What Evolutionary Psychology IS and what Evolutionary
Psychology IS NOT
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
Consider the following (sample) examination item -- similar
to one that appeared on a Social Psychology examination of mine:
A. are selected by natural selection; species in which the adaptation exists
will not go extinct
to help you find out more about Evolutionary Psychology
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
out the following 'introductions' to the field:
Asked Questions about Evolutionary Psychology (e.g., "Is Evolutionary
Durant and Bruce Ellis:
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).
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