Welcome back to Contemporary Psychology, where we briefly, but hopefully comprehensively, describe a specific subfield of psychology. In this installment, we focus on evolutionary psychology, a subfield of psychology that is not really a subfield at all. Rather, evolutionary psychology is a theoretical perspective and a way of viewing and interpreting human behavior by focusing on its evolved function. Now, I am no expert in evolutionary psychology and probably shouldn’t try to lead this discussion. But, thankfully, I know a guy. So, let’s talk to him.
Glenn Geher is a professor in the Department of Psychology as well as the Founding Director of Evolutionary Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He has published several books related to evolutionary psychology and, more specifically, mating intelligence. Additionally, his research has been featured in numerous media outlets, including BBC World Radio, CBS Sunday Morning, the New York Times, and The Atlantic, among many others. I could say many more positive things about Glenn . . . but I have a limited word count for this column, and Glenn has a lot to talk about. So, in the interest of brevity here, let’s just say that Glenn knows his stuff. On to the interview:
EM: Welcome Glenn. Let’s start with an easy one. How would you describe or define evolutionary psychology?
GG: Simply, evolutionary psychology is the application of Darwinian principles to questions of mind and behavior. When an evolutionary psychologist looks at some behavioral pattern, for instance the tendency for people to overeat foods that are very high in sugar content, we think about this in terms of human evolution. So, in this particular case, we’d ask why humans might have evolved a preference for very sugary foods. We then might think about pre-agrarian conditions, which were dominant in human evolutionary history. Under ancestral, pre-agrarian conditions, most humans lived in nomadic groups in the African savanna, and famine conditions were common. As such, a preference for high-fat and high-sugar foods would have been evolutionarily beneficial. We now have these same evolved preferences. However, as we all know, these same preferences in a society like ours, where unhealthy processed foods permeate our world, are downright dangerous.
Anyway, this is how evolutionary psychologists think about human behavior. We start by asking if the behavior is common across people (universal), then utilize concepts related to Darwinian principles (such as the idea of evolutionary mismatch, or how modern conditions are mismatched from the conditions that humans evolved under), and then advance our research and thinking accordingly.
EM: I see. Now, although scholars have addressed topics related to evolutionary psychology for many years, interestingly, recognition of evolutionary psychology as a distinct theoretical perspective is a relatively recent development, right? What can you tell me about the history of evolutionary psychology?
GG: I like to tell my students that the first evolutionary psychologist was Charles Darwin himself. After all, he wrote extensively about the interface between evolution and behavior. Consider, for instance, his 1872 book The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. This entire book focuses on our evolved psychology!
In about 1990, this approach to behavior, as you point out, was kind of rebranded. Largely under the leadership of David Buss, who is now at the University of Texas, scholars started using the term evolutionary psychology and started creating specific research programs on all kinds of topics that take an evolutionary approach. This field has been in business ever since!
EM: Well then, what kinds of topics are we talking about here? What are some of the major questions that evolutionary psychologists are interested in?
GG: Great question. Perhaps the best-known area of inquiry in the field pertains to human behavioral sex differences in the mating domain. That is a fancy way of talking about how men and women behave differently from one another when it comes to sex and relationships. Lots of cool findings have been obtained in this area because evolutionary principles have proven to be powerful in shedding light on all facets of the mating domain.
Several other topics have been studied from this perspective as well. And this is an important point! Research on the topic of mating has been so big that many people seem to think that “mating research” is synonymous with “evolutionary psychology.” It’s not! Some of the other topics in the field of evolutionary psychology include the psychology of altruism (why do we help others?); the evolved nature of human religion; political orientation from an evolutionary perspective; biases in human cognition as a function of our evolved psychology; psychological abnormality from an evolutionary perspective; the ultimate origins of music, humor, and art, and much more! As you can see, this approach to behavior really does bear on all aspects of the human psychological experience.
