Psychology 141, Evolution and Human Nature

Tuesday, Thursday 12.30 to 13.50 in  Mandler 1507

Instructor: Don MacLeod


phone: (858) 534-3975
office: 5121 McGill Hall
Office Hours: Wednesday 10-12

Course Web Page: , or click on the Courses link on my home page, and then on Psych 141; contents are subject to later updates

Scope and format

We will be discussing human nature from the perspective of evolutionary biology and ethology. Things we will look at include sexual behavior and gender differences, marriage and family life, attraction, crime, psychopathology, social stratification, nationalism, racism, aggression, war, and morality in general. Less lurid but equally fundamental topics will come up along with these: notably, evolutionary constraints on cognition and on how we perceive the world. We will consider the claims of our species to both morality and rationality.

When we try to understand specific actions and attitudes, such as your decision to enroll in this class or your feelings about a person you are dating, the evolutionary history of humankind doesn’t seem relevant. Instead, the things that matter would be the particulars of your situation, and of your own individual psychology and developmental history. But if you shift your focus from the particular to the general, and consider general human dispositions and characteristics, the evolutionary context can be really illuminating. If you ask general questions like: “why are we not happy all of the time?” or “what qualities are important when we look for a partner?” an evolutionary perspective can suggest answers, and provide justification for those answers.


The class will be in seminar format, with much more discussion than formal lecturing, because the subject suits this approach. I will only briefly introduce some of the issues before each meeting. This means reading will have to be done in advance, and we will summarize and discuss the reading in class. Involvement in class discussion is essential.


I will want each of you to email me, before each class at least one question, contention or discussion point, inspired by the reading, which you think would be helpful for stimulating or guiding discussion (it might be simply a quotation of some interesting but questionable claim in the reading, that you are prepared to attack or defend). I will post a selection of these to help create a framework for discussion in class. In order to be useful, these questions should reflect thoughtful attention to the reading. Your emailed discussion points should be just a couple of sentences, with a page number or quote to indicate a relevant passage in the reading. Please sign them, and please put Psych 141 in the subject line of your email; that helps me separate them from junk and other mail. I would like to receive these by midnight the day before each class.

Grading  criteria are subject to negotiation, but I propose this structure:

1)      An essay-type final exam, where you will be asked to discuss several questions mostly taken from a long list ( 30 or more questions) that I will distribute at least a week in advance. The final will account for about 40% of the grade.  We may discuss doing including a midterm, and adjusting other percentages down accordingly.

2)     A written project, usually a research paper of roughly 8 pages double-spaced. You have some choice as to the nature of the project. You might consider, for instance, a computer simulation, or possibly a web page about some topic relevant for the class. (30%). Email me about your choice of topic if you like. If you submit the paper as a Word document (recommended) I can return it with comments as tracked changes.

3)      A substantial but short (20 minute?) presentation you will be asked to make to the class: this could (for instance) be a summary of an interesting paper relevant to the topic of the day, or (better) a discussion of some controversial and fairly broad issue(s) relevant to the day’s topic, perhaps featuring arguments on both sides. (20%) Use of graphics in the presentations is encouraged, and my range from abstract diagrams of elaborate theoretical schemes or cartoons or pictorial examples of relevant types of human folly. If you use power point, we will have an overhead projector to use with your laptop, or you can use my laptop with your.ppt file on or flash drive; let me know by the day before if you need my laptop. If you use power point I would like you to email me a version that I can put on the web so others in the class can consult it.

      The presentation should go beyond the material that everyone has read, and should generally not be very narrow in focus, because it has to be interesting to the rest of the class. The optional readings are a good source of ideas. If you are excited about a particular topic but can’t present that day, it’s OK to get out of sync with the regular reading, especially if we have done the relevant reading already.

4)      I will also take into account the usefulness of the discussion questions you submit. Thoughtful and helpful participation in class discussions will also count strongly in your favor. (10%).

5) Finally, if you help in psychology research as a subject, this may improve your grade if you are on a borderline. Instructions on doing that are here.  

