Darwin’s Lessons for the Graduates

OK – if Darwin really had lessons for today’s college graduates, he’d probably have a lot to say. In coming up with the most thorough, thoughtful, and data-filled work ever completed on questions regarding the nature of life, Darwin did, in fact, come up with a set of ideas that bear on every single aspect of what it means to be human (or cat, or dog, or robin, or goldfish, or moth, or field mouse). Other intellectual approaches that try to address broad ranges of phenomena using some set of principles tend to come up relatively short.

Consider how a Darwinian approach can benefit the area of applied psychology:

Imagine, for a moment, a mental health client who’s a young adult male complaining of social problems, general frustration, and anxiety in social contexts.

A traditionally trained mental health counseling approach might, for instance, pertain to how a client’s frustrations, recent confrontational history, and social problems need to be understood in a specific family context. The client’s familial relationship history would likely be recorded and analyzed with an eye toward helping this client. Taking the cultural norms of that family into account is broad and such an approach has the capacity to help a lot of people with diverse situations. However, I must say that, devoid of evolutionary principles, this theory is a bit narrow.

Evolutionary mental health counseling would go a step farther – perhaps a great leap further. Evolutionary mental health counseling focuses on how some behavioral problem would have functioned under ancestral conditions – with a goal of possibly seeing if said behavioral problem would have had the effect of increasing reproductive success under ancestral conditions.

Such an analysis differs from the prior in that it is rooted in Darwinism. Thus, it thinks about problems in terms of Darwinian questions, to help understand (a) why the behavioral pattern evolved under ancestral conditions, (b) what factors in the situation encourage such behavior – and, perhaps, (c) what factors mobilize actions in a way that they would increase reproductive success.

An EP counselor, looking at this situation, sees things very differently from a traditionally trained counselor. The client is a single man of reproductive age – and is, at 20-some years, a prime candidate for young male syndrome (Daly & Wilson, 1983) – a time in the life of every man when he’s willing to take particularly high risks to unconsciously gain access to mates. Confrontational, risky behavior is typical from individuals in this demographic – and its ultimate goal is to try to attract mates – just as efforts among adult male caribou during mating season are designed to defeat competitors and gain access to females. The counselor works, thus, to help the client develop non-dangerous skills that are attractive to others and that help build social connections.

These two explanations for the client’s frustration and aggressive outbursts are not particularly incongruous. To some extent, they explain the behavior at different levels, with the non-EP version focusing on proximate causes (such as the immediate familial context) and the EP version focusing on distal, ultimate causes, such as how the pattern may bear on reproductive success.

Given the unmatched power of Evolutionary Theory as a tool in unlocking the mysteries of the world, it makes exquisite sense to apply evolutionary theory to academic fields with stated goals of helping others (Keller & Nesse, 2006). To the extent that the goal (helping others) is important and valued and that the evolutionary explanation opens new insights into how to move toward the goal – including implications of specific actions that can be taken, the evolutionary approach has merit.

Thus, Darwin’s lesson to the graduates is this: Don’t be afraid to apply a new way of thinking to an old problem – even if people in the field are saying “oh no, that’s not needed – really – no – really – I mean it!” In a chapter on the power of evolution, Wilson (2007) talks about “teaching the experts” – essentially arguing that students with a strong background in EvoS have cognitive skills used to make important contributions in all kinds of fields – simply because evolution often provides a new and profoundly useful way of thinking about problems. When Daly and Wilson (1988) decided to examine differential filicide rates as a function of status as a step versus biological parent, the data sorted themselves out – nearly diving like lemmings into the appropriate and predicted statistical cells. Evolutionary theory was brought in to address this issue – and the light was turned on in the room as a result.

Graduate, you’ve learned many new skills during your time in college. You’ve learned different perspectives – and you’ve learned that these perspectives don’t always go well with one another (e.g., Geher & Gambacorta, 2010). That’s fine – and I’m glad you saw that in your education. But each perspective you learned about gave you a toolbox. A unique set of ways of thinking about some set of phenomena.

Using evolutionary psychology to understand counseling psychology makes so much sense to me as I’m in a department with a strong counseling program and I’m personally very focused on EP. So I’ve recently become intrigued by applied evolutionary psychology and am currently doing a bunch of scholarship to progress the work of this field.

