Home       SAPA Project Test       Papers

The Rise of Civilization and the Evolution of Personality

Brain P. Smith
Rochester Institute of Technology

The development of the brain and the development of the human society occurred in relative parallel. While people were learning to live together cooperatively, they were also adapting to the new non-physical environment they found themselves in. A review of literature concerning human society and culture, as well as certain psychological adaptations is presented. The author intends to demonstrate key ways in which society influenced psychological development, and likewise ways in which the human mind steered the growth of the cultures we see in the world today.

How is modern man different from prehistoric man? How do people living in bustling cities differ from their distant, cave-dwelling ancestors? These questions are ones evolutionary psychologists ask themselves when they set out to do research. Evolutionary psychology seeks to better understand the human mind by considering the evolutionary and hereditary aspects of development. The role of growth and development (ontogenesis) in the formation of the mind is not dismissed, but more emphasis is placed on the genetics of the brain, and how they have changed over the centuries.

As one might imagine, given the breadth of the field of psychology, an evolutionary psychologist should have no problem finding an area of study that is rich with discovery. This paper will attempt to demonstrate some of the findings that have been found in the areas of personality and social psychology in relation to evolutionary psychology. A discussion of some societal changes in particular will be presented, as well as a selection of the ways in which people have changed because of them.

The Emergence of Society and Culture

Many species live in social groups, from the great apes to fish and insects. The fact that humans do too is not in and of itself of note. What is interesting is the sheer complexity of the social system that humans exist in. Prehistoric humans lived mostly in small family groups to pool resources and increase their survivability. As populations began to grow, more and more people had to live together to maximize resource utilization and provide adequate safety. Just as biological entities adapt and evolve to survive better, the societies that people found themselves living in began changing with time. Rules and customs arose, which led to the formation of Freud's superego, that aspect of the mind that compares oneself to the ideal member of the society. Now, in addition to the pressures of survival and passing on their genes, people had to concern themselves with the laws of the societies they lived in. With time, the challenges people faced in their social lives became internalized, and successful behaviors and traits were passed on to offspring. Evolutionary psychology seeks to understand these adaptations; why they first developed, what they were meant to accomplish, and how are they represented in modern man.

Note that there is no such thing as a "universal" society or culture. Any two societies can be compared and visible differences would not be hard to find. The reasons behind these differences are hard to define, and could potentially be anything. Buss has an example in his article about two tribes of indigenous Venezuelans. One has existed for generations in the foothills of a mountain range, the other up in the actual mountains. The two tribes are separated by a span of mere miles. Yet the tribe in the foothills is demonstrably more aggressive than the one in the mountains. Members of this tribe regularly engage in axe and club fights, beat their wives for minor infractions such as serving tea too slowly, and regularly raid neighbors for food and women. The mountain tribe is much more agreeable: they rarely fight, and then only with clubs, and would much rather settle debates through compromise and discussion than through confrontation. This is just an example of one case in which cultures vary wildly from each other (Buss, 2001).

That is not to say, however, that there is no such thing as "human nature." A view held by many during the 20th century was the idea of the Noble Savage. The Noble Savage was the ideal man, living in peace with nature and his neighbors, with no negative thoughts or feelings. A major proponent of this idea was an anthropologist named Margaret Mead. She reported that she had found an idyllic Samoan tribe, which lacked things like jealousy or rigid sex roles. Many people flocked to this idea, the idea that people were good and it was modern living that made people do bad things. A similar philosophy arose around the same time called the Blank Slate, which said that people were able to learn anything with an equal amount of effort, and that there were no biological predispositions. As it turns out, both of these philosophies have been seriously undermined by further empirical testing. The study that Mead conducted was actually a series of interviews with two village women, who later confessed to lying to Mead, done from the nearby hotel Mead was staying at. Anthropologists investigating the tribe in question found obvious evidence of jealousy and criminal behavior, and, in fact, no anthropologist yet has found a culture that is free from jealousy. The Blank Slate theory was brought into question after other researchers used rewards other than food to test learning ability. It was found that people were much quicker at learning some things and noticeably slower at learning others. The evidence gathered thus far suggests that humans have a predisposition towards certain traits and behaviors, such as jealousy and fear of snakes, both of which could serve useful evolutionary purposes. Evolutionary psychology seeks both to find these traits and behaviors, but to understand why they would have developed and remained with subsequent generations (Buss, 2001).

