In laying the foundation for evolutionary biology in his 1859 book, “On the Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin also prophesied a rise of new scholars that would seek to understand the ancestry of the whole human — body and mind:
"In the distant future, I see open fields for far more important researchers. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history."
“Darwin’s prophesy is now coming to fruition in modern evolutionary psychology,” says University of Texas at Austin psychology professor David Buss, a trailblazer of the study of evolutionary psychology. “Understanding our evolved psychology is essential for effecting positive change in reducing certain ills of society, such as discrimination and sexual exploitation.”
In publishing the first and most widely used textbook in the field, “Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind,” in 1999 — now in its fifth edition — Buss and his colleagues laid the groundwork that helped establish college courses on the subject around the world. His foundational and continued efforts recently earned him a Lifetime Career Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution from the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.
“I’ve always been fascinating by human nature and human motivation,” Buss continues. “What makes people tick? What makes people get out of bed in the morning? How is the human mind designed? What causal processes created the components of our psychological makeup?”
At the core of human evolution is, of course, reproduction, Buss says. Inspired by Donald Symons 1979 book, “The Evolution of Human Sexuality,” and inclined to fill a knowledge gap in an area that was “practically nonexistent,” Buss took a specific interest in the psychology of human mating strategies.
“So much of life revolves around human mating. Our mating psychology is connected to so many important domains — status hierarchies, cooperation and social conflict to name just three,” says Buss, who has published extensively on the topics of mate selection, attraction and retention, including writing a book, “The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating,” to explain the powerful forces that shape humans’ most intimate desires.
His work has since shifted focus to “the darker side of human nature,” components of the human psyche that have evolved alongside of those for cooperation or altruism, Buss says. This newer work investigates conflict between the sexes: mate poaching; infidelity; the emotions of jealousy, lust and love; and even intimate partner violence and murder.
While he enjoys unpacking the complex domains of the evolved human psychology, Buss’s favorite aspect of his work is sharing this new knowledge with others, namely, his students. Before coming to UT Austin, Buss taught at University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University and the University of Michigan, and he has given talks at universities around the world. He’s supervised 27 Ph.D. students, many of which have gone on to become eminent scholars and continue to work in the field.
“That’s hugely gratifying,” Buss says. “I greatly enjoy teaching and making new discoveries with graduate students in the area of human mating strategies. I’ve been rewarded by the many students who tell me that my classes have changed their worldview.”