In the eternal quest to understand human behavior, does evolutionary psychology provide the missing link? Darwin may have approved.

You do the things you do for a multitude of reasons. Your childhood relationships, the challenges you’ve faced, and the chemical processes in your body are among the things that can influence your behaviors.

Evolutionary psychology adds ancestral traits to the equation.

The evolutionary theory says that the habits and cognitive traits that helped your ancestors survive have likely been passed down through the generations until making their way to you.

The evolutionary perspective in psychology is a purely theoretical approach. It allows for the assumption that many of your core behaviors and ways of processing information are a result of evolution.

Evolutionary psychology is partly based on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The theory was introduced in his 1859 book “On the Origin of Species.”

In sum, Darwin theorized that within a given population, specific traits are more helpful than others when it comes to the survival of the species. This is referred to as natural selection.

Traits that increase the chance of survival are more likely to be genetically passed on to future generations. This creates a process where undesirable traits are more likely to fade over time, while desirable traits carry on strongly.

For example, at some point, foxes with longer legs were able to escape predators more easily. As the shorter-legged foxes fell prey, only the long-legged foxes lived on to reproduce and pass on their genetic characteristics to their offspring. Over time, most or all foxes developed longer legs.

Evolutionary psychology applies this premise to human thinking and behavior.

Evolutionary psychology versus evolutionary biology

Evolutionary biology is the process of passing down biological traits. It’s the fox with long legs that escapes its predators. Evolutionary psychology is the natural selection of beneficial cognitive traits passed down through the generations.

According to Ellie Borden, a registered psychotherapist from Oakville, Ontario, the two concepts meet when biology factors into psychology and vice versa.

As a species improves biologically, for example, it may be more inclined to make new psychological conclusions. Similarly, the more mental tools a species develops, the more likely these may be to influence its biology.

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Principles of evolutionary psychology

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two of the most influential evolutionary psychologists, outlined six core tenants of evolutionary psychology in a 2005 paper.

Tenet 1

Your brain’s purpose is to analyze information from the environment like a computer would process information. The brain is a physical system, and its pathways to process information are fine-tuned through natural selection.

“Pathways” refers to the connections between brain cells, or neurons, that allow messages to travel from one region of the nervous system to another.

In other words, a pathway is a group of neurons working together to get something done, like moving your feet to walk or turning the page when you’re reading.

Neural pathways are essential to learning but also to repeating behaviors you’ve already learned.

When you do something you’ve never done before, you have no pathway for that specific behavior. As you engage in the behavior, neurons start to get together and pass the message. The pathway becomes stronger the more you repeat the behavior, and it becomes easier or more likely for you to do the behavior.

Tenet 2

Your behaviors are a response to the information your brain has gathered from both its internal and external environment.

This suggests that understanding your behavior means understanding how you process information, as well as understanding your thought pathways or patterns.

Tenet 3

The pathways your brain has created from gathering and processing information have been influenced over time by ancestral environments. These evolutionary thought processes have roots in two main goals: survival and reproduction.

Tenet 4

Some evolutionary behaviors may hold no benefit in current environments. But, since cognitive programming may come from your ancestors, it may still contribute to handling modern-day challenges.

Tenet 5

The brain has many evolutionary pathways, each one intended to solve a particular problem your ancestors faced.

The more diverse your pathways, the more challenges you’re able to overcome.

In other words, you may have pathways in your brain that have not been created by your behaviors but come from the behaviors and experiences of your ancestors.

Tenet 6

Each of your preprogrammed pathways allows your brain to categorize your individual experiences.

You’re able to compare, analyze, recognize patterns, and develop concepts based on the framework you’ve inherited.

An example

In an ancient community, empathy may have allowed for a greater understanding of others, contributing to stronger relationships and more cooperation to ensure everyone’s well-being.

As empathy continued to be a beneficial trait practiced by one generation and the next, it eventually made its way to you.

Now, when you’re faced with the choice of helping someone or turning away, your evolutionary inclination toward empathy may encourage you to put yourself in other people’s shoes and help.

Fear of predators

If you’re naturally wary of bears and wolves, it may be because your ancestors quickly learned the consequences of not avoiding these animals in the wild.

Partner selection preferences

Reproduction and survival are interlinked.

Back in the day, choosing a partner most likely meant picking someone who displayed specific behaviors and traits that protected and supported the survival of the community and offspring.

Evolutionary psychology would say that your current partner selections may be influenced by the choices that your ancestor clan tended to repeat more often.

Dislike of dishonesty

Why is dishonesty so distasteful? Maybe because trust was important in a primitive community where people had to rely on one another to survive.

If someone can’t trust you, they might be less likely to share with you or offer you social support.

Feeling anxious

Borden indicates that evolutionary psychology can account for certain negative emotions, like anxiety.

“Sometimes, certain experiences passed down from generations and growing up in a certain culture can more greatly influence these genetic dispositions,” she says. “This is why some individuals may have higher levels of anxiety.”

An example of this may be growing up in a culture that has a long history of unpredictability or facing greater dangers. You may find you’re naturally more anxious, wary, and reserved even though you may not have experienced anything personally. Anxiety may have become a protective trait to face unpredictability.

The goal of evolutionary psychology isn’t to explain mental health conditions. But, it can offer insight into why you might be more likely to develop certain challenges.

As Borden explains, evolutionary psychology may make you naturally inclined to certain traits, like being reserved or anxious. These inclinations may influence your behaviors and thoughts, which in turn could make you more likely to develop certain symptoms.

Dr. Michael J. McGrath, a licensed psychiatrist in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, says phobias are one of the best ways to explore the evolutionary perspective on mental health.

Many phobias can be traced back to survival-oriented fears, he says.

“It is thought that these phobias are influenced in part by evolution,” he explains. “For example, it is beneficial for humans to be afraid of spiders, as some are poisonous. With a phobia, however, the fear is quite extreme.

Another example he gives is achluophobia, the intense fear of darkness.

“It would make sense from an evolutionary perspective for humans to fear darkness, as we don’t see as well at night, and that makes us more vulnerable to predators,” says McGrath.

Evolutionary psychology is a theory that, at times, has been the source of critique and debate in the scientific community.

A 2010 paper from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin mentioned these primary concerns about the evolutionary perspective in psychology:

  • It may be difficult to test, prove, or even accurately know what ancient human habits were and how they translate to modern behaviors.
  • Evolutionary psychology contradicts domain-general rationality, which states that behaviors are the result of in-the-moment critical thinking.
  • Contrary to many modern theories, it implies that the mind is not a blank slate at birth that can be completely molded and shaped through personal experience.
  • Cultural phenomena, such as a transfer of beliefs or ideals through generations, are not well-explained in the original framework of evolutionary psychology and require more research.

Evolutionary psychology looks at how the behavioral habits of your ancestors may influence your behavior.

Just as the biological evolution theory suggests your physical and biological traits are a result of the challenges your ancestors faced, psychological evolution suggests cognitive traits that were key to survival were also passed down from generation to generation.

Some questions remain about the application of the evolutionary perspective in psychology.