Evolutionary psychology as courage | psychology today

Source: Glenn Geher

There, along the banks of the mighty Allegheny River, in a downtown Pittsburgh meeting space that’s literally steps away from PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a truly legendary baseball franchise, the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS) organized a three-day conference dedicated to advancing our understanding of the world and our place in it. All informed by the powerful intellectual framework of evolution articulated so beautifully by Charles Darwin nearly two centuries ago.

This was the first NEEPS conference to be held primarily in person since 2019. And based on the turnout and excitement that filled the air, you could tell it was about time.

Presenters included several world-class behavioral scientists, such as Steve Gangestad of the University of New Mexico (presenting data on the most valid ways to measure female fertility based on hormone markers), Khandis Blake of the University of South Wales (presenting data on the evolutionary foundations of incel psychology), David Puts from Penn State University (keynote speaker, presenting the evolutionary psychology of sex-differentiated vocal characteristics), Jaime Kremas from the Oklahoma State University (keynote speaker, discussing research into the evolutionary foundations of human friendship), and more. Much more.

    Glenn Gher

The NEEPsters ready to go! (LR) Glenn Geher, Michael Frederick, Joel Wade, Rebecca Burch, Catherine Salmon, Melanie Shoup-Knox

Source: Glenn Geher

The conference, moderated by the truly Herculean David Widman of Juniata University, in conjunction with Star Program Chair Anastasia Makhanova (University of Arkansas) and formidable NEEPS Chair Rebecca Burch (SUNY Oswego), included an extraordinary synergy of intellectual exchanges (including dozens of lectures and poster presentations on all kinds of subjects) and fun (like an informal ping-pong tournament organized in the presentation room itself). Not to mention the three-hour Bateau-Mouche cruise full of intellectual exchanges, celebrations of our members’ achievements (hell, I even received a Lifetime Achievement Award* at the event from our longest-serving president, Joel Wade of Bucknell University). Fortunately, no one was naturally selected (i.e. thrown overboard) during the cruise.

An unlikely moment of courage at the Andy Warhol Museum

A few times over the years, my travels have taken me to the famous Andy Warhol Museum, which is about a block from the conference venue. Little known fact about me: I’m actually a Warhol fan. I like big and bold art. And I appreciate Warhol’s bold, lively, whimsical and carefree style, which transformed the art world on a global scale. Permanently. In a word, Warhol’s work is nothing less than brave.

    Glenn Geher

Members of the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab at the Andy Warhol Museum: (LR) Sethu Karthikeyan, Emma Jerabek, Ethan Eisenberg, Glenn Geher, Kyle Powell, Kaitlyn Longo, Darcy Montana

Source: Glenn Geher

So, along with several members of my research team, I interrupted the lecture for a few hours to visit this iconic seven-story museum. There, I found myself engaged in an inspiring conversation with Shannon Guyton (Be Courageous) and Sethu Karthikeyan (Pace University). Currently, my research team is working with folks at Be Courageous, a boutique company that works with various organizations and businesses around the world to design and implement transformation and organizational change (which is not always easy), to develop a conceptual and empirical framework for the study of courage.

Quickly, our conversation turned to the topic of courage. And Sethu, a member of my research team who is interested in the concept of courage, said something that really resonated strongly: “If you want to study courage, maybe start with the members of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society .”

Glenn Geher

Source: Glenn Geher

NEEPS members, by nature, go against the grain of behavioral and social human sciences. As discussed in detail in much of my past work and in the work of others (e.g. Geher & Rolon, 2019; Schmitt & Pilcher, 2004), evolutionary psychology is not always very warmly welcomed around the world. university. In fact, despite the tremendously powerful insights gleaned from this perspective over the past decades of behavioral science research, the idea of ​​evolutionary principles applied to mind and behavior problems is still a hard pill for many academics to swallow. . As Sethu hinted in his insightful commentary on the fifth floor of the Andy Warhol Museum, anyone explicitly doing scholarship under the label of “evolutionary psychology” is, knowingly or not, (in the words of Kyle Hermans) flexing their courage muscle. This was, for me, a poignant and powerful insight.

Courage and evolutionary behavioral science

In a recent series of conversations I had with Kyle Hermans, I learned a lot about how the concept of courage is interpreted and applied in the business world. As a behavioral scientist based purely on research, I have to say I was intrigued. Kyle, the CEO of Be Courageous, lit up when I asked him to give a brief summary of his perspective on courage and how it can be applied to help people make the world a better place.

As someone who has used concepts related to courage for decades to help effect positive organizational change for all kinds of organizations, he had a lot to say on the subject, but here is one particular example he gave that My brand :

When so many of us were kids in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, there was a simple rule that almost every believable adult told us everything. Never get in a car with a stranger.**

Well, this past weekend, along with thousands of others I’m sure, I took a Lyft or an Uber on several occasions. It was convenient, quick and relatively inexpensive. But guess what? Any Lyft or Uber driver I encountered was completely unknown to me. And still is.

Simple idea, right? But he is also powerful. From this example, I gleaned the following: Courage involves the ability to ask questions that challenge long-held rules – or even so-called “truths”.


Source: aitoff/Pixabay

When Charles Darwin published his book On the origins of the species in 1859 he was fully courageous in this direction. To say he challenged the mainstream narrative would be a huge understatement. In fact, it challenged our entire understanding of what the living world is and our place in it. With this act of courage, he changed the world. And he knew it. At one point he wrote that the discovery of the principles of natural selection was akin to uncover a murder.

In many ways, evolutionary psychologists in our modern era engage in acts of courage every day. Many vocal academics denounce the whole idea of ​​evolution applied to human behavior (see Gannt, 2017).

And make no mistake: academia can be fiercely political. In academia, political issues can affect a person’s ability to get a job, publish a paper, succeed mandate (i.e., continuing appointment), receive a scholarship, get promoted, get a sabbatical, teach a particular class, and more. At this point, note that Woodrow Wilson left his post as president of Princeton University to (successfully) run for president of the United States, in part to “get out of politics.”

In such a landscape, to conduct research on the human experience through an evolutionary lens, when such an approach runs so completely counter to modern academic politics, is nothing short of courageous. I think Sethu hit the nail on the head on this one.


Glenn Geher

Source: Glenn Geher

So I salute the members of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS), who courageously gathered in Pittsburgh this month to exchange ideas and discoveries inspired by a Darwinian approach to understanding the nature of human behavior. The application of Darwinian ideas to human experience was controversial for nearly two centuries at this point. Academics who choose to study human behavior through this lens, despite this controversial environment, are, as Kyle Hermans would say, brave in every sense of the term.

So much for courage. Because it is only with courage that true, meaningful and profound change can take place. Charles Darwin was a low-key, understated Englishman. Yet, at the end of the day, he had as much courage as anyone in human history. And his ideas changed the world – permanently.

Do you remember being told that you should not, under any circumstances, get in a car with a stranger? And now we use services like Lyft and Uber as if nothing had happened?

Thinking outside the box and challenging orthodoxies is necessary for any kind of advancement. It takes courage, a characteristic which, as Kyle Hermans of Be Courageous says, resides in all of us.

Whatever you think of evolutionary psychology as a whole, I would say it’s hard to deny that this approach to understanding human behavior is fully steeped in courage. Thank you to my courageous colleagues who make up the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. Here it is about working together to advance our understanding of the human condition. Whole.


*Thanks to my star student, Emma Jerabek, for producing this film! (video is used with permission)
**A rule that still has a lot of meaning and many contexts. Especially in child protection.

Note: Many thanks to the ever courageous Shannon Guyton, whose work played a major role in the development of this piece.

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