EM: Very cool. So, where do evolutionary psychologists work? Are they in academia primarily?
GG: Yes, evolutionary psychologists largely work in academia as professors who do research and who teach. This said, evolutionary psychologists often have very strong technical backgrounds in areas such as statistics, research methods, and neurophysiology. As such, many people trained as evolutionary psychologists find themselves as researchers across a broad array of industries.
EM: Who are the major figures in the field? Is there anyone whose work you think is really pushing the field forward?
GG: There are many! For my money, David Buss is truly considered the leader of the field. His work has been groundbreaking and he is such a great communicator. He has been able to really get people to understand this perspective and get excited about it as well. Beyond David, I’d say that I am a big fan of Gordon Gallup of the University at Albany. Gordon started as a primatologist and has turned his scholarship toward issues of human behavior from an evolutionary perspective. With more than 300 publications across a storied career, Gordon has left his mark on the field in a big way. The field also has many rising stars, such as Catherine Salmon at the University of the Redlands who edits the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, and Dan Kruger at the University of Michigan who has published on a great variety of topics while shedding enormous insights into the evolutionary origins of sex differences in mortality and the evolved function of literature. Honestly, Ethan, there are a ton of great evolutionary psychologists out there, and I’m happy to say that I’ve become well connected with many of them over the years.
EM: What are some key readings in evolutionary psychology? If I want to learn more about this perspective, where should I look?
GG: Wait, are you asking me about my book Evolutionary Psychology 101? I thought you were! Honestly, this book is a brief introduction to the field, and I have gotten pretty consistent positive feedback about it. I also tend to write about the basics of evolutionary psychology regularly at my blog for Psychology Today, Darwin’s Subterranean World.
There are also some very solid advanced textbooks in the field, and I particularly recommend David Buss’ textbook, Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. His book The Evolution of Desire is another great introduction to the field, focusing on the psychology of mating behavior from an evolutionary perspective. I also suggest that anyone interested in this area pick up David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution for Everyone. Although this book extends beyond human behavior, it really is a great introduction to the basic ideas of evolution and how they apply to the human world. Finally, the real classic that everyone in our field has read several times is The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. If someone has not yet read that one, I suggest putting it at the top of the list. It’ll change the way you see the world and your place in it.
EM: Ah, yes! The Selfish Gene is definitely a classic! And, I love the shameless self-promotion! (Readers: kidding aside, Glenn’s book is very good) Well, I think we have to stop here, but do you have any last bits of information you want to impart on our readers?
GG: Sure! If there are any inquisitive Psi Chi students who are interested in communicating directly, my e-mail address is email@example.com. And, I often mentor students in our graduate program (masters in research psychology) from all around the country. I’d be glad to talk with potential graduate students about the field that I love so much: evolutionary psychology. You can find out more about my work at my website: www.glenngeher.com.
EM: Fantastic. Thanks Glenn!
Buss, D. M. (1994). The evolution of desire. New York: NY: Basic Books.
Buss, D. M. (2015). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind (5th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Geher, G. (2013). Evolutionary psychology 101. New York, NY; Springer.
Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.
Ethan A. McMahan, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Western Oregon University where he teaches courses in research methods, advanced research methods, and positive psychology. He is passionate about undergraduate education in psychology and has served Psi Chi members in several ways over the last few years, including as a faculty advisor, Psi Chi Western Region Steering Committee Member, Grants Chair, and most recently, as the Western Regional Vice-President of Psi Chi. His research interests focus on hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to well-being, folk conceptions of happiness, and the relationship between nature and human well-being. His recent work examines how exposure to immersive simulations of natural environments impact concurrent emotional state and, more broadly, how regular contact with natural environments may be one route by which individuals achieve optimal feeling and functioning. He has published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the Journal of Happiness Studies, Personality and Individual Differences, and Ecopsychology, among other publications. He completed his undergraduate training at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and holds a PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Wyoming.
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