Evolutionary Psychology and Christian Views on Human Thriving

Project Co-Leads: Dr. Pamela Ebstyne KingDr. Justin Barrett, Dr. Jim Furrow
Consultants: Dr. Sarah Schnitker, Social Science; Dr. Oliver Crisp, Theology; Dr. William Whitney, Theological and Psychological Integration
Doctoral Student Researchers: Tyler Greenway
Project Dates: May 1, 2013 – August 31, 2015
Funded By: The BioLogos Foundation at $151,099

Even for Christians open to evolutionary creation, evolutionary psychology is still regarded with anything from suspicion to outright hostility. With its emphasis on humans as gene-vehicles or reproductive machines, surely the underlying teleology of evolutionary psychology is antithetical to Christianity, right? Perhaps not. Because Christian psychologists have largely stayed away from evolutionary psychology, the metaphysical and ethical assumptions of its non-theist practitioners have tended to become passively accepted and conflated with the genuine scientific insights of this area of science. Evolutionary psychology need not be practiced in a way hostile to theism or Christianity, but holds intellectual and methodological resources that may invigorate Christian psychology around some of humanity’s biggest questions. We will demonstrate the fruitfulness of placing evolutionary psychology and Christian theological anthropology into direct conversation by considering the question: What is human thriving?

In DreamWorks’ animated film How to Train Your Dragon, the plot revolves around a Viking community that is at perpetual war with various species of dragons. The standard approach to dragons is that they must be killed on sight. The hero of the film, Hiccup, discovers that “everything we know about dragons is wrong,” and that the Vikings and dragons can live and flourish together if the Vikings stop fearing and attacking the dragons and start learning what they really are. Collaboratively some of the dragons and some Vikings liberate both communities from a collective curse. The dragons had been attacking the Vikings because they had been forced into service of one enormous monster. Free of that monster, Vikings and humans could work and live together, enhancing each others’ lives.

For many Christians different scientific schools or orientations are their dragons: these monsters are too dangerous to their way of life and must be destroyed. The evolutionary sciences are among these dragons. But also as in the film, it isn’t the evolutionary sciences themselves that are the problems—they may actually be assets to Christians—but the unhealthy relationship is spawned by the evolutionary sciences being conscripted exclusively into the service of genuinely antithetical worldviews and agendas and the resulting fear and suspicion. In the film, the enmity is diffused when one Viking gets to know intimately one specific dragon. We propose to do something similar: take one topic of great importance to Christianity (human thriving) and examine how Christian theology and evolutionary psychology working together can be more productive and fruitful than either working independently, or worse, working against each other. The result will be progress (or increased understanding) toward human thriving—and also an example for other Christianity-evolutionary psychology engagements.

Project Forums

As part of the “Evolutionary Psychology and Christian Views on Human Thriving” project, our team has hosted three forums to receive feedback from experts in different fields. These valuable suggestions have helpfully shaped this project into what we hope we will be a useful guide for both better understanding human thriving, but also for understanding how evolutionary psychology and Christianity may work together to produce richer resources.

Click on the tabs above to learn more about each of the forums.

Our first forum was held in September, 2013 and was focused on thriving from a theological perspective. Our team prepared a position paper presenting the contributions that a variety of doctrines have made to understanding what it means for humans to thrive. Forum participants brought with them their comments and critiques helping us shape our theological stance on thriving and focusing us more intently on topics such as pneumatology, ecclesiology, eschatology, sin, suffering, and non-Christian thriving.

Our second forum was held in June, 2014 and was focused on thriving from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Our team prepared another position paper presenting our thoughts on how evolutionary psychology can guide notions of thriving and create a framework for understanding why a thriving life is often difficult to obtain. Experts in various fields of psychology brought their unique expertise with them and helpfully critiqued this paper. These critiques further drew our attention to the importance of the strengths of the human species and how these strengths contribute to our evolutionary fitness.

Our third forum was held in November, 2014 and was focused on the application of thriving research in ministry contexts. Some members of our team prepared a manuscript describing our previous work and how this work might apply to Christians. Forum participants again responded with helpful critiques detailing what they believed would be a useful resource for the Christians in their parishes. Their comments highlighted the importance of applying research on thriving to ministry contexts.


Ayala, Franscico J. (2006). Darwin and Intelligent Design. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press.

Baker, Catherine. (2007). The Evolution Dialogues: Science, Christianity, and the Quest for Understanding, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Balswick, J. O., King, P. E., & Reimer, K. S. (2005). The reciprocating self: A theological perspective of development. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic Press.

Bulbulia, J., & Sosis, R. (2011). Signalling theory and the evolution of religious cooperation. Religion,41(3), 363–388. doi:10.1080/0048721X.2011.604508

Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (1997). Evolutionary psychology: A primer. Retrieved from University of California Santa Barbara, the Center for Evolutionary Psychology Website, http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/primer.html

Dunbar, R. I. M., Barrett, L., & Lycett, J. (2005). Evolutionary psychology: A beginner’s guide. Oxford: Oneworld.

Giberson, Karl W. (2008). Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. New York: Harper One.

Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research20(1), 98–116. doi:10.1007/s11211-007-0034-z

Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2004). Intuitive ethics: how innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues. Daedalus, 133(4), 55–66.

King, P.E. & Whitney, W. (2015). “What’s the ‘positive’ in positive psychology: Teleological considerations based on creation and imago doctrines,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 43(1), 47-59.

Miller. Kenneth R. (1999). Finding Darwin’s Good: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution. New York: Cliff Street Books/HarperCollins.

Miller. Kenneth R. (2008). Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. New York: Viking (Penguin Group, USA)

National Academy of Science and Institute of Medicine. (2008). Science, Evolution, Creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press

Peters, Ted, and Martinez Hewitt. (2003). Evolution from Creation to New Creation: Conflict, Conversation, and Convergence. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press

Peters, Ted, and Martinez Hewitt. (2006). Can you Believe in God and Evolution? A Guide for the Perplexed. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press

Roughgarden, Joan. (2006). Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist. Washington, DC.: Island Press

Ruse, Michael. (2000). Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press

Ruse, Michael. (2005). The Evolution-Creation Struggle. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press

Sperber, D. (1996). Explaining culture: A naturalistic approach. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.

Tomasello, M. (1999). The cultural origins of human cognition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.