Changing with the times?

The term 'evolutionary psychology' rings warning bells for some. But is it unwise to dismiss the concept as a legitimate reason for our behaviour?

Illustration by Kevin Ward

Illustration by Kevin Ward

Pop science coverage has a unique way of polarising people. Among some of the most contentious topics in research, evolutionary psychology appears to particularly strike a nerve with a lot of readers. It’s natural that people would take issue with being told that a certain part of their behaviour or instinct was borne out of an evolutionarily significant event sometime in the past, especially in regard to issues so close to home like gender, sexuality and relationships. But how do researchers make some of these claims on modern behaviour while looking through past-tinted glasses?

Scientific research has always been deeply limited by species differences. Despite the fact that humans were and still are just another animal evolutionarily molded by events in our past, the obvious difference for us now is that we can change our environment at an unprecedented rate. Humans wanted to move around faster, so we made cars. Our visual capabilities don’t exactly allow for the optimal periphery viewing that driving safely demands, so we gave those cars mirrors. No other species can compete with the force and, sometimes questionable, determination to which humans continuously change and manipulate themselves and their environment faster than evolution ever could. 

And so it makes sense that some people would be skeptical of a perspective that tells them the reason they make certain decisions or do certain things is a direct result of an innate instinct from the past.

 
Humans are adapting themselves and their environments at a rate unparalleled by other species. Sean McEntee/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Humans are adapting themselves and their environments at a rate unparalleled by other species. Sean McEntee/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

This is often seen in the reactions to papers on gender-based behaviour. A paper recently published in the journal Current Biology argued that men spend more time “making up” after a contact sport than women do. According to the researchers, this is because in our past men had much more of a vested interest in making peace after conflict between unrelated same-sex people. This conclusion borrows from the “male-warrior hypothesis” which argues that conflict resolution between men was evolutionarily vital for the sustainability of different groups. 

In an interview with the Independent, Professor Joyce Benenson, a researcher on the paper, stated how an evolutionary perspective was applicable here. “We believe that human social structure resembles that of chimpanzees in which males cooperate in groups of unrelated same-sex peers,” she said, “and females cooperate more with family members and one or two good friends who act as family”.

The study looked at four different sports across 44 countries and concluded that men would spend more time than women (a difference of a few seconds) after the ‘conflict’ reconciling with their opponents by engaging in "affiliative contact," such as hug, hand shake or pat on the back. The authors suggested there could be other explanations behind this behaviour besides this innate evolutionary drive, such as women being less invested in sport or women feeling a stronger bond to same-sex peers and so the need for a physical reconciliation would be redundant. 

 
Human social structure is often compared to that of chimpanzees. Bald Wonder/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Human social structure is often compared to that of chimpanzees. Bald Wonder/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

 

Some argue, however, that relying on evolutionary explanations and drawing modern implications from them is potentially damaging. In the same piece Jemma Olchawski, head of policy and insight at the Fawcett Society, a gender equality campaign group, slammed the study for its generalisations that could contribute to current gender inequality, saying: “It’s absurd to claim that men are better at cooperating in the workplace than women.” This was in response to the speculations in the discussion of the paper suggesting that this evolutionary perspective could explain the “greater male cooperation in many types of non-kin-based organisations, such as government”.

Another paper published at the end of last year concluded that women put more emphasis on emotional kinds of infidelity, whereas men tend to focus more on physical kinds. The researchers argued that this difference evolved as a method of dealing with cheating and reproduction in the past. The largest concern for a woman, they argued, was whether or not the father of their child would provide resources. Whereas men would be more concerned about whether or not they were actually the father, so they would place more emphasis on physical infidelity.

One thing these studies do not address is modern gender politics — namely the notion that there are motivations behind gender-specific interactions that are arguably unique to our current place in history. For example, one could argue that in a lot of places, including the one in which the study was published, there has been enough of a progression towards gender equality that resource-driven decision making in sexual relationships shouldn’t have as much of an influence. Additionally, with monogamous relationships currently being very much in the majority, any kind of infidelity, physical or emotional, would be likely to have negative consequences regardless of the gender of those involved.

 
Monogamy as a modern social norm sets us apart from our predecessors. Sam / Olai Ose / Skjaervoy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Monogamy as a modern social norm sets us apart from our predecessors. Sam / Olai Ose / Skjaervoy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

But while evolutionary-based studies have their critics, they still provide valuable insight. Dr Michael Kasumovic is an evolution and ecology researcher at the University of New South Wales and runs a lab that has done a great deal of work into behavioural evolution, including some studies that use video games. “Some people think that this is a problem because evolutionary biologists can justify terrible, selfish behaviours because 'it helped our ancestors in the past',” he said. “But that’s not it at all. Evolutionary biology can help us understand why we do the things we do and once we identify it, we can start figuring out ways to improve that behaviour.”

As a researcher in evolution, Dr Kasumovic considers the problem of trying to study certain isolated aspects of human behaviour history from influences that are unique to modern society. But this, like a lot of other immovable variables in science, can sometimes just be a given. “We live in a modern society and it’s impossible to completely remove modern society from our understanding and explanation of why we do what we do,” he said. 

It may seem that changes in modern society would better explain why we do what we do now, in a world where the number of people and frequency with which we communicate is increasing, we are much less restricted to geographical areas and, in turn, have more choice in how we spend our time. But Kasumovic disagrees: “What we need to remember is that it isn’t our modern society that led to our current brains and bodies, it’s our ancestral environment over hundreds of thousands of years that did so. Ignoring our evolutionary history means that we’ll never really understand how and why our brains function”. And while these studies are valuable in understanding aspects of our past, it’s certainly still important to consider how we frame these findings in the context of our present.

Edited by Deborah Kane