“Direct self observation is not nearly sufficient for us to know ourselves: we need history, for the past flows on within us in a hundred waves.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

 This might be a polarizing one. Between creationists and ideology-driven social scientists, evolutionary psychology has managed to make a lot of enemies.

But once you come to truly understand it, you realize that opponents of evo psych are no different from those who resisted the findings of Galileo or Copernicus. I believe we are a decade or two away from a time when any psychological theory that fails to fit into an evolutionary framework will be considered scientifically inadequate.

But beyond the scientific significance, evolutionary psychology actually has massive implications for individual happiness. Developing an understanding of it is like stepping out of the matrix, and I don’t think this is an exaggeration.

In fact, what if I told you that Introducing Evolutionary Psychology was one of the three books the directors of The Matrix required Keanu Reeves to read in preparation for his role in it?

“In the future, the study of human psychology will be completely transformed by the Darwinian approach…it won’t be called ‘Evolutionary Psychology’. It will just be called ‘psychology’.”


– Evans and Zarate 1999, p169


The Basic Claims of Evo Psych

Humans are complicated creatures, and we have an inner world that is just as intricate. The human mind is a puzzle with billions of pieces, so it’s no wonder it can be so difficult to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

But evo psych provides a lens for viewing our minds by understanding how humans came to be and how these adaptations shape who you are today.

The underlying premise of evolutionary psychology is that the human mind cannot be fully understood without considering the selective forces that have shaped it. Evolutionary psychology aims to understand human cognition, emotion, and behavior in terms of the adaptive functions they were built to serve.

Evo psych helps us answer questions like:

But it can also help answer questions like:

None of this diminishes the role of nurture or culture – it just means traits that are found cross-culturally are likely to be adaptations, including the abilities to infer others’ emotions, discern relatives from non-relatives, identify and prefer healthier mates, cooperate with others, and much more.

Many psychological problems stem from evolutionarily adaptive traits gone wrong in modern society. Others, from a biological standpoint, are not bugs but features. But all provide insight into the function of our minds and give clues into how we can optimize our own experience.

Neo-Darwinism and the Gene’s Eye View

Get ready for the heavy stuff. It will be uncomfortable to some, but I think you guys are ready for it.

Aristotle believed that a thing could be called “good” insofar as it successfully performed its intended function. Tables are designed to be flat surfaces for supporting objects above the ground. Boats are designed to transport people and objects across water. Selfie sticks are designed to publicly embarrass their owners.

The function of a human being, Aristotle believed, is happiness. It seems intuitive enough that the state toward which we all seem to be striving, however elusive it may be, would be our function. Many people today share this view.

Aristotle has much wisdom to offer, but he failed to make a realization that the modern world has only recently uncovered. A reality which seems to defy intuition, comprehension, and acceptance today, and which few have the courage to face.

We were not made to be happy. The function of the human being is not to achieve deep satisfaction, nor is it to be productive, altruistic, or rational. We were, in fact, not made for us at all. Our function is to serve another entity altogether – our genes. Using Aristotle’s lens, a good human would not be one that is happy, wise, or moral, but one which makes babies like it’s 1957.

There’s a scene from the infamous Adult Swim show, Rick and Morty, in which Rick quickly builds a robot to pass a dish of butter across the table. After completing its task, the robot asks “What is my purpose?” Rick replies “You pass butter.” The robot looks down in despair and says “Oh my God.” Rick then responds “Yeah, welcome to the club, pal.”

Most find this to be a comically absurd interaction. But if you simply replace Rick with evolution, the butter with our genes, and the table with generations, you end up with an incredibly accurate depiction of the human condition.

Most people assume our genes exist to make copies of us. The reality is far less intuitive: We exist to make copies of our genesEverything about the human condition was sculpted over millions of years to make us the best little gene propagation robots possible.

In The Selfish Gene (quite possibly the most important intellectual work of the last century), Dawkins says “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.”

If any human lacked certain traits like the drive to drink water when dehydrated, the ability to feel pain, the desire to find and retain mates, etc. this would make them far less likely to reproduce. As a result, the organism’s genes would not be preserved over time, and genes with these properties would live on through the generations.

For this reason, our minds are made up of (literal) algorithms which take in environmental and social data as inputs, process it to produce cognitions and emotions, and ultimately result in behavioral outputs. Every pattern of thought and emotion exists to bring about adaptive behaviors based on complex environmental input data. Our minds contain a massive network of if-then relationships.

The entire process of natural selection served to program the human mind by preserving components of the human algorithm that helped preserve and replicate genes in our ancestral environment. Though it was done unintentionally over the course of millions of years, it resulted in the finely tuned piece of software that people today still run, even though we no longer live in this environment.

Sometimes I like to imagine a couple of anthropomorphic strips of DNA hunched over a computer trying to optimize the human algorithm:

“Did you build that code to keep the humans from getting hooked on video games and potentially failing to pass us on?”

“Not yet, but give me another two million years.”

Many of our modern problems are the result of evolutionary mismatch – the conundrum caused by previously adaptive traits becoming maladaptive in the modern world, which is radically different from our ancestral environments in many ways. Our minds were not built, for example, to understand, remember, and predict complex, modern phenomena with perfect accuracy. These goals are all biologically beside the point.

In the modern world, your genes would have you gamble away all your money, have unprotected sex, murder a funny-looking stranger on the subway, and be home in time for an ice cream sundae dinner, which might make for a fun day at the expense of the rest of your life.

But some of our biases and problematic tendencies can be linked directly to biological pressures, meaning it was in some way advantageous to our genes for us to systematically misperceive reality, suffer, or act against our own values.

