The Evolution of Psychology

Approaching the Nature of Human Nature

On this Site:

  • Some of the essential questions evolutionary psychology must ask

  • Darwin’s work and its importance for psychology

  • Reviews of recent books in the area of evolutionary psychology and psychotherapy

  • What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee (recent review)

  • When Biology and Culture Collide (recent review)

  • Related sites: and 


    Evolutionary theory offers psychologists the best opportunity to advance our discipline since Wilhelm Wundt first had the idea (in the 1870's) of cutting psychology loose from philosophy and physiology.  Accepting how essential evolutionary principles are to a plausible theory of human nature hasn't been easy nor without struggle; many psychologists continue to resist some of these ideas, or even the whole enterprise outright.  Nonetheless, the general outline of an evolutionary approach to psychology is steadily becoming more clear.

    One might arguably claim that the creation of an evolution-based human psychology began, ironically, with an incident of animalistic aggression - - an assault in 1978 on the gentle and otherwise highly regarded biologist, E.O. Wilson.  What infuriated the group of students and faculty that had gathered for his talk that day was simply that the professor had written a book, the just-reissued text Sociobiology (1975).  Although most no doubt had not even bothered to read the book, word had spread that Wilson believed human behavior and society had an instinctual component, much as other social creatures are motivated in part by innate drives and desires.  For holding such a belief, some students screamed insults at him or jeered.  One group of students rushed onto the stage and dumped a pitcher of ice water over Wilson.

    Why in the world would this idea be met with such mindless hostility?  Today it's commonplace to hear even non-scientists chatting about genes, inherited traits, the combination of nature and nurture, and so forth.  Why would students at a major university, presumably among the brightest kids in the country, be so outraged by the simple idea that human nature might have been shaped in part by our ancestors' success at surviving?

    There is no definitive answer available.  But it's worth noting that in the 1970s, university students across the U.S. were flexing newly-developed muscles.  For example, public ambivalence about the  war in Viet Nam paled in contrast to the outrage expressed on college campuses.  The zeitgeist at universities was shifting from academic stoicism to radical activism.  The post-modern, constructivist idea that truth is whatever we define it to be brought with it a desperate  desire for that "truth" to be good.  So when scientists discovered uncomfortable or problematic facts, or even engaged in research that risked the uncovering of what might be unpleasant facts, those scientists were branded.

    Fortunately, for the most part society has grown past such self-imposed limitations.  With the exception of a few rural areas in the U.S., evolutionary theory (or some "lite" version of it) is taught even at the elementary school level. (While a recent evaluation of teaching methods showed that the quality of instruction is weak or worse in most states, at least some effort is being made.)

    Evolutionary psychology is taught as a mainstream subject at many major universities in the U.S., including the University of California at Santa Barbara, home to theorists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, the University of Texas at Austin, where  David Buss teaches, to Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, and the University of Arizona at Tucson, and so on and on.

    Once controversial, evolutionary psychology has become respectable.


    The Research effort at the Department of Behavioral Health at San Bernardino, California, U.S.A.

    Outline of lecture for Clinical Staff, March 2001:  "What Evolutionary Psychology Has to Offer for the Treatment of the Seriously Mentally Ill"

    Last Updated 15 January 2005