Psych: Our Relationship With Evolution

Author’s Note: Originally written for the University of Michigan’s Behavioral Neuroscience course - the longest running course on the subject, clocking in at 134 years, and initially taught by John Dewey - “Our Relationship With Evolution” is my attempt to connect the basic elements of evolution with macro level societal institutions via human relationships. I’ve included all the references used not only to properly cite the inspiration and information within the article, but in hopes that the readers will follow the line wherever it leads. Academically speaking, Eastwick might be the best place to start. If you’d prefer a book, Ernest Becker’s “The Birth and Death of Meaning” has long been a favorite of mine.

Evolution, Human Relationships, and the Emergence of Religion Through Attachment


The human brain is not a thing. It isn’t a marble sculpture, resting high on a Grecian pedestal, being waited on, dusted and doted over. It isn’t a motionless construction, inanimate, or dead. It isn’t stagnant. The human brain is progressive, or in the words of psychiatrist and author Iain McGilchrist, “there are no things...there are processes and patterns” (Peterson, 2018). The brain exists in a continuum - unfolding, dynamically constructing itself over the millenia. The nature of this process is complex but perhaps the only way that life could be - an incomprehensibly patient process, slowly adjusting to the environment. Evolution is a conservative process, slowly testing the waters of reality and elaborating on the structures best suited to deal with those waters. The brain has changed one small thing at a time, keeping whatever works well enough to survive and discarding that which isn’t adequately functional. This is the encephalization process; like a lotus, each layer expands outward and upward but rests on a lower, also expanded, foundation.

Over millions - really billions - of years, the human mind has come into existence, and in order to understand the human mind, the process of the human brain must be understood alongside it. From evolution came the brain. From the brain came the mind (psyche or soul). From the mind came human culture and society. To highlight this process, I will focus on the most intimate element of human experience: human relationships, specifically on their path to reproduction. Not only do relationships demonstrate evolutionary strategies, but also as a consequence of those strategies, our society has been shaped. Religion, in part, seems a consequence of one of these evolutionary strategies. The mind used a functioning heuristic to protect itself from its waking finitude. Put explicitly, the influence of evolutionary principles on human beings is evident in the mating process, whose influence ripples out into the psyches of their children, and society at large, by manifesting our religions inclinations.


Before continuing on to this section and those to follow, I cannot in good faith, fail to address the limitations of this essay. The human psyche and society are ripe with evolutionary influences; so ripe, in fact, that I must limit the focus of our discussion to the elements I believe to be most pressing: desire, attraction, and attachment. Even within that context I will certainly leave out interesting information in order to provide structure to this essay. I could address the components of love; Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, for example. However, this would take us to far afield and well removed from the evolutionary throughline to which this essay is tethered. This isn’t to say that love isn’t an element of human relationships, or that it has ties to evolution, but that it is out of the scope of this essay. I say this in order to suggest to the reader that there are interesting nuances that are worth exploring apart from this essay and to encourage them, should their curiosity demand it, to explore this fascinating field.

Continuing on to desire, of all the topics that I’ll address, desire may seem the most self-evidently functional - evolutionarily speaking. If there was no desire to reproduce, then reproduction may not occur at all, ending the progression of that species. However, it is necessary to address desire given how fundamental it is. One way to highlight the effectiveness of desire in reproduction is to note its evolutionary history, the homologous emergence of desire in our ancestors. In Paul Eastwick’s article “Beyond the Pleistocene: Using Phylogeny and Constraint to Inform the Evolutionary Psychology of Human Mating”, he notes that “sensible correlates in animals, such as genital arousal or the inclination to pursue sex” (2009, p. 799), can be used to indicate the presence of sexual desire. The study of desire in our ancestors shows clearly that sexual desire has deep evolutionary roots. Our closest ancestors, the apes, display sexual desire, and it is speculated that sexual desire may be as deep as reproduction itself (Eastwick, 2009).

In humans, sexual desire increases the likelihood of sexual contact (Eastwick, 2009). There are also hormonal strategies that increase sexual desire, and thus sexual contact. Haselton and Gangestad showed that, “near ovulation, both pair-bonded and single women reported feeling more physically attracted and having greater interest in attending social gatherings where they might meet men. Pair-bonded women who were near ovulation reported greater extra-pair flirtation” (2006, p. 509). What this shows is an increased desire, amongst women, for men, near ovulation. This could be an evolutionary strategy to seek out members of the opposite sex, during a period of maximum likelihood of reproduction; further demonstrating that those who feel sexual desire are more likely to seek out sex, reproduce, and propagate the genes that foster sexual desire.


...attraction can be conceived of as the focusing element of desire.

