Last Sunday, February 12, was Darwin Day and it is worth a moment to think again about his relevance to our human struggles in the modern era. Most high school biology students know that at only 22 years of age, Charles Darwin went on a voyage that would forever change our understanding of the world. Studying birds, he noticed that finches from one island had differently shaped beaks than those from another – perfectly adapted for their respective purpose of getting to seeds and insects. Such observations created a foundation for the idea of evolution through natural selection. Those living things that are better adapted to the demands of their environment are more likely to thrive (and thus have more offspring).
The theory of evolution revolutionized biology – nothing makes sense in that field without it – but it hasn’t yet taken hold in the behavioral and cognitive sciences. That is understandable. Part of that might be the traumatic hangover from the first attempt to apply Darwin’s thinking to human affairs: eugenics. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, laid out the basis for it in 1869 only a decade after Origin of the Species appeared – a disaster from which we have not fully recovered even 150 years later. Almost as in a kind of cultural trauma, it is rarely noticed or talked about – at least not in my profession. Psychology seems to want to pretend it had nothing to do with it – nevermind that ⅔ of the Presidents of the American Psychological Association from its founding in 1892 until mid 20th century were eugenicists, and it still massively colors our methods and concepts in psychology today.
Despite that ugly history, evolutionary science (EvoSci) is too important not to use to improve our lives, but we’ve struggled to learn how. I think the mantra that “evolution cannot be purposive” is a defensive reaction against the largely suppressed trauma of eugenics, but it’s scientifically false. Yes, evolution is initially blind, but regulation of evolutionary processes is itself something that evolves. Even bacterial strains evolve more rapidly when key amino acids are removed from their diet; just as purposive behavior evolves more rapidly when previous rewarding consequences are removed. Everywhere you look evolvability evolves. But once human consciousness and symbolic learning arrives, that is put on steroids. We, as humans, can study how evolution works and deliberately put its key elements into our homes, schools, and workplaces. We can put it into our hearts, minds, and hands.
EvoSci went through a “gene centric” era in modern times but thankfully that era is passing away. Instead of being massively uplifted by the eventual mapping of the human genome, instead has been a massive disappointment. We now know that usually entire gene systems code for proteins, and they are regulated through epigenetic and other systems that are highly responsive to the moments of your life. It turns out it was a mistake to exclude learning processes, development, psychotherapy, and other events experienced within a single lifetime from EvoSci. Cells are systems for turning environment and behavior into biology and you cannot understand a complex system by mindlessly cutting off large elements of it based on nothing but intellectual prejudice. By failing to model how selection operates on multiple dimensions and levels all at once, including within a single life via learning, traditional EvoSci failed to tell people how to evolve their lives on purpose. It delayed “The Darwin Effect” that we as a human society need right now. As my friend and colleague David Sloan Wilson declares in the subtitle of his powerful recent book, This View of Life, it is time to complete the Darwinian Revolution.
Fortunately, as EvoSci has shifted toward a broader multilevel and multidimensional view, it has become far easier to extend an evolutionary umbrella over behavioral sciences. We can identify at least six key concepts in an evolutionary approach, and use those to help us better understand our own struggles and how to move forward more effectively in life.
Six Key Concepts in Evolution
Variation means that there are different forms available — different elements, processes, and actions. When variation is properly regulated by the context, you can do new things without having chaos ensue, allowing for more flexibility. The animal that finds new ways to acquire food is more likely to survive. Conversely, rigidity is a negative. The person who is restricted in their thinking is more likely to fall into pathological patterns.
Selection means the ability to pick some variants over others. Typically, we select those that lead to better consequences. However, short-term interests often conflict with long-term goals. In clinical psychology, a focus on selection means helping the client to notice and choose ways of being and doing that help their positive life trajectories. For example, a practitioner might ask a client to record their thoughts, feelings, and overt actions and to notice how they play out over time.
Retention means that to repeat and strengthen successful variants over time. In genetic evolution, variants that promote relative success in reproduction and survival are retained physically in DNA. In psychology, there is a “use it or lose it” quality to retention. Mental and behavioral changes are retained by practice and by the creation of larger patterns of being and doing – repeating and broadening healthy psychological actions into full-grown habits.
