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What Is Evolutionary Psychology?

by Dr. Dale Glaebach

(NOTE: This paper has been posted with permission from the author as a courtesy to readers and is not the work of this website's owner).

The most basic and universal of all questions asked by humankind is the following: "Who am I?" or, perhaps, rephrased more descriptively, "As I look around and see the broad field of experience, where do I fit within the scheme of things?" It is clear that, in order to gain understanding of self, one must look at his relation to all things outside himself ---the context of his existence. This is more simply demonstrated by analogy with the far simpler challenge of putting together a puzzle as a game for one's own amusement.

If one has a particular puzzle piece that happens to have a confusing conglomeration of colors and shapes; some red, some blue, etc.; it is very hard to see where it fits within the larger scheme of the puzzle. Likewise, it is hard for the puzzle that is man to figure out where he fits in the larger scheme of things. The solution in both cases is to, first, study and piece together the overall context. In the case of the puzzle piece, this means one must complete the rest of the puzzle. He then discovers, for example, that the red contained in his puzzle piece relates to the barn that happened to be part of the pastoral image of the larger puzzle; and that the blue part of his piece goes with the brook that was running alongside the barn. Suddenly the puzzle piece makes sense and the puzzle maker is cognizant of what it all means and how the piece naturally fits within the larger scheme of the puzzle.

In the case of humankind, at some subliminal level primal man realized that, if he can learn to make sense of everything outside himself, he just might be able to better understand where he fits within the whole and, thus, answer the primal question: "Who am I?". Man began to study his world deeply and precisely. He learned how to create primitive tools, how to control fire, how the wheel could drastically improve human efficiency, etc. Over time, the deep study and manipulation of the material world became the province of science. Natural Science has, since its inception, been primarily concerned with the full understanding of everything perceived by the human mind "on the outside". And it has done a wonderful job in giving us this deep understanding of everything we see and experience. As we might gaze around any room in our own home, it should be of no surprise that almost every object we see is a product of one of the breakthroughs of modern science. Indeed, natural science has even been able to get us to the moon.

Signified by the discovery of the scientific method by the 17th Century philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon, the birth of natural science has been seen by many as the most important event in human history. However, it must be remembered that the entire human journey that is modern science began with the primal question "Who am I?", and that, despite all the fruits flowing from scientific theory and research, this journey can only find its completion as it reflects back and offers some deep insight on this primary question. The preceding way of evaluating scientific progress is shared by one of the great "geniuses" who laid the foundation of quantum mechanics (as the deepest of all scientific theories now defining our reality). As stated by physicist Erwin Schrodinger:
I consider science an integrating part of our endeavor to answer the one great philosophical question which embraces all others... who are we? And more than that: I consider this not only one of the tasks, but the task of science, the only one that really counts [italics in original] (Schrodinger 1951, 51)
More pointedly, since the focus of natural science has always been on everything outside of us, it has been able to give us little guidance in our quest to achieve some measure of personal happiness. In a sense, this fact can be recognized as the great failure of natural science.

But this failure is soon to be rectified. Few of us now living would say we were present at the birth of a new natural science. The originating theories founding physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, etc. are all now a part of our distant past. Despite this fact, our conclusion turns out to be wrong. It should be profoundly significant to us all that we are now bearing witness to the birth of a new natural science. This would, seemingly, be enough for us to fathom at one sitting. But the truth is much more staggering. As will be explained shortly, we are now bearing witness to the birth of the science which is both the pinnacle and culmination of all natural science.

Although Evolutionary Psychology sounds as if it were just another branch of the tree of psychology, this is not the case. It actually declares itself as "the trunk" -- the new theoretical foundation for all of psychology. Ironically, when EP is finally recognized as furnishing the basis of all valid psychology, it will inevitably cease to exist. "In the future, the study of human psychology will be completely transformed by the Darwinian approach...it won't be called 'Evolutionary Psychology'. It will just be called 'psychology'." (Evans and Zarate 1999, 169). In a demonstration of the vast implications of the new science, it single-handedly obliterates the category of the "Human Sciences" as somehow standing separate and apart from the rest of natural science. For Evolutionary Psychology is the first "natural science of psychology", thus uniting psychology to the rest of the natural science chain. For a century at least we have recognized that human beings are animals and, more precisely, primates. Evolutionary Psychology just follows this insight to its powerful conclusion. As such, Evolutionary Psychology is appropriately placed within the natural science chain as a branch of primatology.

Although this recognition is perhaps somewhat unsettling at first, the deeper implication is a very positive one. Human beings can no longer conceive of themselves as existing in some privileged state above and beyond the rest of the natural environment. Evolutionary Psychology demands that we fully accept that humans are part of nature, and that, correspondingly, human science is a part of natural science. Furthermore, every human being must recognize his deep attachment to the rest of the natural environment and his deep responsibility for preserving the natural home of all plants and animals ---profoundly, because he is one of the animals!

But lest the placing of Evolutionary Psychology within the category of primatology might seem a "demotion" in status to all of humanity, it is highly elevating to recognize, as earlier stated, that Evolutionary Psychology is deemed both the pinnacle and culmination of all of natural science. The general recognition of the great importance of human psychology was noted years ago by the great Bertrand Russell. He concluded that, since psychology is the science that embraces the whole of human experience, it is clear that all subjects are therefore within its scope. Despite the importance of each scientific discipline, they can be viewed, in essence, as furnishing the foundation for psychology which, as the science of human thought and behavior, must be recognized as the most relevant to human beings and, correspondingly, the most likely to change our life experience for the better. Yet the conclusions of traditional normative psychology have always been somewhat less than satisfying. Unless psychology could finally "graduate" to the status of a pure natural science, its grand potential could never be realized. But now, upon the birth of Evolutionary Psychology, such has finally occurred.

With the birth of Evolutionary Psychology, our appreciation for the science will continue to grow to heights beyond our wildest imaginations. Analogous to the present "world-changing" event (but certainly less so in significance) was the historic transition from "alchemy" to "chemistry. Once a discipline becomes a natural science, it will continue to develop in its sophistication, but it will never be replaced. Thus, although chemistry replaced alchemy, nothing will ever replace chemistry. Likewise, the birth of natural science psychology has now occurred and no further transition will ever be necessary. Evolutionary Psychology is here to stay.

To diagram how Evolutionary Psychology is at the pinnacle of natural science, it is first required that we conceptualize natural science as forming a vast pyramid of knowledge. At the base of the pyramid is physics, the foundation of all of natural science. Perhaps the only science equally profound in its implications to that of Evolutionary Psychology, physics (and its base theory, quantum mechanics) reveals the deepest understanding of the nature and structure of our universe as being composed of matter and energy. As we move up to the level of chemistry, we recognize that its breadth is smaller due to its primary focus on matter, as opposed to energy. While chemistry includes both inorganic and organic matter, as we recognize that the study of the human condition is a pattern of life, the next level must be the science of biology, which is necessarily a smaller category than chemistry. We are, of course, not plants; thus, correspondingly, as we move up the pyramid, the next level we arrive at must be zoology. We're not insects or birds; we are, clearly, primates, and thus, that branch of zoology given the term primatology is the next level in our climb. Finally, as the study of that very special primate mind that creates the entire human experience, we discover Evolutionary Psychology in its rightful position at the very pinnacle of the pyramid of all natural science.

The new science of the human condition is firmly announced in the first published textbook carrying its name: Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of Mind by David Buss (1999). It has taken a very long time for natural science to begin to decipher the human mind, long recognized by all scientists as, "hands down", the most complex structure in the known universe. It makes sense that the natural science of the human mind would be the very last to fall into place. But now that it's here, the world will never be the same. For when natural science finally turns its powerful lens to examine the nature of the very mind that created it, it has clearly reached both its culmination and pinnacle and the mind that is its subject will have finally received its deepest possible level of analysis.

