Evolutionary Psychology: What is it?

The Fundamental Misunderstanding

Evolutionary psychology has begun to be quite the topic in the media lately; feminists labeling evolutionary scholars as sexist, philosophers using evolutionary theory to explain political behavior, and social psychologists using evolution as meta-theory to explain their findings. It is almost needless to say, evolutionary theory has begun to spread its genes into the mainstream media.

However, what has happened inside the academic fields has not happened in the general public; that is, the demarcations between sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have been clearly made in the academic literature of evolution, but the lines remain blurred in other academic disciplines and the general public (Barkow et. al., 1996). Even more so, the distinction between an adaptation and adaptiveness is also frequently misunderstood, and I presume this latter misunderstanding is a primary source of misunderstanding of evolution more generally.

Frequently, people will conflate the views of sociobiology with evolutionary psychology, and misunderstand the level of analysis that evolutionary psychology operates on; they will say that certain behaviors are adaptive rather than saying certain functions reflect a physiological adaptation (Buss, 2016). These distinctions are subtle and need to be understood in order to see the differences between the two disciplines: namely, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.

As such, I will first outline the difference between an adaptation and adaptiveness, and then I will highlight the differences between evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.

Adaptive or Adaptation

The goal of evolution is survival; however, it is not survival in the most general sense. The term survival refers to the survival of the genes. Each organism evolves to ensure survival only of their genes, and so they evolve cellular structures to do so (Dawkins, 2016). Here, then, begins the difference between adaptiveness and adaptation.

Adaptiveness refers to how adaptive a particular thing is; for instance, how adaptive it is to elect a leader. The idea is that the consequence of the particular phenomena is adaptive if and only if it maximizes-fitness. By maximizing fitness, I refer to the propagation of a species genes. So, for example, if the election of a president results in more offspring nationwide, as opposed to electing no president, then the election of a leader would be argued to be adaptive; only because the consequence of electing a leader was an increase in offspring; therefore, the election of a leader maximizes-fitness.

Comparatively, when something is an adaptation, it refers to the idea that something evolved because its interaction with the environment leads to more offspring. That is, men evolved a specialized mechanism within the preoptic area of the pulvinar because that neural structure leads to more offspring within the human ecology. So, the idea of adaptation refers to physiological structures, though not all physiological structures, that lead to more offspring in a given environment. The reason why we exclude some physiological structures from the label of, “adaptation,” is because accidents; for instance, the chin is far from being an adaptation, even if it allowed for reproductive success in a certain environment; these are referred to as exaptations and are usually just labeled coincidental or insignificant (Pinker, 2016; Sapolsky, 2014).

Drawing (84)

The distinction between adaptiveness and adaptation is the core distinction between evolutionary psychology and sociobiology; that is, the central principle that guides evolutionary psychology is adaptation and the central principle for sociobiology is fitness-maximization (Barkow et. al., 1996; Wilson, 1978).

 How To Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a lot like reverse engineering and normal engineering. On the one hand, evolutionary psychology considers the types of problems that would have arisen in the past ecology of humans and then, from there, infers the type of neural structures necessary to solve such problems. And, on the other hand, evolutionary psychology considers the current neural structures within the brain and then, from there, infers what types of problems such mechanisms would solve (Buss, 2016; Barkow et. al., 1996). Thus, evolutionary psychology is the study of psychological mechanisms and whether such mechanisms are adaptations or not.

Consider some examples. In the past ecology of humans, mate selection was a problem; that is, who to mate with, when to mate, and etc. Mate with the wrong person and the offspring might not survive. A perfect example would be inbreeding; as we all know, inbreeding causes serious genetic mutations. So, from such a problem, an evolutionary psychologist would infer some form of perceptual mechanism that identifies a sibling and prompts disgust responses to ensure they do not mate with one another. Indeed, there is also evidence of such mechanisms already; for instance, (Haidt, 2001) had found that people find incest disgusting even when presented with a situation that would never allow for any moral justification to do so. In addition to that, children that are raised together mate less than children that are raised in separate villages or tribes (Pinker, 2016). These behaviors indicate a neural architecture that has innate tendencies to avoid inbreeding; and, by extension, therefore increases reproductive success. This is a good example of relying upon ecological problems to guide us to a discovery about neural structures.

Then there is the other approach: namely, the reliance upon current neural structures to explain current ecological behavior. A good example of this would be the Default Neural Network. The Default Neural Network is a series of neural structures that are wired together and perform cognitive functions related to social cognition. This structure has opioid receptors, for instance, and so can cause feelings of emotional pain when someone is socially rejected (Lieberman, 2015). From there, one can begin to understand some of the irrational social behaviors humans have; for example, we will conform to massively incorrect answers so long as the group does, we will go along with group goals instead of challenging group goals, and we will sit in dangerous situations without leaving until the group decides to (Hogg, 2018). The reason we behave so irrationality is because we will feel emotional pain if we go against the group; only because we have evolved psychological mechanisms that are designed to keep us in good standing with the group.

So, evolutionary psychology is similar to cognitive neuroscience insofar as it is the study of neural structures and their functions; but it also adds evolution as the meta-theory that explains why something is there, it provides a framework to understand the data and findings.

How To Sociobiology

Sociobiology and economists should be best friends because they both love maximization. With sociobiology, the goal is to look at the consequences of certain behaviors and measure whether they lead to more or less reproductive success (Wilson, 1978). Notice, there is no need to mention a physiological structure either, and that is a key difference between the two fields: namely, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. Sociobiologists argue that particular behaviors exist because they maximize fitness.

To consider some examples of sociobiology, let us think about Facebook. In the eyes of sociobiology, if Facebook leads to more reproductive success, then the use of Facebook is adaptive. Or, comparatively, if Facebook use lead to more social dominance, and social dominance leads to more reproductive success, then Facebook use is, again, adaptive. Even furthermore, consider the instance previously mentioned, wherein which children raised within close proximity mate less with one another than children raised far apart; a sociobiologist would call that behavior adaptive because it maximizes fitness, whereas the evolutionary psychologist would propose some neural structure to explain the behavior.

The important thing to notice is that the level of analysis for a sociobiologist is behavioral, and the evolutionary psychologist relies on the neural level. Sociobiology argues that human nature is determined by fitness-maximizing behaviors.

In Conclusion

There is a subtle but vital distinction between evolutionary psychology and sociobiology when it comes to their claims about evolution; that is, evolutionary psychology never claims to know whether a behaviour is fitness maximizing or not, they only claim that certain neural structures lead to reproductive success; comparatively, sociobiology does argue that behaviours are fitness maximizing, they argue that certain behaviours are adaptive. Again, this difference can be understood as those who argue for genes that select for adaptations that promote reproductive success, evolutionary psychologists, and those who argue that behaviors have degrees of adaptiveness and that adaptive behaviors determine reproductive success.

So when people begin to discuss evolution and behavior without denoting a physiological structure, feel free to put them in the sociobiology and adaptiveness camps. If they do discuss physiological structure, then put them in the evolutionary psychology and adaptationist camps.


Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1996). The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Buckner, R. L.; Andrews-Hanna, J. R.; Schacter, D. L. (2008). “The Brain’s Default Network: Anatomy, Function, and Relevance to Disease”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1124 (1): 1–38. doi:10.1196/annals.1440.011PMID 18400922.

Buss, D. M. (2016). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind.

Dawkins, R. (2016). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haidt, J. (January 01, 2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 4, 814-834.

Hogg, M. A., & Vaughan, G. M. (2018). Social psychology.

Lieberman, M. D. (2015). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Oxford (GB: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, S. (2016). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin Books.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2014). The trouble with testosterone: And other essays on the biology of the human predicament. New York: Scribner.

Wilson, E. O. (January 01, 1978). Sociobiology, the new synthesis.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

7 thoughts on “Evolutionary Psychology: What is it?

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