Evolutionary Psychology Threatens Accountability

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It may not sound like a triumph of evolutionary theory: psychiatrist Anderson Thomson treated the depression of a college student by helping her be more assertive about her goals, change schools (from one she disliked to one she liked), and change majors (from one she disliked to one she liked). Yet according to the Los Angeles Times' Julia Klein, this is an example of the success of “evolutionary psychology, a burgeoning field that is starting to influence psychotherapy.” Klein explains how evolutionary psychology differs from the psychological schools that have preceded it:

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

But what if these three core ideas of evolutionary psychology began to dominate our ideas of how humans think?

The article then explains three of the dominant views of the school. First, the idea that what many characterize as “disorders” are actually “rational bargaining tactics to manipulate others into providing support they might otherwise withhold.” Second, that “depression results from a ‘mismatch’ between human beings adapted for hunter-gatherer societies and the contemporary world.” And third, that mental disorders are the result of “an accumulation of harmful genetic mutations—flaws in the system.”

Now, the therapy conducted by Anderson Thomson may not be particularly strange or dangerous; indeed, his counseling of the depressed college student sounds similar to what many psychiatrists/psychologists would offer. But what if these three core ideas of evolutionary psychology began to dominate our ideas of how humans think? The first idea, that disorders are actually tactics for manipulation, could lead to both a lack of sympathy for the victims of disorders (e.g., “You’re acting depressed just to get my attention”) and lead to the idea that all disorders are the result of an unmet evolutionary need, such as the alleged evolutionary drive for reproduction.

The second idea, that depression results from a mismatch of our supposed pre-agrarian, “early human” civilization with modern civilization, may be beneficial for helping people live more healthily, but what if evolutionary psychologists claim that “recently evolved” morality is causing depression (e.g., “Modern ideas of “right” and “wrong” are incompatible with our evolutionary heritage, so they should be abandoned”)?

Finally, the idea that all disorders are a result of harmful mutations could lead to the idea that all psychological problems are purely caused by physical conditions, ignoring mental—or spiritual—causes.

Thomson, the article notes, claims the shift to an evolutionary paradigm for psychology is “marvelous,” postulating that “it's affecting very few now, but in time it will affect everybody” as “young clinicians are trained in evolutionary psychology.” This is just one example of an academic field in which materialistic, evolutionary explanations may eventually monopolize discussion.

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