It’s after Midnight, which means that it’s Darwin Day. I thought that, in order to celebrate, I would write about one of my favorite subjects: evolutionary psychology.
I’m in luck. The newest issue of American Psychologist has an article by Davis Buss (and he kindly provided a copy on his website for those who don’t have access) which gives a history of the research developments in evolutionary psychology and how they related to what Darwin himself had to say about the evolution of the mind.
For those of you who don’t know, evolutionary psychology is the study, or attempted study, as some might say, of the evolution of behavior and mental processes. Evolutionary psychologists attempt to better understand the human brain and behavior by trying to determine which parts are inherited, universal among humans, and trying to determine what evolutionary advantage they convey. That last part is where most of the controversy comes from, but I will save that for another post.
Bus points to a number of human universals, many of which you may already be familiar with. For instance, the discovery of female superiority in spatial location was the direct result of a hypothesis that it would be adaptive for food gathering. Males are superior in spatial areas like mental rotation and vector integration, which solve navigational problems. We have a crosscultural landscape preference in aesthetics for savannah-like locations with lush foliage, blooming berries, and fresh water. We have evolved a fondness for fat, an adaptation against starvation (some of us more than others…). Evidence shows that we have a primitive inate concept of predator and pray, and spider-detection capabilities. We also have evidence that success in hunting and battle led to more opportunities to mate.
Buss shines in his focus area; mate selection and sexual selection. I won’t go into this section because I won’t do it justice, but you should read it. You will learn about waist-hip ratios and same-sex sabotage. Overall, I would say Buss does a good job of explaining how we got from Darwin to where we are now in the study of the evolution of behavior.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I enjoy social psychology because it holds a dirty little mirror up to humanity. Evolutionary psychology does the same thing, and some find it disturbing. I personally see it as uplifting. The fact that we’re not all killing each other now speaks to the grandeur of the human sense of morality and our ability to create complex societies with rules and laws.
Of course, don’t forget that the sense of morality is evolved as well!
David M. Buss (2009). The great struggles of life: Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary psychology. American Psychologist, 64 (2), 140-148 DOI: 10.1037/a0013207