From gender to empathy: what can evolutionary psychology tell us?

Sunday 29 October, 16:0017:15, Garden RoomScience and ethics

Looking back at the history of humanity, we can learn much from the bones, artifacts, and structures left behind. Fossilised clues provide snapshots of the times, places and people that left them behind. When it comes to the human mind, however, few clues remain. Evolutionary psychology aims to fill that gap. Spawned from the ashes of sociobiology in the 1970s, evolutionary psychology seeks to identify the human psychological traits – ‘functional mechanisms’ – that were adaptive in our evolution, forming part of what many now refer to as ‘human nature’.

For example, one summary of the area suggests these functional mechanisms include ‘language acquisition modules, incest-avoidance mechanisms, cheater-detection mechanisms, intelligence and sex-specific mating preferences, foraging mechanisms, alliance-tracking mechanisms, and agent detection mechanisms’.

The idea that many mental processes and capabilities may have developed as a result of natural selection seems very plausible, to advocates of evolutionary psychology at least. But without anything grounded in physical evidence as such, are these theories of the evolution of our psyche anything more than predictions or ‘just-so’ stories? And more, can these predictions from the past offer a justification for aspects of our own nature that many deem abhorrent, like violence, racism and rape, to name a few? Don’t blame me, blame evolution?

All that said, evolutionary psychology is one of the fastest growing fields of psychology. Many claim that 2016 was the perfect proof-of-point for the effectiveness of tapping into the supposed evolution of psychology itself. In their view, the events of last year showed that modern civilisation has devolved from a secular and globalised worldview to one more akin to the supposedly closed-off and tribal outlooks of our predecessors, while the respective rises of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump come down to capturing this exact sentiment.

Evolutionary psychology is also blamed for our poor diet. According to many observers, we are attracted to high-fat and high-sugar foods because they were dense sources of calories as we evolved as nomads at a time when food was in variable supply. But as such foods are now ubiquitous, there is no need to feast to protect ourselves from times of famine. Our hard-wired appetites are considered inappropriate and unhealthy today.

But despite evolutionary psychology’s growth in popularity, the field of psychology has never been so polarised, with both sides of the EP argument throwing up politically and morally charged claims supposedly based on empirical evidence. Ultimately, does the field of evolutionary psychology hold any relevance today? Should we reject an evolutionary perspective simply because it throws up some uncomfortable conclusions? And is it really possible to explain modern psychology through evolution when culture and language appear to be changing at an unprecedented rate?