February 12, 2007

today in science history . . .

"We must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which had penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system -- with all these exalted powers. Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."

-Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Charles Darwin was born today! Well this day in 1809. Most know of him as an important figure of science in general, but his ideas about natural selection have an enormous influence on the field of psychology. Darwin's ideas gave us a tool, by which we can scientifically investigate traits that were once thought uniquely human, such as emotion, intelligence, ability to learn and self-awareness.

The idea that the law of evolution through natural selection applied to all organisms opened up new doors in experimental psychology. For one, it gave rise to comparative psychology, which is the study of the behavior and mental life of animals. Basically, comparative psychologists conduct studies on animals across different species to see what behaviors are similar and what's different, and how different. They also look at which principles of behavior are applicable to human beings.

Developmental psychology is another field that has a pronounced influence from Darwin. Developmental psychology is essentially the study of the progressive changes in behavior as human beings age. They are also interested in how innate certain behaviors are and how these behaviors are impacted by various social backgrounds. Some also look at what behaviors are experienced across the human species and what behaviors are specific to certain cultures.

And of course we wouldn't even have evolutionary psychology without the idea of evolution through natural selection. Evolutionary Psychology is the theoretical approach to psychology that looks at the psychological mechanisms that we now possess as adaptations to the environmental context through which our species evolved. For instance, we have a 'need to belong' and psychological mechanisms by which we can detect the likelihood of being socially accepted or excluded. Well, this most likely developed because working in groups was often times a matter of life and death in early hunter/gatherer societies. People who were better at being accepted into their group and better at avoiding ostracism would be more likely to survive and pass on their genes.

Darwin's ideas about evolution have had an enormous impact on many other fields of psychological inquiry, social psychology, behavioral neuroscience, clinical psychology, etc. . . . but I have a lot of work to do at the moment so I can't write anymore!


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