Evolutionary Psychology

Another approach to psychology which promises much is Evolutionary Psychology. Evolutionary psychology explains human behavior and cognition using such theories of evolution as natural selection and adaptation.

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection may simply be thought of as the “survival of the fittest”. The idea behind natural selection is that organisms with better genes are more likely to survive and reproduce than those with weak genes; over successive generations, these genes are passed down in the form of heritable traits. Hence why we behave the way we do, at least according to this approach, is because the behavior is adaptive and gives us a better chance of passing down our genes to future generations. For example, some evolutionary psychologists believe that we are capable of language because being able to communicate provided our ancestors an adaptive advantage over the other animals, hence our language ability has persisted till today.

As with the behavioral approach, the evolutionary approach is somewhat counterintuitive. When I first came across Darwin’s theory of evolution, I found it hard to accept why our behavior would be governed by such deep-seated, innate drives. I didn’t deny the existence of an unconscious mind, but the fact that we are very much conscious of what we do was enough to convince myself about the limitations of natural selection. This is where proximal causation and ultimate causation comes in.

It is important to distinguish between the two: proximate causation explains that we do what we do not because of the ultimate goal of reproducing. Rather, we focus on our immediate drives, such as hunger and thirst. Ultimate causation, on the other hand, explains that our behavior, in the long run, is as such because it is adaptive and geared towards the ultimate goal of reproduction. An excerpt from Paul Bloom’s lecture should illustrate this better:

This is a point nicely made by William James. So, William James is asked, “Why do we eat?” And he writes,

Not one man in a billion when taking his dinner ever thinks of utility. He eats because the food tastes good and makes him want more. If you asked him why you should want to eat more of what tastes like that, instead of revering you as a philosopher, he will probably laugh at you for a fool.

And it’s really the common sense answer. “Why are you eating?” Nobody’s going to answer, “Because I must sustain my body so as to spread my genes in the future.” Rather, you eat because you’re hungry.


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