evolution psychology guide for beginners

What is Evolutionary Psychology – A Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide!


If you have ever wondered if your natural way of doing things and behavior comes from your ancestors, evolutionary psychology is perhaps the best branch of psychology to turn to for answers. It zooms in on inherited mental traits and habits.

In this thorough beginner’s guide to evolutionary psychology, we will look at what evolutionary psychology entails, where it came from, how it works, its benefits, applications, and frequently asked questions on it.

What is Evolutionary Psychology

The common definition for evolutionary psychology is the scientific approach to thought, behavior, and feelings from an evolutionary standpoint.

Through evolutionary psychology, we get to have an idea of how evolution influences human behavior.

This branch of psychology explores how current human behavior is linked to the psychological and physical inclinations that human ancestors adopted to navigate through their environments and breed.

Evolutionary psychology’s definition is often simplified to mean an approach that helps us understand human behavior through evolutionary concepts.

It combines evolutionary biology and psychology and discusses human thoughts, responses, and emotions using the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin.

Psychological and mental attributes like language, memory, and perception are explained in this field as the result of natural selection.

Natural selection is the process through which organisms adapt to their environment for them to reproduce and survive.

History of Evolutionary Psychology

The origin of evolutionary psychology can be traced back to the 1800s. During this period, Charles Darwin, who is often referred to as the father of evolutionary psychology, noted some observations which have shaped the development of this field over the years.

He made observations on the physical differences in animals when he visited the Galápagos Islands.

In the early 1870s, he expressed his belief that human emotions may have evolved just as much as physical features in order to adapt to the environment and communicate.

His books, “The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals” and “On The Origin of Species” explain his perspectives, theories, and findings at great length.

About two decades later, the name “Evolutionary psychology“ was mentioned in a book called “The Principles of Psychology” written by William James. In this classical book, he mentioned that human behavior is a result of inherited inclinations that respond to various stimulations in dynamic ways.

An example James provided was a sneeze as a response to deal with the irritations in the nose.

William McDougall followed in the same footsteps as James. In 1908, he expressed his support for instinct-based behavior in his book, “An Introduction to Social Psychology”.

He insisted that instincts were like programs that were operated by different stimulations which caused different emotions that promoted certain behaviors.

Around 1920, the instinct-based approach was replaced by behaviorism, with John B. Watson among the biggest advocates for the latter.

He argued that the mind is initially in a state of blankness. The experiences that follow after someone is born are what determine their behavior.

Evolutionary psychology was made an official branch of psychology with the help of John Tooby, Donald Symons, and Leda Cosmides.

They joined hands to form the Center for Evolutionary Psychology and later on published the book, “The Adapted Mind” together with Jerome Barkow in 1992.

Many texts and representations have sprung after the book in support of the cause. However, this ideology has attracted critics over the years who challenge various notions and research brought forward by evolutionary psychologists.

How Evolutionary Psychology Works

The theory of evolutionary psychology works with concepts from various fields including cognitive psychology, social psychology, ethology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology.

However, the very foundation of evolutionary psychology is the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin.

An animal’s behaviors and physical features are formed by the regular problems the animal faces in their environment.

Gradually, the physical features and behaviors change to adapt to the needs and demands of the environment for the animal to survive, develop and give birth.

Now, the behaviors and psychological abilities possessed by our ancestors were passed on to their children and onward like that, all the way to us in the current generation.

The abilities to infer people’s intentions, having a language to use for communication, socializing, and creating relationships and bonds with other people are things that help us survive. And they are believed to be instinctive and inherited.

Although often interrupted by other factors like an individual’s personality, culture, immediate family, and others, the very foundation of the traits is believed to have been caused by evolution.

Examples of behaviors based on evolutionary psychology

Fears are traits believed to have been passed down through generations. When you think about most people’s instinctive reactions when they see a snake, it is almost always the same.

You either look for a way to run away from it or disarm it. This response, according to evolutionary psychology, comes from the adaptations our ancestors had to make to survive snake attacks.

Since snakes are quiet, smooth, and vicious. Our ancestors had to formulate a way to be watchful and protect themselves from the dangers the slithering creatures pose.

Also, eating high-calorie foods can be explained by the scarcity of food during our ancestors’ era. They’d go without food for days so they preferred high-calorie foods that would keep them energetic throughout the day and for several days too without needing to eat.

The same concept has stuck with us even in the abundance of food which is why people struggle with dropping carbs for healthier foods.

Benefits of Evolutionary Psychology

Some of the things evolutionary psychology helps us understand and improve upon include:

– Social and romantic relationships

– Health and foods

– Natural changes and adaptions to the environment

– Emotions and their cause and effect

– Roots of human behavior

Applications of Evolutionary Psychology

Some of the areas evolutionary psychology can be applied in the real world are law, consumer studies, health, relationships, and English literature.

For instance, in consumer studies, evolutionary psychology can make use of adaptive thinking which can pave the way to understanding consumer behavior.

The understanding can be used to create effective marketing approaches and designs that better appeal to consumers. Also, it can help manufacturers create products that fit the needs of the consumers.

Evolutionary psychology can also provide more insight into learning, consciousness, motivation, and human response to varying forms of stimulation.

It can help us better comprehend how the human mind and body work at the instinctual level and how we can optimize that to have better physical, emotional and mental performance.

