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Evolutionary Psychology

10 Evolved Traits That Don't Help Us

Seeing a trait as "evolved" hardly means it's a good thing.

Key points

  • A misconception about evolutionary psychology is that something framed as "evolved" is "good."
  • Evolutionary psychologists often uncover ugly truths about human nature.
  • Scientifically uncovering ugly truths about people is not the same as morally endorsing them.
Alexas_Fotos / Pixabay
Source: Alexas_Fotos / Pixabay

Perhaps the biggest misconception about the field of evolutionary psychology, which (like many areas of human inquiry) often studies the dark side of the human experience, is the idea that unpleasant—and even downright repulsive—features of the human experience that are studied and documented by evolutionary psychologists are somehow supported or encouraged by these scientists.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the field, we refer to such fallacious thinking as "the naturalistic fallacy" (see Buss, 2017, for a great summary of this concept). Basically, this fallacy exists when someone hears about some phenomenon that is described as characterizing something and then that same person makes the leap that the phenomenon is being conceptualized as being how things "should be." We can think of this as conflating (mixing up) "description" (how things are) with "prescription" (how things should be). As someone who has worked in the field for a while, I can tell you that this fallacy accounts for a good proportion of the confusion and resistance that the field of evolutionary psychology runs into from time to time.

This post was conceived in a way that hopefully puts a clear face to this issue. Below, I describe 10 phenomena that have been documented by evolutionary psychologists. In each case, the phenomenon itself is an ugly feature of human behavior. Further, each example was chosen intentionally for being generally considered repulsive by pretty much anyone. This approach is designed to clearly explicate the distinction between "is" and "ought" in terms of the naturalistic fallacy vis a vis work in the field of evolutionary psychology.

1. War has been a constant feature of the human experience since the dawn of recorded history. According to the work of David Livingstone Smith (2009), there has never been a period in which war did not exist in some corner of the globe. From an evolutionary perspective, we can understand war as resulting from efforts for coalitions of individuals to try to secure more resources for themselves relative to others. But, without question, war is a repulsive part of the broader human experience.

2. Betrayal goes deep into the human evolved experience. Wouldn't it be nice if people were always honest with one another and could always be trusted? Well, if you're old enough to read this, then you know that this is not the case. Humans have a long history of betrayal under certain conditions (see De Jesus et al., 2021). Evolution can help us to understand why this often-traumatic process seems to be a constant in the human experience.

3. People often engage in status-seeking behaviors at a cost to others. While it may be subtle at times, people love to flex their status muscles in various contexts, such as when competing with someone for the attention of a potential mate (see Buss, 2017). Such flexing can be hurtful and can lead to all kinds of conflict and bad feelings. It is often an ugly part of the human experience. An evolutionary approach can help us to understand what it is all about.

4. Young adult males experience injury and death at concerning rates. Based on the concept of "young male syndrome," males, who, across the lifespan, generally have higher rates of injury and mortality relative to females, tend to take risks and engage in various activities that may well work against their long-term interests (e.g., engaging in physical fights with other males, etc.; see Johnsen et al., 2017). Young male syndrome is a deeply problematic social issue. An evolutionary perspective can help us understand it more clearly.

5. In urban settings, psychopaths are disproportionately represented. Urban settings, which are, in many ways, mismatched from the kinds of environments that our ancestors evolved to experience, tend to encourage psychopathic behaviors (see Figueredo et al., 2006). This is partly because of how much anonymity exists in large cities. And these kinds of behaviors, by definition, are hurtful and dangerous to others.

6. Being overly anxious is as common as it is unpleasant. The emotion system is complex and seems to have evolved to help us gravitate toward factors that will facilitate our own survival and reproductive success and away from factors that could do us harm (see Geher & Wedberg, 2022; Guitar et al., 2018). For better or worse, negative emotional states, such as anxiety, evolved for a reason.

7. Us-and-Them thinking is a foundational and nasty part of the human experience. Going back to the groundbreaking work of Billig and Tajfel (1973), behavioral scientists have been interested in the concept of ingroup/outgroup thinking, which basically exists when someone sees members of "their" group in overly positive terms and members of "other" groups in overly negative terms. To say that this phenomenon has driven social conflict in adverse ways across the human experience would be a gross understatement.

