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Evolutionary Needs


Explanations > Needs > Evolutionary Needs

Survive | Replicate (wive) | Thrive | DiscussionSo what?


Evolution is an amazing mechanism for propagating the species and we have been derived as little more than 'gene machines'. This is possible only because of deep needs we have that drive us to behave in ways that lead to the basic evolutionary goal.

While evolutionary drivers are many as complex, we can describe them through a set or three groups of three needs. To make them more memorable, they can be called Survive, Wive and Thrive, and are detailed below.


The basic need is to survive. If we die, then other goals cannot be met, of course. Our first thought is hence how we can keep on living.

This is the basic evolutionary force, of survival of the fittest.

Consume (eat/drink/breathe)

The basis of life is to eat, drink and breathe. We need to regularly consume nutrients required to sustain us. This is driven by basic impulses such as hunger, thirst and the need to breathe.

An example of the power of this urge is the way people drown. Rather than not breathe under water (and die from simple asphyxiation) they eventually breathe water into their lungs. Hunger and thirst will likewise drive us to ingest toxic substances, from sea water to rotting food.

We are hence driven to find food, whether it hangs from a tree or must be caught and killed. This is helped by our omnivore's ability to digest a wide range of substances. Our bodies and minds have developed to help with this, including the cunning needed to capture a stronger and faster prey.

Avoid (avoid harm and danger, flight)

Staying alive is helped a great deal by avoiding things that might kill or harm us. Several emotions are designed to help with this task. Fear drives all kinds of avoidant action, from steering clear of fierce, scuttling or wriggling animals to avoiding people who seem unwell.

Avoidance starts with the knowledge of what to avoid, which requires an assessment of risk, including recognizing possible sources of harm and assessing probable danger. This is followed by identifying then enacting suitable avoidance strategies.

Cope (handle harm, recover from harm)

When risks and bad things happen, as they sometimes do, we need to have ways of coping with the situation. When attacked, for example, the 'fight-or-flight' response is triggered, supplemented by emotions of anger or fear.

If physically harmed, we resort to primitive survival tactics including licking wounds and crying for help. Keeping immobile in our sickbeds gives time for the body to heal itself as action resources are diverted into immune systems.

More awkwardly, there are many ways we try to cope with psychological harm, though these are often inadequate and can cause spirals of stress and dysfunction.

Our ability to imagine the future is useful in avoiding harm, though it can also cause problems as we suffer from the stress of anticipated harm and so are forced to cope even before harm actually happens.

Replicate ('wive')

Once we have the luxury of safety, we can then turn to the primary evolutionary act of propagating our genes as we seek or become a wife and so have children. (To make this need memorable you can have it rhyme with 'survive' and 'thrive' by calling it 'wive'.)

This is a secondary evolutionary force that gives meaning to basic survival: survival of the genes.

Win (seduce, beat competition)

The first step in replicating ourselves is to find a partner. This involves seeking someone who seems likely to be able to produce and protect children, the signs of which we often call 'beauty', such as clear, healthy skin, large breasts for feeding children (women) and powerful bodies for protecting the family (men).

Once identified, the potential partner must be seduced, typically through rituals including preening and status displays. Triggering emotion of love helps build the bond with the mate.

Attracting the best mate is a competitive process as the saying 'All's fair in love and war' indicates, and can include aggressive or deceptive deflection and neutralisation of rival suitors.

Mate (as often as possible)

Once a partner is won, the drive is not just to mate, but to do so frequently, so increasing the chance of having children. To help this, having sex is an intensely pleasurable act, to the point where people will seek extramarital affairs or continue to enjoy sex beyond the time they are fertile. Unlike many other animals, humans ovulate monthly, making regular mating an effective strategy.

While the traditional female role involves caring for children, men can be more profligate, seeking more casual partners in hope of spreading their seed further. This asymmetry in gender drives can lead to much conflict.

Protect (until they can survive/replicate, teach)

When children are born, the job is not yet done as propagating our genes means nothing until they are able to propagate their own (and so our) genes. This leads to the powerful parental drive to protect their young, even at the cost of a parent's life.

We also seek to prepare our children for the difficulties of life, teaching them and paving the way as best we can. Parents make many sacrifices, even though their children may not appreciate this.

Thrive (increase chances of above)

As well basic survival and replicating our genes, we seek to make this process more effective and efficient, seeking ways to live longer, ensure our children's safety, have meaningful relationships with others, and generally have a happier life.

When we apply this to society, it highlights a third evolutionary force: survival of the species.

Collaborate (connect, belong, share)

One of the great discoveries of many species, including humans, is that by working and living together we can accomplish tasks more effectively and efficiently, as well as gaining the safety in numbers that tribal living offers.

The first step in this is in connecting and bonding with others, developing trust and forming friendships. This is needed in finding a longer-term mate and it is a small step to extend this to platonic relationships with others.

This drive to tribalism has given us a need to belong and our sense of identity is often deeply linked to our social groups, from friends to nationality. This is driven further by the push-pull emotions of loneliness and liking.

Living together means sharing and we hence have developed a need for fairness and equality, which is a very common group norm.

Acquire (resource, skill, power, status)

Safety and the ability to reach our goals can be enhanced if we work to acquire and hoard those things that will help us in the future as well as today.

If we can gain knowledge, skills and control of resources then we achieve the power to act with confidence as we increase probability of success. Power can also have the multiplying effect of influencing others to work on our behalf.

Grow (learn, adapt, create, develop)

Beyond seeking power, we also have a drive to improve ourselves, to learn, create and explore our inner and outer worlds, even when this conflicts with other needs for safety and predictability.

While this may seem hazardous, it provides an essential evolutionary path to cope with changing external situations, from climate change to shifts in our social position. If we can adapt and even take advantage of change then our ability to survive as a species is hugely enhanced.


Evolution has a timescale that spans millions of years yet human history is counted in millennia and even centuries (just consider the change in the past 100 years). The things that drive us have not changed as fast as our environment, which means we are still affected strongly by motivations that evolved to help us in far simple and very different times. This can be a problem, though our self-awareness and complex thought processes do help us reflect on this.

A way we can use this is to notice the motivations and actions of ourselves and others, and to interpret these through the lens of evolution. When we understand what is really going on in people's minds then we have a far better chance of changing them.

So what?

So pay attention to these. Evolutionary forces act strongly on us. People will show adherence to these needs, albeit sometimes in complex and subtle ways. If you can see the forces of evolution at work, you can play to these as appropriate.

See also

Survival of the Fittest vs. Survival of the Species, Evolution, Gender


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