BIRKBECK COLLEGE, School of Psychology Course PSYC030U
January 11, 2007
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Lectures on: Evolution and Psychology

Aims:    These two lectures aim to refresh students' knowledge of the theory of evolution, or to introduce them to it, and to introduce them to aspects of psychology which have been influenced by evolutionary approaches.

Objectives: By the end of the lectures the students should:

  • know the general outlines of the theory of evolution and the time course of human evolution
  • be able to answer correctly a majority of the questions on the self-assessment test included in the handout
  • understand some of the key differences between nativist and empiricist theories in psychology
  • be aware of the sections of the course text (Gleitman, 1999) where evolutionary approaches are applied to perceptual, cognitive, emotional and social aspects of psychology.

From TOPIC 6 in the Seminar List —

Essay Question:

Does the theory of evolution have any relevance for psychological topics?

Basic Reading
Gleitman et al., (2004) Psychology 6th edition, or Gleitman, (1999) Psychology 5th edition, or Gleitman, (1995) Psychology 4th edition.

Page reference in Gleitman et al 2004 Page reference in Gleitman et al 1999 Page reference in Gleitman 1995 Textbook Heading
see 416-7 406-9 380-83 “Natural Selection and Survival”
5-6 3-4 3-4 “Displays”
152-4 152-4 141-2 “Differences in what different species learn”
—— 192-7 175-180 “Evolution and sensory equipment”
338-342 373-4 350-1 “The growth of language in the child”
353-357 390-4 367-375 “The critical period hypothesis & Language in non-humans”
416-417 405-37 379-413 “The biological roots/basis of social behaviour”
451-452 476-81 443-448 Emotions and facial expression
438-440 494 455-6 “Reciprocal altruism”/“The roots of reciprocity”
478-484 552-7 511-6 “What is the cognitive starting point?”
506-510 576-9 534-7 “The roots of attachment.”
632-634 747-50 702-5 “The sociocultural perspective”

Optional Further Reading (Alternatives)

Dawkins, R. (1995) River out of Eden. Weidenfeld and Nicholson: London, Bk library class mark= 575 DAW

Johanson, Donald C., and Edgar, Blake (2001) From Lucy to Language. London: Cassell paperbacks. 2 copies in Main Birkbeck Library, classmark=599.938 JOH Originally published: London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996

Manning, A. & Dawkins, M.S. An Introduction to Animal Behaviour. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. Birkbeck library Class mark=591.5 MAN

Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct. Penguin Books: London. Chapter 10, "Language Organs and Grammar Genes" (Birkbeck class mark=400 PIN) OR browse —

Pinker, S. (2003) The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature. Penguin Books: London. Birkbeck library classmark 155.2 PIN (2 copies)

Richards, G. (1987) Human Evolution. Routledge: London. (Bk Lib GYW, N [Ric])

Walker, S.F. (1985) Animal Thought. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London. Chapter 2, "Darwinian Continuity." (../pubs/an-thought/at-ch2.html)  


Notes on topics to be covered

1. The theory of evolution

The Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection is covered on page 406-9 of Gleitman (1999) or page 416 of Gleitman et al. (2004). A key feature is that there are inherited differences between individuals. From Darwin onwards, it has usually been assumed that inherited differences will apply to instinctual behaviours as well as bodily structures.

2. What do Darwinians say about psychological topics?

Darwinians therefore typically emphasise innate or “built-in” factors as influences on psychological capacities or behaviour patterns. They emphasise “nature” instead of “nurture” and therefore tend to be “nativists” rather than “empiricists”.

3. Schools of thought influenced by the Darwinian approach.

“Ethology” has been defined as the scientific study of the function and evolution of patterns of animal behaviour. This area of study is associated with Niko Tinbergen (1907-1988) and Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) who both won the Nobel prize for their work in 1973 (See Gleitman, 1999, p 408). They suggested that many aspect of behaviour of animal species in their natural environments could be explained by “Innate Releasing Mechanisms”, by which genetically pre-programmed releasing stimuli could elicit inherited fixed action patterns of instinctive behaviour. The releasing stimuli are often very imprecise, and a Supernormal Stimulus is an artificial stimulus which is more effective at releasing instinctive behaviour than any natural stimulus.

There are many examples, especially in the behaviour of new- born birds, where evidence for such mechanisms is strong. It was always more controversial to apply similar concepts to aspects of human behaviour such as emotional expression. (see “Ethology and Human Nature”, Gleitman, 1999 p. 437; Lorenz, 1967; Morris, 1967).

