Principles of Evolutionary Psychology

July 8th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

What is evolutionary psychology and why is it interesting in a discourse about gender issues? Marriam Webster defines evolutionary psychology as the study of human cognition and behavior with respect to their evolutionary origins. In other words, the way we think and behave nowadays, may well be adaptations to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments.

A simplified way of putting it is that if a behavior or way of thinking was advantageous for thousands of years (for example during the stone age), then it may well have been hardwired into the human brain. We are not born as blank slates, and it makes sense that the programming that we are born with be useful for our survival and reproduction. However, what was useful in the past, may not be useful nowadays, even though the programming remains in our brains.

Evolutionary psychology can be a controversial field. Its proponents want to explain all human behavior using this theory, while its detractors emphasize the importance of human flexibility and continuous biological adaptation to the current cultural climate. In my opinion, the truth is somewhere in between those two polarities, and I leave it up to you to determine what importance you want to allot to each stance.

Let’s have a look at some of the basic principles of evolutionary biology and how they relate to gender issues:

  • Since women are the ones who get pregnant (since times immemorial…), women have always been forced to choose a man carefully. A woman can only carry one child at a time, and a pregnancy takes nine months, which means that she’d better choose a man with good genes, because she won’t get very many chances to pass on her own genes. She also needs a man around who’s willing to protect and provide for the child, be it the father or a man who thinks he is the father. This means that the emotional connection to the man is crucial for a women, because the emotional connection is a good indicator of whether he’ll stick around or if he’s only interested in sex.
  • The principle above changed with the introduction of the female birth control pill, which enabled women to have sex without risking pregnancy. However, the old dynamics are still part of female nature, competing with the new dynamics that the pill introduced. This means that to some extent women are still looking for a confident man who can be a good protector, and preferably a man who can provide for the child – even if she’s only interested in a sexual relationship, and not in having children.
  • Men, however, do not get pregnant and therefore don’t need to choose their sexual partners as carefully. Fathering a bastard child could potentially be done at a very low cost, if you don’t have to assume the role of father for that child. However, being a committed father has always been a very good option for men, since in past eras the survival rate of your children was much higher if you stuck around.
  • Since men can father a child at a very low cost while women cannot, women end up being the sexual selectors more often than men.
  • Men are attracted to beautiful women. Beauty in this case is not some kind of esoteric concept, it is simply another word for proportional and symmetric facial features. Since women instinctively know that their looks are important when attracting a man, we have a whole cosmetic and plastic surgery industry catering to the needs of women. Evolutionary speaking, men are attracted to female beauty, due to symmetric facial features being a predictor of good health in the past, and good health is crucial if a woman is to survive a pregnancy, and pass on the man’s genes.
  • Gay men generally care more about their looks than straight men, and know more about grooming and skin care. The reason for this is simple: gay men are looking to attract other men, and even if those other men are also gay, they are still 100 percent men – and therefore attracted to good looks. Lesbian women, on the other hand, are often more relaxed about their looks, since they are attempting to attract other women, and women care less about good looks (even though good looks are still far from unimportant).

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24 Responses to “Principles of Evolutionary Psychology”

  1. Mark Davenport Says:

    And the story of evolution evolves one more gyre up the spiral. It seems to be a new sophistication to the traditional “nature versus nurture” debate. But is it the nature side or the nurture side? Or an attempt to integrate the modern/post modern divisions.

  2. Pelle Billing Says:

    Good question Mark. I think evolutionary psychology may be a (somewhat crude) attempt to illustrate how nature and nurture interact, and never stop affecting each other. The existing culture affects future biology, and past biology affects the current culture.

    Evolutionary psychology is a partial truth at best, but it does provide important explanations for a few gender mechanisms, that no other field can explain.

  3. Jim Says:

    “Men, however, do not get pregnant and therefore don’t need to choose their sexual partners as carefully. Fathering a bastard child could potentially be done at a very low cost, if you don’t have to assume the role of father for that child. ”

    This may be generally true, but not in a species with a long-chidhood, high parental investment reproductive strategy, like humans, who have the longest childhood of just about any animal I can think of. The key to success is not in how many young you have, but in how many young the young have on and on and on.

