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PSYCHsources: Evolutionary Psychology

By May 5, 2021June 8th, 2021No Comments

PSYCHsources introduces a different topic from psychology every month. It offers a list of resources that are useful to anyone who wants to learn more about it. In this issue, we introduce evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach within psychology that aims to explain psychological phenomena in terms of how they helped survival and reproduction in the course of the evolution of our species. In other words, the workings of the mind are analysed in terms of their use for adaptation. The term evolutionary psychology started being used in the 1970s and has been popularized by evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides and anthropologist John Tooby. Evolutionary psychology rests upon cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology and has its roots in Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Evolutionary explanations distinguish between a proximal level: what the mechanism behind a behavior is, and an ultimate level: why the behavior happens (Scott-Phillips, Dickins, & West, 2011). The focus in evolutionary psychology is answering “why” questions on the ultimate level, for instance “Why do we eat sugar?” or “Why are we afraid of spiders?”. An interesting claim that evolutionary psychology makes is that maladaptive behavior can be the result of mental adaptations that were useful to humans in ancestral times, but are no longer relevant for them given the present environment. Evolutionary psychologists see the brain as a big collection of  computational machines that extract information from the environment to ensure the survival of the individual. They defend the massive modularity hypothesis, the idea that the mind is composed of many cognitive modules that have specific, evolutionarily shaped, functions.

Because evolutionary psychology is not a separate sub-domain of psychology, but a theoretical perspective, the topics it studies can be very diverse. Popular topics that evolutionary psychology addresses are: attractiveness, sex and sex differences, risk behavior, parental investment, hierarchies inside groups, altruism, cooperation and competition (Webster et al., 2009).  Critics of evolutionary psychology argue that evolutionary explanations of mental processes are hard to test and that this approach overemphasizes the genetic influence in behavior and mental processes (Burke, 2014). Another criticism regards the idea of fixed gender differences in how people act, shaped by evolutionary forces. A perspective that considers individuals capable of both male- and female-typical behaviors depending on the demands of the environment is gender-neutral evolutionary theory, proposed by Patricia Gowaty.

Photo by Niko Lewman

Gad Saad is an evolutionary psychologist at Concordia University. His research areas include economic decision making, risk perception, gift giving and consumption behavior. In this talk he argues people’s consumer behavior is influenced by survival instincts. He talks about biological explanations for cross-cultural differences in culinary customs and discusses evidence for sexual signaling through showing off material possessions.

David Buss is an evolutionary psychologist and researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who studies how humans select their partners and how sex differences play a role in this selection. In this talk, he presents six aspects in which men and women differ in their choice of a partner. One example he gives is the use of deception. He presents research findings about lying on dating websites: men more often lie about height, income and status, while women more often lie about weight, which can be interpreted from an evolutionary perspective.


Robert Kurzban is a former evolutionary psychology researcher and currently author of popular science books on evolutionary psychology topics. He has researched topics such as race, cooperation, speed dating and morality. In this podcast he shares his ideas about how the modularity hypothesis can explain why people are often inconsistent in their behavior. He uses the idea of “being strategically wrong” to argue that many human flaws might be actually advantageous. For example, he hypothesizes that the reason why sensible people engage in self-deception is that this is beneficial for reputation maintenance.

Geoffrey Miller is an evolutionary psychologist and researcher at the University of New Mexico. His research covers topics such as virtue signaling, mental fitness indicators, alternative mating patterns and sexual selection. In this podcast he explains signaling theory which looks at how individuals communicate in order to convey to others that they have certain traits, examples being conveying competence, creativity or morality. Other interesting topics that the discussion touches upon are the connection between political orientation and sexual strategies, and ethical polyamory.

Popular Science Books

Steve Stewart Williams is an evolutionary psychologist and researcher at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. He studies topics such as sex differences, kin selection theory and the nature-nurture debate. In this interview he presents some ideas from his book The Ape that Understood the Universe, a book that encourages its readers to look at human culture from the eyes of an alien. He explains how an evolutionary approach helps understanding ourselves better.



The following websites offer a variety of resources  for learning evolutionary psychology such as recent news, papers, evolutionary FAQ, and more. 


– Burke, D. (2014). Why isn’t everyone an evolutionary psychologist? Frontiers in Psychology, 5.
– Caporael, L. R. (2001). Evolutionary psychology: Toward a unifying theory and a hybrid science. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), 607-628.
– Scott-Phillips, T. C., Dickins, T. E., & West, S. A. (2011). Evolutionary theory and the ultimate–proximate distinction in the human behavioral sciences. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(1), 38-47.
– Webster, G. D., Jonason, P. K., & Schember, T. O. (2009). Hot topics and popular papers in evolutionary psychology: Analyses of title words and citation counts in Evolution and Human Behavior, 1979 – 2008. Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 147470490900700.
Magda Matetovici

Author Magda Matetovici

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