Sociological Adaptations Still Evident Today

Many, if not all, of the adaptations made by prehistoric humans are still evident in the world of today. This is particularly obvious in the case of purely biological adaptations. Humans have incredibly complex biological systems. The eyes alone contain billions of highly specialized cells for sensing light, determining colors, detecting edges, etc. It would then stand to reason that the systems of the mind are both evolutionary adaptations and incredibly complex. Two articles, one on depression and one on stigmatization, are summarized below in order to demonstrate the workings of these systems, and why they can be considered evolutionary adaptations.

According to Allen and Badcock (2003), depression is a self-defense mechanism by which an individual attempts to prevent his or herself from being cast out of a group. Individuals in a depressed state avoid socially risky behavior, become hypersensitive to social risk and send out signals in an attempt to elicit support from others in the social group. Depressed people are likewise less confrontational or competitive than they might normally be, since these are traits that would lead to high-risk situations. People sensing that they are close to being evicted from a group that is important, either for survival or reproduction, they adopt these behaviors in an attempt to stay within the group and stave off exclusion. By becoming a very low-risk individual, people experiencing depression attempt to show to others that there is no reason to exclude them from the group, that they are "safe." Studies have been done that show there are specific traits that are only apparent in individuals experiencing depression. Overall, depression is a highly specialized response to the perceived social environment. It is very hard to believe that it could be anything but an evolved adaptation to the human social world (Allen & Badcock, 2003).

Another notable social mechanism, tangential to depression, is stigmatization. Stigmatization is the process by which a group excludes individuals from social interaction based on their desirability to the group. People are stigmatized for a variety of reasons, which vary wildly from group to group, but there seems to be an overall reasoning behind these exclusions. Any given group has an ideal member, who has certain traits and displays certain behaviors. Those who do not posses these traits or show these behaviors are thus not desirable members of the group, and could potentially be harmful. As important as the need to belong is, belonging to the "wrong" group has benefits for neither the individual nor the group. While stigmatization can have a powerful effect on a person, as anyone who has lived with a teenager can likely attest, it remains an important process by which social groups maintain themselves. Evidence that stigmatization is an evolutionary adaptation can be found in the fact that stigmatization is present in a wide variety of species, not just humans. Chimpanzees have a social hierarchy where individuals at the bottom have restrictions placed on them due to factors such as size and kin group, which clearly shows that these individuals have traits that are not desirable. Likewise, three-spined sticklebacks, a variety of small fish, systematically avoid association with other sticklebacks that show evidence of having parasites. Thusly we can conclude that since humans have been living in societies for millions of years, certain adaptations must have been made to deal specifically with social situations, and stigmatization is one of them (Kurzban & Leary, 2001).

Evolution and adaptation needed to occur before human society could truly begin to blossom. Neurological changes needed to occur in the human mind, to allow for the new kinds of thinking that man would need to flourish in this new environment. Sedikides and Skowronski argue that one of the most important of these adaptations is symbolic self-awareness. Subjective self-awareness is the ability for an organism to differentiate between itself and things that are not itself. More evolved species, such as most of the great apes, have a more refined self-awareness, referred to as object self-awareness. Objective self-awareness is the capability of an organism to become the object of its own attention and be aware of its own state of mind. This implies the organism has at least a crude cognitive representation of its self, and can recognize itself in a mirror, for example. So far, humans are the only species that have been found to have the next level of self-awareness, known as symbolic self-awareness. Symbolic self-awareness refers to an array of traits exhibited by adult humans, and includes things such as having an abstract cognitive representation of the self through language, performing goal-oriented tasks, evaluate the outcomes of these tasks, and relate those outcomes to the symbolic self (i.e. shame if a task is failed, pride when a task is accomplished successfully). The symbolic sense of self is necessary for social interaction because for two organisms to interact socially, each needs to be able to evaluate the benefits of the interaction in relation to themselves and to the other organism. Without a symbolic sense of self, it would be impossible for humans to have a society more complex than what is exhibited by chimpanzees (Sedikides & Skowronski, 1997).

