Premises of Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology involves threekey premises—domain specificit , numer-ousness, and functionality.

Domain Specificity

Adaptations are presumed to be domain-specifi in the sense that they are designed by the evolutionary process to solve a particular adaptive problem. Consider the problem of food selection—choosing the right foods to eat from among a lar ge array of possible objects in the world. A general decision rule, such as "eat the first thing yo encounter," would be highly maladaptive, since it would fail to guide you to choose the small subset of objects that are edible and nutritious. Such a general rule would result in the consumption of poisonous plants, twigs, dirt, or feces, which would interfere with successful survival. The mechanisms favored by the evolutionary process are more specialized. In the area of food selection, domain specificity is seen in ou preferences for calorically rich fat and in our evolved sweet tooth, which leads us to objects rich in sugar, such as ripe fruit and berries. General mechanisms cannot guide us to the small islands of successful adaptive solutions that are surrounded by oceans of maladaptive solutions.

Another reason for domain specificity is that di ferent adaptive problems require different sorts of solutions. Our taste preferences, which guide us to successful food choices, do not help us solve the adaptive problem of choosing successful mates. If we were to use our food preferences as a general guide to the choice of mates, we would select strange mates indeed. Successful mate choices require dif ferent mechanisms. Domain specificity implies that selection tends to fashion specific mechanis for each adaptive problem.


Since our ancestors faced many sorts of adaptive problems in the course of human evolution, we have numerous adaptive mechanisms. If you look at a textbook on the body, for example, you will discover a lar ge number of physiological and anatomical mechanisms. We have a heart to pump our blood, a liver to detoxify poisons, a larynx to prevent us from choking, and sweat glands to keep the body thermally regulated.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that the human mind, our evolved psychology, also contains a lar ge number of mechanisms—psychological mechanisms. Consider the most common fears and phobias. We tend to be scared of snakes, heights, darkness, spiders, clif f edges, and strangers. Just in the domain of fears, we have a large number of psychological mechanisms because the number of hazardous hostile forces of nature has been so lar ge. We are also likely to have psychological mechanisms for the selection of mates, the detection of cheaters in social exchanges, the favoring of habitats, the rearing of children, and the formation of strategic alliances. Evolutionary psychologists expect there to be a lar ge number of domain-specific psy chological mechanisms to correspond to the lar ge number of distinct adaptive problems humans have recurrently confronted.


The third key premise of evolutionary psychology is functionality, the notion that our psychological mechanisms are designed to accomplish particular adaptive goals. If you were a medical researcher studying the liver, you could not get very far in your understanding unless you understood the functions of the liver (e.g., in filtering ou toxins). Evolutionary psychologists suggest that understanding adaptive function is also critical to insight into our evolved psychological mechanisms. We can't understand our preferences for certain mates, for example, without inquiring about the function of such preferences (e.g., to select a healthy or fertile mate). The search for function involves identifying the specific adaptive problem for which the mechanis is an evolved solution.

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