Originally published August 20, 2019
Evolutionary approaches to psychology hold the promise of revolutionizing the field and unifying it with the biological sciences. But among both academics and the general public, a few key misconceptions impede its application to psychology and behavior. This essay tackles the most pervasive of these.
Misconception 1: Evolution and Learning Are Conflicting Explanations for Behavior
People often assume that if something is learned, it’s not evolved, and vice versa. This is a misleading way of conceptualizing the issue, for three key reasons.
First, many evolutionary hypotheses are about learning. For example, the claim that humans have an evolved fear of snakes and spiders does not mean that people are born with this fear. Instead, it means that humans are endowed with an evolved learning mechanism that acquires a fear of snakes more easily and readily than other fears. Classic studies in psychology show that monkeys can acquire a fear of snakes through observational learning, and they tend to acquire it more quickly than a similar fear of other objects, such as rabbits or flowers. It is also harder for monkeys to unlearn a fear of snakes than it is to unlearn other fears. As with monkeys, the hypothesis that humans have an evolved fear of snakes does not mean that we are born with this fear. Instead, it means that we learn this fear via an evolved learning mechanism that is biologically prepared to acquire some fears more easily than others.
Second, learning is made possible by evolved mechanisms instantiated in the brain. We are able to learn because we are equipped with neurocognitive mechanisms that enable learning to occur—and these neurocognitive mechanisms were built by evolution. Consider the fact that both children and puppies can learn, but if you try to teach them the same thing—French, say, or game theory—they end up learning different things. Why? Because the dog’s evolved learning mechanisms are different from those of the child. What organisms learn, and how they learn it, depends on the nature of the evolved learning mechanisms housed in their brains.
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