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2 June  Evolutionary Psychology - Peter Bowden

 It is 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, so what better time to discuss the new discipline of Evolutionary Psychology?  Peter Bowden asks if it is really science or just speculative philosophy.

The “for” case of this talk draws more than a  dozen books, listed against this article on Philo Agora’s website. The “against” is from David Fuller, Professor of Philosophy at Northern Illinois University, and more significantly, Stephen Jay Gould;  but it will readily supplemented by your own scepticism[1].  In the process, the arguments draw spasmodically on Jane Austen, Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins. And Darwin himself, for he put forward some concepts on the evolution of morality. As a modern discipline, however, evolutionary psychology launched itself on the world with a book “Sociobiology" by Harvard entomologist EO Wilson in 1975.  

But first, we need to describe briefly how evolution works. The key is genetic inheritance. We inherit our genes from our parents. In the process, there can be slight mismatches or mutations, some negative, some positive, most immaterial, that bring change to the next generation Those that inherit a slight competitive advantage, “Natural selection” as Darwin termed the process, or “Survival of the fittest”, the phrase from Herbert Spencer, a sometime  ally of Darwin’s [2], enabled the human race to  evolve and prosper. Darwin knew nothing of genetic inheritance. Over millions of years those genetic mutations that enabled their inheritors to survive in the changing environments have brought about us – the human race.


It has been a long time - 3.6 million years or more - the age of the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania and the first signs that our ancestors walked upright. The near complete skeleton of a young female, nicknamed Lucy, from about the same period in prehistory, in Ethiopia, did walk upright. Other remnants go back much further, 6 million years in Chad, but whether they were proto humans is not universally agreed.


From them to now, we evolved language, consciousness, our minds, and what philosophers called intentionality – the ability to assign intention and effect. It also brought about a race of human beings that are competitive, contradictory, that are naturally moral despite being at war most of their existence. Human beings that are capable of immense cruelty, strongly influenced by the supernatural, creating religious beliefs almost since their first steps.   Plus a division into the sexes that at times appears that we have created two races. Modern man – Homo sapiens - emerged about 200, 000 years ago. We settled down into agricultural communities perhaps 10,000 years ago, a speck in time.   For most of our existence we lived as other animals, hunting our prey, gathering what we could from the forests. By then, we were what we are.


I shall present six behaviours:  Evil; Morality; Feminism; Sex (or should I call it man vs. woman); Hierarchy, and Free Will.  Plus an odd one – our eating habits.


The Bad Side – Evil, wickedness, selfishness


Jane Goodall at the age of 26, started working with the chimpanzees in the forests of Gombe on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, an observer of their ways of life. Now over 70, she is still working with them. In one of the many books on her remarkable life, she writes


“that it is pointless to deny that we humans harbour innate aggressive and violent tendencies” …   “…that the dark and evil side of human nature was deeply rooted in our ancient past” :[3]


Jane Goodall tells the story in early 1974, at Gombe, of long-term warfare where members of the Kasakela group systematically annihilated members of the Kahama splinter group. So the theories that argue that only humans have genocidal tendencies are wrong.

Goodall noted that these observations were at conflict with then current psychological beliefs -   beliefs that stated that it was our social upbringing and environment that caused people to be brutish [The SSSM - The Standard Social Science Model].  

Her observations caused a stir. Most psychologists then, including Gould, and many currently, believe that it is our environmental associations from our early years that cause human aggression. It is the old nature v’s nurture debate. The debate is rejoined at the level of well known authors - Steven Pinker with The Blank Slate and Stephen Jay Gould with Richard Lewontin in a series of publications. 


It does not need much to argue that we have a very evil side. Genocidal practices go back from the Holocaust for thousands of years: the subjugation of the Congo by Belgium (6 million killed), Turkish massacres in Armenia in 1917 (one million),  back to the Roman general Julius Severus in Palestine in AD 135 (half a million).  These are issues of true evil.  There are deeper issues, however, much less evil, but closer to home, to ourselves. The willing participation of German officialdom in the final solution is well documented. The refusals of most ordinary German citizens to help their Jewish neighbours vastly outweigh the few who did – and raise some very awkward questions about human nature.  This unwillingness to speak out against a wrong is reflected today in the treatment of whistleblowers - those who bring into the open acts against the public interest. They are, as some observe,”crucified”.


Richard Dawkins has argued that we are all selfish. That the genetic make-up that enabled our ancestors to win out in the survival stakes over hundreds of thousands of years is still with us. We are ambitious, competitive, striving to win out over others. Peter Singer reflects that same viewpoint “many people will act competitively in order to enhance their own status, gain a position of power, and/or advance their interests…” (1999).