Other Adaptations Made To Facilitate Society

Every creature on Earth has a collection of behaviors and instincts that help it to survive in its normal environment. Humans are no exception to this rule, and many of the traits and behaviors of modern day people can be traced back through the evolution of the species. Kenrick, Li and Butner suggest that most human behavior today is a result of evolutionary adaptations made in the past by our ancestors. Their article focuses on a few key points with which they make most of their argument: coalition formation, status, self-protection, mate choice, relationship maintenance, and parental care. Coalition formation is the process by which people decide with whom they wish to share their resources. Kinship is the strongest factor a given person will consider when deciding to share resources with someone. After kinship, a history of past reciprocal sharing is the most important factor, the logic being that if a sharing of resources has worked in the past, there is a chance it will work again. A history of resource sharing is what might be considered a "friendship" by today's standards. Status is one of those traits that seem to have different value between the sexes. Overall, status is beneficial as it typically means better access to resources and increased social alliances. Males typically value status more than females, as females often use male status as a cue for mate selection. As a result, men will be more alert towards activities that would result in a loss of status, especially in comparison to his neighbors or competitors. Self-protection is an interesting facet of human behavior, in that it has changed much as society has evolved. Ancient humans lived primarily in small family groups, and competed with other family groups. A person usually had little to fear from members of his family group since, from an inclusive fitness point of view, any harm inflicted on kin equates damage inflicted on the self. However, people from outside the family shared little or none of the same fitness goals, and were therefore decidedly more dangerous. As communities grew larger, more people began living in close quarters with people who were not their kin. This would lead to a lower aggression threshold, since these people are dangerous, from the perspective of inclusive fitness. The end result of this would be "mutually maintaining regions of hostility" present in every neighborhood in the modern world. Whether or not this is the case is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is an interesting idea. Overall, it is easy to observe how modern day human behavior could easily have come from years of evolution within a dangerous world, both physically and psychologically (Kenrick, Li, & Butner, 2003).

Human memory is another interesting aspect of the species. Memory systems need to do two things: retrieve useful information, and retrieve it quickly. To remember every piece of information about a construct would take a long time. To remember something very quickly would require a drop in the amount of information retrieved, and the precision of that information. The human mind has developed a good compromise between these two needs. When something needs to be recalled, the memory retrieves a representative sample of the person's experiences with the construct, as well as specific instances of when the general "picture" of the construct was wrong. For example, you remember that the bus arrives at the bus stop at 4:15. However, you also remember that when it is raining, the bus is often 5 minutes late. The primary information retrieved was "4:15", but you also remember when that information has been wrong in the past. Another interesting feature of human memory, is the way in which it tends to compress things. People you meet are often represented as a collection of trait descriptions, such as "friendly," "angry," or "sad." The mind takes the multifaceted personality of the individual in question, and reduces it to a small set of predictive descriptions that allow for rapid, and often good, decision-making (Klein, Cosmides, Tooby, & Chance, 2002).

Residual Benefits of Brain Plasticity

The development of society and culture did not always require the creation of new psychological systems. Geary (1995) makes an excellent argument about the way in which culture influences the abilities a person has as an adult. Certain features, he claims, are indeed biological, and these features should be and have been found pan-culturally. In addition to being found across cultures, these abilities, which Geary refers to as biologically primary, should serve plausible evolutionary functions. The human capability for language is a very specific evolutionary adaptation, but the capability to read, which is very closely related to language, is not found in all cultures and therefore most likely not biological in nature. It would appear the ability to read requires the use of many of the same neurobiological systems that language uses, but in different ways, which vary from culture to culture. Another example Geary uses is geometry. Many species, not just humans, seem to exhibit a map-like knowledge of the area in which they exist. However, for a human, geometric ability, beyond the absolute basics, is very much a function of the culture of the individual in question. Certain cultures have institutions, such as schools, where certain abilities are regularly emphasized which results in increased proficiency in these abilities, which Geary have called biologically secondary. It has been found that more culturally and technologically advanced societies require more biologically secondary abilities in their members, and therefore place more emphasis on those institutions that teach these abilities. The ability for humans to use biologically primary systems for biologically secondary tasks is powerful indeed, as it allows for advancement without evolution. A generation that can teach a subsequent generation to perform a task does not need to develop biological support for that task in particular (Geary, 1995).

Despite the sheer number of ways in which human evolution influences behavior, an adult human's personality is as much ontogenesis as it is genetics. The adaptations of the human species are nothing without experience. A biological predisposition towards anything is just a predisposition until it is allowed to become a behavior. As an example, a person who has never witnessed anyone else reacting with fear towards a snake will not react with fear, either. The goal of evolutionary psychology is just to explain why things are the way they are, not to explain the way things are going to be.