8. Emotional instability is common—and has adaptive roots. Emotional instability, often referred to as "neuroticism," as off-putting as it may be to others, is also a highly common human trait. Evolutionary scholars who have studied this phenomenon have found that it seems to play an important role in vigilance to threats: People who are relatively neurotic take extra care to avoid dangerous stimuli (see Nettle, 2008).

9. Depression is both awful and evolutionarily necessary. From an emotional perspective, few states rival outright depression in terms of adverse experiences. That said, evolutionary psychologists Keller and Nesse (2006) provide strong evidence that depression serves various functions, including providing time and space for people to ruminate after experiencing failures so as to, essentially, do better in the future. Depression is depressing, by definition. But it also has various evolutionary functions.

10. About a third of homicides follow from reactions to infidelity. Research on reactions to infidelity in modern, industrialized samples has found that about a third of homicides follow from reactions to infidelity (see Daly & Wilson, 1982). Clearly, homicides are socially abhorrent and problematic. And reducing such violence behooves us all. Using an evolutionary framework, Daly and Wilson show how such actions, as repulsive as they are, follow from evolutionary reasoning. Thus, an evolutionary approach can shed light and understanding on this large-scale social problem. And if you understand something better, of course, that can help you fix it.

Bottom Line

While some evolutionary psychology research focuses on adverse elements of the human experience (e.g., homicide, war, and betrayal—to name a few), it would be nothing short of foolish to think that evolutionary psychologists, who are, of course, people too, are advocating for such phenomena simply by studying and documenting them.

Just like any reasonable adults, evolutionary psychologists generally are interested in helping to reduce the world's problems. We want less homicide. We want less war. We want people to experience mental and physical health. We want people to thrive. And we want our work to help move toward these broader goals (see Geher & Wedberg, 2022).

Studying something and documenting that it exists is hardly the same as advocating that said phenomenon should exist. Evolutionary psychologists can help us to better understand why war exists. This is hardly the same as taking the stance that war should exist.

So next time that you hear about some findings from the field of evolutionary psychology, be sure to keep the "is" and "ought" distinction straight. Darwin's ideas have the capacity to make the world a better place for all. And generally speaking, based on my experience, nearly every scholar who identifies as an evolutionary psychologist would agree.

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Buss, D. M. (2017). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised edition). New York: Basic Books.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. I. (1982). Homicide and Kinship. American Anthropologist, 84, 372-78.

De’Jesús, A. R., Cristo, M., Ruel, M., Kruchowy, D., Geher, G., Nolan, K., Santos, A., Wojszynski, C., Alijaj, N., DeBonis, A., Elyukin, N., Huppert, S., Maurer, E., Spackman, B. C., Villegas, A., Widrick, K., & Zezula, V. (2021). Betrayal, Outrage, Guilt, and Forgiveness: The Four Horsemen of the Human Social-Emotional Experience. The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 9(1), 1-13.

Figueredo, A. J., Vásquez, G., Brumbach, B. H., & Schneider, S. M. R. (2006). The heritability of life history strategy: The K-factor, covitality, and personality. Social Biology.

Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2022). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Guitar, A, E., Glass, D. J., Geher, G., & Suvak, M. K. (2018). Situation-specific emotional states: Testing Nesse and Ellsworth’s (2009) model of emotions for situations that arise in goal pursuit using virtual-world software. Current Psychology.

Johnsen, L.L., Kruger, D.J., Geher, G., Wiegand, A.G., Shaiber, R.L., & Garcia, J.R. (2017). Youth injuries as a function of sex, life history, and neighborhood safety. Human Ethology Bulletin, 3, 85-108.

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.

Nettle, D. & Clegg, H. (2008). Personality, mating strategies and mating intelligence. In G. Geher & G. F. Miller (Eds.), Mating intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind’s reproductive system (pp. 121-135). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Smith, D. L. (2009). The most dangerous animal. New York: St. Marten’s Griffin

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