Evolutionary developmental psychology

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Evolutionary developmental psychology, (or EDP), is the application of the basic principles of Darwinian evolution, particularly natural selection, to explain contemporary human development. It involves the study of the genetic and environmental mechanisms that underlie the universal development of social and cognitive competencies and the evolved epigenetic (gene-environment interactions) processes that adapt these competencies to local conditions; it assumes that not only are behaviors and cognitions that characterize adults the product of natural selection pressures operating over the course of evolution, but so also are characteristics of children's behaviors and minds. It further proposes that an evolutionary account would provide some insight into not only predictable stages of ontogeny, but into specific differences between individuals as well. Such a perspective suggests that there are multiple alternative strategies to recurring problems that human children would have faced throughout our evolutionary past and that individual differences in developmental patterns aren’t necessarily idiosyncratic reactions, but are predictable, adaptive responses to environmental pressures.

Brief history of EDP

Traditionally, evolutionary psychologists tended to focus their research and theorizing primarily on adults, especially on behaviors related to socializing and mating. There was much less of a focus on psychological development, as it relates to Darwinian evolution. Developmental psychologists, for their part, have been wary of the perceived genetic determinism of evolutionary thinking, which seemed critical of all the major theories in developmental psychology. Pioneers of EDP have worked to integrate evolutionary and developmental theories, without totally discarding the traditional theories of either. They argue that a greater understanding of the “whys” of human development will help us acquire a better understanding of the “hows” and “whats” of human development.

Some basic assumptions of EDP

  1. All evolutionarily-influenced characteristics develop, and this requires examining not only the functioning of these characteristics in adults but also their ontogeny.
  2. All evolved characteristics develop via continuous and bidirectional gene-environment interactions that emerge dynamically over time.
  3. Development is constrained by genetic, environmental, and cultural factors.
  4. An extended childhood is needed in which to learn the complexities of human social communities and economies.
  5. Many aspects of childhood serve as preparations for adulthood and were selected over the course of evolution (deferred adaptations).
  6. Some characteristics of infants and children were selected to serve an adaptive function at specific times in development and not as preparations for adulthood (ontogenetic adaptations).
  7. Children show a high degree of plasticity, or flexibility, and the ability to adapt to different contexts.

Domain-Specificity vs. Domain-Generality

A fundamental issue is how best to characterize the cognitive mechanisms that afford humans such flexibility in problem-solving. Authors Leda Cosmides and John Tooby would argue that human beings simply possess a greater number of content-specific modules, each of which specializes in solving a specific type of adaptive problem. And it is the sheer number of these content-specific modules which lends humans such great problem-solving flexibility. Other authors, such as Robert Burgess and Kevin B. MacDonald, while agreeing that content-specific modules exist, favor a differing view. They would say instead that the flexibility of human problem-solving ability is owed primarily to powerful domain-generality, and that humans use the same non-specific cognitive machinery for a multitude of different tasks. It is also important to point out that this is not an either/or argument for the legitimacy of the domain-specific or the domain-general position, but is concerned simply with the importance of both in regards to our problem-solving capabilities.

See also

Further reading

  • Bjorklund, D.F., & Pellegrini, A.D. (2000). Child Development and Evolutionary Psychology. Child Development, 71, 1687-1708. Full text
  • Boyce, W.T. & Ellis, B.J. (2005). Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary-developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity. Development & Psychopathology, 17, 271-301. Full text
  • Burman, J. T. (in press). Experimenting in relation to Piaget: Education is a Chaperoned Process of Adaptation. Perspectives on Science, 16(2).
  • Ellis, B.J., Essex, M.J., & Boyce, W.T. (2005). Biological sensitivity to context: II. Empirical explorations of an evolutionary-developmental theory. Development & Psychopathology 17, 303-328. Full text
  • Ellis, B.J. (2004). Timing of pubertal maturation in girls: An integrated life history approach. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 920-958. Full text
  • Flinn M.V. (2004). Culture and developmental plasticity: Evolution of the social brain. In K. MacDonald and R. L. Burgess (Eds.), Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Development. Chapter 3, pp. 73-98. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Full text
  • Flinn, M.V. & Ward, C.V. (2004). Ontogeny and Evolution of the Social Child. In B. Ellis & D. Bjorklund (Eds.), Origins of the social mind: Evolutionary psychology and child development. Chapter 2, pp. 19-44. London: Guilford Press. Full text
  • Geary, D. C. (2006). Evolutionary developmental psychology: Current status and future directions. Developmental Review, 26, 113-119. Full text
  • Geary, D. C. (2005). Folk knowledge and academic learning. In B. J. Ellis & D. F. Bjorklund (Eds.), Origins of the social mind. (pp. 493-519). New York: Guilford Publications. Full text
  • Geary, D. C. (2004). Evolution and cognitive development. In R. Burgess & K. MacDonald (Eds.), Evolutionary perspectives on human development (pp. 99-133). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Full text
  • Geary, D. C., Byrd-Craven, J., Hoard, M. K., Vigil, J., & Numtee, C. (2003). Evolution and development of boys’ social behavior. Developmental Review, 23, 444-470. Full text
  • Geary, D.C., & Bjorklund, D.F. (2000). Evolutionary Developmental Psychology. Child Development, 71, 57-65. Full text
  • MacDonald, K. (2005). Personality, Evolution, and Development. In R. Burgess and K. MacDonald (Eds.), Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Development, 2nd edition, pp. 207–242. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Full text
  • MacDonald, K., & Hershberger, S. (2005). Theoretical Issues in the Study of Evolution and Development. In R. Burgess and K. MacDonald (Eds.), Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Development, 2nd edition, pp. 21–72. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Full text
  • Maestripieri, D. & Roney, J.R. (2006). Evolutionary developmental psychology: Contributions from comparative research with nonhuman primates. Developmental Review, 26, 120-137. Full text
  • Medicus G. (1992). The Inapplicability of the Biogenetic Rule to Behavioral Development. Human Development 35, 1-8. Full text
  • Robert, J. S. (in press). Taking old ideas seriously: Evolution, development, and human behavior. New Ideas in Psychology.
  • Vigil, J. M., Geary, D. C., & Byrd-Craven, J. (2005). A life history assessment of early childhood sexual abuse in women. Developmental Psychology, 41, 553-561. Full text