Evolutionary Psychology’s Expansion – Our Promise to Darwin

When Charles Darwin (1859) articulated his theory of natural selection and described how natural forces are responsible for the beauty, diversity, and origins of life, he was thinking big. And his thinking was integrative. In his voyages around the world, examining flora, fauna, fossils, and peoples in South America, the Pacific Islands, Australia, and, indeed, the Galapagos Islands, he came to the realization that the entirety of life is inter-connected. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

This idea was so big – and he articulated it wish such grace and vision – that he now is considered a historical figure who is compared with Abraham Lincoln in terms of importance on the modern world. Think about that.

But while Darwin’s big idea is considered as having had such an enormous impact on modern thought, on the one hand, a careful examination of the situation actually tells a story of unfulfilled vision. In an analysis of how well college students understand evolution, David Sloan Wilson, one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists – at Binghamton University – studied how well Binghamton students were learning evolutionary principles. The short version, based on data now about a decade old, is this – biology students were learning about evolution – as were some geology students – and no one else was learning this stuff. Further, David found that there was a perception even among the students who were learning evolution that this was a set of ideas to be limited to certain areas of biology and paleontology – not a major set of ideas that can help us understand content across the academic experience (Wilson, 2007).

David’s both smart and proactive – so he worked to develop a campus-wide program in evolutionary studies (EvoS) – an academic curriculum open to all students – where students from any academic major can learn about the basics of evolution and see these applications in any area – engineering, anthropology, literary studies, the arts, psychology, and more. And this idea was successful – with the EvoS program at Binghamton now in about its 10th year, our sister program at SUNY New Paltz in its 7th year, and about 50 colleges and universities around the world explicitly connected to the international EvoS Consortium (see www.evostudies.org).

Darwin was clear that he thought evolution had broad implications for humanity. In fact, when we think about the question of “who was the first evolutionary psychologist” – the first scholar to really see how important evolution is to understanding human behavior – Darwin is the man. He wrote several books that were primarily about our evolved psychology – including much of what he wrote in The Descent of Man (Darwin, 1871) and in The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (Darwin, 1872) – and more. Darwin realized that to best understand the full human experience, we need to understand where we come from and what our minds and bodies were naturally selected to do.

In working with professors and students around the globe, the EvoS Consortium is working to help realize Darwin’s big vision of utilizing evolutionary approaches to help us understand all aspects of the human condition – human psychology (see Geher, 2013), politics, the arts, religion, and more. And major steps toward understanding human health from an evolutionary perspective (see Platek et al., 2011) are underway in labs across the world.

Evolution is not just for biologists any more – a point that comes out clearly in the work of renowned evolutionary biologist Lee Dugatkin, whose current work on topics such as Jefferson’s naturalistic tendencies during the founding of this nation, integrate politics, history, evolutionary biology, and more (see Carmen, Dillon, & Geher, 2010). And it’s this kind of cross-disciplinary integration and synthesis (see Wilson, Geher, & Waldo, 2009) that will help us as thinkers, scholars, and citizens of the world with an investment in the future, allow Darwin’s vision – which connects not only the entirety of life – but also the domains of body with mind and behavior – to better understand the world and our place in it.

Recent research has demonstrated that there is considerable resistance to the application of Darwin’s ideas to issues of human behavior (see Geher & Gambacorta, 2010) – and, worse, scholars have to pull teeth to obtain a solid education at the graduate level on the topic of evolution as it relates to the human condition (see Glass, Wilson, & Geher, 2012).

As evolutionists in 2013, we are Darwin’s Footsoldiers. And we will not rest until Darwin’s full vision – which includes evolutionary principles applied across all areas of academic inquiry – is realized.

 

References

Carmen, R., Moss Dillon, H., & Geher, G. (2010). History, biology, and politics neatly intertwined: Lee Dugatkin’s newest work as an exemplar of an EvoS education. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 2(2), 67-71.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection

or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life (1st ed.). London, UK: John Murray.

Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex (2 vols.). London, UK: John Murray.

Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London, UK: John Murray.

Geher, G. (2013). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Geher, G., & Gambacorta, D. (2010). Evolution is not relevant to sex differences in humans because I want it that way! Evidence for the politicization of human evolutionary psychology. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 2(1), 32-47.

Glass, D. J., Wilson, D.S., & Geher, G. (2012). Evolutionary training in relation to human affairs is sorely lacking in higher education. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 4(2), 16-22.

Platek, S., Geher, G., Heywood, L., Stapell, H., Porter, R., & Waters, T. (2011). Walking the walk to teach the talk: Implementing ancestral lifestyle changes as the newest tool in evolutionary studies. Evolution: Education & Outreach, 4, 41-51. Special issue on EvoS Consortium (R. Chang, G. Geher, J. Waldo, & D. S. Wilson, Eds).

Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

Wilson, D. S., Geher, G., & Waldo, J. (2009). EvoS: Completing the evolutionary synthesis in higher education. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 1, 3-10.

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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