“Sociobiology” was a term coined by E.O. Wilson in 1975 to describe a branch of biology which focuses on the evolutionary basis of animal social behaviours. It deals more with strategies of social behaviour rather that the individual lock-and key mechanisms studied by ethologists, but there is no firm boundary between ethology and sociobiology. As for ethology, there has been strong disagreement with the idea that principles derived from animal behaviour can be applied to the human case, in “Human Sociobiology” (see “Mating patterns in humans”, Gleitman, 1999 p. 424).

“Evolutionary Psychology”. This is a more recent term, which has come into use in the 1990’s but is not referred to explicitly in Gleitman et al. textbooks. There is some overlap with ethology and sociobiology, but the emphasis in evolutionary psychology is on the special effects of human evolution on human psychology rather than on generalizing from animals to humans. A very strong case can be made that the human species is genetically pre-programmed to use language and “Evolutionary psychology takes many of the lessons of human language and applies them to the rest of the psyche (Pinker, 1994; p. 410). The emphasis on language and reasoning means that the interaction between innate and cultural factors can in principle be given due weight. (Tomasello et al; 1993). The two names most often associated with evolutionary psychology are Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (e.g. Tooby and Cosmides, 1992, Duchaine et al., 2001; Stone et al., 2002 — See Gleitman et al., 2004 p. 440 or Gleitman et al., 1999, p494).

4. Which areas of psychology have or been or could be influenced by evolutionary ideas?

Most areas of psychology have been influenced to some extent by evolutionary ideas at one time or another in the last 150 years. Clearly the area most influenced by evolutionary theories has been animal psychology. During the last 20 years it has been cognitive psychologists interested in perception and language who have been most likely to point to innate mechanisms governing human cognition (e.g. Fodor, 1983) whereas social psychologists have not generally appealed to innate mechanism but rather to social influences and social constructions (e.g. Harre, 1986)

One can make rough distinctions between the areas of human psychology below:

a) Perceptual systems (colour vision, object perception, face recognition)

Few would deny that “The sensory equipment of any species is an adaptation to the environment in which it lives” (see Gleitman, 1999, p. 192). The same goes for motor systems — walking upright, and using an opposable thumb, and consequent capacities for eye-hand co-ordination, are special human characteristics which can be related to those of our primate cousins.

b) Cognitive systems (object perception, early language, grammar)

Apart from the sensory apparatus, there is evidence that the human brain comes already equipped to interpret sensory information in standard ways — “Do humans come equipped with some built-in notion of space and objects? Some experiments with very young infants suggest that they do.” (Gleitman, 1999, p. 552; “What is the cognitive starting point?”).

There is a strong consensus among psycholinguists that human infants make built-in assumptions about word use and syntax (Gleitman, 1999, pp. 379-380: ‘Perceptual and conceptual biases in child learners’), and that “the young child is neurologically ‘programmed’ to learn language.” (Gleitman, 1999; pp. 381-382).

c) Emotional systems (smiling, other emotional expressions, anger, jealousy, love, humour)

Facial expression of emotions change relatively little from culture to culture and Gleitman takes the sociobiological view that the built-in features of human emotional expression serve the same kind of communicative functions as displays in non-human animals.

d) Social systems (co-operation, competitiveness, conformity mate selection, parental care)

Sociobiologists are inclined to explain co-operation in human groups as based on kin-selection, or on reciprocal altruism, which are both consistent with the “selfish gene” idea. Critics counter that while the capacity to have a culture may require a uniquely evolved human genetic makeup, social behaviour within a particular culture can only be understood in terms of cultural, rather than genetic, rules. (Gleitman, 1999, pp. 435-6).

A slightly more abstract idea about the evolution of human capacities is that human intelligence evolved as an adaptation to cope with the complexities of social exchange rules in any particular culture. (Cosmides, 1989; Gleitman, 1999; p. 494).

It is important to bear in mind that there is no moral obligation to follow such biologically based pre-dispositions as may exist. Gleitman et al. (1999, p.437; see also p. 426) refer to a remark made to the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the film The African Queen — “Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we were put on this earth to rise above!”.

Many, such as Donald (1993), and the critics of evolutionary psychology argue that the human capacity for invention in a social context changes everything — even the biological role of memory, because literacy means that the brain is “externally programmable”, and that the internet and computer-based information technology constitute another new stage of cognitive and social change which is outside strictly Darwinian and genetic evolution.

Conclusion: Darwinian evolution has shaped many aspects of human cognition, starting with the capacities of our perceptual systems, and arguably including higher-order aspects of cognitive and emotional biases. But biologically based predispositions do little to diminish the profound role of cultural and historical influences on uniquely human intellectual achievement and social diversity.