The paper/project will be due at the start of class on Thursday February 25. Get started a couple of weeks before that. The choice of topic is up to you, provided it's relevant to the themes of the course. Do discuss it with me first if you're at all uncertain. Some originality of theme or organization will be appreciated, but it isn't mandatory or even expected. The paper should include a reasonably deep consideration of a sampe of current good research or thinking, as reflected in available books and papers. This means the paper generally has to be much more focused (and less broad) than your presentation. Possible topics will be discussed/circulated in class. You can use either personal observation or citations in your paper to justify your claims. Cite authors by name and date, e.g. (Smith & Jones, 1922). Format is generally up to you, but please include an abstract of a few sentences, and complete references at the end of the paper.

REQUIRED reading:

Two paperback texts are required, and are available at the Bookstore (they may even have used copies for you) :
1. The Moral Animal. Why we are the way we are: The new science of evolutionary psychology, by Robert Wright. Vintage Books, 1994.
    A popular book, excitingly written, often in a crusading style.

2. Evolutionary Psychology, An Introduction (2nd. Ed) by Lance Workman and Will Reader. Cambridge, 2008

For a more systematic and in depth exploration of specific topics in the second half of the quarter, the schedule I am distributing lists a number of recommended additional readings.  Most of these are completely optional but a few are required. These readings will develop particular theoretical issues from the text in greater depth, or will give the detailed accounts of important relevant empirical studies. Distribution is just by on line access. You will also obviously need to do some reading on the topics of your presentations, and these readings are one good starting point. The web is a very rich source of material on this subject, and judicious use of a search engine should uncover a wealth of opinion, and even some data, relevant to any particular point of interest..

The following are supplementary materials that you may find useful in fixing gaps in your knowledge or exploring an aspect of evolutionary psychology in greater depth.  Click on the book title to view (hopefully) useful comments about the books and/or tables of contents.  There is masses of good stuff appearing yearly at the moment, and the web is teeming with interesting material in this field. Try the website of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society to get started with web exploration.

OTHER POTENTIALLY USEFUL READING: (1) An appetizer (very light reading):

This lurid popular paperback argues that our genes are continually making fools of us; it  could help get you hooked on the subject:

Burnham, T. and Phelan, J.  Mean genes. From sex to money to food: Taming our Primal instincts. Penguin, 2000

(Sample quote: “Happiness is a tool that our genes use to induce us toward behaviors that benefit them”).

 (2) Textbooks:

Barrett, L., Dunbar, R and Lycett, J. Human evolutionary psychology. Princeton, 2002. A broad and balanced survey that stays close to empirical research findings.

Buss, David M. Evolutionary Psychology. The new science of the mind. Allyn and Bacon, 1999. Standard text, a bit evangelical in tone.

Bridgeman, B. Psychology and Evolution. The origins of mind. Sage Publications, 2003. More broad than deep, but thoughtful, and less preoccupied than Buss with making converts to the evolutionary psychology religion.

(3) Two books that would be helpful background for those unfamiliar with evolutionary theory or the biological mechanisms of evolution:

Dawkins, R. (1976/1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Still a great book, arguing for the radical view that an animal is for many purposes best viewed as its genes’ way of replicating themselves. Provocative, elopquent controversial.

Alland, A. (1967). Evolution and Human Behavior. Garden City, The Natural History Press.

(4) A bunch of other books of interest:

Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L. & Tooby. J. (Eds). (1992) The adapted mind: evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (1978).  Sex, Evolution, and Behavior.  North Scituate, Duxbury Press.

Dawkins, R. (1982). The Extended Phenotype. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.
Softens Dawkins' earlier position, with more emphasis on kin selection

Dawkins, R. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W.W.Norton & Co.

Dawkins, R. (1997). Climbing Mount Improbable. New York: W.W.Norton & Co.
These two basically highlight the surprising results that evolution can achieve. (Pop version: River out of Eden.)

Fine, Cordelia (2010) Delusions of Gender.  Tries to debunk the evolutionary perspective on gender differences. Conrast Susan Pinker below.

Garn, S. (Ed.) (1964). Culture and the Direction of Human Evolution. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Gray, John (2002) Straw Dogs. London: Granta. This is an extremely, indeed uniquely bleak and pessimistic assessment of the human condition that claims part of its grounding in a Darwinian perspective. If you read it, you may want to have an antidote handy, for example A. C. Grayling’s review, or Raymond Tallis’s book, Aping Man, listed below.

