, for instance, male sexual jealousy (Daly & Wilson, 1982) -- the tendency, documented across cultures, for males to be particularly upset by thoughts of their female romantic partners engaging in sexual infidelity. Evolutionary Psychology is interested in how this phenomenon may be species-typical and how it may have been shaped by natural selection. Further, Evolutionary Psychologists are interested in understanding the detrimental impact of this phenomenon on society and are interested, further, in using knowledge gleaned from evolutionarily guided research to help solve social problems associated with this phenomenon. ON THE OTHER HAND, someone adopting a eugenics perspective would be focusing on IMPROVING THE SPECIES in terms of optimizing the gene pool - thus, a eugenicist would see such jealousy as bad insofar as it may work to preclude the most fit among us from having more mates than others.

An Evolutionary Psychologist is focusing on human behavior as shaped to optimize individuals' own chances of reproduction. Evolutionary Psychology is (generally) a decidedly non-group-selectionist approach to understanding behavior. It very much focuses on behavior as largely serving the purpose of getting one's own genes into the future -- with essentially no regard for 'saving the species.'

A eugenicist, on the other hand, believes that we should use our understanding of the effects of genes on behavior and bodies to consciously choose who should reproduce and who should not for the good of the species. This perspective suggests that we should optimize the gene pool of the species via selective breeding - that is the goal of eugenics. That is not at all the goal of evolutionary psychology.

Put simply: From the perspective of eugenics, we should all work to have people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kelly Ripa do all the mating for our species. From the perspective of Evolutionary Psychology, people were shaped by natural selection to endorse nothing of the kind -- rather, from this perspective, we were shaped to work to reproduce our own particular genes, regardless, in fact, of whether we believe ours may actually be the best in the pool.  Consider the following:

Distinguishing Evolutionary Psychology from Eugenics

Evolutionary Psychology
Level of Selection
Natural selection happens at the level of the individual organism. Psychological qualities viewed as 'adaptations' are qualities that confer survival and/or reproductive benefits to the organisms possessing the particular qualities.

The entity that is presumably 'benefiting' here is the individual.
In large part, eugenics is a group-selectionist doctrine. It suggests that people should work together in selectively breeding humans to make it so that the species will benefit in the future.

The entity that is presumably 'benefiting' here is the species.
The Selector
The process of natural selection (and, perhaps, other evolutionary processes such as sexual selection). Natural selection is a blind process with no intention and no plan.

The selector here is a natural process fully devoid of human intentions and political agendas.
Individuals or groups of individuals with particular intentional plans/objectives and, often, particular political agendas.

The selector here is a fully human entity, replete with intentions and political agendas.
Basic Goal
Evolutionary Psychology represents a basic scientific endeavor. The goal is to use our understanding of evolutionary principles so as to optimize our ability to understand human behavior and psychological processes.

This basic scientific paradigm does not have a specific political agenda; increasing understanding of human psychology is the agenda.
The goal of eugenics is quite applied in nature. The point of this perspective is to apply our understanding of genes to a program of selective breeding of humans.

This applied perspective has a very specific agenda.
Many psychological processes that are studied by Evolutionary Psychologists are unconscious in nature. For instance, Cosmides and Tooby (1992) argue that we differentially apply rules of logic, unknowingly, when we are faced with highly evolutionarily relevant versus relatively evolutionarily non-relevant judgments. Such unconscious processes were shaped by natural selection to serve the purposes of individual reproduction.
The basic idea of eugenics is a highly conscious one. There is not a focus on unconscious psychological processes. Rather, from this perspective, there is a clear and highly conscious plan. The plan is for members of society to selectively breed in a way that would lead to an optimized gene pool for the society at large in the future.
Thoughts on Arnold Schwarzenegger
From the perspective of Evolutionary Psychology, this man has been endowed with highly adaptive genes. Good for him. Evolutionary psychologists do not want (consciously or not) him to out-reproduce them. Heterosexual male evolutionary psychologists involved in monogamous relationships would not prefer that their female partners would mate with Arnold rather than with themselves.
A eugenicist might see Arnold as a horse breeder would see a blue-ribbon stallion: He should be used as a stud and should be encouraged, from this perspective, to mate with as many (relatively fit) females as possible in hopes of improving the species.

Consider the following (sample) examination item -- similar to one that appeared on a Social Psychology examination of mine:

From the perspective of Evolutionary Psychology, psychological characteristics _______ with the primary function of increasing the likelihood that the _______.

A. are selected by natural selection; species in which the adaptation exists will not go extinct
B. should be selectively bred by people; broad group of organisms to which individuals belong (e.g., animals versus plants) will likely out-compete other broad groups of organisms
are selected by natural selection; specific individuals displaying such characteristics in ancestral contexts were particularly likely to out-compete conspecifics (i.e., other humans) and thereby reproduce in relatively higher frequencies
should be selectively bred by people; fittest members of the species are most likely to survive and reproduce.

The correct answer here is C. Evolutionary Psychologists focus on qualities that are 'adaptive' from the perspective of individuals.  However, if the question started with the phrase, "From the perspective of eugenics ...," the answer would be D. Hopefully that clears up the distinction!

Resources to help you find out more about Evolutionary Psychology

Click HERE for information on Glenn's  Evolutionary Psychology course

Click HERE for a great chapter by Ed Hagen on controversies regarding Evolutionary Psychology (published in D. M. Buss (Ed.) The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology; Wiley).

Check out the following site showing presentations by Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke at MIT on the topic of sex differences in certain cognitive abilities -- note that this particular topic is largely tangential to the basic ideas of Evolutionary Psychology as I see it, but still interesting and quite on people's minds:

If you are a student at New Paltz, you may be interested in the Evolutionary Studies Program that several folks on campus and I are working to put together right now:

Click HERE for the link to the Evolutionary Studies site at Binghamton
-- the New Paltz program is largely being modeled after this program (primarily designed by David Sloan Wilson).

Also, check out the following 'introductions' to the field:

Cosmides and Tooby (Leaders in the field of Evolutionary Psychology):

Frequently Asked Questions about Evolutionary Psychology (e.g., "Is Evolutionary Psychology Sexist?")

Russil Durant and Bruce Ellis:

Human Behavior and Evolution Society page introducing the field:

Students and faculty alike should be interested in this anecdotal, personal set of accounts of applying for academic jobs while branded as an evolutionary psychologist (by Fisher, Kruger, Platek, and Salmon, 2005).

Click HERE for information on places to study Evolutionary Psychology at the Graduate Level

Click HERE for pictures of members of my Evolutionary Psychology class (Fall 2005) 'Hiking in the Pleistocene' (Photos from our hike up Bonticou Crag!); who says school is boring?!

Click HERE to go to Glenn's Homepage

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