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The influence of Darwin in Psychology, in 5 points

The influence of Darwin in Psychology, in 5 points

June 24, 2022

Some people insist on believing that psychology and philosophy are practically the same. That both work fundamentally with ideas, and that they serve to know how to develop a perspective of their own from which to live life.

But this is false: psychology is not based on ideas, but on matter; not in how we should behave, but in how we really behave, and how we could behave if certain objective conditions were met. In other words, psychology has always been a science closely related to biology. After all, behavior does not exist if there is no body that performs actions.

Taking into account the above, it does not seem strange the fact that Charles Darwin has had and still has a great influence on psychology . After all, biology is based on a mixture between genetics and the developments that have started from the theory of evolution proposed by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Next, we will look at some of the aspects in which this researcher influences the development of behavioral science.


  • Related article: "The theory of biological evolution"

What is Darwin's theory of evolution?

Everything that is currently done in biology is based on the idea that Charles Darwin was fundamentally right when he explained the mechanism by which different forms of life appear. Any other proposal that purports to be a unifying theory of biology as modern synthesis (a mixture of the theory of evolution and genetics) is now, must provide a huge amount of evidence, and that is not something that seems It's going to happen soon.

Before continuing, it is important to know the main basic ideas about what Darwin proposed about biology . According to the biologist Ernst Mayr, the ideas by which Darwin explained the appearance of the species are the following:


1. Evolution

The different lineages of living beings show how through the generations there are constant changes in the traits of individuals and in their way of organizing or living in ecosystems.

2. Common ancestry

Although all "family lines" tend to change over time, they all have common ancestry. For example, humans and chimpanzees come from lineages that it was not possible to differentiate millions of years ago .

3. Gradualism

According to Darwin, the changes that occurred throughout the generations appeared very slowly and gradually, so that we can not identify a specific moment in which there is a turning point in the process of developing a certain trait. Nowadays, however, it is known that the appearance of features does not always have to occur in this way.


4. Speciation

Of a kind, other , so that different evolutionary branches appear from one that gives them origin.

5. Natural selection

The changes that appear in the lineages of life forms are driven by natural selection, a process by which some features are more likely to be passed on to future generations , depending on the conditions of the medium to which you have to adapt.

The importance of genetics

It is clear that Darwin left many questions unanswered, among other things because in the nineteenth century the limitations when it came to researching such complex issues were a major obstacle. One of these questions was, for example: how do the traits appear that will then or not be disseminated through the population depending on whether they offer advantages of adaptation to the environment? In these types of questions came the genetic studies promoted by Gregor Mendel. At the base of the construction of living beings there is a genotype , conformed by genes, which will delineate how the approximate design of each living being will be.

The effects of Darwin's influence on Psychology

From what we have seen so far, it is already possible to intuit that Darwin's ideas have implications for psychology. Indeed, the fact that behind each living being there is a history of interactions between certain traits and the environment in which they appear, makes the behavior style, which also can be understood as a trait even though it is not exactly physical but psychological , can be analyzed in another way.

In this sense, several of the topics dealt with by psychology that come into contact with Darwin's ideas are the following.

1. Concerns about differences between the sexes

In Western societies, even before Darwin wrote about evolution, the differences that exist between men and women were usually interpreted from an essentialist perspective: masculinity is expressed through men, and femininity expresses itself through men. It is done through women, because "it can not be otherwise".

However, Darwin clearly shows that essentialism is totally useless when it comes to understanding these differences between man and woman . Their ideas gave way to a new perspective: both sexes are different because in each of them the ways of having offspring (and, as a consequence, of making others inherit our traits and our genes) are different. The fundamental thing in this case is that, as a general rule, females must pay a higher reproductive cost than males to have offspring, since they are the ones that gestate.

But ... what about psychological traits? Do the psychological differences between men and women also respond to the consequences of biological evolution, or are there other alternative explanations? Currently this is a research area in which there is a lot of activity and that usually generates a lot of interest. It is not for less: accepting one answer or another can give way to very different public policies.

2. The myth of the mind that understands everything

There was a time when we came to think that rationality was the essence of the mental activity of the human being. With effort, patience and the development of the right tools, we could perfectly understand practically everything that surrounds us, thanks to the use of reason .


The contributions to science that Charles Darwin made, however, put these ideas in check: if everything we exist exists simply because it helped our ancestors survive, why would it be different with the ability to think rationally?

Thus, the reason is not there because it is predestined to end ignorance, but because it allows us to know the world well enough to keep us alive and, hopefully, reproduce. The tree of life does not have at its highest point a place that should occupy the most reasonable species, we are one more branch.

3. The key is to adapt

The concept of adaptation is fundamental in psychology. In fact, in the clinical setting it is often said that one of the main criteria to determine whether something is a mental disorder or not is to determine whether the behaviors manifested are adaptive or not. That is, if in the context in which the person lives, that pattern of behavior generates discomfort.


As to express behaviors it is necessary that there is someone who performs actions and a means in which these actions are received, the key to understanding the behavior is in look at the relationship between these two components, and not just in the individual .

In the same way that Darwin pointed out that there are no good or bad traits per se, since one can be useful in one environment and harmful in another, something similar can happen with behaviors: a predilection for repetitive tasks can cause problems in a work facing the public, but not in another oriented towards construction.

4. Intelligence breaks paradigms

Another of the influences on psychology that Darwin's work has had to do with highlight the unique character of that set of mental abilities we call intelligence . This naturalist showed that although in the animal world there are many species capable of behaving in amazing ways to survive, in most cases these actions are a result of evolution, and have been inherited from one generation to another without learning through. For example, ants can coordinate in incredible ways to reach a goal, but this happens because they are "programmed" for it.


On the other hand, there is a series of animal species that are not subject to so many biological constraints when it comes to behaving, and we are one of them. Intelligence is a process of selecting the correct answers in the framework of a process of selecting the correct traits. Genes take us on rails in some things (for example, most people experience sexual impulses), but beyond that we have a relative freedom to do whatever we want. This, however, is not against the theory of evolution: being intelligent is useful in certain contexts, and in our case it has allowed a relatively puny species of hominid to spread throughout the planet. It is a feature that it allows us not to have to specialize in a single environment assuming the risk of extinction if that environment disappears or changes too much.

5. Being happy is not the same as persisting

Finally, another of the aspects in which Darwin has influenced psychology is that it helps us to give a relative importance to the fact of being successful from the evolutionary point of view.Being part of a species that has many offspring capable of surviving to adulthood does not mean success, it is simply the consequence of a natural process in which we do what we do, we do not have the last word and in which, in addition, our happiness does not It is important. After all, there are many individuals of the same species, ethnicity or family means that for some reason the sons and daughters are being able to leave offspring , perhaps with abundance. Why sacrifices have been made to get to that point? There is what is important.


Natural Selection - Crash Course Biology #14 (June 2022).


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