Evolutionary perspectives on human behaviour


Humans are a weird species.


March 18, 2018

Humans are a peculiar species. On the one hand, we have evolved like all other species, forming a branch of the tree of life along with the rest of the animal kingdom. A complete understanding of humans and their place in the world thus requires we take an evolutionary perspective. On the other hand, the remarkable cultural diversity observed among human populations, combined with our apparent agency—our ability to decide whether or not to act on the decisions we make—complicates matters enormously, and seems to place us outside of nature. How, for example, can we explain the decision to actively avoid having children as a trait that evolved by the action of natural selection? In addition, there are some questions that do not seem to require an evolutionary explanation such as: how do you humans make meaning in their lives? Or is socialized health care a good idea? Or what are the moral and legal implications of new reproductive technologies? In other words, while an evolutionary perspective is necessary for a complete explanation of human behaviour, such a perspective is not always essential. Indeed, many areas of the social sciences do very well without a specific evolutionary orientation. It is also notable that some social scientists actively resist the application of evolutionary approaches within their discipline. Some of this resistance reflects a dissatisfaction with the nature and quality of the evolutionary approaches on offer, particularly those emanating from within psychology. Sometimes, however, resistance seems to be built on faulty ideologically-driven assumptions about what an evolutionary-oriented approach entails. The most productive way forward is to adopt a pluralist biosocial perspective to the study of human behaviour; one that draws on a number of disciplines within the natural and social sciences, without any attempt to reduce one to the other, or deny the existence and importance of any particular discipline.