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, in its commonsense version, 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 hold realistic and legitimate concerns about these ideas, or even the whole enterprise outright.  Nonetheless, a general approach to an “evolved adaptation” model in psychology is worth considering.

One might arguably say that the seeds of an evolution-based human psychology sprouted, ironically, with an incident of ritualistic aggression - - an assault in 1978 on the highly regarded biologist, E.O. Wilson.  What had outraged many among the group of students and faculty gathered for his talk that day was that Wilson had just-reissued the book Sociobiology (1975).  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.  Angered at this idea, a group of students rushed onto the stage to dump a pitcher of ice water over Wilson.

Why in the world would this seemingly innocuous idea be met with such outrage?  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 upset by the idea that human nature might have been shaped in part by our ancestors' success at surviving?

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.  Perhaps the post-modern idea that truth is whatever we define it to be brought with it a firm desire for that "truth" to be socially acceptable.  So when academics proposed discomforting theories about what some could misinterpret as instincts, or engaged in research that risked the uncovering of what might be unpleasant facts, those thinkers were shunned.

Fortunately, for the most part society has now gotten past such self-imposed limitations on ideas.  With few exceptions across the U.S., some version of evolutionary theory is included even at the elementary school level. (Unfortunately, alternative theories that might seem religious or non-material haven’t had the same acceptance.)

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 seen as too controversial for open discussion, evolutionary ideas such as evolved adaptations in psychology have become more common and openly discussed. It is to be hoped that alternative theories and perspectives will also be put on the table for civilized discussion.


Last Updated 15 January 2009