History of Evolutionary Psychology

By: Dr. Susan Siegfried, Clinical Psychology

Evolutionary Psychology is not a new idea.  It was in the nineteenth century that first Charles Darwin talked about social instincts that evolved through natural selection. Later, Darwin’s work was used by Sigmund Freud and William James applying it to behavior, but few people noticed because the twentieth century in psychology was all about behaviorism. Proximate explanations for behavior was what was popular until the later part of that century. Proximate cause is looking at the event that was just before the behavior. Evolutionary psychology is more interested in the ultimate cause (distal cause) which we often call the “real reason” something happened. It is usually a combination of things including the environment, past learning, and personality type. It was first William James that picked up the idea of ultimate cause and began looking at instinct in humans, noting that many of our instincts are in conflict. He wondered why does one person choose one instinct and another person chooses a conflicting instinct in the same situations. He hypothesized that the least successful solution (driven by an instinct) would eventually die out as the individual with that instinct would not be as likely to survive to reproduce. This ia an evolutionary concept known as adaptation. It is believed it is the humans ability to adapt, partially due to a larger brain that allows us to evolve easily. (Scott-Phillips, Dickins & West, 2011).


In 1973, Konrad Lorenz and Nikolass Tinbergen won a Nobel prize for developing a theory on social evolution and human sociobiology.  What this is, is an understanding of Darwin’s theory as is relates to humans.  Ethology is includes sociology, culture and psychology.  It says that we adapt our problem solving based on our surroundings, our biological needs and cultural rules (Burkhardt,2013).  For example: Some of the early theories were that human couples bonding before during and after mating so that the female did not accept another mate while the male was out hunting and vice versa, so the hunter was not mating with another while he was hunting. This bonding is not seen in most animals. In other words, the part of the brain that carries emotion adapted to solve an issue in humans that is not there for most animals.  This brought ethology into human science. Today you will see this area of study called behavioral ethology which is owned but both sociology and psychology and most often found in the category of social psychology. Stay tuned as that may be changing as psychology looks more toward understanding the anatomy of the brain.  This then puts ethology into the neuropsychology domain. As a matter of fact some scientists are predicting this concept of ethology will be strong in all areas of biology and psychology as we learn more.

Evolutionary Psychology for the Modern Perspective

Today we see humans more as “adaption executors” rather than “fitness maximizers” ( Barlow, Cosmides, &Tooby, 1992). This means that our brains are adapting synaptic connections to our environment, culture and needs. There is quite as lag in the timing for this adaptation to be passed on through generations to actually change the brains of humanity, therefore we are reacting to the world with adaptations that came about form an earlier time.  The example most often given is that when food was scarce we sought out sources of food that were  high in fat, sugar and salt as it kept the body going best through the periods of time when food and warmth were scares.  Presently, we still look for those kinds of foods even though much of the world has healthy food and heat sources available all the time.  Now that adaptation does not serve us well as we have the issue of obesity in much of the world’s population. Therefore, we have adapted but the delay is great and not longer fits the need.

The other side of this is that individual adaptation is happening on a regular basis all the time. As needs arise we come up with solutions.  Problem solving leads to changes in the connections in our brains there for it is an individual adaptation that may indeed be the precursor to the long term evolution explained above and originally put for by Charles Darwin.

The other major difference today is that we are not longer drawing our research conclusions from animal research and trying to apply it to humans.  We have enough information and knowledge now to work with humans to learn about humans. This is done with the neuroimaging we have available so we can actually see the parts of the living brain functioning. Since Evolutionary Psychology has made it into our text books it is considered a credible branch of the study of psychology.

Many scientists today believe this is a field that will drastically change how we look at humans.  With our greater ability to see and understand the human brain and this knowledge of how to change it the future could be quite exciting.


Barlow, J., Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J. (1992).  The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York, KY: Oxford University Press.

Berkhardt, R. (2013). Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tingergen, and the Founding of Ethology. New York, NY, Worth Publishers.

Scott-Phillips, T., Dickens, T. and West, S.( 2011). Evolutionary Theory and the Ultimate-Proximate Distinction in the Human Behavioral Sciences. Persepctives on Psychological Science. January 2011. Vol 6. No1. 38-47.