Peer Commentary

Evolution and Society: The Refining of Environment, Defense Mechanisms, and Memory

Cristina E. Eagan
Rochester Institute of Technology

Smith's paper presented a wealth of views and reasoning for how the psychological development of modern human beings has been influenced through the evolutionary process. I agree with the notion that environment affects our behaviors and vice versa. This emerged as the overall theme of the paper and can be seen in every aspect of our modern lives. This idea has also seen its share of evolution. It seems that environment affecting behavior is a more primitive way of thinking, and I think directly of the example given about the foothills tribe versus the mountain tribe. These tribes had little capability for altering their environments. In modern times, however, we have the ability to adapt our environments to our needs and wants which have already been formulated through evolution and adaptation. Heated houses, air conditioning, bridges and elevators are some examples of how we adapt our environments to meet our set conceptions of what the ideal environment should be.

This paper states that with evolution, successful behaviors are passed on to future generations while challenges, or unsuccessful behaviors are internalized. The passage of positive behaviors is a well received idea and adds a great deal to the paper. I was left wondering, however, about the possibility that the failed interactions which were internalized have a chance of being passed on as well. The idea that these behaviors are internalized and therefore ignored leads me to wonder if they could manifest into forms of anxiety. In prehistoric terms, the most basic of anxiety types would be objective anxiety, which is initiated by external events and often provokes a fight or flight response. This sensing of immanent danger can help the overall survival of the species. In modern times, our need for acceptance within our cultures has created neurotic and moral anxieties, which feed directly from within the person experiencing the conflict. This concept that behaviors and evolutionary selection have an impact on current internal mindsets and behaviors seems like a logical step, but further research within evolutionary literature is needed to state this idea as fact.

The last section of this paper that I would like to discuss is the part on memory. The author states that memory systems only need to retrieve useful information with relative speed. This is true, but the importance of encoding of information into the brain should be mentioned. The ways that we encode memories seems like a product of evolutionary refinement that best suits how we think and interact with our environments. The development of short term and long term memory store allows us to go through our daily tasks and remember trivial information for short periods of time, while the more pertinent information that we encounter can be stored longer for later retrieval. The encoding is an integral part of memory processes, and the capacity of our memory may be the result of growth, adaptation and evolution over time. Another aspect of memory that may be related to evolution is the presence of semantic (factual) and episodic (event-based) branches of memory. The ability to recall factual information seems to be a more modern necessity, while the importance of recalling events and situations would be able to help a species survive within its environment. Again, further research is needed in order to determine the validity of these concepts.

Peer Commentary

Excellent Ideas, Weak Execution

Laura R. Thatcher
Rochester Institute of Technology

This paper presents some of the evolved behaviors and traits that aid in the formation of human society. I believe the title of the paper is somewhat misleading in that it does not dive very deeply into the evolution of personality traits but tends to cover broader information regarding human behavior and tendencies. There was specific mention of two terms regarding personality: "noble savage" and "blank slate." I feel these were both excellent terms to refer to, but I feel that some historical background was needed, which could have included who first used these terms and in what context. I personally know the meanings of these terms, but I feel that there was not an adequate explanation for someone who has never heard them before. The choice to use these terms was good, but the actual execution could have been elaborated upon a bit more.

Smith touches upon the evolution of society and culture, but there is one idea I would like to have seen presented. He mentions what types have evolved and why they have evolved in human culture, but he does not discuss exactly how they evolved…through what mechanism. I was thinking specifically about some of the personality traits that give us evolutionary benefit because they help us to stay in groups where we thrive. Some of these are love, guilt, shame, agreeableness, stability, conscientiousness, and any morals that we feel are necessary to make us a good person. These are the mechanisms of evolution, because they are the actual traits and emotional characteristics that cause humans to form social groups and depend on each other.

Smith states that there is "no such thing has a universal society or culture." My question to him is whether he thinks there are any universal traits or aspects that he thinks all societies share regardless of how different they are. Are there any distinctions in the human race that apply to everyone regardless of culture or societal background? One of the easiest questions to answer may possibly be to define characteristics about societies that are different, but perhaps one of the hardest questions to answer is whether or not there are things that are universal to all societies and to humankind as a whole.