But I’m not that special. You can do the same. Learn about the principles of evolutionary theory. For instance, think how these ideas may help us understanding democracy – understanding how people vote and for whom they vote. Understand what kind of issues people take on. Understand what kinds of things lead to moral outrage – and why? And what is the function of moral outrage? And how common is it? And what triggers it? And what function does this behavioral pattern serve – either for individuals or, perhaps, for the broader group? This is, of course, just a sample of questions that follow from thinking like an evolutionist. Once you learn to think like an evolutionist, the number of questions to ask is endless!

I’m focusing on how evolutionary principles can help us yield new insights into different areas of inquiry – but you can progress along a different path – other intellectual paths surely have merit. How can social constructionism help explain the pieces of your world? How can hypothesis testing, learned in boring-old-stats class, help you understand the behavior of people at a small bar on a Saturday night?

How can learning about the history of the social sciences help you predict what your future might look like 10 years from now?

Thus, this post isn’t really about how Darwinism can help you better understand the world (not fully, anyway) – it’s, rather, about how the many wonderful (and even less-than-wonderful) sets of ideas you’ve been exposed to during your tenure as a student can help you understand the world beyond how you might imagine.

Darwin’s lessons to the graduates are, thus, in my mind, considerably beyond the lessons of evolution. Here is a sample of Darwin’s lessons:
1. Keep an open mind – Darwin did – and he changed the world forever as a result.
2. Collect data – don’t accept premises that have no substance behind them.
3. Realize that all the sciences and humanities are strongly interconnected.
4. A set of ideas originally designed to explain X, may well provide an exceptional explanation of Y and Z.
5. If you like intellectual approach Q, and see its predictive merit, don’t be afraid to apply Q in new domains – you may stumble upon something that no one ever dreamed of.
6. Finally, a specific implication of Darwinism for college graduates is this: Hear that robin singing in the morning? Smell the white blossoms on the natural rose bushes near the woods? See the turkey vultures soaring high – in communicative harmony with one another? Note this: The same forces accounting for these examples account for everything you see when you look in a mirror. You are part of this magnificent natural world. This insight is, for my money, what makes Darwinism a truly spiritual approach to the world. “There is grandeur in this view of life” (Darwin, 1859).

Congratulations graduates. Along with my professorial brethren, I wish you the very best in your future. Make us proud. And remember, your success is our success.

And for more information about the exciting new field of “Applied Evolutionary Psychology,” check out the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society (AEPS – yes, from APES to AEPS)!


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: John Murray.

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, 32-47.

Keller, M. C., & Nesse, R. M. (2006). The evolutionary significance of depressive symptoms:
Different life events lead to different depressive symptom patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 316-330.

Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for Everyone. New York: Delacorte Press.

Wilson M, Daly M (1993) Lethal confrontational violence among young men. Pp. 84-106 in NJ Bell & RW Bell, eds., Adolescent risk taking. Newbury Park CA: Sage Press.

Wilson M, Daly M (1998) Sexual rivalry and sexual conflict: recurring themes in fatal conflicts. Theoretical Criminology. 2: 291-310.

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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3 Responses to Darwin’s Lessons for the Graduates

  1. Avatar Brian Mayer says:

    Great post Dr Geher! And I wish you’d been my commencement speaker.

  2. Glenn Geher Glenn Geher says:

    Thanks Rose – I definitely am not one to argue with you about the centrality and special place of evolution in the intellectual world. And yeah, I doubt I’ll ever be asked to give a commencement speech – but we’re square in the middle of commencement weekend and felt like writing such a speech anyway!

  3. Rose Chang Rose Chang says:

    Does anyone need a commencement speaker, because I think Dr. Geher is onto something here! I appreciate your respect for the other fields, but I really think evolutionary theory works best in CONJUNCTION with other fields anyway – we shouldn’t look at anything without including an evolutionary perspective. I am a psychologist, and I freely admit there are some unexplainables (okay, a ton) in my field – and wouldn’t you know it, evolutionary theory has helped explain some of them. Take, for example, individual differences in personality. Man that neuroticism just seems completely maladaptive to any current context, why do we see it so much? An evolutionary explanation can look at the trade off in costs/benefits of such a trait, and show how neuroticism can actually be beneficial in terms of survival and reproduction.

    In other words, what you said!

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