The power of evolutionary psychology

The power of evolutionary psychology January 3, 2009

The Economist has a very nice article on the power of evolutionary psychology to revolutionize our understanding of human behaviour. Many traditional explanations for some of the more puzzling things people do are based on little more than guesswork, and policy making suffers as a result.

The article is a neat and concise demonstration of just why it is so important for ordinary people – policy makers and the people who vote for them – to understand and accept the reality of evolution. Religiously motivated denial of evolution is not simply an emblem of the problems of faith-based thinking. It has real world implications. Social problems cannot be effectively addressed unless we understand what causes them.

For example, many forms of crime are a logical response to low social status. Violent crime may seem illogical – since it can often result in your own death or at least long stretches in prison. But competition for mates among men of low social status is such that it can be worth the gamble. And this explains the social power of marriage:

Sexual success, by contrast, tends to dampen criminal behaviour down. Getting married and having children—in other words, achieving at least part of his Darwinian ambition—often terminates a criminal’s career. Again, that is a commonplace observation. However, it tends to be explained as “the calming influence of marriage”, which is not really an explanation at all. “Ambition fulfilled” is a better one.

The article goes on to discuss other social puzzles, such as pay differentials between men and women, racism, and obesity. Critics of evolutionary psychology often dismiss these ideas as ‘just-so stories’, because they are too often based on inference from prejudice and shaky theory. And yet even if this were true (as indeed it is in some cases), they would be no worse than our current approaches to understanding these problems.

But evolutionary psychology is different because it is, in principle, a science. It provides a rational framework to developing theories, which can be tested both in fieldwork and mathematically. Although it’s still a science in its infancy, it’s a science that will totally revolutionise our understanding of humanity.

So what about religion? Such a fundamental part of human society, it’s completely ignored by The Economist. Perhaps this is because the idea that religion is not divine revelation but rather just a by-product of our evolutionary history is still a pill that many cannot swallow.

Just as likely, however, it’s because our understanding of the evolutionary roots of religion is still very poor. What’s not in doubt is that we have a lot of inbuilt errors in the way we perceive and think about the world – shortcuts that helped our ancestors deal with a complex world but with unfortunate side effects – and that these lead to just the sorts of ideas that underpin a lot of superstition and religion. But these do not in themselves make religion. So is there some special benefit to religion from a Darwinian perspective? Or is the whole thing just an accident of our attempts to form cohesive societies that got wrapped up in our faulty thinking? Is religion a by-product, or did belief in the supernatural actually give a survival benefit to our tribal ancestors?

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