Evolutionary psychology


The most important conclusion of evolutionary psychology is that the human psyche comprises a number of invariables that can neither be eliminated nor ignored. On the other hand, we can control and, at best, even exploit these natural forces. The accelerating development of our culture constantly creates new tensions between inherited emotional attitudes, social norms and rational decision-making. We are doomed to live in this state of emotional maladjustment, a never-ceasing well of embarrassing conflict and painful creativity.

Genetic endowment

The basic premise is that natural selection has impressed universal patterns of behavior on our genome. Human emotions have been forged by evolution and are open to interpretation by analyzing how they might have improved fitness under ancient conditions. Strong internal competition has shaped our genetic heritage. Each individual is closest to him- or herself; family comes next and the tribal community claims the remaining reserves of altruism. Nothing is spared for the rest of humanity.

Our psychological makeup has over hundreds of thousands of years been molded to promote mutual solidarity. Any breach of loyalty causes the indefinite unease we call pangs of conscience. All latter-day ethical superstructures are dependent on this inborn propensity which unfortunately can be repressed, but which may also be refined in a variety of directions. Our culturally conditioned conscience is an invaluable resource, a measure of the available moral capital.

Particularly among young men, collaboration developed into comradeship that shows no mercy to defectors. We spontaneously abhor treachery as the blackest of crimes; in Dante’s inferno, Judas is placed in the deepest, ninth circle of hell, together with Cassius and Brutus, the betrayers of Caesar. Tattle-tale and squealer are still among the most offensive insults.

In times of war, the spirit of comradeship is vital, since the key to victory is troop morale. The Indo-European peoples featured an extensive network of militant brotherhoods, which may well have contributed to their rapid expansion between 3000 and 1000 BC. The street gangs of our cities are their modern successors.

Nature and nurture

Human nature has been seen variously as completely unchangeable or utterly malleable, depending on the ideological point of departure. The truth is that it evolves, slowly but faster than anticipated. According to C. Lumsden and E.O. Wilson (in Promethean Fire 1983) it takes about fifty generations to genetically stabilize a cultural breakthrough. New dog breeds with highly disparate behavior can be developed in about twenty generations. The fast evolutionary change can be explained by extra-genetic modifications of gene expression, which does not require mutations of the DNA. Such epigenetic divergences could partly account for the difficulties of primitive peoples to adapt to civilization.

Neurological research, in combination with psychological insights, will in due course shed light upon the interaction between body and soul. While waiting for that to happen, laboratory experiments with people in artificial game situations have made some progress in the mapping of human morality.

In Behavioral Game Theory (2002), Colin Camerer reviews the progress in this area. By confronting volunteers in game situations of the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ type, the moral positions of the participants can be identified. To produce a realistic setting the winnings are paid out in hard cash. The research shows unequivocally that people possess a portion of good will, depending on a number of controllable variables. The variation between individuals is considerable and linked to the psychological profile. For the first time, an objective measure of morality is within reach. Neural imaging is beginning to deliver similar insights from a different vantage point.

Comparison along the time line and between peoples is quite interesting. It has, for instance, been established that commercially active tribes in Africa have a more developed sense of fair play in comparison with wholly self-sufficient societies. Contrary to current opinion, the market seems to provide moral tuition. It is also comforting that spontaneous plus-sum players seem to be in the majority. Moreover, an inclination to punish foul play at one’s own expense is also prominent; our innate strong reciprocity can be empirically demonstrated.

Human behavior is the product of the interaction between genetic nature and self-made culture. Evolutionary psychology tries to unravel the influence of our inherited nature as it has been formed by millions of years of social experience. Group selection gave rise to new, innate rules of human interplay that allow efficient cooperation within the group. This inherited morality allows the members of a tribe to combine internal competition with trustful collaboration. Humans are well adapted to pass on the crucial cultural heritage to the next generation. However, great difficulties are encountered when the moral capital must be enhanced in order to allow for value-creating plus-sum play in large, heterogeneous populations.

