In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Evolutionary Psychology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Foundations in Evolutionary Theory
  • Approaches in Evolutionary Psychology
  • Criticisms and Defense of Evolutionary Psychology
  • Development
  • Applications

Evolutionary Biology Evolutionary Psychology
S. Craig Roberts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0025


Evolutionary psychology aims to document, understand, and interpret human behavior using an evolutionary perspective. In other words, evolutionary psychologists argue that human psychology cannot be fully understood without considering the selective forces that have shaped that behavior in our evolutionary past, and that may continue to do so in the present. Although the traditional branches of psychology (e.g., cognitive, developmental, social, clinical) have until recently largely ignored evolutionary perspectives, proponents argue that the evolutionary perspective has the potential to provide a coherent and comprehensive theoretical framework––Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection––that underpins all these various subdisciplines. Evolutionary psychology is therefore arguably best seen, not as a distinct field within psychology, but as a general approach that spans psychology. In order to understand how the evolutionary approach is relevant to the various subdisciplines of psychology, the four levels of explanation for behavior proposed by the ethologist Tinbergen is a useful model. This describes how any behavior can be understood in terms of its development and mechanism (“proximate” explanations) as well as in terms of its function and phylogenetic origins (“ultimate” explanations). Evolutionary psychologists are especially interested in ultimate explanations for behavior, while other subdisciplines tend to be especially interested in proximate explanations. However, Tinbergen’s point is that these lines of enquiry must be integrated to obtain a complete understanding of the behavior. The evolutionary approach is grounded within the same theoretical background that is used by biologists to describe animal behavior. Key theoretical principles therefore include natural and sexual selection at the individual level, kin selection and inclusive fitness, life history theory, reciprocal altruism, mate choice, and parent-offspring conflict. In addition to these, evolutionary psychologists are interested in aspects of behavior that are notably developed or well-studied in humans, such as the origins and development of language and the evolution of culture.

General Overviews

For an accessible introduction for the layperson, Dunbar, et al. 2005 is a good place to start. Workman and Reader 2008 is good for students from a psychology background. Buss 2012 is the most recent and fullest undergraduate level text. Barrett, et al. 2002 is particularly useful for understanding the differences between and complementary contributions of human behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology. Several edited volumes provide deeper treatments of particular issues. Barkow, et al. 1992 essentially launched the field. Buss 2005 contains a collection of articles dealing with core issues and approaches. Crawford and Krebs 2008 is also a wide-ranging and comprehensive treatment of issues and applications. Finally, Dunbar and Barrett 2007 covers both the well-studied areas within evolutionary psychology research, as well as broader spectrum articles connecting these areas with current findings and thinking in neurobiology and comparative psychology.

  • Barkow, J. H., L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby, eds. 1992. The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The first edited volume on evolutionary psychology, a classic text which established the field. Provides evolutionary psychology theory and evidence on a wide range of topics, from cooperation, mating and parenting to language and culture.

  • Barrett, L., R. Dunbar, and J. Lycett. 2002. Human evolutionary psychology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Provides an excellent overview for students and researchers, rich in examples of studies using evolutionary approaches. Particularly useful for those interested in social behavior, and in understanding how approaches from behavioral ecology are used to address human behavior.

  • Buss, D. M. 2012. Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson Allyn, and Bacon.

    Currently the most comprehensive textbook available; the fourth edition has been restructured and contains a rigorously updated coverage of recent studies.

  • Buss, D. M., ed. 2005. The handbook of evolutionary psychology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    Contains thirty-four articles ranging from key concepts in evolutionary psychology, popular areas of inquiry such as mating, parenting, and group-living, and areas of interface with other areas of psychology.

  • Crawford, C., and D. Krebs, eds. 2008. Foundations of evolutionary psychology. 2d ed. New York: Taylor & Francis.

    Twenty-four articles describing specific and general approaches within evolutionary psychology, from biological foundations through cognitive mechanisms and sex differences to aspects of prosocial and antisocial behavior.

  • Dunbar, R., L. Barrett, and J. Lycett. 2005. Evolutionary Psychology: A beginner’s guide. Oxford: Oneworld.

    An engaging, whistle-stop tour of evolutionary psychology aimed at those interested in an initial overview.

  • Dunbar, R. I. M., and L. Barrett, eds. 2007. The Oxford handbook of evolutionary psychology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198568308.013.0001

    The handbook for a balanced review. Contains forty-six articles covering philosophical issues, comparative approaches, neurobiology and cognition, development, mating and life history, sociality and cultural evolution. The latter section is useful for new developments, with nine articles including language, memes, religiosity and music, as well as theoretical approaches.

  • Workman, L., and W. Reader. 2008. Evolutionary Psychology: An introduction. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A useful textbook, featuring case studies and guides for further reading. Covers core areas as well as areas such as emotion and psychopathy.

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