Gaining Control: A new book on how human behaviour evolved

Robert Aunger and Val Curtis from the Environmental Health Group have recently released their new book entitled ‘Gaining control: How Human Behaviour Evolved’.

The book tells the story of how human behavioral capacities evolved from those of other animal species. Exploring what is known about the psychological capacities of other groups of animals, the authors reconstruct a fascinating history of our own mental evolution. In the book, the authors see mental evolution as a series of steps in which new mechanisms for controlling behavior develop in different species – starting with early representatives of this kingdom, and leading to a species – us – that can engage in a large number of different types of behavioral control. Key to their argument is the idea that each of these steps — from reflexes to instincts, drives, emotions, and cognitive planning – can be seen as a novel type of psychological adaptation in which information is ‘inherited’ by an animal from its own behavior through new forms of learning – a form of major evolutionary transition. Thus the mechanisms that result from these steps in increasingly complex behavioral control can also be seen as the fundamental building blocks of psychology. Such a perspective on behaviour has a number of implications for practitioners in fields ranging from experimental psychology to public health.

We asked Robert Aunger and Val Curtis a bit about their new book and what motivated them to write it.

What prompted you both to write the book?

There are lots of approaches to understanding human behaviour, however none of them, as yet, use a thoroughgoing evolutionary approach. This is a pity because it is the process of evolution that designed brains and behaviour, and, as it has often been said: “nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution”. If you want to change behaviour, which we do for our public health work, then you need to understand the causes of behaviour and that means understanding how it evolved. So we set off on a long journey to apply what we know about the evolution of behaviour in species ancestral to modern humans to characterising our current behaviour. What we came up with is so useful we wanted to share it in a book.

What makes this book on behavior so different from other books and approaches to understanding behaviour?

There aren’t actually that many books specifically on behaviour. Its major contribution is to set out a simple anatomy of behaviour, showing that we have three types of behavioural control: reactive, motivated and executive. We show how the behavioural motivation and the reward system evolved to guide our ancestors into getting the specific things that they needed. The way we behave now reflects that ancestral history. We discuss what that means for understanding and  changing human behaviour.

Who is the book targeted at?

Anyone who wants to understand human behaviour. Also specialists, for example in evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology.

What are the main things that you hope readers take away from the book?

We hope readers will understand that there are three kinds of systems for producing behaviour, not just the two typically recognized by psychologists nowadays – summarised by Kahneman recently as the ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ modalities, or by others as ‘conscious/unconscious’, ‘System 1/System 2’ or ‘planned/automatic’. We also hope that readers will come away with a better understanding of how motives work and what they do for us.

What are the implications of what you discuss for practice?

Its hard to overstate how useful this theory is for the design of public health interventions. We use it all the time in our work, for example in projects on sanitation, hygiene, nutrition and HIV.

What did you both learn through the process of writing this book?

How difficult it is to collaborate! (haha) Also, how difficult it is to do comparative psychology.

What are the major areas, related to our understanding of behaviour, that you feel further exploration and research?

Much still needs to be done, but progress is still hampered because all the different disciplines that work in behaviour don’t have a common language. Our book has attempted to provide that unified language through the unifying lens of evolutionary theory. We do hope to see more work on the behaviour of non-human species guided by and filling in this overall framework.

 What response have you have from readers so far?

We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the warmth of response from the readers who have written to us.

To purchase your copy of the book click here.

gaining control


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