PSYC 358

Evolutionary Psychology


Things that Matter Most within the Assigned Readings


[The things that you are reading for this course cover a lot of material. You’d be wise to read all of it, carefully. Still, the fact is that some of that material is central to the objectives of this course whereas other bits aren’t quite as important, and I will be constructing the exams accordingly. I’m putting together this document to help you identify the things in the readings that matter most, so that can sensibly prioritize the amount of time you devote to reading, re-reading, studying, and thinking about the various different pieces of information presented in these readings. I’ll be updating this document regularly as we proceed through the course.]


[This list is specific to the readings. As for lecture material: You can pretty well assume that the more time I spend on something in a lecture, the more I consider it to matter. The lecture “outlines” that I post on the class website are also designed to highlight lecture material that matters most.]


Introduction to the course


Course syllabus

 All of it!


Cosmides & Tooby, 1997 (“Evolutionary psychology: A primer”)

 Three complementary levels of explanation in evolutionary psychology

 Difference between evolutionary psychology and the “standard social science model”

 Five basic principles underlying research in evolutionary psychology

 The function of the brain

 Adaptive problems and their defining characteristics

 Modules and functional specificity

 The properties of reasoning and learning circuits

 Why it is that our modern skulls house a stone age mind

 Environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA)

 Adaptationist logic (and its implications for understanding “nature” and “nurture”)


Confer, Easton, Fleischman, Goetz, Lewis, Perilloux, & Buss, 2010 (“Evolutionary psychology: Controversies, questions, prospects, and limitations”)

 Natural selection

 Adaptations, by-products, and noise

 Ultimate explanations and proximate explanations

 The concept of “design features”

 Shortcomings of explanations based on domain-general mechanisms

 Domain-specific learning mechanisms (“learning adaptations”)

 How recent environmental novelties affect human evolved psychology

 The role of genes in evolutionary psychology

 Limitations of evolutionary psychology


Part 1:  Gene’s-eye view of human cognition and behavior


Dawkins: Chapter 1 (“Why are people?”):

 What Dawkins means by “selfish”

 Key misunderstandings / misconceptions / fallacies to avoid 

 Distinction between the function and consequence of reproduction

 Individual selection and group selection

 The gene as the unit of heredity


Dawkins: Chapter 2 (“The replicators”):

 How “survival of the fittest” relates to “survival of the stable”

 The concept of a replicator

 Longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity 

 Why competition matters

 Organisms as containers / vehicles / survival machines


 Dawkins: Chapter 3 (“Immortal coils”):

 Two important things that DNA molecules do

 Alleles as rivals

 The concept of a gene pool

 The definition of a “gene” that Dawkins uses (and why that definition is useful)

 What it means to say that there is a gene “for” something

 How and why differences matter in the competitive struggle to survive

 The concept of a “good” gene

 Selection of genes for mutual compatibility

 Connection between evolution and frequencies of genes in the gene pool


Gangestad,Thornhill, & Garver-Apgar, 2005 (“Adaptations to ovulation: Implications for sexual and social behavior”)

 Evolutionary rationale for attraction to mates with “good genes”

 Evolution of “sexually antagonistic adaptations”

 The ovulatory shift hypothesis (and its underlying logical basis)

 Psychological research testing the ovulatory shift hypothesis


Dawkins: Chapter 4 (“The gene machine”):

 Relationship between genes, cells, and bodies

 Linkages between sense organs, cognition, muscle movements, and fitness

 Adaptive benefits of memory

 How genes control the behavior of their survival machines

 Adaptive solutions to time-lag problems

 Adaptive solutions to the problem of making predictions in unpredictable environments

 Evolutionary bases of memory, learning, mental simulation, communication

 Communication and altruism

 Communication and deception


Nairne & Pandeirada, 2008 (“Adaptive memory: Remembering with a stone-age brain”)

 Functional analysis of memory, and why it’s useful

 The likely and unlikely characteristics of evolved memory mechanisms

 The effects of survival processing on recall


Dawkins: Chapter 5 (“Aggression: Stability and the selfish machine”):

 Other ‘survival machines’ as part of the EEA

 John Maynard Smith

 The concept of an “evolutionarily stable strategy” (ESS) 

 How the concept of ESS relates to the concept of “good genes”

 How an ESS analysis helps to explain aggression and non-aggression


Dunbar, 2014 (“The social brain: Psychological underpinnings and implications for the structure of organizations”)

 The social-brain hypothesis

 Theory of mind

 Relation between species-typical group size and neocortex size

 Relation between individuals’ social network size and mentalizing ability

 Structure of human social networks


Dawkins: Chapter 6 (“Genesmanship”):

 Green Beard Altruism

 William Hamilton

 Kin selection

 Kinship and the degrees of relatedness

 Cost/benefit analysis as applied to altruistic decision-making

 Uncertainty in “knowing” who kin are, and the implications

 Cuckoos and other brood parasites 

 Mimicry and evolutionary arms races