Disturbed by the continuing and uncritical darwinization of psychiatry, especially the tendency of psychiatrists to explain mental illnesses as evolutionary adaptations, I’ve written a piece for the Psychiatric Times, which I’m told is the most widely read publication in the field. You’ll have to register (free) to see it at the journal, but I’ve posted it in its entirety below.
This article grew out of two of my posts on this website from last August. I felt especially compelled to write it because the authors of the study I critique think that the if depression is an evolved adaptation, psychiatrists should treat it with Darwinian remedies. To them, this means using problem-solving talk therapies (not necessarily a bad thing, I guess, though I don’t see why this should always be the best approach), and, especially, withholding medication. If depression is adaptive, so they say, then people should be encouraged to suffer through its pain to receive its benefits.
Dr Coyne is professor in the department of ecology and evolution, biological sciences collegiate division, at The University of Chicago.
The discipline of evolutionary psychology views modern human behaviors as products of natural selection that acted on the psychological traits of our ancestors. A subdiscipline, evolutionary psychiatry, tries to find evolutionary explanations for mental disorders.
One of the most common subjects of evolutionary psychiatry is depression. Although debilitating, depression is also reasonably widespread. Estimates of its prevalence in Western nations range between 5% and 20%, and the disorder appears to depend at least partly on an individual’s genes. The relatively high frequency of an apparently maladaptive and partially genetic syndrome has led to speculation that it may really be “adaptive” in an evolutionary sense—that is, a liability to depression may have been installed in our genome by natural selection.
A recent version of this idea is the adaptive rumination hypothesis (“ARH”) of Andrews and Thomson, 1 which posits that depression evolved as a way to solve difficult and complex problems, most of them involving social interactions. Instead of being a pathology, depression is seen as a useful complex of thoughts and behaviors that enable troubled people to withdraw from the world, deliberate intensively about their social problems, and devise solutions. Andrews and Thomson suggest this behavior evolved because it was adaptive in our ancestors, and may still be so.
The ARH has attracted a good deal of attention, much of it favorable. It was, for example, the subject of a recent article in The New York Times Magazine.2 Debate about the ARH is not purely academic, for Andrews and Thomson see the idea as pointing to specific therapies, including problem-solving talk therapies and the deliberate withholding of medication. Since these suggestions stem from a specific evolutionary hypothesis, we should carefully examine that hypothesis.