Many of the debates that are held today in relation to psychology can be reduced to: Is our behavior the expression of our genetics (something innate), or does it depend to a large extent on the context in which we live?
This question has been answered, analyzed and nuanced not only from different theoretical currents belonging to science, but even from certain political, economic and philosophical positions.
Slaves to our genes? The evolutionary view
Psychology can be considered a heterodox discipline, and it has posed this problem in very different ways. There is a tradition in psychology that emphasizes the biological, and that is based on fields of study such as neuroscience, and there is another that is responsible for studying the functioning of thought from symbols, concepts and structures of thought. However, there is a relatively new approach that stresses the importance of searching the evolutionary history of the human species to understand its behavior. This is evolutionary psychology.
In the same way that some fields of study of psychology have a biological basis when investigating from alterations in the neuro-endocrine system, the evolutionary psychology is based on the discoveries of evolutionary biology to hypothesize about our behavior. That is to say: it is also based on the biological substrate, but not understood as something static, but in constant development according to the transformations that occur in the evolution of the species. From the discoveries that have been done about our ancestors and the context in which they lived, hypotheses can be made that explain, at least in part, our behavior.
While it is true that these studies are conditioned by the accuracy of our knowledge about our ancestors and the environment in which they lived, evolutionary psychology can offer us interesting explanations about phenomena such as the emergence of language, breeding strategies, risk tolerance and many more aspects that are practically timeless and transversal to our species.
Somehow, then, it appeals to what universal in the human being, since to be based on our evolutionary precedents it is necessary to investigate the way of life of our common ancestors. On the other hand, if some differences in how we act could be genetically determined, a kind of psychological lag between two or more groups of people with other biological characteristics. The latter has caused evolutionary psychology to generate a certain controversy in some circles.
The context and manifestation of genes
Indeed, evolutionary psychology can be a tool to legitimize situations of social inequality, attributing this to genetics and not to a context in which a minority is discriminated against. An explanation about the different ways of life between two nationalities based on ancestral origins, may very well respond to the interests of the social darwinism, or the domination of the white man over all others. Although the results of scientific studies do not establish moral precepts, they may have their origin in the need to justify or perpetuate injustice: science, as the creation of a political animal, is not neutral, and the conclusions of an experiment can be collected by spokesmen for racism, machismo or xenophobia.
There is also a confrontation between the promoters of this approach to psychology and part of the international feminist movement, especially the circles related to queer theory. In general, comparative studies between the sexes are a field much studied by these psychologists, who find in the distinction between masculine and feminine a variable universal to the human species, regardless of the context.
By influencing the differences between the two sexes, the differences in the way of life that exist today between men and women are justified to some extent. For example, studies showing a tendency for women to seek a partner in someone of higher status, or capable of providing more resources, have been especially controversial. In some way, they question the belief that gender is something socially constructed and determined by the historical moment.
However, it is important to note something: While it is true that these psychologists seem to pay more attention to what is already determined by DNA, it can also be said that DNA is determined by context. Both our acts and the context in which we develop them notably determine which genes manifest themselves, when they do so … and even if our genes are going to be transmitted or not! The very essence of the evolution of species explained by Darwin is the interaction between the genetic and the changeable: the world in which we live, the experiences to which we expose ourselves. Evolutionary psychology is not about what we are programmed to do, but offers an explanation of our potential.