Procreation and the family

Our strongest emotions and inhibitions have deep roots. Incest has been taboo in most cultures, the very few exceptions being royal personages with divine status. Incest has always been rare, but not because it was forbidden by law. It is a well-documented fact that humans have an innate aversion to sex with close relations. The same tendency is evident in many mammals that instinctively minimize the genetic burden of inbreeding – the so-called Westermarck effect. Also the clear difference between male and female sexuality has a logical explanation in terms of evolutionary psychology.

Both men and women are programmed to maximize the number of offspring. But a woman’s investment in pregnancy, as well as breastfeeding and infant care, is much greater. Even granted that a father is naturally disposed to care for his children, the man has an even greater interest in getting a free ride by planting his genes far and wide. A woman does not have a similar interest in the quantity of sexual encounters. Instead she puts a great value on quality and wants to pick and choose. Infidelity may be justified if the temporary partner is attractive enough. A nice husband who takes on responsibility for the children, and a lover with high status who sires them, can be bingo in the genetic lottery.

The infidelity of women is increasing in step with the sexual liberation. It may be promoted by a hypothetical process, rooted in evolutionary psychology. When a woman in a partner relationship has used prevention for a long time, she eventually gets the message that her mate is sterile. Her intellect explains the causal connection but her emotions transmit an age-old endocrine message – it is high time to look out for another male.

The isolated human is not only materially powerless but emotionally amputated as well. The family and the community are the womb of the psyche; the campfires of distant times still retain their age-old attraction: the family is and always has been a central element in the social fabric. The future of society is at stake if men won’t take responsibility for their offspring. Edward Westermarck (1862-1939) was the first scientist to show that the family institution was not a modern invention but a human universal with very deep roots.

Evolutionary psychology has of course many other strings to its bow. A propensity to conform – a herd instinct – is certainly part and parcel of our psychic set-up; there is even talk of genes for religion. Well-known phobias, such as an aversion to rats, snakes, spiders etc., probably go still further back to distant, pre-human ancestors. A major part of our psychopathology can, perhaps too easily, be explained in evolutionary terms. Surprisingly enough mild depression, widespread in our civilization, is open to interpretation in terms of evolutionary fitness.

Art as profound psychology

Great literature often relies on deep insights into evolutionary psychology. In Madame Bovary’s Ovaries, David and Nanelle Barash reveal the background to the intrigues of famous (and some less famous) works of literature in terms of evolutionary psychology. The classical Greek tragedies as well as Shakespeare and Chekhov abound in clashes of archetypal, psychological forces to great dramatic effect.

Great artists have always been several steps ahead of scientific inquiry in investigating the depths of the human mind. Dostoevsky for one is still unsurpassed in his unflattering depiction of man in a state of unfettered emancipation, “practicing the absence of God” in the words of C.S. Lewis.

In Notes from the Underground (1864) Dostoevsky renders the modern intellect pinned down by the needle of intellectual self-examination: “You boast of your consciousness, but you vacillate because, although your mind functions, your heart is clouded with depravity, and without a pure heart a real consciousness is impossible. And how importunate you are, how you force yourself on people, how you put on airs! Nothing but mendacity and more mendacity… But actually you are all right, it is really both vulgar and base. And basest of all is that I tried to justify myself to you just now. And baser yet is that I am making this remark. But anyway that’s enough, or we’ll never finish, one thing will be baser than the next.”

Unaware of Dostoevsky’s writing I pursued as a teenager the following, typically adolescent train of thought. I wanted to be good (why?), but such a conscious decision could only lead to conceited self-righteousness; and so I decided to penetrate my self-complacency, but this only caused more self-reproach for conceit at a higher level, and so on and on. When I felt good about myself, I became bad but when I felt bad it was a cause of feeling good. Inadequate self-transparency, what could be called psychological Gödelization, haunts us every time we try to trap our ego in a self-sufficient language game. Self-examination is a set of Chinese boxes with “Egoism” inscribed on each one; it is just a question of the depth of the delusion.