Evolutionary Psychology
A very basic introduction to the topic
This is a tough topic to teach!
The Darwin Awards
This maybe a bit much for some students. Use this
carefully, after all, a life was lost or someone may
have been injured.
The Darwin Awards 2010
To begin with, some
 What
 What
is evolution?
is evolutionary
What is evolution?
Biology’s definition - change in the gene pool of a population from
generation to generation by such processes as mutation, natural
selection and genetic drift
Evolution (also known as biological or organic evolution) - the
change over time in the proportion of individual organism differing
in one or more inherited traits. A trait is a particular characteristic
that is the result of gene-environment interactions.
Evolutionary Psychology- the study of the psychological
adaptations of humans to the changing physical and social
environment, especially of changes in brain structure, cognitive
mechanisms, and behavioral differences among individuals.
Peter Gray of Boston College notes
this misconception about
Students may believe that “lower
species” are on their way to becoming
humans or that evolution occurs in
order to meet future conditions or
higher moral purposes.
Reference: Myers, David Psychology Teacher’s
Guide, Ch. 3 p.7
Grays says, no!
His example is the evolution of beak thickness in
finches on the Galapagos Archipelago.
Over many years of drought, the birds evolved
thicker beaks that could crack harder seeds.
Then over years of heavy rains, the same species
evolved thinner beaks for eating softer seeds the
moisture produced.
What was fit for one situation was not fit in the
The species did not anticipate the
change in climate by developing
characteristics that would meet the
situation in advance.
Gray suggests that the evolutionary
perspective is useful in raising the
“why of behavior” question that is
central to the discipline of
Gray continues to explain
If one can answer the “why” then one
can understand the distinction
 proximal causation (immediate
inducers of behavior) and ultimate
causation (the evolutionary
advantage served by the behavior)
 Both explanations show how
different perspectives are
Gray also notes
That the evolutionary perspective
does not equal psychopathology.
Some behaviors have potential
evolutionary value
For example,
 “Why do young children resist
going to bed?
Are they just being spoiled
Well, perhaps not.
In some cultures, bedtime protest is
absent. Why?
See article, nytimes.com
“A Darwinian Look at a Wailing Baby”
P. 112
Some may answer, that the child
fears being alone in the dark
In hunting and gathering days, being
alone in the dark was a very real fear.
Children who protested, attracted
adult attention and were more likely
to survive.
In present day hunting and gathering
societies, putting a child to bed alone
is child abuse.
Thus, perhaps this
behavior is really
one that has evolved
for survival.
Reference: Gray, P. (1996) Incorporating evolutionary
theory in the teaching of psychology. Teaching of
Psychology 207-214.
Let’s try a few
Questions designed by Bernard Weiner to introduce a few basic
principles of evolutionary psychology.
Weiner, B. (1992) Human Motivation: Metaphors, theories and
research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications
Questions #1-2
1) You are on a boat
that overturns. It
contains your 5 year-old
and your 1-year old
children (of the same
sex). The boat sinks an
you can save only one.
Whom do you choose to
5 year old
1 year old
2) That same boat
contains your 40 year
old and 20 year old
children (both of the
same sex). Neither can
swim. As the boat sinks,
whom do you chose to
40 year old 20 year old
They Say
The 5 year old
The 20 year old
More likely to survive and
More likely to survive and
The Questions #3-4
3) Have you (or
would you) rather
marry someone
older or younger
than yourself ?
4) Of the following six, which
three are most important in the
selection of your mate?
Good financial prospects
Good looks
A caring and responsible
#3 The answer
depends on male vs. 
female response
Physical attractiveness
Ambition and industriousness
An exciting personality
And “they” said
MALES: Of the following six,
which three are most important
in the selection of your mate?
Good looks
FEMALES: Of the following
six, which three are most
important in the selection of
your mate?
Good financial prospects
A caring and responsible
Ambition and industriousness
Physical attractiveness
An exciting personality
To define evolutionary
branch of biology that studies
brains, how brains process
information and how the brain’s
information processing programs
generate behavior.
~as defined by K. Minter, Austin, TX
Why Students Love
Psychology. . . And
How To Teach It
David Buss, PhD
University of Texas, Austin
From his article in
Psychology Teacher
Fall 2010
Content is taken from the PTN article and other
sources quoting Dr. Buss.
Further references my be derived from Evolutionary
Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (Buss, 2011)
Dr. Buss states
has high
interest due to
Topics students are interested in
include mate-selection, conflict
between the sexes, aggression,
cooperation, parent-offspring
relationships and status
Evolutionary psychology
provides a compelling “metatheory.” (overarching idea to
understand all introductory
psychology topics)
Main tenets of
Evolutionary Psychology
The fundamental basis of evolutionary
psychology dates back to Darwin’s (1859)
theory of natural selection which has 3
basic components
 Variation (individual differences within a
 Inheritance (passed down reliably from
parents to child)
 Differential reproductive success (solves
problems of survival)
Evolutionary Psychology has historically
been applied to anatomy and physiology.
