Toward a Positive Evolutionary Psychology

After reading The Origin of Species, the prominent Cambridge geologist Adam Sedgwick wrote the following letter to Charles Darwin, his esteemed former student and field assistant:

If I did not think you a good tempered & truth loving man I should not tell you that . . . I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow; because I think them utterly false & grievously mischievous. . . . There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A [person] who denies this is deep in the mire of folly. Tis the crown & glory of organic science that it does thro’ final cause, link material to moral . . . you have ignored this link. . . . Were it possible (which thank God it is not) to break it, humanity in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it—& sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history. (November 24, 1859)

Sedgwick was reacting strongly to his personal beliefs about the Divine creation of life, by “a power I cannot imitate or comprehend—but in which I believe, by a legitimate conclusion of sound reason drawn from the laws of harmonies of nature.” As we now know, Darwin’s theory of natural selection offers the most plausible mechanism of the development of life on this planet, and the moral realm is just as much a part of nature as the physical realm. The field of evolutionary psychology has taken Darwin’s radical insights and has shed important light on many aspects of human behavior—the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

Nevertheless, the predominant focus in mainstream evolutionary psychology, up to this point, has been on the less-than-savory sides of our nature. A look at evolutionary psychology’s premier textbook reveals a table of contents in which everything is phrased in terms of “problems” or “challenges” that humans faced throughout our evolutionary history: problems of survival, challenges of sex and mating, challenges of parenting and kinship, and problems of group living. The one topic that seems to point to something particularly uplifting about our species—“cooperative alliances”—is juxtaposed with topics such as combating the hostile forces of nature, aggression, and warfare; the reason why mothers provide more parental care than fathers; male and female differences in short-term and long-term sexual strategies; and individual differences in rape proclivity.

Let’s contrast this with one of the premier textbooks in the field of positive psychology, which includes the following topics: the role of culture in developing strengths and living well, positive emotions, self-efficacy, optimism, hope, wisdom, courage, mindfulness, flow, spirituality, empathy, altruism, gratitude, forgiveness, and love. If I were an observer from another planet and read these two texts, I’d think we were talking about two fundamentally different species!

But of course we aren’t talking about different species. Humankind has the capacity for all of it; we can be just as merciless and savage as we can be loving and creative. If evolution sculpted our brains to solve problems and overcome reoccurring challenges faced throughout human history, it most certainly also sculpted our brains to be resilient and to have extraordinary strengths of character.

Indeed, this is the focus of positive psychology: the positive character strengths, positive experiences, positive relationships, and positive institutions that enable us to flourish. Recent research and books by positive psychologists have been highlighting the evolutionary forces operating on these lighter sides of human nature. For instance, Dacher Keltner, founder of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, argued that humans are “born to be good,” and that we are wired for kindness, love, compassion, and awe. Likewise, George Vaillant argued that humans underwent a “spiritual evolution” throughout the course of evolution, and we are wired for faith, love, hope, joy, forgiveness, compassion, awe, and mystical illumination.

A new book by Glenn Geher and Nicole Wedberg called “Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life” follows in this tradition by spearheading an entirely new field, positive evolutionary psychology, focused on the evolutionary foundations of the good life. I found this book to be an incredibly refreshing, integrative, forward-looking treatise on what humans could be, without ignoring what we are. For too long, the field of evolutionary psychology has focused on the muck, ignoring or giving less airplay to the uniqueness of humanity and our immense capacities for growth, love, peace, imagination, creativity, and reason. By the same token, for too long the field of positive psychology has focused on the positive qualities of our humanity but has swept real human struggles under the rug, including the very real problems of survival and reproduction. Such an integration is long overdue, and Geher and Wedberg are to be commended for what they have produced. I know that I personally consider it a great honor to be able to write the foreword to such a forward-thinking book.

The central question the book aims to answer is this: Can evolutionary psychology provide guidance for living a richer and healthier life? A very admirable question! The authors aren’t attempting only to describe findings, but also to prescribe. This is clearly in the spirit of wanting to help increase quality of life, a very worthy goal, and one that is shared with positive psychology. The authors put forward one potential way that evolutionary psychology can inform the cultivation of the good life: understanding ways in which our modern environments are mismatched from the conditions under which our bodies and minds originally evolved. As they rightly point out, humans in Westernized societies experience many important instances of evolutionary mismatch, such as seen in education, politics, and the overuse of technology instead of real human connection. The authors show how such an understanding can help us intentionally design institutions and practices that bring out the best, not worst, in humans.