Desire is certainly fundamental, but it is also general. Desire is a golden field, open and lush, but the presence of the field tells us nothing of which route to traverse - we could move straight forward, but even “forward” requires us to have a goal to orient forward and backwards against. In this way, the need for sexual gratification - desire - doesn’t inherently orient us. Attraction, instead, acts as the route; while the survival of our offspring - their “fitness” - acts as the goal. This is why attraction can be conceived of as the focusing element of desire. How do humans choose the target of their desire? By orienting themselves toward the mate most likely to guarantee the survival of their offspring. Men are searching for genetic quality - theoretically, the genes that will produce an offspring with a high chance of survival. Women then try to ensure quality and quantity of resources so their offspring may be well supplied and, therefore, more likely to survive - then, secondarily, seek out quality of genes (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). For example, men put a greater emphasis on good looks when searching for a mate, suggesting that men look for “good genes”, while women put a greater emphasis on financial prospects, suggesting a search for resources (Buss et al. 2001).

In order to guarantee that the mate we choose was one who  had good genes or access to resources, we selected those individuals who displayed signals indicating good genes or resources. One such signal is facial symmetry. Penton-Voak found that attractiveness is correlated with facial symmetry, though this is not the only feature of attractiveness. In men, features like prominent cheekbones may contribute (2001). This may be because good genes, genes likely to produce healthy offspring, produce facial symmetry. Those who are attracted to symmetry are more likely to reproduce with the symmetrical mate, and then have a child with good genes who is more likely, therefore, to survive. The “good gene” hypothesis also lends itself to our proclivity to find women with a small hip-to-waist ratios attractive. In a cross cultural study conducted by Furnham, Moutafi, and Baguma, they found that a smaller hip-to-waist ratio was considered more attractive by all the cultures tested, and by both men and women. (2002). An evolutionary explanation of this is that women with wider hips and a slimmer waist are more likely to reproduce successfully while also indicating general health. To emphasize the latter point on health, we know that other species do selectively mate with healthy partners. Female mice will select males that are healthy over those that are not (Ehman & Scott, 2002). So not only do other species do this, but the findings around attraction suggest that humans also search for health and “good genes” in their mates.  

There is debate around the “good gene” hypothesis, however. While the “good gene” hypothesis asserts that attractive traits are a sign of genes that fight off pathogens and illness, and signal likely reproductive success, the “bad gene” hypothesis believes that unattractive traits are a sign of bad genetic makeup and a higher likelihood of negative consequences for offspring - which, primarily, we are trying to avoid. The fact that mice mate preferentially with healthy mice, as previously mentioned, may also indicate the desire to avoid these consequences. The other hypothesis is regarding fluency. “Fluency is experienced when a stimulus is processed easily, and processing ease… indicates that a stimulus is familiar” (Eastwick, 2009, p.800). This means that we find traits like facial symmetry attractive because of their ease of processing. Though I’ve focused mainly on the “good genes” hypothesis here, it is worth considering the alternatives.


While desire motivates sexual contact and attraction focuses that desire onto an individual, attachment ties those individuals together. The literature on attachment, initially conceived of by John Bowlby, is massive. First I will define attachment and lay out the elements of it, as outlined in Eastwick (2009). Attachment is the emotional tie of an infant to the caregiver as an evolutionary strategy to aid in the survival of the infant - “keeping the infant in close contact with the attachment figure for care and protection” (Eastwick, 2009, p.801). There are several routes taken in order to assure this. The first is Proximity Seeking - behaviors that keep the child close to the attached figure. The second is Separation Anxiety - to insure that the child experiences negative consequences from separation, thus motivating them to return to the attachment figure. Third is Secure Base - using the attachment figure as a base to which they can return from their explorations. The final element is Safe Haven - the use of the attachment figure as a comforter.

...the relationship with the mother is projected onto the lover; informing and forming the relationship.

Attachment has deep roots and far reaching consequences. For example, filial attachments, attachments by the infant to the caregiver, are seen in every monkey and ape, with striking similarity. However, attachment doesn’t end with filial attachments, but extends into pair bonds - titi monkeys display attachment behaviors in heterosexual pair-bonds (Mason & Mendoza, 1998). Attachment in adult human relationships have also been studied, with “striking resemblance to infant-caregiver bonds” (Eastwick, 2009). This shows that not only do our evolutionary ancestors display attachment behaviors as adults, but so do humans. In a study by Feeney and Noller, attachment style in adult relationships was found to be related to attachment history. For example, Securely attached individuals reported positive perceptions of their early family life, while Avoidant individuals “were most likely to report childhood separation from their mother and to express mistrust of others” (1990). Even greater effects of attachment ripple out into adulthood. Adults with the Avoidant attachment style were found to be ineffective support seekers, while those with an Anxious style were poor caregivers. (Collins & Feeney, 2000). What this suggests is that Attachment has deep evolutionary roots that lead to human infant attachment to a caregiver, which then leads to adult attachment styles, which, in turn, affect the quality of human adult relationships, or pair-bonds. This should come as no surprise, as any intuitive person could suggest that attachment is crucial to a healthy relationship. However, the fact that we may learn how to be attached as an infant, and that the consequences are so pervasive, is less intuitive. It seems that attachment is a means of ensuring survival where the caregiver performs a compensatory role for the vulnerabilities of the infant; what the infant cannot handle, the parent manages for them. The infant’s internal conception of that attachment to the caregiver - the schema formed as a framework for understanding the relationship - gets recycled and used again when forming adult relationships later in life. To put it in Freudian terms, the relationship with the mother is projected onto the lover; informing and forming the relationship.

