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Evolutionary PsychiatryReview - Evolutionary Psychiatry
A New Beginning (Second Edition)
by Anthony Stevens and John Price
Routledge, 2000
Review by Keith S. Harris, Ph.D.
Mar 11th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 11)

In the same way that the healing sciences -- tellingly known as the healing arts until recently -- remained at a primitive level until careful and detailed study of the human body afforded a real understanding of physiological functioning, so psychologists and psychiatrists have discovered that evolutionary psychology can offer a functional approach to the understanding of human nature. And in the same way that medical practitioners had regrettably little to offer in the way of reliable relief from suffering before the use of the scientific method to develop new and effective treatments, so psychotherapists have had woefully limited success in developing treatment methods that withstand the scrutiny of differential efficacy studies.[E.g., see reviews of How Clients Make Therapy Work and The Heart and Soul of Change, on this web site.]

So it’s not surprising to find, with both the public and researchers being increasingly enthusiastic about evolutionary psychology, that psychotherapists should eventually turn to it as a knowledge base on which to construct effective treatments for clients. Evolutionary Psychiatry: A New Beginning is one such endeavor. This revised edition builds on the first, which was published in 1996. The authors have added several chapters, including one on ideas for further research, and have also attempted to answer some of the questions and issues raised by earlier readers.

One of the first things the reader will notice about this book is that, unlike the majority of books on evolutionary psychology as a theory, this one gives considerable attention to writers and theorizers from psychology’s and psychiatry’s often-overreaching past.Freud is often cited, and - - because one of the book’s authors is an adherent of analytic psychology - - ideas from Jung’s works are often highlighted, especially when these seem to parallel or concur with the observations of evolutionary psychology.For example, the concept of algorithms, as described by Cosmides and Tooby, is presented as the equivalent of Jung’s archetypes (p. 13), and evolutionary psychiatry is thought to extend Jung’s concept of the process of individuation in this way:

What evolutionary psychiatry has recognized is that [the patient] also brings the hunter-gatherers, anteaters, and reptiles from his ancestral past. By the end of a consultation, the room is crammed with this menagerie, each member of which has the right to be listened to, and, if possible, to have his needs fulfilled. (p. 242)

While the authors’ references to (and sometimes deference to) psychiatry’s past is interesting from an historical point of view, the reader may wonder in what ways such asides are relevant to the development of an evolutionary-based approach to psychotherapy.It is as though one felt obligated to note the points on which evolutionary theory coincided with the beliefs of fundamentalist theologians - - an interesting but not especially relevant task, since evolutionary theory succeeds or fails not on such coincidences, but rather on whether it can withstand rigorous investigation using scientific methodologies.

One of the most useful ideas put forth in this book occurs near its beginning, and is further explicated in the chapters that deal with pathology: the authors highlight the differences between ultimate and proximate mechanisms.Although nature has evolved in our species certain tendencies and capacities that have served our species well in the long run, for us as individuals, living in large groups and complex cultures, these evolved mechanisms may serve instead as limitations and weaknesses.That is, nature’s interests may not be our own. (This is an idea that will be familiar but is well worth seeing applied to psychopathology.)

A large-scale example of this is our tendency to vigorously guard our territory and resources; this was clearly useful to our evolutionary success, but recent technological advances make this tendency very dangerous to our survival. A more personal-sized example is the natural tendency to treat strangers cautiously, and to presume them to be dangerous until proven otherwise, potential competitors instead of possible cooperators. This tendency evolved over the millions of years we lived in small hunter-gatherer bands, but can obviously become problematic in societies where a person can encounter more strange humans in a day than one of our distant ancestors would have come across in her entire lifetime. (One wonders if the incidence of paranoid delusions is greater in modern societies than in pre-agricultural ones.) Other easy-to-see examples would include jealousy, greed, unproductive anger, the liking for fatty foods, etc.

More controversial in this book will be the authors’ hypotheses about the etiology and functions of serious psychopathologies and disturbed personalities. Depression is thought to have developed as a natural and potentially adaptive response to loss or threat of loss, whether it is loss of status, relationship, or physical object. Schizophrenia, according to the authors, might have been evolutionarily adaptive as a mechanism to split up social groups when these had reached optimal size.Even personality disorders are hypothesized to have been adaptive in certain circumstances. For example, schizoid and schizotypal personalities may provide increased levels of creativity and genius. Other chapters address pedophilia, sadomasochism, and homosexuality, and offer explanations about how these might each be addressed by an evolutionary perspective.

While certainly thought provoking, many of the authors’ hypotheses will benefit from a greater degree of substantiation and support than is presently provided, since alternative hypotheses exist - - medical/biological, "standard social science" and evolutionary - - that can more succinctly and simply account for such disorders.The authors’ new chapter on future research suggests some of the ways such substantiation might be sought, and the reader will possibly think of others.

Despite its occasionally partisan slant and as-yet lightly substantiated hypotheses, a primary importance of this book is in furthering the extension of evolutionary psychology into the realm of pathology and treatment. This is one of the first comprehensive efforts in this enterprise since Exiles from Eden: Psychotherapy from an Evolutionary Perspective (Glantz and Pearce), published in 1989, and should be read by everyone interested in the future of scientifically-based psychotherapy.

Keith Harris, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and supervisor of Victor Valley Behavioral Health Center in San Bernardino county, California. His interests include clinical supervision, the empirical basis for psychotherapy research (and its design), human decision-making processes, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.


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