The June issue of World Psychiatry has two open-access articles on evolutionary psychiatry. These are among the first overviews on the topic to appear in a major psychiatric journal.
Evolutionary biology provides a crucial foundation for medicine and behavioral science that has been missing from psychiatry. Its absence helps to explain slow progress; its advent promises major advances. Instead of offering a new kind of treatment, evolutionary psychiatry provides a scientific foundation useful for all kinds of treatment. It expands the search for causes from mechanistic explanations for disease in some individuals to evolutionary explanations for traits that make all members of a species vulnerable to disease. For instance, capacities for symptoms such as pain, cough, anxiety and low mood are universal because they are useful in certain situations. Failing to recognize the utility of anxiety and low mood is at the root of many problems in psychiatry. Determining if an emotion is normal and if it is useful requires understanding an individual’s life situation. Conducting a review of social systems, parallel to the review of systems in the rest of medicine, can help achieve that understanding. Coping with substance abuse is advanced by acknowledging how substances available in modern environments hijack chemically mediated learning mechanisms. Understanding why eating spirals out of control in modern environments is aided by recognizing the motivations for caloric restriction and how it arouses famine protection mechanisms that induce binge eating. Finally, explaining the persistence of alleles that cause serious mental disorders requires evolutionary explanations of why some systems are intrinsically vulnerable to failure. The thrill of finding functions for apparent diseases is evolutionary psychiatry’s greatest strength and weakness. Recognizing bad feelings as evolved adaptations corrects psychiatry’s pervasive mistake of viewing all symptoms as if they were disease manifestations. However, viewing diseases such as panic disorder, melancholia and schizophrenia as if they are adaptations is an equally serious mistake in evolutionary psychiatry. Progress will come from framing and testing specific hypotheses about why natural selection left us vulnerable to mental disorders. The efforts of many people over many years will be needed before we will know if evolutionary biology can provide a new paradigm for understanding and treating mental disorders.