Depression, Evolutionarily Speaking

Recently a pseudo science of a sort has started to emerge called “evolutionary psychology.”  The basic premise seems to be that our emotions or psychology must have evolved at different times and in different situations as means or ways for individual gene carriers to survive in these different times and situations.  In other words, the premise says: emotions must serve an evolutionary adaptive purpose.  Take anger for example.  That clearly could serve adaptive purposes; surely it is closely related to the fight part of the deeply embedded (somewhere down on the back of the neck) fight/flight response.  Flight is of course related to fear.  If one did not feel it—at the appropriate moments—one might rather maladaptively be eaten, for example.

Since to their credit these speculative pseudo scientists do take what they do seriously they have been forced also to look at emotions that on the face of it seem maladaptive, one of the big ones of those being—you guessed it—depression.  Once again the depressed get the shaft; if one is depressed one must be maladapted and generally unfit for normal human functioning.  One pseudo scientists looking into this matter suggests that depression may produce what ordinary non-evolutionary psychologists call “secondary gains.”

Take for example you have a phobia about loud, sudden popping sounds.  Every time you hear a loud, sudden popping sound, you freak out, break into sweats and piss yourself.  Now the secondary gain here might be that you are rendered completely and recognizably unfit to serve in the military where loud, sudden popping sounds frequently occur.  So what appears maladative turns out to be adaptive in that one has less of a chance of being killed in some war. I am making a joke of course, but that’s roughly the reasoning.

The pseudo scientist concluded that depressed people back in cave person times may, as a result of their depression, have received extra attention—in the form of say, what the hell is wrong with you and can’t you get up off your butt—and resources.  Other people might for example feel the need to feed you (since you are their genetic extension or even one’s mate, carrying one’s genetic extension) or something.  The depressed person pays a heavy price for these secondary gains (that is, being depressed) but secondary gains make it worth it and thus evolutionarily adaptive, rather than maladaptive.

Now of course this theory is as sexist as hell since it is well known—and seemingly verified by the advertising of anti-depressants which universally are directed at women—that many, many more women are depressed than men. Accordingly one must conclude that women are depressed, evolutionary speaking, to manipulatively acquire those secondary gains.

But there’s another problem with this outlook.  It’s based on the idea—more or less—that each individual being is largely out for his own.  But what if this is not the case; what if what is most distinctive about human beings (and their ability to survive) is not the survival of the individual but the survival of the whole.

I think again of the nervous prairie dog about which I have previously written in these pages.  This is the prairie dog that STANDS on the top of the prairie dog hill keeping an eye out for predatory birds (that might eat his fellow prairie dogs).  Now let’s face it: standing on top of the hill seems maladaptive for that individual prairie dog since clearly and stupidly this prairie dog is putting itself at considerable risk from exactly those predators that it seeks to detect.

Maladaptive for that individual prairie dog, well yes, maybe; adaptive for the whole and the survival of it.  Conclusively.  Yes.

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