The Mind and Evolution

There is a whole field of href="">evolutionary
psychology.  Let me get this out of the way: I
skeptical of the entire endeavor, even though there is now a href="">Center for

But when it makes it into the mass media, it deserves some
comment.  The LA Times reported a few days ago on how the
formulation of psychiatric disorders is changing, in part because of
evolutionary theory. 

mind, as it evolves

Depression as a survival tool? Some new
treatments assume so.

By Julia M. Klein, Special to The Times

February 12, 2007

IN the fall of 2005, psychiatrist J. Anderson Thomson
was treating an 18-year-old college freshman whom he describes as
"intensely depressed, feeling suicidal and doing self-cutting."

A few years before, Thomson says, he would have interpreted her
depression as anger turned inward. But instead he decided that her
symptoms might be a way of signaling her unhappiness to people close to

He discovered that his client's parents had pressured her to attend the
university and major in science, even though her real interest lay in
the arts. In the course of therapy, he helped her become more assertive
about her goals. When she transferred to another school and changed
majors, he says, her depression lifted...

So I'm skeptical.  With respect to this particular article, I
understand why the author led with a specific case.  It adds
interest to the story, perhaps drawing the reading into reading the
rest of the article.  But from a medical education standpoint,
is potentially misleading.  Individual cases can be highly
misleading.  As my professors used to say (and presumable
still do
say), never draw a general conclusion from a specific case.

When I say I am skeptical, though, I should be clear.  I do
believe that evolution shapes psychology, I do believe that the subject
is amenable to empirical study, and I do think that there might someday
be some practical application.  But I also think the field is
early in development, and I do wonder if it has any current clincial

Speaking of my professors, one of them was quoted in the article:

...Evolutionary psychology sees the mind as a set of
evolved mechanisms, or adaptations, that have promoted survival and
reproduction. Evolutionary psychopathology — abnormal
through an evolutionary lens — looks at what has gone wrong.

The discipline is so new that "some people would say it hasn't started
yet," jokes rel="tag">Randolph M. Nesse,
a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, and one of its
pioneers. No one paradigm has won universal acceptance. Evolution-based
therapies rely on an eclectic mix of techniques, and their
effectiveness is still being tested...

I must say that is sensible.  One of the pioneers in the field
acknowledges that it is in its early stage, that the clinical utility
is uncertain.  So what is the real story?  Dr. Nesse
kindly provided some video lectures on his own site, here: href="">Lectures
by Randolph Nesse Available on the Web.

The way I see the subject is this: knowledge of the principles of
evolution is crucial to the understanding of medicine is general, and
psychiatry in particular.  Evolutionary theory is rich with
for the understanding of change over time.  At this time, we
not able to specifically map the evolution of behavioral or cognitive
traits, in terms of genes or the regulation of transcription.
 (With a few exceptions, such as Huntington disease.)
so, the mental models one uses to understand evolution are models that
can be adapted to understand other topics.  This can be used
provide a different perspective on the complex field of human
psychology.  Often, different perspectives are helpful.

I find it interesting to think of how psychiatry may be coming around
in a circle.  Historians of psychiatry are inclined to think
about the relationship between Sigmund Freud's hobby -- archeology --
and how the study of the past became a metaphor for his psychoanalytic
technique.  This is href="">nicely illustrated
on a site devoted to the href="" rel="tag">Freud

The Study is also filled with antiquities from
ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Orient. Freud visited many
archaeological sites (though not Egypt) but most of the collection was
acquired from dealers in Vienna. He confessed that his passion for
collecting was second in intensity only to his addiction to cigars. Yet
the importance of the collection is also evident in Freud's use of
archaeology as a metaphor for psychoanalysis. One example of this is
Freud's explanation to a patient that conscious material 'wears away'
while what is unconscious is relatively unchanging: "I illustrated my
remarks by pointing to the antique objects about my room. They were, in
fact, I said, only objects found in a tomb, and their burial had been
their preservation."

Archeology and human evolution are different topics, but there are
important similarities.  Both seek to understand how the past
led us to where we are today.  Psychology, particularly
psychodynamic psychology, shares this trait.  


The earliest psychiatrists focused on the past as a way of
understanding the present.  Now, we find that the most modern
psychiatrists are doing the same. But instead of focusing on the
history of the individual, they are looking at the history of the
species.  Instead of looking at how the experiences of the
individual shaped the thoughts and behaviors of that individual, they
are looking at how the experience of the species shaped the cognitive
and behavioral processes observed in the modern population.


One could speculate about what it means: the field has come full
circle.  I don't believe it has any metaphysical meaning, but
it does illustrate the main point of this post: concepts, or mental
models, are versatile.  A model that helps us understand one
thing, might very well help us understand something else.  The
more models you have ingrained in your mind, and the more detailed and
accurate those models are, the more likely you are to be able to extend
your knowledge and understanding.  When it comes to medicine,
a thorough understanding of evolution is as versatile as it is
indispensable.  Even if it still needs a bit of refinement.


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