The term “evolutionary psychology” was popularized in the 1990s but is really just the current label for the longstanding argument that human behavior is as least as much nature as nurture and that the nature is a product of deep evolutionary history. Cf. Carl Jung regarding a newborn: “He is not born as a tabula rasa [clean slate], he is merely born unconscious. But he brings with him systems that are organized and ready to function in a specifically human way, and these he owes to millions of years of human development.” This seems obvious to most people, and it is clearly the case in all other species. Yet it is not obvious to academic sociologists among whom the tabula rasa doctrine long has been dominant; humans are different, they argue, and among humans culture trumps nature. This is not as crazy as it sounds to most outside of academe. We do have the mental capacity to choose to act against our natural predilections, whether from personal choice or from indoctrination (submitting to which arguably is also a personal choice), and I know of no major evolutionary psychologist who dismisses nurture as irrelevant. But to say a slate can be overwritten is quite different from saying that there is nothing to overwrite. Also, slates never can be wiped entirely clean. Something shows.
The Savanna Principle that underlies evolutionary psychology is very much in line with Jung’s remark. The earliest hominid remains so far discovered date back 6,000,000 years. Anatomically modern humans have been around for some 200,000 years. For nearly all that time all of them were hunter-gatherers; a handful of humans still are. People, initially in small numbers, switched over to pastoralism and farming starting around 12,000 years ago. The very first cities formed around 5000 years ago, though only in the 21st century has a majority of the world’s population come to live in urban areas. The Savanna Principle states that 12,000 years is not nearly enough time to alter humans fundamentally. (It is long enough for trivial changes, e.g. adult lactose tolerance in a minority of the world’s population, but not fundamental ones.) We still have minds evolved for a Stone Age world. Adapted for life on the savanna, we navigate Manhattan and Shanghai as best we can, which isn’t always well.
Two books that address this mismatch are Mismatch: How Our Stone Age Brain Deceives Us Every Day and What We Can Do about It by Dutch authors Ronald Giphartand Professor Mark van Vugt and The Ape That Understood the Universe: How Mind and Culture Evolve by Steve Stewart-Williams, associate professor at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Stewart-Williams’ book is the more general one and is best suited to anyone new to the subject. He uses the device of an imaginary extraterrestrial trying to make sense of human reproduction, violence, cultural memes, tribalism, and bad eating habits. Giphart and Vugt, apropos to their book’s title, focus more specifically on the mismatches. You can take a test quick test of your own degree of mismatch here: https://augustastate.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_etBn10FnqLrnJgp. I scored a 28.
Both books are serviceable and I’ll give them a mild thumbs up for what they do, but a rather more entertaining book from a decade earlier covering much of the same ground is Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters by Alan Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa. The larger part of what the authors have to say is not only obvious, but blindingly obvious. Not all, but most. They tell us the burdens of parenthood often make people unhappy. They tell us men are motivated by sex. They tell us women are more selective than men in their choice of sexual partners and that they take social and economic status into account. This hardly is startling stuff, and even tabula rasa sociologists agree with it; the latter simply assert the reason is culture and socialization. The authors refer to studies that are quite persuasive that there is more to it than that.
Does evolutionary mismatch make us unhappy? Freud certainly thought so 90 years ago, which he expressed in Civilization and Its Discontents. He thought the trade-off was worth it though. Others are not so sure. They think that stepping out of the cave was a bad move. Perhaps so, but I don’t think I’ll be abandoning central heat and LED television in order to return to it even if that means my inner caveman will sometimes grumble and demand things that are bad for me.
The Cramps – Caveman