What Caused the Darwin Boom?

Why is evolutionary psychology so popular, and what questions has it not yet answered?
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Why has evolutionary psychology exploded in popularity?

Robert Wright: Well, I think it’s not surprising that evolutionary psychology should be occupying center stage given the fact that the human mind was created by evolution. So, in a way you can ask, why did it take so long? And I think the answer there is two-fold. First of all, there were some genuine kind of refinements, or extensions of the theory of natural selection in the 1960s, early ‘70s, that allowed us to make sense of the not obviously animal parts of human behavior and emotion. Things like altruism, love, the conscience, empathy. So there’s that. And separately, there had been some political resistance to the idea of using Darwin to think of human psychology. And that dates back to political things that have happened in the first half of the 20th century. So, at the same time that there was genuine progress in the field, there was a kind of slow kind of dissipation of the long-standing political resistance. But it wasn’t – it didn’t happen overnight. I mean, when I wrote The Moral Animal in 1994, there was plenty of resistance.

Question: What are the major unanswered questions in evolutionary psychology?

Robert Wright: I think, I really think that the big questions are kind of taken care of in evolutionary psychology. If you look at the landscape of human thought and feeling, the main contours are broadly speaking explained and it’s a question of working out the details. Now, there are little kind of riddles. I mean, there’s no consensus on the origin of, like laughter. And the answer there is, there’s probably no single answer. It’s kind of a lot of little thing converged, or laughter is something that in rudimentary form emerged for one purpose and was adapted for various other purposes. But I would say, in terms of the basic emotions that the govern our everyday lives, you know, ranging from fear to envy to joy and including these things like altruism and empathy, broadly speaking we now know why they’re here. And they seem to comply in their dynamics with what the theory would predict.

I mean, there is separately from that, the question of consciousness, but that’s a metaphysical conundrum that is not, per se, answered by evolutionary psychology, but the more I say about that the less sense I will seem to make. So, I’ll stop there.

Question: Is there a class of human behaviors that evolutionary psychology can’t illuminate?

Robert Wright: Religion is not an adaptation. That is to say, it’s not here because it was conducive to the replication of the genes underlying it. I mean, I think there are genes underlying religion in the sense that all the kinds of basic emotions that are part of religious experience, things like “awe” for example, and various kinds of superstitious intuitions and some of the various things that might make up religion do themselves have a basis in the genes. It’s just that those genes weren’t preserved by natural selection because they gave rise to what we now call religious behavior. So, I think religion as we think of it is largely a product of cultural evolution. It took shape in essence, you might say, after natural selection did its work.

Recorded on February 12, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen