Can evolutionary theory be applied to human behavior?

Cultural vs. biological evolution

Biology and Psychology

Psychoneural monism – Mind and body are not separate entities

John Broadus Watson

  • Symbolized the Behaviourist approach
  • Psychology should ditch its concern with unobservable entities such as minds and feelings
  • Both animal and human psychology should abandon any reference to
  • Stressed the importance of environmental conditioning
  • Anti-evolutionary, and anti-hereditarian
  • Most famous for his extreme statements of “environmentalism”

William James, “Principles of Psychology”, 1890

  • Looked to animals for the instinctive roots of human behavior and
  • Morality was a product of heredity
  • Ascribed many instincts to humans
  • Instincts could be modified by experience

Francis Galton and the Eugenics Movement 

  • Associated the ideas of heredity and instinct with dangerous political thought
  • Care for the sick and needy led to the procreation of the “less fit”
  • Could lead to the deterioration of the “national character”
  • State should intervene to modify human mating choices
  • Those with heritable disorders or the “constitutionally feeble”, should be
    discouraged from breeding
  • Coined the term eugenics – meaning “well born”
  • Led to compulsory sterilizations and restriction of immigration in the U.S.
  • Eugenics used as a basic principle during the Nazi era

Franz Boas and the Triumph of Culture

  • Culture became enshrined as the central concept in explaining the social behavior of humans, which helped turn the tide away from racist ideas in anthropology.
  • He was also a Lamarckian

Edward O. Wilson: “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis”, 1975

Evolutionary Psychology

  • Environment of Evolutionary adaptedness (EEA).
  • Module-based capabilities in the brain

How does Darwinian paradigm now stand?

  • Nearly all sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists now assert the psychic unity of mankind- not out of political correctness, but simply because the biological evidence points in that direction.
  • Racial and between-group differences in behavior are largely attributable to the influence of culture (interaction of shared genes and cultural environment)
  • Asserts the existence of human universals. Some cultures may amplify or suppress different universals. These universals represent evolutionary adaptations (this doesn’t mean there are specific genes for specific social acts)

Evolutionary Psychology VS. Human Behavioral Ecology/Sociobiology (Darwinian Anthropology)


What is the Modular Brain Concept?

  •  Different components of the brain deal with different specific functions
  • Vision, hearing, talking

Evolutionary and Psychology Model

  • The mechanisms of the mind evolved over millions of years to meet persistent adaptive problems in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA). Mechanisms sculpted during the past will not necessarily appear adaptive today (stone age minds in modern skulls).
  • Brains solve adaptive problems through the construction of a set of discrete and functionally specialized problem-solving modules known as domain-specific mental modules. The analogy of The “Swiss Army Knife” model of the mind.
  • Human beings have an essential universal structure that is both physical and mental. (limited genetic variability)

Problems with the Evolutionary Psychology approach

  • The nature of the EEA: Was there a single environment that shaped the human brain and what were it’s features?
  • Domain specificity: Must problem-solving modules be domain specific? Might there not be room for cognitive processes that can be brought to bear on a range of adaptive problems? Might not domain-general processes also have some evolutionary plausibility?
  • Correspondence with neurophysiological structures: What is the relationship between domain-specific modules and brain structure? Not simple mapping.
  • All behavior driven by mental/cognitive processes?: Might not a physiological system suffice? An organ like the heart solves a lot of problems (pumping rates, pressure, etc.) without using cognition.
  • Genetic variation: EP’s assume the world is composed of humans with an essentially similar genetic make-up in which differences are not a significant part of the adaptationist paradigm.