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What Is Evolutionary Perspective In Psychology

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A The Computational Model Of The Mind

An evolutionary perspective – Intro to Psychology

Following the development of modern logic and the formalization of the notion of computation , early AI construed logical operations as mechanically executable information processing routines. Eventually, this led to the idea that mental processes and mental states may themselves also be analyzable in purely syntactic terms. The Computational Theory of Mind, developed by philosophers like Hilary Putnam and Jerry Fodor , for instance, conceives of mental states as relations between a thinker and symbolic representations of the content of the states, and of mental processes as formal operations on the syntactic features of those representations.

Evolutionary Psychology endorses the computational model of the mind as an information processing system or a formal symbol manipulator and thus treats the mind as a collection of computational machines or information-processing mechanisms that receive input from the environment and produce behavior or physiological changes as output. To this, it adds an evolutionary perspective: The evolutionary function of the human brain is to process information in ways that lead to adaptive behavior the mind is a description of the operation of a brain that maps informational input onto behavioral output . The brain is thus not just like a computer. It is a computerthat is, a physical system that was designed to process information .

Basics Of The Evolutionary Perspective

The evolutionary perspective considers many different traits which include memory, perception and language. In this perspective, however, it considers these traits as adaptations that have occurred within the human body over time. With the evolutionary perspective scientists look at the way a new trait will evolve in the average person.

Evolution means natural selection and that means things that are good continue on while things that are not useful are pushed out. For example, traits of memory continue to evolve through each generation while other instincts are devolving. Natural selection gets rid of some of the traits that are no longer necessary while ensuring that important ones are pushed on in the future.

This perspective can be used with any type of organism as natural selection has been proven to affect all living organisms. Psychologists however, will consider the way that this perspective affects the general human population rather than other organisms or animals.

The evolutionary perspective is based on the foundations of cognitive psychology as well as evolutionary biology. It considers genetics, ethology, anthropology, biology and other aspects of science as well. The combination of these forms resulted in the creation of the evolutionary perspective in the 19th century.

Principles Of Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a well-defined discipline of study and research, with fundamental foundations that have developed and continue to guide new studies. There are five basic principles of evolutionary psychology:

  • Your brain is a physical system that instructs you to behave in a manner appropriate and adaptive to your environment.
  • The neural circuitry of your brain helps you solve problems in an appropriate manner. The specific ways that the neural circuitry is constructed were directed by natural selection, over the course of generations.
  • Most of your psychological behaviors are determined subconsciously by your neural circuitry, and you are largely unaware of these subconscious processes. You rely on conscious decision-making to guide you in your daily life, and you may be aware of the conclusions resulting from the complex neural circuitry while remaining unaware of the underlying process involved.
  • Neural circuits in the brain are specialized to solve different adaptive problems. For example, the circuitry involved in vision is not the same as for vomiting.
  • Your mind is based on adaptive changes that originated in the Pleistocene era.

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What Is An Example Of Behavioral Perspective

This theory says that an individual can be motivated to action by something that is outside of themselves. For example, getting a new car will motivate a teenager to graduate high school. Getting money will motivate an adult to go to work every day. Different types of motivation can be used in different ways.

Standard Social Science Model


Evolutionary psychology has been entangled in the larger philosophical and social science controversies related to the debate on nature versus nurture. Evolutionary psychologists typically contrast evolutionary psychology with what they call the standard social science model . They characterize the SSSM as the “blank slate“, “relativist“, “social constructionist“, and “cultural determinist” perspective that they say dominated the social sciences throughout the 20th century and assumed that the mind was shaped almost entirely by culture.

Critics have argued that evolutionary psychologists created a false dichotomy between their own view and the caricature of the SSSM. Other critics regard the SSSM as a rhetorical device or a straw man and suggest that the scientists whom evolutionary psychologists associate with the SSSM did not believe that the mind was a blank state devoid of any natural predispositions.

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What Is An Example Evolutionary Theory

For example, a phenomenon known as genetic drift can also cause species to evolve. In genetic drift, some organismspurely by chanceproduce more offspring than would be expected. Charles Darwin is more famous than his contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace who also developed the theory of evolution by natural selection.

