Evolutionary Psychology: Conflicts and contradictions


Old phrenology drawing defining different regions of the brainOverview:
You may think of people as products of Darwin’s natural and sexual selection, optimised for survival and reproductive success, but much seems to have gone wrong. We can think logically and but often don’t, we behave sympathetically towards others, but we also hate and hurt them, we manifest dozens of biases, and behave morally and immorally. We are both brave and fearful, honest but also deceitful, credulous but sceptical, conscious of some things but unconscious of others. There are both the traditional conflicts between the sexes and the more recent recognition of a spectrum of sexuality versus categories. This series of lectures covers the human psyche from an evolutionary perspective and in doing so, endeavours to provide explanations for these contradictions and puzzles.

Recommended Reading List:
Some familiarity with these books would be beneficial:

  • Dawkins, R: The selfish gene (second edition)
  • Shermer, M: The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

Target audience:
This course is for anyone interested in exploring why humans are the way we are.

Learning objectives:
By the end of this course you will:

  • appreciate the breadth of Evolutionary Psychology and its answers to the question ‘why are we the way we are?’
  • appreciate the molecular mechanisms by which evolution takes place,
  • wonder at human origins and lineage,
  • appreciate how reproduction-related psychological attributes manifest themselves across a spectrum,
  • have assessed and evaluated the conflicting attributes of the human psyche,
  • have wrestled with the problem of consciousness.

Course outline:
Each session includes a lecture presentation with time for questions and group discussion.

Session 1
The first evening will cover foundational topics. The first lecture will describe the means by which Natural and Sexual Selection work and the controversy between orthodox gene and individual selection (Dawkins) and Group Level Selection (Sloan Wilson). The second will feature the ever-developing story of human descent and the structure of the brain.

Session 2
The second evening will describe (1) our emotions and how they motivate conflicting actions, and (2) consciousness, our cognitive abilities, their frailties and weaknesses, our biases and our competing scepticism and credulity.

Session 3
The third will outline (1) sexuality, mate selection, psychological differences and resultant conflicts, (2) the different roles of parents and the conflicts these give rise to in sexually reproducing species such as us.

Session 4
The fourth evening will describe (1) how morality fits into a multi-dimensional space of emotional reactions to our environment and the relevance of this in evolutionary ancestral times. In contrast it will also cover (2) the immoral sides of human nature, including violence, and their contribution to human descent.

Session 5
The final evening will cover (1) individual differences, their overlaps, extremes and the limits placed on the latter by natural and sexual selection. The course ends with (2) a look at modern culture and commerce and how the latter exploits for its own benefit the human characteristics described in earlier lectures.

There is a short break halfway through each session and you are welcome to bring your own refreshments if you wish.

Peter Clemerson spent his working life in Information Technology (B. Sc. Electrical Engineering) but as retirement approached, he pursued an interest in evolutionary psychology, graduating with M. A. and Ph. D. degrees from Massey University. His research focused on Cognitive Dissonance.

Relevant links:
School of Psychology

For further information:
Continuing Education, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140
Phone 04 463 6556, Email: conted@vuw.ac.nz

Please note: Courses need a minimum number of enrolments to go ahead. If your course doesn’t reach the number required, we’ll have to cancel it. If this happens, we’ll contact you by phone or email about a week before the scheduled start date and arrange a full refund. Please check your emails regularly.