Evolutionary developmental psychology (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.
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
- All evolutionarily-influenced characteristics develop, and this requires examining not only the functioning of these characteristics in adults but also their ontogeny.
- All evolved characteristics develop via continuous and bidirectional gene-environment interactions that emerge dynamically over time.
- Development is constrained by genetic, environmental, and cultural factors.
- An extended childhood is needed in which to learn the complexities of human social communities and economies.
- Many aspects of childhood serve as preparations for adulthood and were selected over the course of evolution (deferred adaptations).
- 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).
- 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.
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