Introduction to Evolutionary Psychology

People at a crosswalk in a crowded city.

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Evolutionary psychology is a relatively new scientific discipline that looks at how human nature has evolved over time as a series of built-up psychological adaptations.

Key Takeaways: Evolutionary Psychology

  • The field of evolutionary psychology is based on the idea that human emotions and behaviors have been shaped by natural selection.
  • According to evolutionary psychologists, the human brain evolved in response to specific problems that early humans faced.
  • A core idea of evolutionary psychology is that the behavior of humans today can be better understood by thinking about the context in which early humans evolved.

Overview of Evolutionary Psychology

Much like Charles Darwin's ideas about natural selection, evolutionary psychology focuses on how favorable adaptations of human nature are selected for over less favorable adaptations. In the scope of psychology, these adaptations could be in the form of emotions or problem-solving skills. For example, an adaptation could involve things such as a tendency to be vigilant for potential threats or the ability to work cooperatively in groups. According to evolutionary psychology, each of these would have helped early humans to survive. Being vigilant for threats would help humans avoid predators and working cooperatively would allow humans to share resources and knowledge with others in their group. The field of evolutionary psychology looks at how evolutionary pressures led to particular adaptations such as these.

Evolutionary psychology is related to both macroevolution in the sense that it looks at how the human species (especially the brain) has changed over time, and it is also rooted in the ideas attributed to microevolution. These microevolutionary topics include changes at the gene level of DNA.

Attempting to link the discipline of psychology to the theory of evolution via biological evolution is the aim of evolutionary psychology. In particular, evolutionary psychologists study how the human brain has evolved. The different regions of the brain control different parts of human nature and the physiology of the body. Evolutionary psychologists believe that the brain evolved in response to solving very specific problems.

Six Core Principles

The discipline of evolutionary psychology was founded on six core principles that combine a traditional understanding of psychology, along with evolutionary biology ideas of how the brain functions. These principles are as follows:​​

  1. The human brain's purpose is to process information, and in doing so, it produces responses to both external and internal stimuli.
  2. The human brain adapted and has undergone both natural and sexual selection.
  3. The parts of the human brain are specialized to solve problems that occurred over evolutionary time.
  4. Modern humans have brains that evolved after problems recurred repeatedly over long periods of time.
  5. Most of the human brain's functions are done unconsciously. Even problems that seem easy to solve require very intricate neural responses at an unconscious level.
  6. Many very specialized mechanisms make up the whole of human psychology. All of these mechanisms together create human nature.

Areas of Research

The theory of evolution lends itself to several areas where psychological adaptations must occur in order for species to develop. The first includes basic survival skills such as consciousness, responding to stimuli, learning, and motivation. Emotions and personality also fall into this category, although their evolution is much more complex than basic instinctual survival skills. The use of language is also linked as a survival skill on the evolutionary scale within psychology.

Another major area of evolutionary psychology research is the propagation of the species. Evolutionary psychologists study what people look for in a partner, and how these preferences may have been shaped by evolutionary pressures. Based on observations of other species in their natural environments, the evolutionary psychology of human mating tends to lean toward the idea that females are more selective in their partners than males.

A third major area of evolutionary psychology research centers on how we interact with other humans. This large research area includes research into parenting, interactions within families and relations, interactions with people who are not related, and the combination of similar ideas to establish a culture. Emotions and language greatly influence these interactions, as does geography. Interactions occur more frequently among people living in the same area, which eventually leads to the creation of a specific culture that evolves based on immigration and emigration in the area.