Evolutionary Psychology Definition: Humans, Behavior, And Evolving Norms

By: Corrina Horne

Updated February 10, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

"The theory of evolution" is a phrase few are unfamiliar with. Evolution has permeated every facet of our lives, ranging from functioning as the basis for many scientific discoveries to its use as a determining factor in how animals think and behave. Although many people think of beakers and white lab coats when the term "evolution" is used, there is far more that goes into the study of evolution and its processes, including the behavior and thought patterns of evolved (and evolving) beings-and, in particular, humans.

Evolutionary psychology seeks to understand the problems and solutions faced by early humans, and how these problems and solutions influenced and continue to influence human thought patterns, behaviors, and conventions. Why do people dress a certain way, eat a certain way, or live in large groups? Why do humans keep animals as pets, the trend toward male-dominant societies, cultivate food in small backyard gardens, or gather around screens to watch other human beings pretend to be something else? The answers to questions such as these form the basis of evolutionary psychology.

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The question "why" is going to be of powerful interest to an evolutionary psychologist. The "whys" of being a human stem from the patterns created by evolutionary impulses, at least according to EP theory. Humans live, eat, and move in certain ways that distinguish them from other land-dwelling mammals, and an evolutionary psychologist's primary job is to determine why this might be the case, taking human history, archaeological evidence, and evolutionary theories into account. Instead of focusing on a narrow scope of human behavior (i.e., why do depressive people do this?), this field of study takes on a broader question and list of possibilities.

Who Are Evolutionary Psychologists?

Evolutionary Psychologists are scientists dedicated to solving the question of human behavior. Although this can be said of all psychologists, this field of study seeks to answer this question using Darwinian principles and evolutionary theories. While psychologists in other fields might focus on how a brain has taken on certain characteristics due to immediate factors, such as childhood abuse or experienced trauma, an evolutionary psychologist will examine neurology and corresponding attributes according to deeply ingrained and inherent beliefs about the world and those in it.

Evolutionary psychologists often work alongside archaeologists and anthropologists to study the behavior, norms, and societies of primitive humans and those who came after to try to glean exactly how early humans lived, and whether the behavior of those humans can still be seen today. Working alongside others who study society and geology from a historical and scientific perspective allows evolutionary psychologists to find links between current cultures and past ones, and modern humans and early humans.

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Why Do Birds Sing? Evolutionary Psychology Examples:

Perhaps the most well-known instance of an evolutionary impulse is the "fight or flight" response. This reaction is known for its long-term effects; if kept in a state of "fight or flight" too long, the body begins to break down and experience serious side effects. This is particularly true of people who suffer from anxiety disorders. Anxiety places a lot of stress on the body, as it rests in a chronic state of "fight or flight," resulting in elevated cortisol levels and corresponding body breakdown.

Fight or flight is not the only evolutionary impulse, however; evolutionary impulses can also be seen in romantic behavior (i.e., wanting to find a mate or multiple mates) and even fears, such as a fear of venomous snakes, or poisonous plants. Scientists posit that these fears and impulses developed over time to more effectively keep human populations safe. Seeking out a mate, for instance, allows humans to continue to grow and survive. A consistent fear of snakes allows humans to avoid the possibility of encountering snake venom, also allowing the survival of humans.

Perhaps a more interesting facet of evolutionary psychology lies in the question of art and its purpose in human history. Evolutionary psychology is not limited to straight, hard facts regarding human beings and their history; EP also asks more esoteric questions, including why art is important to human beings, and what function it serves in the overall human psyche. Like many cultural norms and ingrained beliefs, art continues to play a prominent role in the human experience, and is, therefore, a source of study for evolutionary psychologists; after all, what is it about how humans have evolved that makes the existence of art an absolute in human history and development?

Some theories within EP contribute to what some psychologists see as an increased incidence of mental health decline in human populations. Although most evolutionary impulses develop over thousands-or even millions-of years, recent years have seen an accelerated rate of industrialization, leading to an accelerated rate of change in human lives and societies. This could explain the increasing incidence of mental disorders: humans are not able to evolve quickly enough to match the changes in their environment, leading to a mental and physical disconnect and corresponding break in mental acuity. While humans are incredibly adaptable beings, some scientists have posited that the progress required to keep up with the rate of change in human environments is not possible.

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One way evolutionary psychology differs from its counterparts is in its explanation for human behavior. This area of the study suggests that human behavior is universal, to some degree, rather than being nuanced based on local environmental or biological factors. The notion of universal concepts can be found in the general feeling of malaise regarding murder, or the deep discomfort experienced when others are in pain. These are not borne of societal conditioning, according to evolution, but to a widespread, deeply-ingrained pattern of behavior that evolved over countless years to allow humans to progress and survive.

Universalism is also used to explain persistent social norms across wide ranges of people, groups, and cultures. If humankind is derived from a single common ancestor and a certain way of living (typically identified as a hunter-gatherer state), then consistent norms despite wide cultural differences can be explained by powerful instincts honed by countless years of living a certain way and developing habits designed to keep humans strong, healthy, and fit for survival within the framework of their environmental position and needs.

Being close to family, for instance, was (until recently) considered the normal state of humans; large-distance travel is relatively new. The impulse to have family near-or to create a family dynamic with nearby friends-could be explained by long-held norms in early human development. Similarly, most people experience fear of the unknown. This could also be explained by the likelihood that early human populations recognized the potential danger inherent in moving toward or experiencing new places or things after numerous instances in which new things led to harm or death-i.e., eating a new species of plant resulted in poisoning or exploring a new terrain resulted in encountering a bog.

Evolutionary Psychology: Moving Forward

Evolutionary psychology theory is multifaceted and vast, but centers on a single, important principle: that evolving is the source of social conventions, behavioral patterns, and neurological developments. Although some basic tenets of evolutionary psychology are undergoing their evolution, the idea remains the same: evolution plays an important role in the overall development of the human mind, and the behaviors and experiences that humans embody and create. Like any other field which studies the human mind, evolutionary psychology is an ever-changing, ever-adapting study which seeks to understand the underlying causes of human behavior and dysfunction. Although its primary focus is not concerned with improving human relations and conditions, the importance of the field lies in its ability to understand better-and therefore equip-human beings.

Although, at its outset, evolutionary psychology believed human beings were fairly static in their development, subject entirely to their environment, growth in this field suggests humans play a far more advanced role in their evolution and progression, and are in large part responsible for creating the circumstances which lead to the most adaptation and progress. This is an important find, as it helps psychologists in all fields better comprehend how the human brain functions and self-corrects, and how an individual's environment can lead to humans' downfall, or increase humans' ability to adapt and improve.

Understanding the role environment plays in mental health is also important for personal development and treatment. If you feel your environment is affecting your mental health or contributing to the decline of your mental state, psychologists can use details of your environment and history to determine how best to treat you. This is true of in-office psychologists, and the psychology team at BetterHelp.com. A licensed practitioner will be more thoroughly equipped to develop an effective treatment plan with not only a thorough knowledge of human behavior and its evolution over time but also a thorough review of your evolution and changes.

Another part of this example is that the fight or flight response is a domain specific cognitive function. This is a term found in cognitive psychology. A domain specific function is one that has only one purpose. The fight or flight response evolved to have the purpose of protecting against physical danger. When that kind of danger was no longer an ever-present concern, the anxiety became dysfunctional most of the time.

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