Furthermore, while evolutionary medicine provides new perspectives on health issues and health in general, evolutionary psychologists can help explain human behavior and modern health issues more comprehensively (1).

It can help us understand mental health issues like phobias and how to deal with them.

Another area where evolutionary psychology fits in is human interactions. How we interact with our family members and friends, how we relate with strangers, and how many people who share ideas come together to form cultural beliefs can be explained through evolutionary psychology.

It can help us see how language and emotions influence various behavioral patterns and how we can direct our efforts to optimize the knowledge towards benefit.

In the long run, the knowledge and discovery that can be made from this area can help us strengthen our relations at the family, cultural, national, and international levels.

Finally, evolutionary psychology can help us get a good grasp of how romantic relationships work.

Although it has already been revealed that women tend to be more cautious when choosing a mate, more research can help us identify better ways to seek better-suited partners for ourselves.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS) on Evolutionary Psychology

Question: What are some of evolutionary psychology’s principles?

Answer: Here are 6 theoretical principles/tenets in evolutionary psychology:

– Natural selection makes sure the brain is made up of numerous advanced programs as opposed to a domain-general design.

– The brain is simply a computer formed by natural selection to draw out information from the environment.

– Independent human behavior originated from the evolved computer to respond to the information taken from the environment. To understand behavior, articulation of cognitive programs that give rise to behavior is needed.

– The human brain’s cognitive programs are adaptations to the environment. They are there because they brought out behaviors in our ancestors that helped them with survival and reproduction.

– The human brain’s cognitive programs may not be actively adaptive at the moment as they were active during our ancestors’ era.

– Narrating about the evolved computational design of the human brain provides a better understanding of social and cultural events.

Question: What is the concept of evolutionary mismatch?

Answer: This is a situation where we get into environments that contradict the conditioning we got from our ancestors. A good example of an evolutionary mismatch is the situation where we often prefer foods rich in carbs because that is what our ancestors adapted for survival in the face of food shortage. However, since the carbs are in plenty now, we still have a hard time letting them go and opting for highly nutritious foods.

Question: What is kin selection in evolutionary psychology?

Answer: This is a theory that explains why we are often inclined towards helping people we are related to by blood compared to strangers. It is an instinctive behavior to ensure people we share the same genes with surviving, now and in future generations.

Question: What is the moralistic fallacy in evolutionary psychology?

Answer: This is the flawed belief that the world works as we wish. If we don’t want something to be true despite the findings presented, then it is not true (just as we wish). And if we want something to be true, then it is. Contrary to this belief, the findings made about a certain aspect of the world remain constant whether we would like it to be true or not.

Question: What is the naturalistic fallacy in evolutionary psychology?

Answer: This is another incorrect belief that the things which occur naturally are good and accepted. For instance, violence can be described as natural but it is not morally good or accepted. There is a common perception that, because evolutionary psychologists discuss reasons why naturally occurring things have a cause, they are promoting these natural things regardless of their nature, which is not really the case.

Question: What is the difference between evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology?

Answer: Evolutionary Psychology studies natural selection and how it is linked to inherited cognitive traits while evolutionary biology looks at how the traits are inherited.

Question: Which are the best evolutionary psychology podcasts to listen to?

Answer: The best podcasts on evolutionary psychology are:

– The ape that understood the universe by Steve Stewart Williams

– Evolutionary psychology by Melvyn Bragg

– A neuroscientist explains: the evolutionary origins of social behavior by Robin Dunbar

– Evolutionary parenting by Tracy Cassels

Question: What do critics of evolutionary psychology say about its limitations?

Answer: Some of the limitations pointed out by evolutionary psychology’s critics include a lack of proper explanation of how beliefs are passed on to other generations, the disagreement of the common notion of a mental blankness state, inability to verify our ancestors’ habits and how they were passed on to modern generations, and its contradiction to critical thinking-based behavior.

Question: Which are some useful books to learn evolutionary psychology?

Answer: Some good books to read about evolutionary psychology include:

1. “Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind” by David Buss

2. “The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition” by Richard Dawkins

3. “Evolutionary Psychology: An Introduction” by Will Reader and Lance Workman

4. “The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease” by Daniel Lieberman

5. “The Adapted Mind” by Leda Cosmides, Jerome H. Barkow, and John Tooby

Question: What are some crucial theories and concepts in evolutionary psychology?

Answer: Some essential evolutionary psychology theories and concepts include gene-culture co-evolution, niche construction, reciprocity, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, multilevel selection, and costly signaling to name a few (2).


2 thoughts on “What is Evolutionary Psychology – A Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide!

  1. pasindu dimanka says:

    Thank you very much for this valuable and detailed Evolutionary psychology post. I really didn’t know much about this. But your post has shown all that very clearly. And I was very happy when I read this and I was surprised when you was told that these things can be traced back to 1800. I will definitely share this. Keep posting valuable posts like this.

    1. Improve Your Brain Power Team says:

      Hi there Pasindu, 

      Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your thoughts.

      We appreciate your contribution and sharing this post. 🙂

      And yes, the history of most psychology branches goes far back.

      It seems like our good’ol ancestors were quite curious beings. 🙂

      All the best.


      The IYBP Team

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