Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand psychological traits and behaviours by understanding the survival and reproductive functions they might have served over the course of evolutionary history, and the advantages that they may have conferred on the individual and the species. These ‘adaptations’ might include abilities to infer others’ emotions (empathy), identify, prefer and establish relationships with partners, cooperate with others, act morally etc. Evolutionary psychology recognises the role of natural selection, sexual selection, and cultural evolution in developing prosocial traits such as altruism, large scale cooperation and community mindedness. Like chimps and bonobos, humans have subtle and flexible social instincts, allowing them to form extended families, lifelong friendships, and political alliances.
Psychological adaptations are hypothesised to be innate (ie: genetically inherited) or relatively easy to learn, and to manifest in cultures worldwide. For example, the ability of toddlers to learn a language with virtually no formal training is likely to be a psychological adaptation, as is our predisposition to feel anxious in anticipating possible future threats to our well-being. The role of the fore brain in generating complex autobiographical identity, subtle regulation of the emotions and strategic forward planning of behaviour is of particular interest as these are the traits that most distinguish us as a species.
More recent developments in evolutionary theory point to other epigenetic mechanisms as having been as important as genetic mutation over time, for instance in developmental processes where the action of genetic material is sensitive to, and molded by environmental influences, eg: stress. This gives us developmental plasticity; no two people grow up the same, even though their genetic make up is very similar. Some characteristics also develop more easily than others which produces biases in the way evolution will tend to go.
As humans, we have also shaped our environment to a great degree over the past two million years, which influences how selection pressures have acted on our survival and successful procreation; beavers building dams is a good illustration of this idea that ‘Niche Construction’ has a considerable effect on the direction of evolution.Lastly, the trajectory of our evolution has also been greatly affected by the cumulative build up of cultural knowledge, social norms of behaviour and technological expertise over hundreds of thousands of years. This has engendered much more rapid and complex cognitive abilities through enabling more complex neural pathways to become established – this is true co-evolution of genes and culture.
Within the Evolutionary field, my particular interests are in :