The biology of struggle: Introducing evolutionary psychology

A journey of discovery

The joy I felt some years back as I began to deepen my research interests into evolutionary psychology was only marred by the weighty disappointment of not having discovered it earlier in life. Having studied disciplines with explanatory power, the principles and theoretical foundations of evolutionary psychology made logical sense. One of the students who, earlier this year, followed my short introductory course ‘The Biology of Struggle: Evolutionary Insights into Every Day Problems’ offered by the University of Malta’s Centre for Liberal Arts and Sciences, echoed my sentiments precisely when he said: “It all makes so much sense! It is like something is in front of you the whole time but behind a curtain and evolutionary psychology opens that curtain to reveal what was hidden from you in plain sight!”

Biology matters

Evolutionary psychology, or sociobiology, as it was originally known, is simply psychology that is informed by the knowledge that evolutionary biology has to offer. It means that when it comes to the study of the mind and behaviour, biology matters. As a science, evolutionary psychology applies these principles of evolution on the premise that the architecture of the mind has been shaped by the natural and sexual selection pressures that have pushed our species to change over time.

One of the central tenets in evolutionary psychology is that there exists a universal human nature at the level of the evolved psychological mechanisms (but not at the cultural level). An evolutionary view also implies that the organisation of the human mind is fitted to the Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, rather than to the current world, underlining the discrepancy between the ancestral and the modern environments.

Not without controversies

Although in 1989, Edward O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) was rated as the most important book on animal behaviour of all time, outcompeting even Darwin’s 1872 classic, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the short chapter addressing human behaviour sparked wild controversy. Academics were scandalised by what they perceived as two serious flaws: reductionism, the idea that human social behaviour could be reducible to biology; and genetic determinism, the belief that human nature is rooted in our genes. 

Setting the record straight

Which is why it is important to get rid of common misunderstandings surrounding evolutionary psychology. Contrary to the perception that evolutionary theory implies genetic determinism, i.e. that behaviour is controlled exclusively by genes, the foundations of evolutionary psychology rest on an integrational approach – with human behaviour being the result of both evolved adaptations, and the environmental triggers that activate these adaptations. Consider calluses. They cannot occur unless two factors are present: the evolved callus-producing adaptation, and the environmental influence of repeated friction to the skin.

Another popular misunderstanding is that if it’s evolutionary, we cannot change it. And yet humans have the remarkable ability to design change, and to create a physical environment that is relatively free from the environmental stressors that activate these response mechanisms, one small example being the inside of perfectly cushioned running shoes.

It is also not true that the mechanisms that we observe are optimally designed. One constraint is evolutionary time lags – the idea that existing humans have been designed for a previous environment, or what is referred to as modern humans carrying around Stone Age brains. Another is that adaptations are costly. We could, for example, reduce the risk of being killed in a car accident by imposing a 5-mph speed limit, but this solution is ridiculously costly. The same can be said of imposing indefinite lockdowns in a time of pandemic such as the current COVID19.

Success stories

As leading evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss puts it, the good news is that “All living humans are evolutionary success stories.” If any of our ancestors had failed along the way to survive, mate, reproduce, and solve problems, they would not have become ancestors. It also means that as their descendants, we have inherited the mechanisms of body and mind that have led to our ancestors’ success.

Insights. Strategies. Solutions

Based on an understanding of the human mind and the selective processes that designed it, evolutionary psychology offers unique insights into some frustrating barriers to achieving happiness and improving the quality of human life. With its organisation around adaptive problems and the psychological mechanisms that have evolved to programme us for fitness, it provides truthful explanations about the nature of everyday problems that impede our well-being and cause us distress – anxiety, overeating, gender inequality, parental investment, self-esteem, emotions, personality differences, consumerism, aggression, conflict, competition, and much more. 

With wisdom and with caution, we can use this understanding to gain control over some of the causes of suffering in our lives. Similar to how we would use insights from business science to plan strategies for risk management and development of opportunities, we can apply evolutionary psychology to find solutions to some of our problems, and to lead our lives in ways that are more beneficial in terms of happiness, success, and overall well-being. 

This article was first published on Times of Malta.

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