What Is Evolutionary Psychology

TVOL is pleased to feature a series of articles on the theme What is Evolutionary Psychology? This term started to be used in the 1980s to announce a bold new approach to the study of human and animal minds from an evolutionary perspective. It immediately became controversial for at least two reasons. First, many psychologists assumed that their perspectives were already consistent with evolutionary theory and were skeptical about the added value of a more explicit evolutionary approach. Second, psychologists who were trying to develop an explicitly evolutionary perspective did not necessarily agree on what the core tenets of evolutionary psychology should be. Popular accounts of evolutionary psychology that didnt necessarily get the science right added an additional layer of controversy.

TVOL invited a number of leading evolutionary scientists to comment on the current state of evolutionary psychology, paying special attention to the following points:

1. How an explicit evolutionary approach differs from and adds value to other perspectives in psychology.

2. Disagreements among those who have adopted an explicit evolutionary perspective and their resolution.

3. Misunderstandings about evolutionary psychology that are perpetuated in the popular media.

We will continue to update the list of essays below:

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How Do Evolutionary Theorists Explain Behavior

Evolutionary Psychology Approach Psychological abilities, such as reading others’ intentions, making friends, and gaining trust, are known to help a person throughout life. Evolutionary psychologists believe that these skills are rooted in deeply complex neural circuits in the brain and that they are inherited.

In Praise Of Charles Darwin

Evolutionary Psychology: A Brief Overview

In praise of William D. Hamilton

With the exception of the ethology movement in the 1950s, there was very little contribution to the advancement of the evolutionary perspective until a brilliant graduate student at Oxford University named William Hamilton proposed a revision of evolutionary theory which he called “inclusive fitness theory.” Although his work was originally rejected by his professors, , it was finally accepted and published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology in 1964.

Hamilton argued that natural selection was too narrow in its interpretation and his theory of inclusive fitness stated that characteristics that cause an organism’s genes to be passed from generation to generation are favored by national selection, regardless whether the organism produces offspring. Hence, the view that classical fitness –– the measurement of direct reproductive success was too narrow to describe natural selection.

It is for William Hamilton’s theories and advancement of the evolutionary perspective that I praise him in this section.

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Why Isn’t Everyone An Evolutionary Psychologist

  • Psychology, University of Newcastle, Ourimbah, NSW, Australia

Despite a widespread acceptance that the brain that underpins human psychology is the result of biological evolution, very few psychologists in any way incorporate an evolutionary perspective in their research or practice. There have been many attempts to convince mainstream psychology of the importance of such a perspective, mostly from those who identify with Evolutionary Psychology, and there has certainly been progress in that direction, but the core of psychology remains essentially unevolutionary. Here I explore a number of potential reasons for mainstream psychology continuing to ignore or resist an evolutionary approach, and suggest some ways in which those of us interested in seeing an increase in the proportion of psychologists adopting an evolutionary perspective might need to modify our tactics to increase our chances of success.

The primacy of mechanism.

The identification of EP with particular versions of it.

Just so story telling.

Motivated opposition.

Theoretical inertia and misguided skepticism.

Poor understanding of modern evolutionary principles in psychology.

Evolutionary Psychology: One Research Tradition Among The Various Biological Approaches To Explaining Human Behavior

Paul Griffiths argues that evolutionary psychology owes theoreticaldebt to both sociobiology and ethology . Evolutionary psychologists acknowledge their debt tosociobiology but point out that they add a dimension to sociobiology:psychological mechanisms. Human behaviors are not a direct product ofnatural selection but rather the product of psychological mechanismsthat were selected for. The relation to ethology here is that in thenineteen fifties, ethologists proposed instincts or drives thatunderlie our behavior evolutionary psychologys psychological mechanisms are thecorrelates to instincts or drives. Evolutionary psychology is alsorelated to cognitive psychology and the cognitive sciences. Thepsychological mechanisms they invoke are computational, sometimesreferred to as Darwinian algorithms or ascomputational modules. This overt cognitivism setsevolutionary psychology apart from much work in the neurosciences andfrom behavioral neuroendocrinology. In these fields internalmechanisms are proposed in explanations of human behavior but they arenot construed in computational terms. David Marrs well known three part distinction is often invoked to distinguish thelevels at which researchers focus their attention in the cognitive andneurosciences. Many neuroscientists and behavioralneuroendocrinologists work at the implementation level while cognitivepsychologists work at the level of the computations that areimplemented at the neurobiological level .

