Evolutionary psychology

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Evolution of learning.

Evolutionary psychology (EP) is an approach in the social and natural sciences that examines psychological structure from a modern evolutionary perspective. It seeks to identify which human psychological traits are evolved adaptations – that is, the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection in human evolution.


  • The huge human brain, approximately 1,350 cubic centimeters, is the most complex organic structure in the known world. Understanding the human mind/brain mechanisms in evolutionary perspective is the goal of the new scientific discipline called evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology focuses on four key questions: (1) Why is the mind designed the way it is—that is, what causal processes created, fashioned, or shaped the human mind into its current form? (2) How is the human mind designed—what are its mechanisms or component parts, and how are they organized? (3) What are the functions of the component parts and their organized structure—that is, what is the mind designed to do? (4) How does input from the current environment interact with the design of the human mind to produce observable behavior?
    • David Buss, Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (6th ed., 2019), Chap. 1: The Scientific Movements Leading to Evolutionary Psychology
  • An evolved psychological mechanism is a set of processes inside an organism with the following properties:
    1. An evolved psychological mechanism exists in the form that it does because it solved a specific problem of survival or reproduction recurrently over evolutionary history. [...]2. An evolved psychological mechanism is designed to take in only a narrow slice of information.[...] 3. The input of an evolved psychological mechanism tells an organism the particular adaptive problem it is facing. [...] 4. The input of an evolved psychological mechanism is transformed through decision rules or procedures into output. [...] 5. The output of an evolved psychological mechanism can be physiological activity, information to other psychological mechanisms, or manifest behavior. [...] 6. The output of an evolved psychological mechanism is directed toward the solution to a specific adaptive problem.
    An important point to keep in mind is that a mechanism that led to a successful solution in the evolutionary past may or may not lead to a successful solution now. [...] In summary, an evolved psychological mechanism is a set of procedures within the organism designed to take in a particular slice of information and transform that information via decision rules into output that historically has helped with the solution to an adaptive problem. Psychological mechanisms exist in current organisms because they led, on average, to successful solutions to specific adaptive problems for that organism’s ancestors.
    • David Buss, Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (6th ed., 2019), Chap. 2 : The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology
  • An evolutionary approach provides powerful lenses that correct for instinct blindness. It allows one to recognize what natural competences exist, it indicates that the mind is a heterogeneous collection of these competences and, most importantly, it provides positive theories of their designs. Einstein once commented that "It is the theory which decides what we can observe". An evolutionary focus is valuable for psychologists, who are studying a biological system of fantastic complexity, because it can make the intricate outlines of the mind's design stand out in sharp relief. Theories of adaptive problems can guide the search for the cognitive programs that solve them; knowing what cognitive programs exist can, in turn, guide the search for their neural basis.
    • Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer. (1997)
  • The conclusion this article reaches, based on the presented arguments, is that [Evolutionary Psychology] EP may be a contribution to psychological science at several different, important levels. First, EP allows psychologists to communicate between different areas of psychological interest, and with other branches of science relevant to psychology as a life science. Second, EP provides a well-researched, rigorously formulated theory for evaluating any other psychological theory. The theory may prevent one from suggesting abilities that could not evolve but have been suggested within almost all psychological disciplines. The versatility EP shows as a theoretical framework for disciplines as different as psychoanalysis and cognitive science, suggests that EP may succeed in integrating psychological science. It also supports the claim that EP is as theoretically valid a science as cognitive science and evolutionary biology. EP also brings to psychology the focus on a theoretically rigorous and predictive theory of Human Nature, and the functional approach, which may provide maturation from the level of mere descriptive science. At the level of generating new theories and insights about Human Nature, EP seems to have proven its worth.
    • Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair "Evolutionary Psychology: An Emerging Integrative Perspective Within The Science And Practice Of Psychology" (2002)
  • Some people think that evolutionary psychology claims to have discovered that human nature is selfish and wicked. But they are flattering the researchers and anyone who would claim to have discovered the opposite. No one needs a scientist to measure whether humans are prone to knavery. The question has been answered in the history books, the newspapers, the ethnographic record, and the letters to Ann Landers. But people treat it like an open question, as if someday science might discover that it's all a bad dream and we will wake up to find that it is human nature to love one another.”
  • Evolutionary psychology was the organizing framework—the source of “explanatory adequacy” or a “theory of the computation”—that the science of psychology had been missing. Like vision and language, our emotions and cognitive faculties are complex, useful, and nonrandomly organized, which means that they must be a product of the only physical process capable of generating complex, useful, nonrandom organization, namely, natural selection. An appeal to evolution was already implicit in the metatheoretical directives of Marr and Chomsky, with their appeal to the function of a mental faculty, and evolutionary psychology simply shows how to apply that logic to the rest of the mind.
    • Steven Pinker, "Foreword" in: Buss, David M., ed. The handbook of evolutionary psychology. John Wiley & Sons, 2005. p. xiv

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