EIT is therapy informed by what we know about evolutionary processes in general, as well as what we specifically know about human evolution, both biological and cultural. Evolution-Informed Therapy uses the perspective of evolutionary theory, and particularly evolutionary psychology, to help understand human nature & culture and the struggles of human lives, especially mental health struggles. This evolutionary perspective includes the following ideas:
Once there is Variation, Differential Reproduction/Mating, and Heredity, there will be evolution by Natural & Sexual Selection as an outcome. Variety is ubiquitous in all species - there is no such a thing as a “typical” human or an “essential human nature” except in the sense of a (shifting) statistical norm.
Humans are animals, specifically mammals, more specifically primates (genetically our closest relatives in the animal kingdom are the chimpanzees). Like any animal, our characteristics as a species are a product of a long evolutionary process (both biological & cultural). Of course, this doesn’t mean that each of our day-to-day behaviours is directly determined by this process, rather we can see our responses as being the outcome of:
- Triggers from our immediate, current environment, which prompt responses based on
- Individual Learning we carry from our individual developmental experiences in earlier environments (interacting with our individual genetic temperament). Our individual learning is itself guided by the genetic
- Prepared Learning we as humans carry from the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) of our species, i.e. the typical ancestral environment where our main adaptations evolved. The EEA of our species, Homo Sapiens, was the environment experienced by hunter-gatherer tribes on the African savannas during the Pleistocene. Many of our main characteristics as a species were laid down then (and some long before, as we share many of our characteristics with other primates, indeed with other mammals).
“Our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species' evolutionary history.”
- Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (1997) Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer.
The concept of Prepared Learning explains why we are able to learn certain skills and emotional responses quickly and almost too easily, because they have been relevant since our EEA (e.g. phobias, accents, tunes, prejudices, food preferences, rough and tumble play, accurate throwing, etc), and why other skills and emotions are either impossible to learn or can only be learnt through huge effort, because they are more recent inventions in terms of evolutionary time (e.g. written language, talking to large groups of strangers, appropriate caution with regard to electrical sockets, cigarettes etc). In other words, a lot of modern human struggles, including mental health struggles such as phobias, other anxiety disorders, eating disorders, addictions, PTSD etc can be partly explained by an element of mismatch, in the sense that we are not necessarily always well-adapted to our current environments. But this doesn’t mean that there is some ideal environment, where all our needs would be met, and we would be perfectly healthy, happy and functional. Some environments are certainly worse for human functioning than others, but our evolved drives/instincts do not necessarily always serve us well in any environment (including even the EEA), because evolutionary theory clearly shows that the characteristics of any species will be primarily naturally selected for or against on the basis of gene propagation, not individual functioning or general human happiness. Furthermore, while there is an understandable tendency in the field of psychotherapy to focus mostly on trying to explain our “dysfunctions” (why things go wrong in human functioning), the evolutionary perspective sees function as being as much in need of explaining as dysfunction (e.g. comfort with air travel is as puzzling as fear of air travel; the existence of successful long-term relationships is as much in need of explanation as the existence of relationship breakdown). It’s the things we do unquestioningly that are in need of questioning (e.g. learning to speak a complex language, recognising faces, remembering songs, etc).
The Relevance of Evolutionary Theory to Therapy
As Paul Gilbert, creator of Compassion-Focused Therapy, has said: "...our evolved brains come with a lot of trade-offs, compromises and glitches – they are amazingly complex and do amazing things but are not ‘well designed’." (Gilbert, P., 2014, The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy, British Journal of Clinical Psychology)
Taking the evolutionary perspective with problems such as anxiety and addictions can be invaluable. Amongst other things it can help clients to understand why human beings in general are susceptible to these problems, which can be very freeing for them, helping them to have less shame and more self-compassion.
For instance, some of the main themes in Anxiety Disorders, such as fear of contamination (OCD), fear of strangers (Social Anxiety), fear of small animals/heights (Phobias), make more sense when we consider the EEA of our species, where such things were actually more dangerous than they are nowadays. This doesn’t mean that everyone responds with high levels of fear to these perceived threats in their own immediate environment, because not everyone learns/develops all these specific fears. The point is that as a species we find it particularly easy to develop these types of fears at an early age, sometimes following quite a small trigger (due to prepared learning), whereas we are unfortunately rather slow to develop fear/anxiety in relation to realistically more dangerous objects such as cigarettes and electrical sockets, because they were not part of our EEA.
In Addictive Behaviours, the motivational energy to pursue essential biosocial goals (feeding ourselves, mating, forming alliances etc) is rooted in evolved emotional responses, which can be “hijacked” by intensified stimuli. This leaves us vulnerable to “Supernormal Stimuli” - artificially enhanced stimuli which elicit a particularly strong emotional/behavioural/somatic/cognitive response (highly motivating, hard to resist). Obvious examples are intensely mood-a;ltering drugs such as heroin or cocaine, junk foods (high in sugar, fat and salt), pornography, slot machines, video games etc.
Years of Life on Earth:~4 billion
Years of Genus "Homo": ~3 million
Years of Human Civilisation: ~10,000
Some useful articles
at this link
Sone interesting web links:
Some interesting books:
- Dawkins, R. (1990) The Blind Watchmaker. Penguin.
- Dennett, D.C. (1996) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Penguin.
- Diamond, J. (2007) The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee. Vintage.
- Miller, G. (2000) The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shape the Evolution of Human Nature. BCA.
- Sapolsky, R.M. (1997) The Trouble with Testosterone, & other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament. Touchstone.
- Stringer, C. & Andrews, P. (2005) The Complete World of Human Evolution. Thames & Hudson.
- Barkow, J.H, Cosmides, L & Tooby, J. (1996) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. OUP.
- Buss, D. (2008) Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. Pearson Education.
- Coolidge, F.L. Evolutionary Neuropsychology: An Introduction to the Structures & Functions of the Human Brain. (2020) OUP.
- Dunbar, R.I.M. & Barrett, L. (2007) The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. OUP.
Evolution & Mental Health
- Brune, M. (2008) Textbook of Evolutionary Psychiatry: The Origins of Psychopathology. OUP.
- Gilbert, P. & Bailey, K.G. (2001) Genes on the Couch. Psychology Press.
- Gilbert, P. (1992) Depression: The Evolution of Powerlessness. Psychology Press.
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