In his book “The Birth and Death of Meaning”, Ernest Becker said that the mother acted as a buffer against anxiety - a product of human vulnerability and their acute awareness of it. He then believed that as our awareness of our vulnerability grew more conscious with age, we needed more complex buffers against anxiety. Where the mother could no longer serve as a buffer, religion took her place (Becker, 1971). This is one of the broader effects our evolutionary history has spilled into society at large, and it flows through our relationships. Individuals first feel desire, then they focus that desire into attraction, attraction may lead to attachment between adults, and that attachment also forms between the infant and caregiver, continuing the cycle and their survival. Each step is influenced by the evolutionary processes aforementioned. Then the same attachment that occurs between two lovers or a mother and a child, gets projected onto a god.

In a study by Kirkpatrick and Shaver, a sample of 213 respondents were asked about their family backgrounds and adult religious behaviors. What they found was in line with Becker’s thinking on the matter and Bowlby’s considerations. Respondents who classified their relationships with their mother as Avoidant, were more religious as adults and were more likely to have sudden religious conversion in both adolescence and adulthood (1990). What may be happening in this dynamic, is that the Avoidant infant grows up avoiding attachment while still having the need for a securely attached figure. To compensate for the lack of a figure to which they are attached they then, perhaps even suddenly, form an attachment bond to a symbolic figure, to whom they can return. This cognitive processes is also seen in the language surrounding Christianity - “God the Father”, for example. This projection of the maternal-child relationship extends beyond a compensation for poor maternal attachment. Kay et al. suggested that religious deities act as external forms of control when individuals have lower personal control in their own lives. Meaning that when an adult is in a state of low control, they rely on the perceived control of the deity (2010). This is reflected in language like “it’s in God’s hands”. It is also worth noting that this external, projected attachment dynamic is not limited to religious deities. Kay et al. also found that secular institutions play the same external control role. This may be reflected in zealous political attachments.

To speculate further, God may even act as a functional meme whose evolutionary purpose is to serve as a caregiver, to whom we are attached, in adulthood. God plays the ideal, ultimate, caregiver. In many Christian conceptions of God, religious individuals are considered to have a personal relationship with the deity. They go to church every Sunday to commune with God - a reflection of proximity-seeking behavior. They experience anxiety when they feel “God has abandoned them” - a form separation anxiety. They seek comfort in God, like a safe haven. What God may perform best is the secure base function. God is considered to be omnipresent, a secure base that remains with the individual regardless of the changing geographic or psychological terrain; like a parent who can accompany the child anywhere, providing comfort against an uncertain world. The omnipotent element of God may be a emergent trait to compensate for the human need to feel comforted, like the safe haven element of attachment. An all powerful parent who, should the child become overwhelmed, can step in and protect the child from any dangerous encounter - the parent many children envision their parents to be or, at least, hope that they are.


To properly confirm the final element of this essay, referring to God as a figure of attachment, more work must be done on religion and attachment. All the evidence provided was self-reported. The respondents told their stories to the researchers, from which the researchers concluded their childhood attachment style and then observed the correlation between the style and their religious behavior. While this is a first step, ideally, more rigorous studies should be conducted. A longitudinal study, which would track the attachment styles of the participants from infancy to adulthood would be best. The research could verify infant attachment, adult relationship attachments, and the interplay of religious belief throughout the participant’s lifetime. I would suspect, given that I take the perspective of an attachment theorist, that the results shown in this essay would be confirmed. However, this would be a difficult undertaking given the time and resources necessary to conduct such a study.

The human experience is a complex and fascinating interplay between our past, concretized in our biology, and the present, the dynamic cultural and physical environment. Our relationships, with our parents, our lovers, and our gods reflect this same dynamic. In our evolutionary past, our ancestors survived and reproduced, creating children who carried their genes forward. The strategies they used to achieve this goal produced our relationships, and the tactics used to create and secure these relationships are still employed by humans. One of the consequences of these tactics was the need for a comforter - a caregiver to whom we could be attached. This caregiver, who is initially a parent, cannot always be with us. Kids grow up and move out. They form attachments of their own; loving relationships, where they can have children of their own. This requires courage. Not only to go out on their own, far away from their secure base or safe haven, but to tackle new interpersonal challenges and dangers. Eventually, everyone’s parents pass away. Humans are plagued by vulnerability and loneliness. So a figure emerged to compensate for the inherent vulnerabilities all humans are painfully made aware of - God. The ultimate, omnipotent, omnipresent, parent could now hold our hand as we moved out into the brave new world. Should we need comfort or a secure place to return to, our deities could now be there. By understanding and researching this oscillating, fascinating, dynamic relationship between our relationships and our psyches, we may learn to both respect these elements that form us and, simultaneously, transcend them.


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