Lecturer’s References (Not for further reading)

Alemseged, Z., Spoor, F., Kimbel, W. H., Bobe, R., Geraads, D., Reed, D., et al. (2006). A juvenile early hominin skeleton from Dikika, Ethiopia. Nature, 443(7109), 296-301.

Archer, J. (2001) Evolving theories of behaviour. The Psychologist, 14(8), 414-418 (available free at

Bradshaw, J.L. (1997) Human Evolution: A Neuropsychological Perspective. Hove: Psychology Press.

Buss, D.M. (1991) Evolutionary personality psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol.42, Pp.459-491

Cosmides, L. (1989) The logic of social exchange: Has natural selection shaped how humans reason? Studies with the Wason selection task. Cognition, 31, 187-276.

Csibra, G. (2003). Teleological and referential understanding of action in infancy. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London B, 358, 447-458.

Darwin, C. (1872/1965) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Chicago University Press.

Diamond, J. (1992) The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee. Random House Vintage Edition: London

Donald, M. (1993) Précis of Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 16:737-791.

Duchaine, B., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2001). Evolutionary psychology and the brain. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 11(2), 225-230. (online in ScienceDirect)

Eible-Eibesfeldt, I. (1970) Ethology: the Biology of Behavior. London, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Enard, W., Przeworski, M., Fisher, S. E., Lai, C. S. L., Wiebe, V., Kitano, T., Monaco, A. P., & Paabo, S. (2002). Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language. Nature, 418(6900), 869-872.

Fodor, J.A. (1983). The Modularity of Mind. MIT Press: London.

Green, R. E., Krause, J., Ptak, S. E., Briggs, A. W., Ronan, M. T., Simons, J. F., et al. (2006). Analysis of one million base pairs of Neanderthal DNA. Nature, 444(7117), 330-336.

Harré, R. (ed) (1986) The Social Construction of Emotion. Oxford: Blackwell.

Iverson, J. M. and Goldin-Meadow, S. (1998) Why people gesture when they speak. Nature, 396, p 228.

Jones, D. (1999). Evolutionary psychology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 28, 553-575.

Jones, S. (1994) The Language of the Genes. Harper Collins Flamingo Edition: London

Kenrick, D. T., Li, N. P., & Butner, J. (2003). Dynamical evolutionary psychology: Individual decision rules and emergent social norms. Psychological Review, 110(1), 3-28.

Lai, C.S.L., Fisher, S.E., Hurst, J.A., & Vargha-Khadem, F. (2001). A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder. Nature, 413: 519-523.

Liegeois, F., Baldeweg, T., Connelly, A., Gadian, D. G., Mishkin, M., & Vargha-Khadem, F. (2003). Language fMRI abnormalities associated with FOXP2 gene mutation. Nature Neuroscience, 6(11), 1230-1237.

Lorenz, K. (1967) On Agression. Methuen: London.

Lorenz, K.Z. (1952) King Solomon's Ring. London: Methuen.

Meaburn, E., Dale, P. S., Craig, I. W., & Plomin, R. (2002). Language-impaired children: No sign of the FOXP2 mutation. Neuroreport, 13(8), 1075-1077.

Morris, D. (1967) The Naked Ape: a zoologist's study of the human animal. London: Cape.

Parfitt, S. A., et al. (2005). The earliest record of human activity in northern Europe. 438(7070), 1008-1012

Peleg, G., Katzir, G., Peleg, O., Kamara, M., Brodsky, L., Hel-Or, H., et al. (2006). Hereditary family signature of facial expression. PNAS, 103(43), 15921-15926.

Pinker, S (1997/8) How the Mind Works. Norton, New York.

Ponting, C., & Jackson, A. P. (2005). Evolution of primary microcephaly genes and the enlargement of primate brains. Current Opinion in Genetics & Development, 15(3), 241-248.

Reichert, H., & Simeone, A. (2001). Developmental genetics evidence for a monophyletic origin of the bilaterian brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B-, 356(1414), 1533-1544.

Segal, L (2001) Main agendas and hidden agendas. The Psychologist, 14(8), 422-423 (available free at Shu, W. G., et al.. (2005). Altered ultrasonic vocalization in mice with a disruption in the Foxp2 gene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(27), 9643-9648.

Stone, V. E., Cosmides, L., Tooby, J., Kroll, N., & Knight, R. T. (2002). Selective impairment of reasoning about social exchange in a patient with bilateral limbic system damage. PNAS, 99(17), 11531-11536.

Sun, T., & Walsh, C. A. (2006). Molecular approaches to brain asymmetry and handedness. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7(8), 655-662.

Tinbergen, N. (1951) The Study of Instinct. Oxford University Press: London. BK library class mark= 591.512 TIN

Wilson, E.O. (1975) Sociobiology. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.