Whether we realize it or not, and our genes would very much prefer that we didn’t, we live to serve our genetic masters. We are rational and irrational, reflective and impulsive, selfish and altruistic when it helps our genes. We die when it helps our genes (some animals die immediately after reproducing, but humans are kept around for a few more decades to help take care of their offspring).

Neither our evolutionary programmer nor our genetic masters care about our individual interests in the slightest. Uplifting, I know.

Some people find this view depressing, but when you follow it to its full conclusions, I can assure you that an optimistic, empowering, and meaningful path can be constructed from the remains of broken illusions.


The Robot’s Rebellion

“Thus, the revolt of the human survival machines—the robot’s rebellion—consists of the gene-built humans trying to maximize their own utility rather than the reproduction probability of their creators in situations where the two are in conflict.” 

– Keith Stanovich, The Robot’s Rebellion

Assuming you are now sufficiently depressed, let me re-instill some hope.

We have all been reminded of the humbling modern tenet that humans are animals. We are not always as rational as the ancient philosophers would have liked to believe. We are moved by emotions and desires and are often compelled toward pleasure and away from pain just as animals are. All this leads to the contemporary notion that human beings are essentially glorified chimpanzees.

Call me old fashioned, but I have a bit of a soft spot for homo sapiens. There are many ways in which humans are categorically different from all other earthly organisms. We are capable of foregoing the gratification of our immediate desires. We are not merely subject to our environments, we act on them. We exert influence over the world around us, designing it to be what we think it should be.

Humans are capable of higher level reflection – of stepping outside of our normal thinking processes through metacognition, reflecting on them, and even modifying them. We are the only species in existence with the cognitive capacities to understand its conundrum: The incongruence between genetic ends and psychological ends.

These capacities can be used to more effectively serve the goals of one’s genes, as they were originally built to do. But they can also be “misused” to serve the values of the person in possession of them.

In his book, The Robot’s Rebellion, Keith Stanovich frames the facts I have outlined here as an inspiring call to arms for modern humans. He says we must confront the contrast between behaviors which are aligned with the interests of genes and those that are aligned with the interests of the organism. 

Stanovich takes this mandate in a different direction than I do in my work, but we agree on this: The most meaningful path for humanity is the path leading away from the blind service of gene propagation and toward the service of human values. We have to subordinate the goals of our genes to our highest ideals and leverage the forces within us to serve these higher ends.

The Healing Power of Darwin

“We have the abilities we do because possessing them enabled our evolutionary ancestors to survive and reproduce. It does not follow, though, that we must use these abilities to survive and reproduce. Indeed, thanks to our reasoning ability, we have it in our power to ‘misuse’ our evolutionary inheritance.”


William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life

Let’s look at a simple example – imagine you ask someone out on a date and get rejected. We all know rejection hurts. Sometimes this type of pain can last for days or weeks.

But why does it hurt? Clearly, the sting of rejection evolved to incentivize us not to get rejected. This doesn’t seem so bad, right?

Obsessing over our own romantic success may be best for our genes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s best for us. A life consumed by trying to appear attractive may succeed at making us more attractive – but it isn’t necessarily the best path to fulfillment. And suffering over every setback may keep us preoccupied with genetic outcomes, but it can also rule us and block our ability to enjoy our lives.

As far as our genes are concerned, we should spend as much time as possible ensuring that we are seen as attractive. Our genes “want” us to be the best reproduction machines, even if it makes us miserable in the process.

Without an evolutionary frame, we’re left lost and confused about why we feel the way we do. It’s hard to generate the resolve to overcome our maladaptive feelings when we aren’t sure if we’re “supposed” to be having them or not.

But when we understand that our default behaviors and emotions are in place to serve our genes (in a world that no longer closely resembles our own), we gain the ability to rebel against our genetic overlords when it serves us and put our own well-being and values first.

We can remind ourselves that this rejection is in the past, and dwelling over it will not benefit us. This frees us up to move on and take the best path forward. And if we’re honest, that guy with the puka shell necklace and alarming vaping habit probably wasn’t going to be a good fit for us anyway.

We can say:

I understand why I get angry when an obstacle stands in the way of a goal, but I can choose to remain tranquil when anger will not progress my goals.

I understand why my amygdala is hypersensitive, but the constant anxiety induced by the modern world will not help me in any way.

I understand why I get jealous when my partner engages in a harmless conversation with someone else, but I can choose to counter it and remind myself of the irrationality and arbitrariness of this emotion.

I understand, on the other hand, why I find myself craving novelty and new partners even though I’m happily married, and I can remind myself that these cravings are adaptations and not necessarily the sign of a problem in my relationship.

I understand why I crave the foods, drugs, and digital entertainment I do, but I can choose only to indulge these desires when it serves me.

I understand why I continue to expect an even bigger house to make me happier, but this goal does not serve my values.

The evolutionary perspective can be an invaluable tool for understanding the most troubling aspects of human psychology and behavior. And it is absolutely essential for truly understanding yourself. Your efforts to live a great life will be inherently misguided if you do not understand your nature and how it came to be.

Whether you consider yourself a “happy” person or not, it is clear that achieving sustainable psychological well-being in this life is a great challenge. And if you have hopes of making the most of your singular existence, you cannot afford to harbor delusions about the nature of your subjectivity.

With this knowledge, it is possible for us to determine the ideal structure of our minds and trajectories of our lives. We can learn to change the internal processes which affect us. And we can build methods and systems which allow us to step outside of our biases and reach toward clarity, benevolence, and tranquility. We can create a robot’s rebellion.

New Video on Evo Psych

Check out the latest DTM video to hear me explain why evolutionary psychology is the key to understanding your mental algorithms, and how reverse engineering your mind can help you reprogram it:

Recommended Reading (in order from introductory to advanced)