    For humans that menas a few kids thaturn out wlll is better than many that burn out before they reach breeding age, and even if they reach breeding age, they have to live and succeed long enough to get thier kids to breeding age, on and on and on.

    So that disadvantages the bastards growing up in poverty. They may start popping kids out when they turn 12, but the kids may end up dying by 8.

    “Since men can father a child at a very low cost while women cannot, women end up being the sexual selectors more often than men. ”

    No. See above. What this means is that there is an evloutionary incentive for men to control the raising of their children as much as there si for women.

    In fact there is just as much reason for a man to be selective about the kid’s mother as for the reverse, because a bad mother can screw up a kid that the father has invested years of assets and effort in. And these days with no-fault divorce and default custody awards to the mother, the risk is even greater of losing control over how your kid is raised.

  4. Enric Carbó Says:

    Hi Pelle
    I like your blog so much that I myself have started a new one, “Masculinitat i política” inspired in yours. I will write it in Catalan (in the upper right there is a widget to translate it), but there will be also fragments in Spanish –as is the first post- because I will copy and paste anything that can look interesting. You will see that in the explanation of the blog I have made mine your core beliefs of your blog and I have translated them into Catalan
    I would like to ask your permission to translate some of your posts –always citing the source- to publish them in my blog (that will also depend on my spare time ). Probably the first one I would translate is “If masculism existed…”.
    You can give me your opinion at enricarbo@gmail.com

  5. Enric Carbó Says:

    Sorr! I forgot the link! http://masculinitat.blogspot.com/

  6. Pelle Billing Says:

    Excellent initiative Enric! I’ll send you an email later.

  7. Pelle Billing Says:

    Jim, I agree that high parental male investment is a key mating strategy for humans (as I wrote in the post). However, even if fathering a bastard child leads to much lower levels of reproductive success, this is cancelled out by the low cost of doing so (in historical times at least, not in present times in many countries).

    I agree that sexual selection is important for men too, because of high parental male investment being a key mating strategy. However, since men (in historical times) often had a choice about whether to stick around or not once the woman became pregnant, the sexual choice ultimately becomes more important for the woman.

    It’s important to note that many of these dynamics have changed nowadays. All that evolutionary psychology is saying is that if certain dynamics were around for a long time, they are probably still affecting us on an instinctual or subconscious level.

  8. Andreas Dahlin Says:

    I’m a fan of evolutionary psychology, but it must be remembered that it’s pretty much a bunch of speculations. This is because it relies on the idea that (i) there exists several genetic traits that cause very specific behavior, (ii) there is significant evolutionary pressure on these genes and (iii) the genes are on the 23rd chromosome pair. This is certanly possible, but biology has not showed it yet. Anyway, I do love having scientific discussion under these assumptions.

    I generally agree with what you say, but I find your points a little contradictive when it comes to male selection of partners. If they are not so careful when selecting, why do they care so much about beauty? I would say it is rather women who care about beauty. Imagine not having sex or masturbating for a week; you find practically all women beautiful enough for sex. This does not hold true for women selecting men. On the other hand, if you are just generally saying that beauty is a tool that a woman can use to attract men and make them compete to become her partner, I fully agree.

    Regarding gay behaviour, homosexuality obviously goes against evo psych since being strictly gay means you do not get offspring. I think you have realized this though and I guess you are talking about simple social competition for partners? Homosexuality could be influenced by genetic factors, but in that case they are most likely recessive. However, I have also read that practically all gay men are actually a little bisexual and that there are theories about why being “slightly gayish” can be good in an evo psych way.