Kitcher, P (1985). Vaulting Ambition. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Valuable, hard-hitting but reasonably fair critique of "pop sociobology"

Kropotkin, P. (1902). Mutual Aid.  New York: Garland Publishers.

Maynard Smith, J. (1978). The Evolution of Sex.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Maynard Smith, J. (1982). Evolution and the theory of games. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Classic exposition of evolutionarily stable strategies.

Miller, G. (2000) The Mating Mind

Nesse, R. M. & Williams, G.C. (1994). Why we get sick: the new science of Darwinian medicine. New York : Times Books.
Includes discussion of psychological problems like depression from Darwinian point of view.

Susan Pinker (2008) The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Real Gender Gap. Discusses the same questions as Fine but with generally different answers, more sympathetic to evolution- or gene-based accounts

Pinker, Steve (2003) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Penguin. Polemic against the straw man of radical cultural determinism. Reads well as Pinker’s books always do, but Ridley’s 2003 book will probably advance your understanding more.

Pinker, Steve (2012) The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Viking.  Reviews the evolutionary background to war (mainly) and documents how cultural factors have been helping to bring out the best in us.

Plotkin, H.C. (1998). Evolution in Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ridley, M. (1993). The red queen: Sex and the evolution of human nature. New York: Penguin Books.

Ridley, M. (1993). The origins of virtue. New York: Penguin Books.
Ridley's books are literate, witty and well informed. This one has a good chapter on the origins of war.

Ridley, M. (2003) The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture. (Alternative title: Nature via Nurture) A convincing demonstration of the complex interaction between genes and developmental history that forms body and mind.

Tallis, Raymond (2011) Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. A fairly balanced and entertaining critique of the excesses and oversimplifications into which evolutionary psychology tends to fall.

Trivers, R.L. (1985). Social Evolution. Menlo Park: Benjamin/Cummings
A carefully thought out and soundly based account of animal social organization.

Wilson, E.O. (1975). Sociobiology: the new synthesis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Main original stimulus behind current interest. Wilson is good on insects, but the bits about humans earned this book its (arguably disproportionate) notoriety

Wilson, E.O. (1979). On Human nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

(5) Some key journals:

Evolution and Human Behavior is the most relevant journal, with a host of  studies that might suggest paper topics or be suited for presenting and discussing in class. 

Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews  has reviews of human evolution, that could be particularly useful as a source of material for papers if you want to focus on human origins and pre-history.


Bring all human knowledge to your desktop

·       Browse the scientific journals


The PubMed database of the National Library of Medicine provides access to over 17 million journal articles relevant to psychology and health. This is obviously a tremendously helpful resource for research for a paper, for a presentation or for any other purpose (e.g. getting state of the art statistics on the prognosis for your sick aunt).  


Thanks to payments made by UC to copyright-holding publishers, you can access most articles from UC computer sites, such as the undergraduate computer lab adjacent to the ground floor office in Mandler, by pointing your browser at this special PubMed page:


You will see a dialog box for entering keywords for a search. The search brings up a (generally quite long) list of titles. Click on any promising titles to bring up the abstracts as published in the original journal. This helps identify the good stuff. Once you have a few good leads you can quickly follow a trail through the scientific literature using PubMed’s  “Related Papers” links.


To see the complete article,  click on the UC- ELinks icon displayed in an orange rectangle below the abstract. That takes you first to a UC E-links page, which usually has a link for “Full text available”; click on that to go to the journal publisher’s page where the specific article is listed along with links for downloading it, e.g. in PDF format.


It’s also easy to do this from home. You just need to enter one line into your browser configuration to set up a “proxy server”. Instructions for that:


1. If you need to check if you already have a UCSD network username and password, go to:

2: Configure your computer’s browser to use the UCSD proxy server

To configure your computer’s browser (Explorer, Netscape, Firefox) follow the instructions


3: For help with Proxy Setup

Contact ACS/Network Operations at or (858) 534-1857.


·       Find references to books, and browse many


Although PubMed doesn’t include books, Google Scholar has most journal articles and books as well:  for instance, at


You can search for the writings of anyone of interest (e.g. “CR Darwin”). If you have a gmail account you can browse the books that Google has scanned and archived (eg The Origin of Species).