Darwin himself noted it

 There is little doubt in my mind that the genetic drives that enabled the fittest to survive are the same drives that cause so much distress in the world.  

But we also have a good side.


The Evolution of Morality


There is widespread (although far from universal) agreement among the writers on evolution that morality is an evolved behaviour. The extent is uncertain, and to some degree, disputed. The basic cause is cooperation. The individuals who genetic makeup disposed them to cooperate with other members of the family would create a family that would survive more readily in competition with others. Extend this behaviour to the tribe, whose cooperative members, if in the majority, developed a tribe that would win out in competition with others. The theorists bring in game theory and concepts of reciprocal altruism at the level of the individual to generate a convincing argument that sociability, cooperation, mutual back scratching are evolved behaviours. A massive field of literature has been written on reciprocal altruism, -- “you scratch my back I will scratch yours”.[4]

Darwin, in the Descent of Man points out that we are social animals, developing feelings of sympathy, obedience to a leader, faithfulness to the group, defending and aiding other members (pp 85,103). All of which would support the group in its competition for food and even survival.


Where then do the theorists take exception to the statement that morality is an evolved behaviour? One issue is human rights. There is nothing in our human history that says we have any natural rights at all. Jeremy Bentham in fact described them as “nonsense on stilts”. Why in fact should we as humans possess any more rights than our animal companions?


Pure altruism is another aspect of behaviour where evolutionary origins are not universally supported. Altruism is where we act for the good of another, or others, without any expectation of reciprocity. Although Darwin quotes many examples, there are in fact not that many in the animal world - the bird or animal that sounds warning of a predator to the remainder of the group may be an example.


Richard Joyce notes that evolution has made us sociable, cooperative, capable of love, empathy and altruism. Such attributes are clearly evolutionary in origin, for possessors of those behaviours are likely to win more partners; and produce more offspring. But Joyce also asks whether these habits do become genetically embedded moral rules.

 Other authors on morality are more positive Neil Levy’s What makes us moral? makes his position clear in his title.  Similarly Matt Ridley  with The Origins of Virtue .  

To this observer there comes a somewhat contrary thought - that it is only logical that we all gain if cooperate with and help one another. So this evolved practice could also be cultural.  Or common sense. But cooperation is not the only ethical imperative. We can take the avoidance of pain. We all wish to avoid pain, or even mental suffering as Mill extends the term. But reluctance to inflict pain – or even mental distress - on others provides no evolutionary advantage. In fact, many times the opposite. If we act selfishly to our own advantage, we may benefit, but we inflict that harm, or pain on another we do not lose.


So why do we regard the inflicting of pain on others as taboo?  Especially if there is no evolutionary advantage? The reason must be selfishness. Or if you like, self-serving. If I create a society that minimises pain on others than I will be less likely to have pain inflicted on me.   Such thoughts must have come to the earliest members of our societies. Perhaps, over time, it was built into their genetic makeup. Or their religions. 

We are in short, two sided, by nature.


The Evolution of our Two Sides 

Many have noted the two sides of man. Robin Dunbar: “like all our ape cousins, we have our endearing side and we have a disreputable side (p. 104).   Even Darwin noted this ambiguity: “Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition and this leads to ambition, which passes to easily into selfishness” (Descent of Man p.563).  

Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s Bulldog, in the Romane’s lecture at Oxford in 1893 noted “let us understand, once and for all that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process (evolution) but in combating it.”


Many have agreed with him, including Robert Winston and Peter Singer.




There is little doubt that it is evolutionary in origin. Dunbar ascribes the development to intentionality, a factor in the growth of our evolutionary brain before we were even fully human.  Human minds can ascertain intentionality, non-human animals cannot.  An example: “Your response conveys to me that you believe that I am opposing what you intend to do because I am not fully committed to you.”


My dog howls when it thunders, Children are afraid of the dark. Early man was afraid of both, Plus lightning.   So he established gods, and at times made appalling sacrifices to propitiate them. The God of Thunder. Or the Sun God. Or the God of War: or the Goddess of Love;


We are all afraid of death. It is also the unknown. So we created a life after death. Anthropological evidence suggests that Neanderthal Man, 20,000 years ago, buried their dead with provisioning for a journey to the after life.


We all think it unfair when a bad person wins out over a good person. It is a natural by-product of the gene which encourages cooperation. So we created a life after death that rewards the good person, and punishes the bad.