    Sorry if I write too bluntly about sex but that seems to be the way to go around here! :)

  9. Pelle Billing Says:

    Good points Andreas, let me make a few clarifications:

    - Men may not be as selective as women, but the clear preference would be to choose beautiful women, since in historical times they would be more likely to be healthy and survive a pregnancy
    - Women need to be picky about when to have sex, since they can become pregnant. Therefore women are the “gatekeepers” for sex. They are also more picky about who they have sex with, because they cannot opt out of a pregnancy, which men potentially could in the past
    - Homosexuality need not go against evo psych, since there are group level phenomena too, and gay men are probably very useful for a tribe (bonus men who can work and defend the tribe, without competing for the women)
    - Gays are 100 percent male, and would therefore inherit all the traits that males do, with the addition of having a different set of genes or gene expressions for sexual preference
    - I agree that more research needs to be done on evo psych theory. It’s important to remember that there are two ways of “proving” the hypotheses that evo psych put forward: through biological research and through sociological research (the latter would obviously be affected by culture, but cross-cultural studies could still provide a lot of important information).

  10. Gilesy Says:

    Hi everyone,

    Just like to weigh in with an alternative to having gay / lesbian causal factors (ie. genes, hormones etc) survive the evolutionary process. It could be that the factors that produce these traits are recessive however it could also be selected for via ‘evolutionary improvements’ to their other siblings. Hypothetically, if mothers had a genetic trait that bathed their children with higher levels of esotrogen / lower levels of testoserone (or vice versa for lesbian children) in the womb, the female offspring may benefit from this via ‘hyperfeminity’ which is a desirable trait to the majority of heterosexual males. These ‘hyperfemine’ females would carry on this gene to the next generation.

    By hyperfeminine I don’t mean they’d always be the most feminine of all females, just that they’d be more ‘feminine-styled’ on average, because it would be an alteration on the genetic starting point and that starting point could be anywhere across the ‘feminine-masculine line.’

    I’d also speculate that these genes were recessive because if they were dominant – no hetero males would be produced by your lineage.

    I remember some study that showed that sisters of gay men had more children on average than the average female – which is precisely what you’d expect from this model – gutted that the authors name eludes me though. Hypothetically you could rate the features of the females along the line of stereotypical feminity to test that hypothesis (as if that doesn’t happen enough already in society).

    I’d also like to know if this finding was true in reverse for the brothers of lesbians.

  11. Pelle Billing Says:

    Interesting theory Gilesy, if you remember who the author is then let us know.

  12. Andreas Dahlin Says:

    Yes, men surely need some basic selection of partner, but it’s more important for women, like you say.

    Regarding group selection of homosexuality, I’m sorry, but I’m just not much of a fan of group selection. I know there are biologists who do believe in it, but I just don’t get it. Selection occurs on the level of whatever replicating entity there is, in our current biological environment, genes (or even more specifically: allelles) are what replicates, groups do not, nor do organisms really. Competition between groups and individuals may occur, but not true Darwainian selection. Of course, sometimes the wishes of the genes match the wishes of the individual or the group, but it’s kind of the wrong perspective to nature has made things “for the best of the group”. I guess you can say I’m a Dawknins fan. :)

    Not sure how you mean sociological research would prove evo psych is true? Is it like “in all different cultures in all times we see this and that so it’s probably not social but rather biological”?

  13. Gilesy Says:

    First time I’ve heard of ‘group selection’ as how an nonbreeders genes could survive evolution – but I could see it working for several reasons off the bat. First is to remember helping kin is indeed helping their genes get passed onto the next generation, after all the building blocks of that individual are largely strewn across their kin, ready for another nonbreeder to be made.

    Secondly in times and places of low-resources, there would be a higher evolutionary pressure to reduce the quantity of offspring lest there not be enough food, shelter etc for everyone.

    Purely as far as evo-psyche goes, I think homosexuality needs to be viewed the same way as how asexual desires, infertility or any factors that don’t contribute to offspring have survived this far (ignoring the huge social pressure / expectation to be heterosexual throughout history for now – I’ll come back to that later).

    Another thing to consider is that genes, biology, womb etc are constantly trying to select ‘right your female, so you gotta fancy men, time to create a desire for males’ and vice versa, doesn’t sound like the easiest thing to get ‘right’ if mothers are having male and female children constantly switching between the two – its like the physical aspect of intersexed individuals, as clitoris to penis is a continuum thats pushed to one of two extremes. Of course intersexed individuals exist and I suspect largely difficult for them to concieve, but it may be a case of the random variation process hitting out the ‘middle ground’ (intersex / bisexuality) or ‘other extreme’ (homo/asexuality).