Context refers to the historical and situational circumstances that affect what is selected and retained. For example, some forms of emotional expression may take hold only if an individual deploys this expression in the context of a loving relationship, not during an argument with a boss at work. Concerns over natural contingencies, cultural fit, connection with religious faith commitments, flexible workplaces, a supportive environment, and so on are all typical ways that we speak of context in an evolutionary sense.
Dimension refers to which particular strands of events are selecting and retaining. In the psychological domain, these include affect, cognition, attention, self, motivation, and overt behavior, but dimensions exist in other levels as well as we will now note, such as genes, epigenes, or brain circuits at the biophysiological level or at the sociocultural level.
Level means the degree of complexity of the targets of selection processes. Psychological events involve the whole organism acting within a context. But at the biophysiological level, selection occurs suborganismically; and at the sociocultural level, it occurs between dyads and groups, via their established rules and customs. Physical abilities and disabilities, diet, exercise, sleep, and measures of biological functioning through brain imaging, genetic, and epigenetic factors are examples of the former; attachment, cooperation, social support, or relationship skills with couples/family/friends are examples of the latter.
The Extended Evolutionary Meta-Model
We can combine these key concepts of evolution into an “Extended Evolutionary Meta-Model.” The EEMM (spoken so it rhymes with “team”) allows us to classify therapeutic processes of change and to consider their integration. The term “meta-model” refers to a model that can incorporate a number of specific models—a model of models.
We can classify processes of change into six key psychological dimensions (affect, cognition, attention, self, motivation, and overt behavior), nested into two additional levels of selection (biophysiological and sociocultural). And in each of these dimensions and levels, variation, selection, retention, and context are central (or to use terms that are more familiar to practitioners, each of these dimensions and levels involves processes related to change, function, habits, and fit and support). Finally, these processes can be adaptive or maladaptive, either helping or hindering mental health and prosperity.
All of this applies powerfully to all effects of human change. Consider psychotherapy. Therapists already talk in terms of variation, selection, retention, and context: They seek changes that work well for the person (variation and selection), which are built into habits that fit their situation (retention and contextual fit). They apply this to specific dimensions of psychological development (affective, cognitive, behavioral, attentional, motivational, and so on), and they focus on different levels of analysis and the interactions of change processes (e.g., by addressing psychological issues impact diet, sleep or the therapeutic relationship). By combining all six evolutionary concepts, we have a broad meta-model for the exploration of adaptive and maladaptive change processes. It organizes multidimensional, multilevel change processes and the specific models that organize them into a larger coherent set
The EEMM is not so much a prescriptive guide, but a common language in which to consider and compare models of change processes. This meta-model can accommodate any specific model that addresses a reasonable range of dimensions, levels, and columns, whether behavioral, cognitive, psychodynamic, humanistic, or other. It’s a kind of intellectual agora – a marketplace we can use to communicate across the many different models that are out there about how to live and how to change.
As it applies to us all, there are at least three take away messages for Darwin Day, 2023.
First, whatever model or method you are using to evolve your life, consider whether it is sufficiently broad and coherent. If entire rows or columns are missing in your thinking, the underlying model may be too limited in the identification of change processes in the missing areas. If someone tells you this one thing – this food, this thought, this mindfulness exercise – is the one and only key to your evolution as a person – be skeptical.
Second, try sensible, healthy variations in all of the rows of the EEMM. Rigidity is the enemy of progress. Do at least one possibly useful new thing everyday and move what you do across rows. Is there an emotion you need to explore more deeply? Is there a needed habit change you have avoided to your detriment? And don’t forget that sociocultural level: Is there a new relationship skill you want to try (maybe that card of genuine appreciation you never sent?) Are willing to apply personal change to changes in the groups you are part of as well (my book, Prosocial, with David Sloan Wilson and Paul Atkins may help).
Finally, own your purposes and see if you can link them to what evolution suggests are your most basic needs. Then allow them to guide how you sort through healthy variations in important areas. If you want a cheat sheet on basic human needs, try these: belonging, understanding, feeling, orientation, personal choice, and competence. Try to get clear about your deepest yearnings and values and allow them to become more and more central.
Yes, you can evolve on purpose. No, that does not mean like in a Star Trek episode. It’s highly unlikely you will float off the earth as a new life form. But you can evolve your life and that of our entire world culture so it is more meaningful, caring, and alive. Darwin’s wisdom can help.