Robin Dunbar who, according to The Guardian, is “one of the most respected evolutionary psychologists in Britain” goes much further, however. He points out that religious people suffer much less than the non-religious from physical and mental disease. And if the do, they recover more quickly (p.172). It should be noted that several studies have made these findings, although the results are not universally accepted. Dunbar concludes that religion’s “contribution to human psychological well being is probably sufficient to raise serious questions about whether the human race could do without it” (p 199).




They hate Darwin, with a passion. And justifiably so. The man was a chauvinist of the first order. Some quotes:

 “Man is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius” (p 557) “We may also infer…the average of mental power in man must be well above that of woman” (p.564) He also notes that “man… in the savage state,… keeps her in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal”  

But the feminists’ attacks are deeper than Darwin himself – they attack many aspects of mainstream evolutionary theory, such as the dominant role of man over the centuries; or the comparisons with the more brutal ape relationships; or that men are sexual profligates who want to spread their seed around. That women are faithful monogamists who want to keep a steady mate at home to help them raise the child. Feminists do not want that type of evolution.


I need to pass on one other statement of Darwin, which could raise a laugh, or the ire, of all women. For some unknown reason he notes the comment of the Greek poet Xenarchus , 7th, century BC, when he learned that it is  the male Cicadas who make the noise:  “Happy they are, for they have voiceless wives”




I will discuss four aspects of sexual relations. Our mating behaviour, rape, homosexuality and the peacock’s tail


Darwin spends over half his book on Sexual Selection.  It is the one factor that appears to counterbalance the survival of the fittest theory. The male struts but the female chooses. Hence the peacock’s tail, the nests of the male bower birds. The differences between the sexes raised by Darwin are repeated time after time in the books on evolutionary psychology. Men like to scatter their seed and women would prefer partners who are reliable & dependable who will support them and their children over the long term.  Nevertheless, the male whose genes say impregnate more women, will leave more descendents who will exhibit that same inheritance.


Women also prefer more well-to-do males, a factor I realised in my teens when I discovered that the fellow with the car had an infinitely greater choice than I had.[5] The psychologists also state that older men are preferred, due, they assume, to older men being better resourced. Why otherwise do we automatically believe that the bride should be younger than her husband?  Winston asserts that men of all cultures find younger women more attractive (p.122)  . But I do have to point out that Dennett, a philosopher, states that the ubiquity of a  “behaviour… in widely separated human cultures  goes no way at all to showing that there is a genetic predisposition for that…behavior (p.486)”. Dennett, however, the most loquacious of all writers is to me, is unsuccessful in arguing this point.


I also need to add that Neil Levy in his What makes us moral? disagrees that the preference for older men is adaptive – of evolutionary origin.


Rape is adaptive - a product of our history. All biologists agree on this issue. 


Homosexuals are the big question mark. And are creating a large area of research and theorising in the world of evolutionary psychologists. It makes no sense for homosexual preferences to be genetic, for if they were, homosexuality would die out, for they would provide no children carrying the gene.  One theory is that the practice is somewhat along the lines of the peacock’s tail - a mating behaviour, but somewhat genetically useless.  David Stamos gives a run down on the various theories.  E.O. Wlilson ‘s own theory is some form of kin selection.


I have one final question to ask in the section on sex. Why does the entire, or near entire animal world make love backwards. Whereas the human animal does it face-to-face? Is this evolutionary behaviour at work? And if so, how?




Stanley Milgram, in 1974, undertook a series of experiments in which people chosen at random, at the request of experimenters in white coats, repeatedly increased the electric shocks administered to “patients” (actors). The conclusion was that we, the human race, are obedient to people who we assume have authority over us. That research, for ethical reasons, has not been repeated.


Darwin’s comment that our obedience to a leader (noted above) had been given experimental empirical support. EO Wilson notes a related conclusion that we are easy to indoctrinate … “absurdly easy” was his description (p.286)


We notice it in times of national difficulty. We “rally behind the leader” The Bush and Howard administrations were not above raising the level of national unease through the war on terror, in order to bolster their support.  “Be alert, not alarmed” was the central theme of the $15 million campaign - Let's Look Out for Australia - which has been directly supervised by the Prime Minister, John Howard.” It replaced the earlier advertisements showing SAS troops storming houses (SMH Dec 28, 2002).


There is little that I could find in the evolutionary literature on our obedience to hierarchy. But I suspect it is genetic, a product of our evolutionary past, and if true, a serious finding. For in combination with the self centeredness of our behaviour, it can explain much of our willingness to go along with, even to carry out, reprehensible conduct .The Nuremburg Defence – I was ordered to act that way – may, in short, have genetic support.


Is it Science?  Or is it Speculation?


