What Purpose Does Evolutionary Psychology Serve?

Evolutionary psychology is often disliked by critics for two reasons. To begin with, because the human mind is so complicated, we're doomed to guesswork anytime we try to figure out what influences formed it. Second, because supposition is frequently used to maintain an unfair status quo, the whole area is suspect.

An ability to hold our instincts up to the light, rather than naïvely accepting their products in our consciousness as just the way things are, is the first step in discounting them when they lead to harmful ends.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Big concepts rock the boat all the time, but few have rocked it as hard as the concept of evolution through natural and sexual selection. The idea that humans evolved from non-human predecessors through the survival of certain mutations at the expense of others offends a plethora of deeply held beliefs. Natural selection offends religious convictions that our existence is divinely sanctioned, perplexes progressive beliefs that selfish rivalry is a contemporary aberration, and perplexes the popular yearning to discover meaning and morality in nature. It's no surprise that evolution has major public relations challenges, given these breaches.

When evolution is employed to understand the human mind in the subject of evolutionary psychology, it elicits the most vehement criticism. People have cringed at attempts to explain human mental qualities since Alfred Russel Wallace (co-discoverer of natural selection) initially stated that evolution could not do so. Noam Chomsky, a prominent linguist who notoriously disputes the idea that language arose through Darwinian evolution, has stated that evolutionary psychology is practically meaningless. The field is usually portrayed in the media as a right-wing strategy for upholding white patriarchy. Even some evolutionary biologists, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, have sneered at it as a waste of time.

Evolutionary psychology is often disliked by critics for two reasons. To begin with, because the human mind is so complicated, we're doomed to guesswork anytime we try to figure out what influences formed it. Second, because supposition is frequently used to maintain an unfair status quo, the whole area is suspect.

Never mind that a Darwinian perspective is the only way to explain intricate biological design, that most evolutionary psychologists are really rather liberal, or that a description of human nature is not a prescription for modern-day behavior. In writing off evolutionary psychology, critics may be wrong on any of these points. But in sullying the reputation of the field, they’re going beyond mere scientific or philosophical blunder. By spreading word that evolutionary psychology is racist, sexist, or fascist, they’re depriving society of a valuable perspective for improving much of life.

Evolutionary psychology is crucial insight for anybody wanting to understand themselves, others, or our role in the cosmos, despite the fact that it is rarely advertised as such. Much of human existence is painfully perplexing without a grasp of the selective pressures that molded our minds. Why, for example, are we so often afflicted by self-esteem issues? Why do we devote our life to pursuing prestige rather than serenity? Why do we spend so much time gossiping about celebrities? Why do people frequently place a higher value on exterior attractiveness than on interior qualities? And why do we steadfastly commit our support to political parties? We won't be able to properly address these problems unless we trigger evolution. Instead, we're prone to seeing others (and ourselves) as hopelessly shallow, insecure, and irritable.

However, adopting a Darwinian perspective allows us to make sense of much that was previously incomprehensible. Small tribes of uneducated, technologically disadvantaged, extremely gregarious primates who were particularly dexterous and inquisitive formed human brains on the African plains during the Pleistocene. The environment in which our minds developed was vastly different from the one we live in now.

Because there was little in the way of charity or assistance, social relationships were often the deciding factor between life and death. As a result, individuals who paid little attention to their social appearance were soon weeded out of the gene pool. Because tribes were tiny, gossip was an excellent method to keep up with important social developments. This was before the days of People Magazine and Us Weekly, when high-status members of one's tribe had a real impact on one's chances of survival and reproduction. Gossip abstention was a possibly dangerous mistake back then. Because medicine was primitive in our evolutionary Eden, health was valued even more than it is today. Facial symmetry and ideal body proportions (i.e. physical attractiveness) were important factors to consider while looking for sexual partners or long-term companions. If a person's attractiveness was harmed by an accident, sickness, or inappropriate development, they risked devoting resources to a spouse who would not reciprocate. Finally, unity was important since we lived and died by our tribe. Before the emergence of reliable peace treaties, free trade, and justice systems, it made sense to view foreigners with prejudice, at least initially.

Many of the irrational factors that conspire against us today, such as xenophobia, a self-conscious concern with beauty, and poisonous celebrity culture, have logical foundations in our evolutionary past, as demonstrated by these instances. Evolutionary psychologists are frequently wary of this line of reasoning, fearing that it gives license to humanity's baser inclinations. However, most individuals are aware that what was formerly adaptive is no longer so. Few individuals rush out to the sweets aisle after hearing that our hunger for sugar made sense in prehistoric times. Instead of making us less critical of our sweet taste, recognizing its evolutionary rationale makes us more critical of it. Evolutionary psychology, rather than turning individuals become liars, cheats, and thieves, influences our efforts to improve ourselves.

There are several issues that need to be addressed in modern culture, all of which are related in some way to the minds that evolution has bestowed upon us. It's not enough to acknowledge and condemn our difficulties if we want to live in the greatest possible world; we also need to comprehend them. Problems might appear overwhelming without understanding, enticing us to strike out in frustration or surrender to fatalism. And it appears that the world has recently gotten fascinated with both. Evolutionary psychology illuminates some of society's flaws by shedding light on their reasoning. As a result, it aids in the replacement of irrational dissatisfaction with true understanding, opening the path for lasting transformation.

Of course, a Darwinian perspective will not fix our issues by itself. If readers are skeptical about the value of such a viewpoint, I advise them to do the following experiment: the next time you are annoyed by irrational human behavior, take a step back and adopt a Darwinian perspective. Consider the evolutionary setting in which such behavior would have flourished. Consider if it was adaptive in prehistoric times. See if you can figure out what it means in terms of evolution. Whether you're irritated by your quarreling kids, discouraged by politicians' posturing, or disgusted by gossip mags in checkout lines, you could discover that a little evolutionary curiosity dispels some of your unproductive dismay, allowing you to think more clearly.

Now imagine this experiment scaled up, supplemented and refined by knowledge of anthropology, archaeology, cognitive science, game theory, and the like. Such an undertaking has the potential to clarify much about human existence. Because our minds owe their virtues and vices to ancestral conditions, we cannot understand our present without turning to our past. Hoping to comprehend modern life without recourse to evolution is like hoping to comprehend chemistry without recourse to physics. Try as we might, we’ll never get the full picture.

And just as we can turn an evolutionary lens on others, so we can turn one on ourselves. By grasping how the past has shaped our minds, we can manage our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour more skilfully. We frequently suffer at the hand of our instincts, drives, and desires, which evolved, not to make us happy, but to spread our genes. (To be precise, nothing actually evolved “to do” anything—rather, adaptations endure simply because they haven’t yet ceased existing.) When questioned, the majority of individuals claim they wish to discover happiness, despite the fact that their current desires provide nothing of the sort. We have a strong desire for transient pleasures that provide little long-term happiness. "[e]volution's duty is to inspire us, not to gratify us," argued evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in his book The Mating Mind. We may intellectually detach ourselves from wants and desires that are more suited to survival in the Pleistocene than finding purpose in current times if we keep this in mind.

When science enlightens and enhances the human situation, it liberates us by providing us with more self-awareness and understanding. To dismiss evolutionary psychology as a niche field of study would be to overlook one of the most personal sources of knowledge now available. Self-awareness, on the other hand, is a scary idea for many individuals. Those who are terrified of self-discovery will always be among us. We must not allow them to discourage those of us who seek to understand ourselves.

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