There is certainly promise to this approach. As clinical psychologist Stephen Ilardi has put it, “We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, sleep-deprived, socially-isolated, fast-food-laden, frenetic pace of modern life” (http://tlc.ku.edu). His treatment for depression, Therapeutic Lifestyle Change (TLC), is an effective treatment for depression, with at least 50% of patients showing symptom reduction. Part of his treatment involves living the lifestyle our ancestors lived, with a balanced diet, exercise, sunlight, sleep, and social support.

While I agree with the authors of this book that an increased understanding of the powerful forces of natural selection can provide some hints on how one can live a life of optimal well-being, I’d like to offer some suggestions that I hope can help move the field even further forward. Geher and Wedberg cover a wide gamut of topics in this book, ranging from cooperation, to kindness, to religion, to happiness, to gratitude, to resilience. These are indeed topics that are being investigated in positive psychology. However, one topic is notably absent from this list: meaning.

One finding coming from positive psychology is the need to distinguish between a “happy life” and a “meaningful life”. Certainly the two overlap, but there are important differences. Satisfying one’s needs and wants tends to increase happiness, but tends to be largely irrelevant for meaningfulness. Happiness also tends to be present oriented, whereas meaningfulness tends to involve integrating past, present, and future. In fact, thinking about future and past is associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness is also linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness is the opposite. Higher meaningfulness can even lead to higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety while resulting in lower levels of happiness. Yet, many humans certainly include meaning as a core part of the good life.

Even within the happy life, there is reason to be skeptical about blindly trusting our positive emotions, even if they are “evolutionarily adaptive.” Evolutionarily adaptive doesn’t necessarily mean healthy, happy, or socially desirable. Things can be conducive to reproductive fitness without necessarily contributing to personal well-being. Our genes don’t care about our happiness or mental health; their primary reason for existing is to propagate themselves into the next generation. One implication of this idea is that positive emotions shouldn’t unquestioningly be our guide to the good life. Just because we discover that some set of behaviors made our ancestors feel good doesn’t mean that’s how you, as a whole organism, would want to live your own life. There are many behaviors that make us feel good in the moment but thwart our longer term goals, or even hurt others in the moment. We have many competing goals and “selves,” as evolutionary psychologists Robert Kurzban and Douglas Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius have astutely pointed out.

The key to living a good life, in my view, isn’t just following whichever impulse makes us feel good, or even made our distant ancestors feel good, but harnessing what’s best within us and regulating our impulses so that we can get closer and closer to those higher level goals. Consider Kenrick, Griskevicius, Neuberg, and Schaller’s hierarchy of needs, in which they placed parenting at the top of their hierarchy, above “mate retention,” “mate acquisition,” “status/esteem,” “affiliation,” “self-protection,” and “immediate physiological needs.” This may be a fair ordering of priorities for our genes, but this is hardly a fair ordering of priorities for whole organisms. Any model of human needs that is exclusively “built upon ancient foundations” is sure to be largely unsatisfying to human beings. When positive psychologists conduct large-scale surveys of what people strive for most in life, parenting is rarely at the top of the list.

Unfortunately, this sort of thinking is prominent. For instance, the philosopher Christopher Boorse argued that “for physiology, the highest level goals, of the organism as a whole, are individual survival and reproduction”. However, as DeYoung and Krueger pointed out, while it’s true that these two outcomes—survival and reproduction—are relevant to understanding evolutionary function, they are not necessarily the organism’s highest level goals. Goals involve representations of the desired future state, and must actually be represented within the system in some way. This is critical for guiding behavior and interpreting ongoing experience. There are many people who have the goal of having sexual intercourse with someone they are attracted to, but who nonetheless have no interest in reproduction. Therefore, relying strictly on an evolutionary definition of function doesn’t necessarily tell us the full story about the full gamut of human capacities and strivings.

Consider Jerome Wakefield’s definition of healthy mental function as those processes that were selected by evolution and that facilitated propagation of genes over generations. It’s an alluring next step to then equate all trait manifestations that are not in accord with evolutionary function as necessarily dysfunctional and therefore detrimental to a rich life. However, I believe we must resist that urge. Equally as important as evolutionary mismatches are individual mismatches. Many instances of languishing are the result of a society that is a poor fit to one’s unique strengths. What may appear to be an evolutionary mismatch could, on closer reflection, be an indication that the society is thwarting someone’s personal goal.