    If genetics / biology etc didn’t have the flexibility to make alternative answers, it never would of made the ones that were evolutionarily beneficial, and we never would of evolved.

    On social pressures, humans are largely unique and dynamic in their inhibitions and planning behaviour, its possible to hide your desires and maintain the expected social convention – babies and all. Or you could decide that you actually want a child and have sex with the opposite sex despite that not being your desire.

    Final point is that how many gay people have you heard had sex with the opposite sex before they realised it wasn’t for them? Before contraception, once could easily be enough for offspring. I happen to know of several people who are 80-90% gay but fell in love with a individual from the opposite sex – if the majority of individuals are hetero then its likely the best suited partner is someone from the opposite sex – personality etc may win through and the biology of love might override their regular behaviour.

  14. Pelle Billing Says:

    Andreas:
    Not sure how you mean sociological research would prove evo psych is true? Is it like “in all different cultures in all times we see this and that so it’s probably not social but rather biological”?

    Not in all times, but otherwise yes, something like that.

    Gilesy:
    First is to remember helping kin is indeed helping their genes get passed onto the next generation, after all the building blocks of that individual are largely strewn across their kin

    Yes, this is roughly my thinking too. Evo psych is about the interaction between genes, individuals and the environment – so from that perspective group level phenomena likely exist and have the potential to influence genetic replication and expression.

  15. Jim Says:

    “Jim, I agree that high parental male investment is a key mating strategy for humans (as I wrote in the post). However, even if fathering a bastard child leads to much lower levels of reproductive success, this is cancelled out by the low cost of doing so (in historical times at least, not in present times in many countries).”

    All true, Pelle, and it gets more complicated than that. If a bastard turns out to be a strong contributor to the family, that enhances the father’s biological children’s chances, so in the end he is an evolutionary winner. This explains adoption/kidnapping/slave-taking behavior in a lot of societies. Eastern Woodlands societies (North America) conducted what they called “Mourning Wars” – wars to kidnap children from other tribes, including the English at the time, to replenish losses from epidemics or hard winters.

    “I’m sorry, but I’m just not much of a fan of group selection. I know there are biologists who do believe in it, but I just don’t get it.”

    It’s about the best explanation going for the evolution of species where only one female per colony breeds and all the others work to support her. And there are hundreds of species in two separate orders who use this strategy, so it’s obviously very successful, and I don’t see any other explanantion for how it arose other than some form of group selection.

  16. Jim Says:

    “Final point is that how many gay people have you heard had sex with the opposite sex before they realised it wasn’t for them? ”

    Lots. Lots get married to opposite sex people at soem point.

    In humans, there may be a range of gentic distribution as far as homosexuality goes. It may present in groups that have lived in harsh environments for long enough to condition selction, as a way to increase the ratio of adults to children. i don’t know if anyon has studied t form that angel, but given the cultural status of homosexauls in many North American cultures, there may be something to it.

  17. Katie Heikkinen Says:

    Hi Pelle! Durwin linked to your site so here I am. Just wanted to post this article to you (I also posted it on Facebook). Must read as far as I’m concerned:
    http://www.newsweek.com/id/202789

  18. Pelle Billing Says:

    Hi Katie! Yes, I read that link after you posted it on Facebook. It makes a good case for the “flexibility and adaptability” aspect of being human. However, I don’t think that aspect and evo psych need to be mutually exclusive. OTOH, I’m well aware that many claims of evo psych still lack hard biological proof.

  19. Cross-cultural personality traits Says:

    [...] Studying evolutionary psychology [...]

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    [...] why men don’t have the same pattern when choosing a partner. Unless, of course, we turn to evolutionary psychology for an [...]

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    [...] Studies from the field of evolutionary psychology [...]

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  23. tonia Says:

    Men are no longer regularly attracted by the facial beauty of a woman, rather they also go for women, whom they know will accept thier temperament and stick to them. Women who will give them respect as the head of the family and encourage them when things are not too rossy for them. This simply means that men equally search carefully for a woman to make thier wife.

  24. Education here Says:

    Education here…

    [...]Principles of Evolutionary Psychology[...]…


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