The analysis of the human mind provided by traditional psychology has been less than profound. This is due to the fact that, since its inception, traditional psychology has used a standard of measurement that is defective from the natural science perspective. The standard of normality fails two of the basic requirements of any scientific discipline. As the standard of normality varies from culture to culture, it fails the test of universality. As normality is continually reflective of the particular politics of the day, the standard also fails the test of being above all political bias. Feminist matriarch, Germaine Greer recognized the political and unscientific nature of a psychology based on social norms as a major barrier to feminist change: "…traditional psychological theory…is after all only another way of describing and rationalizing the status quo…" (Greer 1971, 61) It cannot ever hope to analyze or remedy the possible dysfunction of any culture as a whole. This was a significant problem recognized by the father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, in this important and prophetic conclusion to his great work, Civilisation and Its Discontents:
There is one question which I can hardly ignore ... would not the diagnosis be justified that many systems of civilisation, or epochs of it -- possibly even the whole of humanity -- have become neurotic under the pressure of civilising trends? I would not say that such an attempt to apply psychoanalysis to civilised society would be fanciful or doomed to fruitlessness. But it behooves us to be very careful...The diagnosis of collective neurosis, moreover, will be confronted by a special difficulty. In the neurosis of an individual we can use as a starting-point the contrast presented to us between the patient and his environment, which we assume to be "normal". No such background as this would be available for any society similarly affected; it would have to be supplied in some other way... In spite of all these difficulties, we may expect that one day someone will venture upon this research into the pathology of civilised communities (Freud 1930, 141-2).
Referring to Freud's words, "one day" is now, the "background" is the evolutionary concept of human nature, and that this standard should be used both in relation to cultures and individuals (the "normal" environment can, in fact, be "deviant" to human nature and, thus, cannot be "presumed" emotionally healthy).

Evolutionary Psychology elevates "the natural" over "the normal" as a universal, apolitical standard for both the psychological health of individuals and of the cultures in which they might happen to reside. In short, it is not to be expected that man "adjust" to the norms of culture; rather, it is insisted that he try to find some means of living a natural life within the modern zoo we have created for the human animal. Thus, the goal is very often to rebel and not to conform. In fact, Evolutionary Psychology can be fairly be described as a psychology of rebellion!

Evolutionary Psychology's recognition of the need for rebellion against the often destructive norms of modern society echoes the "functionalism" of the man generally recognized as the father of anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski (1881-1942). "Functionalism" was an early attempt, following evolutionary logic, to link culture with biology. An analysis of Malinowski's "functionalism" describes the place of culture in relation to man:
Man ... is not a mere cog in the machine of culture in which different gears are firmly fitted into one another. Man is the operator of the machine for whom it has an instrumental value in the satisfaction of his needs (Reddy 1983, 50)
In modern computer terminology, one might say that the goal of Evolutionary Psychology is to make culture more "user-friendly" to all of us. Culture must "adjust" to man rather than, as traditional normative psychology would urge, man "adjust" to his culture.

Let's now imagine, for a moment, that the "machine" of modern culture is represented by a large and complex ocean vessel. This metaphor should reveal to us a poignant and unsettling insight: humanity is a species "adrift". It has left behind its biological home and has ventured into realms of experience unfathomable to its predictive capabilities. In the practical sense, with the birth of Evolutionary Psychology the human race has, at long last, found its first reliable "rudder". A rudder constructed of the iron metal of natural science is sure to enable us to confidently steer the human ship in its precarious journey through the all-but-impenetrable mists of our future.

As a complete paradigm shift for the whole of psychology, Evolutionary Psychology demands a complete reworking of most, if not all, psychological premises. Clinical Evolutionary Psychology, as the "applied science" form, promises much individual relief from the emotional disturbances that have continuously plagued mankind, in accordance with the timeless adage, "The truth will set you free" (again, Evolutionary Psychology is hard scientific truth). In accordance with this new perspective, any psychology or psychological theory that is inconsistent with Evolutionary Psychology is, correspondingly, inconsistent with the foundational "trunk" of the new natural science "tree". It will be deemed wrong! We, at last, have some feasible way of measuring the "rightness" of what is truly in accord with the nature of the human animal.

Natural Science has consistently demonstrated to us a profoundly deep understanding of the natural world ---the context of human existence. Now, through Evolutionary Psychology, natural science is ready to place the last puzzle piece in its rightful place. It is, at last, ready to answer the quintessential question signifying the human condition as it approaches the ultimate "end" to its long journey and quest : Who am I?

To sum it all up: The fact of this capability for the deepest possible analysis of the nature of the human animal; the fact that Evolutionary Psychology, as the new "rudder" for the evolutionary "voyage" of our species, can help us redesign human society to be more optimally attuned to our deep nature; along with the fact that, based on the natural science chain, Evolutionary Psychology is both the pinnacle and culmination of natural science, all cause me to predict without reservation that inhabitants of some future time, some future millennium (if we can manage to avoid extinguishing ourselves) will fondly look back at the tumultuous period at the change of this current millennium and recognize that the birth of Evolutionary Psychology is the most important event in all of human history!


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