Nobody will argue that we are governed by our genes. Or by our evolved behaviours. There are many other causes behind the behaviours that I have described. There are also many sceptics. So the questions arises – are the theories true? Is evolutionary psychology real science? I argue that much of it is science –in the early stages of verifying theory - if the many races on this planet exhibit near enough the same behaviour, and if a sound argument can be developed that this behaviour - competitive or otherwise - results in greater numbers of offspring, then that behaviour is likely evolved.


Free Will and Determinism.  In Conclusion


The conclusions to be drawn from these theories have major impacts of our beliefs about ourselves and our social structures.


First, do we have free will? Are we lead by our genes down the path of selfishness and self concern? I have little doubt in my own mind that we are lead. That our principal concern in life is ourselves. But we are not driven. Not to the exclusion of an instinctive tendency towards cooperation and pro-social behaviour. There are two people in all of us. We choose.


Second is that we will always need laws and codes that tell us how we should behave, individually, in the organisations where we work; in the institutions that govern us. And we will always need to update and expand these codes as we try different methods to get around them. And we will always need sanctions to punish those who transgress our decisions on how we should behave.


Third is the impact these findings will have on the institutional structures and practices of our societies. Democracies, we are told, are government by the people for the people. Nevertheless, we have had ample evidence that whenever they can get away with it, politicians’ decisions are self serving. And we have further support in Australia for the statement that the actions of the bureaucrats that serve our government are also self-serving.  But if we do find a way to get genuine government by the people, then that will likely be no better.  See the informative article by Paul Sheehan in the SMH on June 1,2009 on the failure of citizens’ initiatives in California.

No salvation for the Governator: “Not even a global superstar with a strong mandate, good advisers and bipartisan support has been able to make the state properly governable. Despite its immense size and wealth, California exists in a permanent political crisis” .


Our Dietary Habits and Evolution (one last add on)

We may all be aware that our tendency to put on weight is due to our ancestors’ ability to survive in times of famine. We ate up big when food was plentiful, lived on nothing when it was scarce. But now food is always plentiful, and we always eat up big.  Dr. Annika Felton, a visiting fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the ANU, who spent a year in the rain forest examining the feeding habits of Peruvian spider monkeys, estimates that human susceptibility to obesity goes back 40 million years (SMH May 25, 2009). She may be right - that obesity is genetic. But we also have to admit that it is not predetermined. Obesity is also cultural. It varies with income levels, for instance. Many of us may be tempted, but most do not eat to excess. If strong willed enough, we diet. In short, we decide what we are, what we become. But I think we may have trouble in deciding how we should be better governed.



Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man. And Selection in Relation to Sex.1871/1874/2003, Gibson Square Books  [naturalist]

Richard Dawkins  The Selfish Gene Oxford University Press 1974 [zoolologist]

Daniel C Dennett Darwin’s Dangerous Idea . The Evolution and Meanings of Life , 1995  [philosopher]

Robin Dunbar, The Human Story . Faber and Faber ,2004 [anthropologist and evolutionary biologist]

Stephen Jay Gould “Biological Potential vs Biological Determinism” , S J Gould ( ed.) Ever since Darwin,. Reflections in Natural History , Norton  1976 [paleontologist, evolutionary biologist], 

Richard Joyce The Evolution of Morality MIT Press 2007 [philosopher]

Neil Levy What makes us moral. Crossing the boundaries of biology  One World Publications 2004 [philosopher]

Steven Pinker The Blank Slate. The Modern Denial of Human Nature  Penguin, 2002 [Psychologist]

Matt Ridley  The Origins of Virtue Penguin, 1994. [Science Writer]

Davis Stamos Evolution and the Big Questions  Blackwell 2008 [philosopher]

Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation. New Haven, 1999. pp. 60-63. [philosopher]

E O Wilson Sociobiology The Abridged Edition  Harvard University Press 1975 [Entomologist]

Robert Winston The Human Instinct How our primeval impulses shape our modern lives Bantam Books 2002. [Medical doctor, scientist, politician]


[1]  Fuller can be found in Scientific  American January 2009

[2]  Herbert Spencer Principles of Biology, 1864, 
[3] Jane Goodall with Phillip Berman, Reason for Hope. A Spiritual Journey. London, Thorsons, Imprint of Harper Collins, 1999. 
[4]    Prince Kropotkin in 1902 in his book "Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution" argued: "It is especially in the domain of ethics that the dominating importance of ... mutual aid appears in full " quoted in Henry Sidgwick, History of Ethics, Macmillian 5th edition. 1886/1902
[5] Austen's 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice opens with a famous sentence that may sound like a pure anticipation of Darwin's theory of sexual selection: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." 

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