Evolutionary Theory: An Empirical Framework for Psychology

Valerie Parente

September 27, 2017

Evolutionary Theory: An Empirical Framework for Psychology

Over the 150 year span since Darwin introduced the theory of evolution, with the publication “On the Origin of Species”, evolutionary concepts have been the backbone to many (but not all) psychological models. It is the hope of David M. G. Lewis and Laith Al-Shawaf  that principles such as natural selection will lead to middle-level theories, then resulting in hypotheses that “generate testable empirical predictions” (2017). After reading the “Evolutionary Theory and Psychology” science briefs published by the American Psychological Association, Lewis and Al-Shawaf’s “Evolutionary Psychology: A How-To Guide” through applying evolutionary theory to behavioral sciences, and the collection of PowerPoint presentations compiled by Assistant Professor Joseph E. Gonzales, I have come to the conclusion that evolutionary theory has a crucial role in unifying the subfields of psychological science and serving as higher level explanatory model for human behavior.

Charles Darwin’s influence has already permeated the social sciences. Research Professor of the University of Michigan, Daniel J. Kruger, references one example in Bowlby’s 1969 child-primary caregiver attachment model (the proposition that if a child is separated from his or her caregiver for a lengthy duration of time then their relationship would become strained). Lewis and Al-Shawaf mention the “dual mating strategy hypothesis”, a proposition that women have psychological adaptations surrounding their ovulatory cycle which motivate them to search for long-term relationships with men who will invest in them and short-term mating with men of high genetic quality during their most fertile phase. Things get a little more complicated when observing the alternative evolutionary explanations to such a phenomena, which Lewis and Al-Shawaf split into “alternative function” (how observed findings could be the output of an adaptation meant to solve a different problem of the species), or “incidental byproduct” (a differing hypothesis that results in the same set of findings) (Lewis & Al-Shawaf, 2017). Clearly there are a lot of nitty-gritty details to evolutionary theory to consider if one is to properly use it in creating middle-level theories, thus justifying Lewis and Al-Shawaf’s well structured guide to developing hypotheses.

If evolutionary theory is to seriously be applied to the social sciences then it must initially be taught correctly, and in full. Debra Lieberman of the University of Miami and Martie Haselton of the University of California (2017), argue that without serious education in evolutionary biology, psychologists risk inaccurately incorporating concepts, like sexual selection, and, consequently, misunderstanding psychological science. Based on our human sexuality lectures and Lewis and Al-Shawaf’s “How-To Guide” to approaching psychological science with evolutionary frames, I would have to agree that ideas like selective pressures of an environment or predator/prey relations could easily become misconstrued or misused without proper training. This is very key to evolutionary theory, and to overlook such a concept is to do nothing but a disservice to the social sciences which have spawned from the study of life (biology). If we want to look at phenomena, one example being clinical psychological disorders, through a purely scientific and modern lens then ideas like adaptations and selective pressures should, at the very least, have a place in the conscience of every psychological scientist.

What personally struck a chord with me throughout the readings of evolutionary theory was how sensible and logical it would be to approach psychology in this way. My greatest abhorrence to Sigmund Freud has always stemmed from his lack of scientific thinking. I found significant similarities between my aversion to Freud and Lewis and Al-Shawaf’s critique of psychological science studied without evolutionary theory. For instance, Freud’s psychodynamic hypotheses about the subconscious and deep desires were radically metaphorical. He enacted no scientific method in coming to such conclusions about the human brain. The id, the ego, and the superego, are none other than metaphors for human consciousness. While beautiful in literary and artistic terms, this is a far cry from scientific. Evolutionary theory, a consistently supported theory amongst the scientific community, would be lost if every psychologist approached the study of mind and behavior with metaphors in the way that Freud did. His methods of “theorizing” have no rightful influence on modern research methods. It is wildly refreshing to know that the American Psychological Association and the psychological community as a whole are beginning to seriously apply some sort of scientific method and model to its research.

In summary, all of these articles reiterate the common theme: that evolutionary theory should be treated as a valid and empirical-bound framework of psychological science. I agree with this notion. Though looking at the human mind from a spiritual, paranormal, and sometimes religious angle can offer vivid metaphors and analogies for theories about the psyche and behavior, this Freud-reminiscent methodology (or lack of) is outdated. If we want to keep the “science” in psychological science then we need higher-level evolutionary models, hypotheses, and theorization drawing from a biological perspective as relevant and reliable as Darwin’s theory of evolution.




Kruger, D. J. (2017). Evolutionary Psychology and the Evolution of Psychology. Evolutionary Theory and Psychology, 3/11-4/11.

Kurzban, R. (2017). Darwinizing the Social Sciences. Evolutionary Theory and Psychology, 4/11-5/11.

Lewis, D. M., & Al-Shawaf, L. (2017). Evolutionary Psychology: A How-To Guide. American Psychologist, 72(4), 353-373.

Lieberman, D., & Haselton, M. (2017). Darwinian Psychology: Where the Present Meets the Past. Evolutionary Theory and Psychology, 5/11-6/11.



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