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Where Does Psychology Fit In All This

Now the cool thing about adaptations is that they can not only be physical but also psychological!

The psychological mechanisms that aid an organisms survival and reproduction are genetically transmitted adaptations that manifest not as physical features, but as behavioural mechanisms.

In other words, your mind contains behavioural programs that are designed by evolution to ensure your survival and reproductive success.

Evolutionary psychology focuses on these evolved psychological mechanisms and is the most fascinating, all-encompassing field of psychology. It explains almost all of our behaviors.

Cultural Rather Than Genetic Development Of Cognitive Tools


Cecilia Heyes has argued that the picture presented by some evolutionary psychology of the human mind as a collection of cognitive instincts organs of thought shaped by genetic evolution over very long time periods does not fit research results. She posits instead that humans have cognitive gadgets “special-purpose organs of thought” built in the course of development through social interaction. Similar criticisms are articulated by Subrena E. Smith of the University of New Hampshire.

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Why Do Feminists Question Evolutionary Psychology

Feminists are not keen on the idea that women are inherently different from men. Such differences, they think, would force women back in time, losing ground inequal opportunity and equal pay, for example. They also feel that people can use evolutionary psychology to explain away misogyny, poverty, sexual misbehavior, among many areas.

Key Concepts And Arguments

According to Evolutionary Psychology, the human mind is a set of cognitive adaptations designed by natural selection. Since such design takes time, the adaptive problems that shaped our mind are not the ones we know from our life as industrialists during the past 200 years, or from our life as agriculturalists during the past 10,000 years, but those characteristic of our past life as hunter-gatherers. Since these problems varied considerably, the human mind contains many problem-specific adaptations. The task of Evolutionary Psychology is to discover these modules by means of what is called a functional analysis, where one starts with hypotheses about the adaptive problems faced by our ancestors, and then tries to infer the cognitive adaptations that must have evolved to solve them.

This theoretical framework of Evolutionary Psychology centers on a couple of key ideas which will be explained in this section: The cognitive mechanisms that underlie our behavior are adaptations. They have to be discovered by means of functional analysis. They are adaptations for solving recurrent adaptive problems in the evolutionary environment of our ancestors. Our mind is a complex set of such mechanisms, or domain-specific modules. These modules define our universal human nature.

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Philosophy Of Biology Vs Evolutionary Psychology

Adaptation is the one biological concept that is central to mostdebates over evolutionary psychology. Every theoretical work onevolutionary psychology presents the research tradition as beingprimarily focused on psychological adaptations and goes on to give anaccount of what adaptations are .Much of the philosophical criticism of evolutionary psychologyaddresses its approach to adaptation or its form of adaptationism. Letus quickly review the basics from the perspective of philosophy ofbiology.

If the traits of interest to evolutionary psychologists areuniversally distributed, then we should expect to find them in allhumans. This partly explains the stock that evolutionary psychologistsput in cross cultural psychological tests . If wefind evidence for the trait in a huge cross section of humans, thenthis supports our view that the trait is an adaptation on theassumption that adaptations are organ-like traits that are products ofnatural selection but not subject to variation. But given the widerscope view of evolution defended by philosophers of biology, thismethod of testing seems wrong-headed as a test of an evolutionaryhypothesis. Certainly such testing can result in the very interestingresults that certain preference profiles are widely shared crossculturally but the test does not speak to the evolutionary hypothesisthat the preferences are adaptations .

