Tufts OpenCourseware
Author: Ross S. Feldberg

Evolutionary psychology attempts to understand specific human behaviors in the context of adaptation by natural selection. We will examine the modes of explanation employed in this field and the problems associated with them by looking at two rather controversial examples:

  1. The idea that rape is an evolutionary selected trait

  2. Evolutionary explanations for child abuse by non-birth parents

1. Assignments

We will explore this topic through the following assignments:

  1. In-class discussions of the readings

  2. In-class exercise on Evolutionary Psychology

  3. Memo to the university president on whether to hire several faculty in this field

  4. An in-class mock trial in which arguments from evolutionary psychology are made in the sentencing phase

2. Readings

  • Chapter 5 “Evolutionary Psychology” from Sense and Nonsense by K.N. Laland and G.R. Brown (Oxford Univ press 2002) pp 153-196)

  • “The Biology of Human Rape” Jurimetrics 39: 137-147 (1999)

  • “Child Abuse and Other Risks of Not Living with Both Parents” M. Daly and M. Wilson pp 159- 171 in Human Nature: A Critical Reader ed. L. Betzig Oxford Univ Press (1997)


  1. The environments that contemporary humans experience differ enormously from those our ancestors would have experienced – so to explain our current behaviors on evolutionary grounds (as sociobiology attempts to do) might be an error since our present behaviors may not be adaptive at all but reflect more primitive conditions.

  2. If we accept the above premise, we need to generate hypothesis about the adaptive problems that the human mind had to solve in the environment of our ancestors during the evolution of the human species. This is termed the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (the EAA) and is believed to be the Pleistocene environment (1.7 myr ago to 10,000 years ago) inhabited by our Stone-Age hunter-gatherer ancestors. It is suggested that specific “Design Features” evolved in our brains to solve common problems during the EEA.

  3. We should not focus on behaviors per se, but rather deal with “Evolved Psychological Mechanisms.” Behaviors are complex but they are postulated to be built from simpler response circuits termed “domain-specific mental modules." These evolved as solutions to ancestral problems and exist because they recurrently solved a specific problem of survival or reproduction. Take jealousy as an example: Males that experienced a jealous emotion when they saw their partner behaving in a friendly way toward rival males and were spurred into some behavior would have had a selective advantage over males who were indifferent to the possibility of being cuckolded or abandoned. However, the behavior exhibited by each male feeling this emotion might depend on his size, the size of the rival, his and the rival's kinships, and many other factors. Some males might reply with aggression toward the rival, others with increased vigilance over the female, and yet others by abandoning the doubted female. There is no simple answer as to which behavioral strategy would maximize fitness, but the basic emotion (jealousy) would probably be fundamental to fitness and thus evolutionarily selected.

Evolutionary psychology is an intellectually fascinating approach to human behavior, but there are a number of critiques of this field that will be pointed out in your reading and during our class discussions.


4.1. Books by Evolutionary Psychologists

  1. The Adapted Mind (Barkow, J., , Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. eds) Cambridge Univ. Press (1992) ( a bit dense for most readers)

    The following were written more to a general audience:

  2. Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (3rd ed) Buss, D. Allyn & Bacon 2007

  3. The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating . David Buss HarperCollins, New York (1994)

  4. The Moral Animal: Why We Are The Way We Are (The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology) Wright, R. Abacus, London (1994)

  5. How the Mind Works , Steven Pinker Penguin Books, London (1997)

  6. Evolution and Human Behavior Cartwright , J Macmillan, London (2000)

4.2. Books More Critical of Evolutionary Psychology

  1. I consider the best and most even-handed analysis is:
    Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior K.N. Laland and G.R. Brown Oxford Univ. Press (2002)

  2. Another excellent critique is:
    Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature David J. Buller (Bradford Books- MIT press 2005)

  3. A more critical approach is given in:
    Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology Rose, H and Rose, S (eds) Jonathan Cape, pub London (2000)

  4. Evolution, Gender and Rape Travis, C.B. (ed) (see chapter by E.A. Lloyd “Violence Against Science: Rape and Evolution” MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (2003)

  5. Some interesting articles analyzing this field can be found in:
    Lloyd, E.A. and Feldman, M.W. (2002) “Evolutionary Psychology: A view from evolutionary biology” Psychological Enquiry 13 (2) p 150-156

  6. NY Review of Books : 1997 Exchange between S.J. Gould and Steven Pinker on EP

  7. Critique in Slate Magazine