Smith discusses the role of depression in society and its purpose for existing. He says that studies have been done showing that specific traits are only apparent in individuals who are experiencing depression. He does not, however, mention what any of these traits are. I think it is crucial to know some of the traits if he wishes to discuss depression in terms of an evolved defense mechanism. The reader needs to know what fundamental personality traits have evolved to define depression.

Overall, I think the paper was well-written and covers some interesting and thought-provoking topics. I do, however, believe that some deeper specifications about those topics could have been discussed, which would have aided in bring the paper to the next level of depth and discussion.

Author Response

Environmental Alterations and Human Nature

Brian P. Smith
Rochester Institute of Technology

Eagen's commentary raised an issue that I myself find very intriguing: how will the world we live in today influence our continued evolution? For thousands of years, human evolution has worked to increase our survivability in an extremely hostile environment. Within the past few millennia, society and technology have advanced to the point where most humans no longer have to struggle to find food or protect themselves from predators. The result for modern day humans is a set of adaptations that are no longer required for survival. Many of these mechanisms have been co-opted for other uses, as mentioned in my original paper. The ways in which we control our environment will fundamentally change human biological evolution, which can in no way keep up with the pace of technology. I wish that I had been able to consider this topic more in my original paper, but I felt it was somewhat outside my key focus.

Thatcher questioned whether or not I feel there are things that are found across all cultures and societies. Lexical analysis has shown that there are at least five basic personality traits that can be found in every society with a language. These are individual traits, however, not cultural or societal traits. I do not believe there are "universal" constants across cultures. There may be many similarities between cultures, even those far removed from each other, but I feel researchers would be hard pressed to find anything consistent among all cultures. The evolution of a society is an involved process. Countless factors, from geology to local flora and fauna, have a profound impact on the ways in which a society develops. Needless to say, the idiosyncracies of key people in a society's development can also alter its growth in important ways. Given the wide range of personalities found among human beings and the numerous interactions that can exist between them, it is no small wonder that even those societies that share near identical physical environments can evolve to be so different.

For those readers seeking a better understanding of the Blank Slate and Noble Savage ideologies, I encourage you to read Buss' (2000) article, "Human Nature and Culture: An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective." Anyone seeking to better understand the traits associated with depression would do well to read Allen and Badcock's (2003) article, "The Social Risk Hypothesis of Depressed Mood: Evolutionary, Psychosocial, and Neurobiological Perspectives."


Allen, N. B., Badcock, P. B. T. (2003). The social risk hypothesis of depressed mood: Evolutionary, psychosocial, and neurobiological perspectives. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 887-913.

Bjorklund, D. F. (2003). Evolutionary psychology from a developmental systems perspective: Comment on Lickliter and Honeycutt. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 836-841.

Buss, D. M. (2001). Human nature and culture: An evolutionary psychological perspective. Journal of Personality, 69, 955-979.

Buss, D. M., & Reeve, H. K. (2003). Evolutionary psychology and developmental dynamics: Comment on Lickliter and Honeycutt. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 848-853.

Fiske, A. P. (2000). Complementarity theory: Why human social capacities evolved to require cultural complements. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 76-95.

Geary, D. C. (1995). Reflections of evolution and culture in children's cognition: implications for mathematical development and instruction. American Psychologist, 50, 24-37.

Geary, D. C., & Huffman, K. J. (2002). Brain and cognitive evolution: Forms of modularity and functions of mind. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 667-698.

Heyes, C. (2003). Four routes of cognitive evolution. Psychological Review, 110, 713-727.

Kenrick, D. T., Li, N. P., & Butner, J. (2003). Dynamical evolutionary psychology: Individual decision rules and emergent social norms. Psychological Review, 110, 3-28.

Klein, S. B., Cosmides, L., Tooby, J., & Chance, S. (2002). Decisions and the evolution of memory: Multiple systems, multiple functions. Psychological Review, 109, 306-329.

Kurzban, R., & Leary, M. R. (2001). Evolutionary origins of stigmatization: The functions of social exclusion. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 187-208.

Lickliter, R., Honeycutt, H. (2003). Developmental dynamics: Towards a biologically plausible evolutionary psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 819-835.

Sedekides, C., Skowronski, J. J. (1997). The symbolic self in evolutionary context. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1, 80-103.

Last modified June 2004
Visited times since May 2004

Home to Personality Papers

Home to Great Ideas in Personality