The Primacy Of Mechanism

How Evolutionary Psychology Explains Human Behavior

For many psychology researchers the fact that a mechanism is the result of past evolutionary forces is assumed to be true , but it is also assumed to be essentially irrelevant for understanding how the mechanism works, which is the main aim of most psychological research. This perspective is frequently criticized for providing an incomplete understanding of the mechanism in question, since it ignores it’s evolved function, but I think there is a danger that ignoring evolutionary considerations is actually much more insidiously damaging than this, since it can lead to the postulation of psychological mechanisms that are, a priori, very unlikely to be true, and since, divorced from its function, we run the risk of misunderstanding even how the mechanism works.

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Applications Of Evolutionary Psychology And Prospects For Further Debate

Finally, philosophers of science will doubtless continue to check thecredentials of evolutionary ideas imported into other areas ofphilosophy. Philosophers of biology in particular, still voicesuspicion if philosophers borrow their evolutionary ideas fromevolutionary psychology rather than evolutionary biology. PhilipKitcher voices this concern with regards to SharonStreets appeals to evolution. Kitcher worries thatStreet does not rely on what is known about humanevolution to provide an account of how her traitsof interest may have emerged. As noted above, Macherys nomological notion of human nature iscriticized on the grounds that he takes his idea of an evolved traitfrom evolutionary psychology as opposed to evolutionary biology.Barker also encourages philosophers, as well as socialscientists, to draw from the huge range of theoretical resourcesevolutionary biologists have to offer, rather than just from thoseprovided by evolutionary psychologists.

Basics Of Evolutionary Theory

Evolution simply means change over time. Many think of evolution as the development of traits and behaviors that allow us to survive this dog-eat-dog world, like strong leg muscles to run fast, or fists to punch and defend ourselves. However, physical survival is only important if it eventually contributes to successful reproduction. That is, even if you live to be a 100-year-old, if you fail to mate and produce children, your genes will die with your body. Thus, reproductive success, not survival success, is the engine of evolution by natural selection. Every mating success by one person means the loss of a mating opportunity for another. Yet every living human being is an evolutionary success story. Each of us is descended from a long and unbroken line of ancestors who triumphed over others in the struggle to survive and reproduce. However, in order for our genes to endure over timeto survive harsh climates, to defeat predatorswe have inherited adaptive, psychological processes designed to ensure success.

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A Suggested Further Reading

  • Barkow, Jerome, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, eds. . The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • The manifesto of Evolutionary Psychology.
  • Barrett, Louise, Robin Dunbar, and John Lycett, eds. . Human Evolutionary Psychology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • A very useful textbook of evolutionary psychology in the broad sense, covering both Evolutionary Psychology and Human Behavioral Ecology.
  • Buller, David . Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • A philosophical critique of Evolutionary Psychology, arguing that the empirical tests Evolutionary Psychologists rely on to establish that current Homo sapiens possesses the postulated cognitive adaptations in the areas of cheater detection, mating, marriage, and parenthood are flawed.
  • Buss, David . Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • The textbook of Evolutionary Psychology, written by one of its most ardent advocates.
  • Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby . Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange. In: The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Eds. Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 163228.
  • The classic paper on cheater detection.
  • Dawkins, Richard . The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pinker, Steven . How the Mind Works. New York: Norton.
  • Antisocial And Criminal Behavior


    Evolutionary psychology has been applied to explain criminal or otherwise immoral behavior as being adaptive or related to adaptive behaviors. Males are generally more aggressive than females, who are more selective of their partners because of the far greater effort they have to contribute to pregnancy and child-rearing. Males being more aggressive is hypothesized to stem from the more intense reproductive competition faced by them. Males of low status may be especially vulnerable to being childless. It may have been evolutionary advantageous to engage in highly risky and violently aggressive behavior to increase their status and therefore reproductive success. This may explain why males are generally involved in more crimes, and why low status and being unmarried are associated with criminality. Furthermore, competition over females is argued to have been particularly intensive in late adolescence and young adulthood, which is theorized to explain why crime rates are particularly high during this period. Some sociologists have underlined differential exposure to androgens as the cause of these behaviors, notably Lee Ellis in his evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory.

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