 Now
the ideas can be applied to
psychological, strategic and
behavioral adaptations which
help to solve the specific
problems of survival and
reproduction and many issues as
To quote Dr. Buss, the main tenets of
evolutionary psychology are
1) All manifest behavior is a
function of psychological
mechanisms, in conjunction
with environmental and internal
inputs to those mechanism.
2) All psychological mechanisms
owe their existence, at some basic
level of description, to
evolutionary processes
(scientifically, no other known
causal processes exist for creating
complex organic mechanisms)
3) Natural selection and sexual
selection (Darwin’s theories) are
the most important evolutionary
processes responsible for
creating psychological
Note: Natural selection- those
traits and characteristics that
help survival will remain; those
that do not help survival will die
out over time (be “selected” out)
More tenets
4) Evolved psychological
mechanisms can be described as
information processing devices
(input, decision rules or other
transformation procedures and
5) The output of psychological
adaptations can be physiological
activity, information that serves
as input to other psychological
mechanisms or manifest
6) Psychological adaptations are
housed in the brain.
7) Psychological adaptations are
functional, that is “designed” to
solve statistically recurrent
adaptive problems confronted by
our ancestors over deep
evolutionary time. (more on
deep time later)
Common misunderstandings about evolutionary
psychology (to name but 2)
#2 Human behavior is a product
of learning, not evolution.
This is a false dichotomy.
“Learning” and “evolutionary
psychology” are not competing
explanations, learning requires
evolved learning adaptations, at
least some of which are
specialized for solving distinct
adaptive problems.
#3 If human behavior is a
product of evolved psychological
adaptations, it means we cannot
change it.
This misunderstanding stems from
a failure to understand that
evolutionary psychology provides
a truly interactionist framework.
Humans show great flexibility
precisely because of the large
number of evolved psychological
adaptations they possess.
Teaching Tools for
The full set of 17 can be found on Dr. Buss’ website
A Few Specific Teaching
 1)
Convey to
students an
understanding of
“Deep Time.”
Use a spatial metaphor of a
football field.
Life first evolved at one end of
the field.
You would travel a full 99 yards
before apes evolved.
The genus Homo did not
emerge until the last foot of the
Truly modern humans, Homosapiens (Cro-Magnons) did not
colonize Europe until the last
tenth of an inch.
Teaching Tools
#5 Use Sexual Selection Theory
to explain the logic of the
evolutionary process.
The three components of
evolution by selection are
variation, inheritance and
differential reproductive success.
Variation (originally caused by
mutations) provides the raw
materials on which selection
Only variants that are inherited,
reliably transmitted from parents
to offspring, can be selected.
Differential reproductive success
because of heritable variants is
the “bottom line” of evolution
by selection. (This is the final
arbiter of which characteristics
Teaching Tools
# 7 Hammer home the critical
distinction between proximate
and ultimate causation.
Proximate causation deals with
the immediate causes that trigger
Ultimate causation deals with
the evolution of the mechanism
and its adaptive function.
Why does Sally develop calluses
on her hand? What caused her
calluses? (pc) Why did the callus
producing mechanism evolve?
Why did Johnny get jealous?
Was someone flirting with his
girlfriend? (pc) Why have
humans evolved the emotion of
jealousy? (uc)
Teaching Tools
 #10
Bring in an
animal example.
Example: Many insects,
mammalian and primate species
use something called “mate
 Sometimes
The male will maintain physical
proximity to the mates and
conceal them from other males
 Build a fence
 Move locations
 Emit scents that cover the
female scent
 Physically jostle other males
it is
easier to see
things in other
Teaching Tools
 Do
humans ever do anything like this?
Teaching Tools
Do humans ever do anything like this?
While each species is unique, humans may use the
ability to communicate through language or use
some variation in culture to “mate guard.”
Ex: Burkas, check-up phone calls, monitoring
email or text messages
Teaching Tools
#12 Use thought
Buss calls this the
To teach the understanding of
the logic of inclusive fitness
theory, ask students to consider:
“Imagine that you are a gene
residing within a body. Your
mission is to increase your
own replication success
(making copies of yourself)
relative to competing genes.
What would you do?”
What would you do?
 1)
 2)
 3)
What would you do?
 1)
Influence the body in which you
 2)
Ensure that the body in which
you reside reproduces.
 3)
Help other organisms that
contain copies of you –genetic
relatives- to survive and reproduce.
Another example
For mating, Buss asks all students to list all of the
qualities women want in a long-term mate.
List all of the qualities men want in a long-term mate
Compare lists.
Another example
For the topic of conflict, Buss asks all students to
make a list of all the things that men they know have
done to annoy, irritate, anger or upset women.
Make a list of what women do that has the same
effect of annoying, irritating, angering or upsetting
Could this be studied scientifically?
To quote Dr. Buss, “Evolutionary
psychology has the combination of a
powerful big-picture theoretical
perspective, real-life applicability and
topical intrigue that captures students’
This is one tough
topic to teach!

Evolutionary Psychology