Psychology from the Evolutionary Perspective

(This is the first in a series of articles that will be dealing with my model of human psychology. New articles will be linked in sequence as they are published)

At this point, I could just tell you to go read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – and you should do that, just skip chapters 12 and 13, for they are a blemish on the face of this excellent work. But I also need to add a few words of my own to this, including a point or two on which I disagree with the great man. So.

The genes are the basic units that undergo evolution. They are, in a purely mathematical sense, ‘individuals’, they are chemical compounds that interact and create life and change. But they are not alive, of course, they have no will. Neither does evolution which is, again, a physical-mathematical process. Yet I will be using phrases like ‘evolution designed’ and ‘the genes have built’, merely to save myself the need to repeat all of the above every time I describe various processes or explain principles.

Our genes have built us, as vehicles to carry them and to spread copies of themselves. Since they are not living, conscious beings, merely patterns of matter, they ‘do not care’ about their own personal survival, the survival of a single copy, but, rather, they ‘care’ about the survival of the pattern itself. The pattern might change – mutate – but this is not a problem, as long as the pattern (the gene) survives.

Every gene exists, within the genotype, in a certain number of variations – alleles (you would need more than one or two alleles for every gene within the genome, the number each individual carries, to recreate a species, if you want to have a robust population). Every variation – mutation – in one such allele will effect its ability to spread more copies of itself within the genotype (the collection of all alleles of all genes within the ‘gene pool’ of a given species). Every such mutation is ‘judged’ by evolution immediately in the next generation of individuals: if it helps spread more copies of the allele within the population it means it is successful, and it will be ‘kept’. If it does the opposite, it will naturally vanish – individuals carrying it will die before procreating, or will simply fail to procreate.

Here we see a principle in action which I discuss in A Fractal Model of Society: the balance between cooperation and competition. The genes need to cooperate in order to create the organism that will aid them in their task of spreading copies of themselves, but they are also competing against each other – one against the the other, one allele or group of alleles against another. We emerge, in a sense, as a compromise between those forces, and our psychology represents their competing interests.

Usually these interests are well aligned. You could say that they are represented, in our psyche, as the urge to survive and the urge to procreate. From the genetic perspective, survival is merely secondary to procreation, and is only needed because an organism that does not survive well has smaller chances at successfully spreading its alleles.

Now, survival does not merely mean ‘not dying’. Survival means ‘getting as far away from death as possible, being as successful in overcoming all the challenges of life as possible’. This will assist your survival – and this is what the ‘Self’, the individual, wants – and will help attracting mates and spreading your genes – which is what they want.

But sometimes there will be a contradiction between those two urges. A man might risk his life for sex, or fight another over a woman, and a woman, a mother, can make great sacrifices for her children. These examples are pretty obvious: the genes inside the males, in our example, have wired them to accept a certain risk to themselves, and to the copies of the genes they are carrying, to obtain a chance at creating new copies. This is mathematically sound, and the individual’s psychology is adjusted to carry out this strategy. The mother has also been wired to risk and even sacrifice herself to preserve the copies of her genes that are within her children, which, potentially, have a better chance at procreating, in the future, than she does.

Our genes have built a vehicle to carry them, and they have built a computer to control it – the brain. Naturally, the brain was ‘designed’ to fulfill the genes’ agenda, but in it a new entity was created, deemed, by Mother Evolution, as necessary for the operation of this computer: the ‘Self’. Us (or our distant ancestors – if you want to go to the beginning). Something that can feel pain and therefore desire and strive to avoid it, and pleasure, and try to obtain it.

Our subconscious holds our genetic wiring, transcribing the genetic agenda into patterns of reaction; it receives ‘impulses’ from the environment, interprets them, creates urges and emotions that act on the Self, causing it either pain or pleasure, depending on what the impulse means as far as the organism’s procreation and survival needs are concerned, and the Self then generates secondary emotions, that drive action (this is described a little more in detail in Life, Evolution and Consciousness).

In some cases, the interests of the Self – to avoid pain and to attain pleasure – might not match completely those of the genes that built it, like in the cases mentioned above or in other cases, when the interests of the Self might take precedence. There are more complicated examples – genes might also sacrifice themselves, and the organisms that are carrying them to preserve similar, related genes (or alleles), the ones found in relatives. I will not go into it too much – Dawkins has already done a wonderful job of that, in his books (just remember there is no free will, even if Dawkins might think there might be such a thing….).

This is the foundation for human behavior. We are neither ‘good’, nor ‘bad’ – these are subjective terms edified by our culture as universal principles, for, unless edified, they would not have been followed. Our behavior is driven by physical and by mathematical forces – by our genetically wired behavior, augmented by the behavior we learn from our environment, by the way we are programmed by experience. In order to understand human psychology you first need to step out of the boundaries of this cultural thinking that assumes the existence of a free will within us, then uses memes – cultural ideas – and social pressure to force us to change our behavior.

This is just more programming and, while it was needed to create society, and for it to evolve (and – and here lies the rub – is probably still needed to prevent it from disintegrating), the ideas it has instilled in our minds, about the human condition, now stand in the way of the evolution of the science of psychology.

Before I conclude this, a few more words about programming: like Dawkins says in his book, our genes hold the basic principles – the basic math – underlying our behavior. They define basic survival strategies, which have been tested, generation after generation, by their success in preserving the lives of their carriers and in enabling them to spread their genes throughout the population of the species.

On top of that, there is another layer, that of our learned behavior. You could say that every experience we have, in life, is an instance of programming: we interact with our environment, we learn something, we store information in our memory, with emotional data attached to it: did it make us feel good or bad, what sensations it gave us, etc. In every situation in life we quickly and not always consciously examine this database of experiences and make a decision how to act based on that. Well, the decision happens, we think we are making it, that we could easily have made another, if we wanted to. As part of our programming, it is necessary for us to believe that about ourselves, and about others.

It is essential, for every creature, to undergo this behavioral adjustment, this programming, early in life, to develop behavior that’s ideally adjusted to its particular environment. This is why the impressions created by our experiences are more powerful the earlier in life they happen. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s impossible to predict every little change to the biosphere, there are many small variations between different parts of the same biosphere, and these changes can happen fast while genetic adjustment is slow; which makes this programming essential even for creatures with less complicated behavior that that of humans.

In addition to the regular learning mechanism described above there is another one, more primitive, possibly more ancient, that I believe plays a pivotal role in the creation of irrational behavior – what we call mental illness. It will be the subject of one of my next articles.

Peace out.


See Also:



(Next: The Soldier’s Dilemma; Determinism and Morality)

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