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Health, psychology & science stories


Evolutionary psychology

23 July 2002

Published in The Age

Hunger, war, poverty and the misdistribution of wealth are endemic to our world - yet if you interviewed the entire population of the Earth, you’d scarcely find a person in favour of them.

Because of the scale of the problems, numerous fundamentalisms have arisen to bring about some kind of basic change: yet repeatedly the cure turns out to be worse than the disease.

Clearly, as a species, we’re thinking one way and acting another. We demonstrably have a poor grasp of the “big picture” psychology which would create a clean, equitable, peaceful and healthy world.

Thus, of the myriad new sciences born in recent decades, Evolutionary Psychology may turn out to be one of the more important. It fuses two of the “giants” of recent decades - evolution and psychology - to explore who we are, by looking at where we’ve come from.

Edward Hagen, a research scientist at the Institute for Theoretical Biology in Berlin, describes the new science in a nutshell: “Evolutionary psychologists are betting that cognitive structure, like physiological structure, has been designed by natural selection to serve survival and reproduction.”

Armed with this understanding, evolutionary psychologists aim to do nothing less than “map human nature”.

John Tooby and Leda Cosmides of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, are among the world’s best-known evolutionary psychologists. They’ve championed a rather extraordinary idea: that human emotions are powerful “super-programs” instilled by evolution to regulate multitudes of sub-programs like information-gathering, memory, attention and communication.

In Tooby and Cosmides’ view, we have innumerable smaller mental systems which do the hack work - seeing, running, judging distances, estimating the value of a resource. But over millions of years we’ve evolved “superordinate programs” - govering programs - to pull a number of these small systems together into a single system, when circumstance demands - for example when an empty-handed hunter, a beautiful woman, or a sabre-toothed tiger, appears at our cave door. We now call these governing systems “emotions”.

Tooby and Cosmides give the example of someone walking alone at night, and detecting the presence of a predator. The “superordinate program” of fear initiates numerous responses: attention and hearing sharpen, goals change (safety goes into the ascendant), the mind’s information-gathering “programs” turn to the location of your baby, or a person who can protect you. Memory is activated. (Where’s that large tree I once climbed?) Depending on circumstances, your vocal cords may be impelled to cry out - or be paralysed. Blood leaves the digestive tract, adrenaline spikes - and so on.

“A superordinate program is needed that co-ordinates these components, snapping each into the right configuration at the right time,” write Tooby and Cosmides. “Emotions are such programs.”

Leda Cosmides sees the brain as a kind of Swiss Army Knife: with numerous emotional systems designed by evolution for specific tasks - such as selecting a mate, caring for children, hunting for food, forming coalitions or trading.

Professor Charles Crawford oversees one of the world’s few Evolutionary Psychology courses, at Canada’s Simon Fraser University. He doesn’t dispute Tooby and Cosmides’ big idea: “I think of an emotion as an ‘ancestral fitness calculator’ that calculated the expected costs and benefits of possible actions,” he told The Age.

Edward Hagen puts it a little more broadly: “Psychological adaptations are algorithms which transform information.”

Hagen told The Age that Evolutionary Psychology (EP) effectively “started with Darwin”, then picked up steam in the 1960s and 1970s, with the modern synthesis of Darwin’s theory with the discovery of genes and DNA. “It really hit its stride in the 1980s and early 1990s when the links to cognitive psychology were spelled out.”

Beyond its “ground floor” theory, EP produces some interesting thinking on matters which confront people in everyday life.

For instance Edward Hagen believes that an evolutionary look at past-natal depression might reveal it to be “designed in” by evolution, to reduce a mother’s investment in her child when there is inadequate paternal support. Hagen’s theory is lengthy, but it’s partly based on good evidence that depressed mothers of newborns harbour more thoughts of harming their child, and are more often unsupported by the child’s father.

In 1995 Robert Wright wrote in Time magazine about EP: "Whether burdened by an overwhelming flurry of daily commitments or stifled by a sense of social isolation (or, oddly, both); whether mired for hours in a sense of life’s pointlessness or beset for days by unresolved anxiety; whether deprived by long workweeks from quality time with offspring or drowning in quantity time with them – whatever the source of stress, we at times get the feeling that modern life isn’t what we were designed for."

This hints at the kinds of practical problems EP might address, once it moves beyond its present research phase. One person not afraid to project far into the future is Australian psychologist John Stewart, who has sketched an outline of what he believes an “evolutionary perspective” could achieve for the world.

In his book Evolution’s Arrow, Stewart argues that evolution has given us tremendously flexible “psychological software” - in particular the ability to “mentally model” our actions in advance. In time, he believes, this might develop sufficiently to sideline some human genetic drives which were useful in the Palaeolithic, but are less constructive now. (One example might be competition for resources, which was designed in an age when there were endless resources and few people, rather than the reverse.)

Stewart sees the global trend toward personal growth as promising in this regard, as individuals are getting some distance on their reflex reactions - creating another, observing “I”.

“Most people get a glimpse of this some time during their lives,” Stewart told The Age. “For example, they might lose their temper and get very angry, but then they might find that they are watching themselves acting angrily, without being bound up in it. If this capacity is magnified many, many times, it would enable the individual to comprehensively free him or herself from the dictates of their biological and cultural past.

“This is the key question for humanity: can we develop the capacity to free ourselves from our biological and cultural past, or will we spend our time on this planet continuing to masturbate Stone Age desires?... Reason does not control the passions until the individual has developed a new psychological structure that has the capacity to manage the individual’s internal reward system.”

Once this is done, we could “use the immense power of  mental modelling” to change our behaviour, “rather than continue to blindly pursue outdated and inaccurate proxies for evolutionary success”.

Edward Hagen is thinking his way toward a similar outcome, via a different route:

“Humans have an inherited capability for both love and hate - or let's assume so, for the sake of argument. Either can override the other. The problem of increasing love and decreasing hate is not a problem of our innate capabilities, it is a problem of social institutions. That is, can we invent social institutions that result in our love adaptations triggering much more often than our hate adaptations? I think we can.”

These are long bows, but given our present global predicament, we may one day be grateful to Evolutionary Psychologists for drawing them.

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