Human beings, like every other living organism on this planet, are cybernetic systems. As cybernetic systems, we have multiple, often conflicting, goals. For each goal, we have representations of where we currently are in relation to the goal, and we have a set of operators that (it is hoped) allow us to move closer to the goal. Evolutionary and cybernetic functions often overlap; indeed, many of the goals of the cybernetic systems exist precisely because they increased reproductive fitness over the course of evolution. However, cybernetic and evolutionary functions can diverge, and we see this most clearly and most often in human beings, who “have evolved an unprecedented degree of flexibility in the goals we can adopt”.

There are many examples of humans behaving in ways seemingly contrary to reproduction and even survival. DeYoung and Krueger gave the examples of hunger strikes and celibacy, for instance. Now, it may turn out that these behaviors do ultimately serve an evolutionary-selected function, so I certainly don’t want to imply that every behavior has to be conducive to fitness in the present to be evolutionarily functional. My point is merely that understanding the cybernetic function of an individual, in addition to understanding its potential evolutionary function, helps us come to a deeper understanding of human flourishing and well-being. Yes, the sorts of problems that present themselves on the clinician’s couch often overlap with evolutionary dysfunction—problems with survival, mating, and parenting, for instance—but some personal problems do not have an obvious evolutionary function, and the best choice for living the good life is not always the answer that was selected for by evolution.

For instance, the humanistic psychologists, which provided the foundational philosophy behind positive psychology, emphasized the inherent conflicts that come with existing as a human being. Among many things that stand out among humans, we are a self-aware ape. We are an ape concerned with personal identity, creative expression, and purpose. Let’s not underestimate the unique manifestations of the exploration drive that exists among humans, or downplay the extraordinary implications of the many ways this drive can express itself among humans, for living a good life. Other apes don’t have existential crises. There’s a reason why we do, and a reason why this matters.

In The Sane Society, the social psychologist and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm acknowledged our biological drives but argued that the “human condition” involves the fundamental tension between our common nature with other animals and our uniquely developed capacities for self-awareness, reason, and imagination. As Fromm noted,

The problem of [human] existence, then, is unique in the whole of nature: [we have] fallen out of nature, as it were, and [are] still in it; [we are] partly divine, partly animal; partly infinite, partly finite. The necessity to find ever-new solutions for the contradictions in [our] existence, to find ever-higher forms of unity with nature, [our fellow human] and [ourself] is the source of all psychic forces which motivate [us], of all [our] passions, affects and anxieties.

Similarly, the existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom argued there are four “givens of existence” that humans must reconcile: (a) death, the inherent tension between wanting to continue to exist and the inevitability of perishing; (b) freedom, the inherent conflict between the seeming randomness of the universe and the heavy burden of responsibility that comes with the freedom to choose one’s own destiny; (c) isolation, the inherent tension between, on the one hand, wanting to connect deeply and profoundly with other human beings and be part of a larger whole and, on the other hand, never fully being able to do so, always remaining existentially alone; and (d) meaninglessness, the tension between being thrown into an indifferent universe that has no inherent meaning and yet wanting to find some sort of purpose for our own individual existence in the incomprehensibly short time in which we are living on this planet.

In summary, I believe there are three things that evolutionary psychologists can do to help elucidate the good life. The first is to identify evolutionary mismatches that we can rectify, as Geher and Wedberg so accurately point out in this book. Second, I believe it’s important to consider meaning and purpose, and the higher-level goals that are unique to each individual, and give people a sense of truly existing on this planet. Third, I recommend identifying evolved tendencies (e.g., the desire to cheat on a spouse) that can get in the way of our well-being. Coming to a more complete understanding of why these evolved self-undermining tendencies are so strong could be a useful insight for those striving for something more enduring.

I say enduring because humans are truly unique in the long timescale of our goals and in our flexibility to choose which goals we most wish to prioritize. One promising method for reaching clarity in our goals and becoming less immediately reactive to our evolved instincts is the practice of meditation, which has received increasing research attention in positive psychology. As Robert Wright has written about so convincingly in Why Buddhism Is True, the disciplined practice of meditation, over time, can help one to become less slavish to our evolved instincts and be kinder, gentler, and happier as a result. It can also help one witness more beauty in the world.

In my view, those working within the field of positive evolutionary psychology should look not only at the individual parts that may have increased reproductive fitness in our distant past, but also at the whole person, right here, right now, listening to their dreams, desires, priorities, and conflicts and helping them become something greater than the sum of their parts.

In other words, this exciting new field can help people become more fully human.

This article was adapted from the Foreword of Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life, published by Oxford University Press

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