Chaska’s Story: How an education in evolutionary psychology can shape one’s future
Chaska* is a sophomore in college. His name means “first born son” in the Sioux Nation, of which he and his family are a part. Chaska lives in an overcrowded reservation in North Dakota with his mother and father, two grandmothers, and two younger brothers. They live in a small trailer and the reservation is generally not in great shape. Many people are unemployed and very few of the kids from there go on to college. Chaska was always a very strong student and he was able to secure a scholarship for a full ride to a local regional state university.
As chance would have it, Chaska found himself in a class titled Evolutionary Psychology. Honestly, he took this class because it fit a general education requirement and it was offered in the afternoon so he did not have to wake up early to attend it. As he saw it, he pretty much had to take it. This said, by the end of the semester, he found himself fully immersed in the content of the course. By the end of the course, in fact, his plans for his future career had been totally revamped. Here, in his own words, is the story of Chaska’s experience.
I am Chaska
I am Chaska, a sophomore in college. I come from the Sioux Nation, a nation with a proud set of traditions and history. But now, members of my nation are not all doing that well. I live on a reservation with much poverty. I live in a small trailer with six other family members. None of them have a job. I am lucky. I worked very hard in high school and I had a knack for reading and math. I got a scholarship to college. And one day I found myself in a class on the topic of evolutionary psychology. It deeply affected my understanding of myself and the world around me. It affected my understanding of what it means to be human. Here is the story of how this class shaped my thinking.
The story of the Sioux people is not a completely happy one. Hundreds of years ago, the Sioux were a highly successful group of people, spread throughout the interior of North America. In learning about the concepts of evolutionary mismatch and the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) in my evolutionary psychology class, I started thinking about the history of the Sioux people in a bigger way than I had done previously. My people are descendants of people who walked over the Bering Strait when it was frozen over during an ice age. That was bold! They came from Asia, probably spending hundreds of generations in what is now Russia and China. But that’s not all. From an evolutionary perspective, that is even considered recent history! Like all humans, my ancestors trace their roots all the way back to the African savanna. That is the true environment of evolutionary adaptedness for all humans, as the lion’s share of the human experience took place there for thousands and thousands of generations.
Until Europeans come to North America, the lives of the Sioux were not that different from the lives of our African ancestors. And this is because they were largely nomadic, living a pre-agricultural lifestyle for a very long time. In my evolutionary psychology class, I learned that there are benefits to living a nomadic lifestyle – and there are problems associated with living in modern, sedentary conditions. This issue is called evolutionary mismatch and it is very powerful.
I can understand my own people now in terms of the concept of evolutionary mismatch. The people in my village now do not hunt or gather food as our ancestors did. We have a store in the reservation, and we all buy our food there. Much of the food that we eat is processed food. Read as: It is junk food! This food is cheaper to buy and it tastes better, to most of us, than do other foods – so why bother eating other foods? Humans evolved an adaptation to prefer foods that are high in calories and high in fat because under ancestral conditions, people regularly experienced drought and famine. Well these days, we have as much junk food as we want all the time. Our evolved taste preferences are backfiring!
Many people in my village are overweight. And there are many people with health problems associated with obesity. This is sad to me, because all of the pictures of the Sioux people from long ago show people who are in amazing physical shape. I can now understand this problem in terms of evolutionary mismatch. This also explains why a high proportion of the adults in my village are addicted to alcohol. Alcohol is evolutionarily new, and it is hard for people to resist. This causes many problems for people in my village.
In my world, family matters a great deal. And it was not until I took this class in evolutionary psychology that I truly understood why that is the case. One of the most common forms of helping behavior (or altruism) is found in kin-selected altruism. This is one form of fitness (or the ability to increase one’s abiltiy to survive or reproduce) that we call indirect fitness (which is part of inclusive fitness). When we help family members, we help our genes as they exist in kin, or in the bodies of our family members. My little brother sometimes gets bullied in middle school. And when that happens, I get very mad and I defend him. Understanding kin-selected altruism helps me understand all of this in a bigger perspective.
In my village, it is expected that you will pitch in. I have chores around the house, such as shoveling the walkway when it snows. Sometimes I don’t have time to do that job and I will ask a friend of mine, Askii, to do it for me. Askii and I have been best friends since we were babies and I can always count on him. And he can always count on me. This class in evolutionary psychology helps me understand the evolutionary roots of our relationship with each other. Askii and I engage in reciprocal altruism. I help him and he helps me in return. And on and on. Now, Askii and I are both 19 years old. We have probably helped each other out thousands of times across our lifespans! Reciprocal altruism is a basic part of being human – and I am glad for this fact! Now I understand why I often try to help others, even if they are not in my family.
Many concepts in this class have got me thinking about people who live in different kinds of economic conditions. Generally speaking, humans are a species marked by high parental investment. This trend corresponds to the fact that we are a relatively altricial species (with young developing very slowly across the lifespan) as opposed to being a relatively precocial species (with young being very independent very early in life).
However, within human groups, some people live in less stable economic conditions. According to the idea of life history strategy, an organism that lives in unstable conditions is likely to take a fast approach to life, reproducing early and often – and given less attention to specific offspring. I have learned that humans have multiple potential life history strategies, depending on if they come from environments that are highly stable or not. This idea is related to the idea of strategic pluralism, which basically means that different behavioral strategies can evolve within a species – with each strategy possibly leading to evolutionary success (such as survival and/or reproduction).
Learning about all of this made me think, sadly, that many modern members of the Sioux nation live in impoverished conditions. And that fact often sets people on a path toward a fast life history strategy, which corresponds to all kinds of problematic outcomes, including shorter life spans.
I want to work in the field of social work or public policy to make a difference!
To think, I only took this class because I had few other options! This class has now very much shaped my future plans. I now definitely want to go into some kind of human-services work. Maybe social work. Or maybe public policy. I want to use these ideas that I have learned to make a difference. Evolutionary mismatch is a major problem in the lives of so many people, yet most people don’t even know what it is! The idea of life history strategy is highly relevant to the story of the Sioux, yet most people have no clue about life history strategy! I believe that the knowledge of theses ideas can help make for better social policies and programs. And I plan to work hard over the rest of my time in college – and beyond – to work to do just that. Wish me luck!
*NOTES: This story is fictional, and is designed to provide an example of how work in the field of evolutionary psychology can influence someone to think about the nature of social problems. Also, note that this story was inspired by an assignment for my evolution class being offered at Chongqing University of Education, in which students need to produce a creative product that utilizes at least 10 specific evolution-based concepts from the article Darwin’s Definitions.