“Just Stamp ANIMAL on Their Foreheads.”

From the article Why Does “Evolution Theory” Trivialize Everything It Touches? by Denyse O’Leary

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A couple of evolutionary anthropologists tried their hand recently at illuminating the depths of human anxiety. They started by getting one thing clear right away:

Researchers in our field are trained to think about humans in the same way that we think about chimpanzees, macaques and any other animal on the planet. We recognise that humans, like all other species, evolved in environments that posed many challenges, such as predation, starvation and disease. As such, human psychology is well-adapted to meet these challenges.

Kristen Syme and Edward H. Hagen, “Most anguish isn’t an illness but an evolved response to adversity” at Psyche (September 29, 2020)

So humans are just like other animals. Syme and Hagen oppose treating “the common mental afflictions of depression and anxiety as illnesses” when, from their perspective, they are adaptations for evolutionary survival.

Okay, so what’s the big message that everyone else has been missing?

First, evolution has not shaped humans to be perpetually happy or free of pain. On the contrary, we’ve evolved pain neural circuits because our ancestors who experienced physical pain in response to environmental threats were better able to escape or mitigate those threats, out-reproducing their peers who didn’t experience pain. We evolved to experience suffering as much as we evolved to experience wellbeing.

Kristen Syme and Edward H. Hagen, “Most anguish isn’t an illness but an evolved response to adversity” at Psyche (September 29, 2020)

What? Do we have any reason to believe that some of our ancestors were “peers who didn’t experience pain”? What could these peers have been like? Ancient literature is pretty clear on the point that the human plight is universal.


If we were the first human beings who had ever existed and had suddenly popped into existence a half century ago, we would likely react about the same way to the death of a loved one. We grieve deeply because we rationally understand what is happening (“I will never see Rose again”), not because we evolved one way or another. If Syme and Hagen wish to explain exactly how humans came to consciously use reason in apprehending our environment, they will be the first to do so. Be warned: The Hard Problem of consciousness is hard indeed.

Syme and Hagen fear that they are misunderstood by the mental health professionals who think that serious depression is a disorder rather than an adaptation: “Disease model advocates argue that their approach reduces stigma by showing that the person is not to blame and by conveying the seriousness of their condition; they see alternative models as placing blame on the sufferer.”

Probably. But it’s unclear that most mental health professionals treat grief and anxiety as a disease unless it is harming physical and mental health and relationships, and then they really must see it that way. Issues about how and why it “evolved” wouldn’t matter much in the medical context.

In the same vein, Syme and Hagen go on to inform us, “… what the disease perspective has done is distract us from talking about the source of most mental anguish: adversity, often caused by conflicts with powerful or valuable others, such as employers, mates and kin.”

What? Are they really saying that no counselor has ever paid close attention to the effects of work and relationship issues in triggering serious depression?

The actual difference between typical mental health counsellors and evolutionary anthropologists is that the former do not treat mental health issues as if everyone involved were an animal, lacking reason and moral choice. But the evolutionary anthropologist, at least in Syme and Hagen’s account of their discipline, is obliged to do so. Evolutionary anthropology seems to mean never having to say that reason and moral choice matter.


But the reality is that some adversity is an unavoidable part of human life, caused by intractable conflicts of interest. If one person abandons her romantic partner for another one, for example, this is to her benefit and her ex-partner’s detriment. There is no way, at least in the short term, to make that better for the abandoned partner; nor is there a practical or fair way to prevent such strife from ever occurring.

Kristen Syme and Edward H. Hagen, “Most anguish isn’t an illness but an evolved response to adversity” at Psyche (September 29, 2020)

Yes. But so? Serious moral philosophers start here, they don’t end here. Syme and Hagen end here because this is all they have. There is no upper floor to their reasoning. It’s all about people as if we were animals and life as if explicitly Darwinian evolution decided everything. And neither of those propositions happens to be true.

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Our Betters are breathtakingly incompetent and blind.

Now, they have political and media power, so we need to tolerate their droning for a while longer. But when our soft-fascist welfare economy crashes, and the Great Default kicks in, their droning will fade away significantly.

It helps that they are tightly wound up with the media and academic complex, all of whom are falling apart and/or are dependent on State money.

By and large, the future will be a better place than today, as today is a better place than the past.

False medicalization of what needs a wise counselor’s intervention instead could ruin a person’s life. Resisting a diagnosis of disease when it’s not appropriate is important, but you didn’t need evolution to tell you that. I have observed up close a case of just that kind and it was the mother’s instinct, not the evolutionist’s narrative, that won the day and averted what might have been a disaster.

The limits, veering on the uselessness, of the evolutionary insight stands out. But worse, false evolutionary analysis, in a context where, again, wise counsel is required, could be as harmful as the false medical take. It needs no wisdom to stamp “ANIMAL” on the sufferer’s forehead, any more than it does to stamp “DISEASED.”

Would you ever seek help from an avowed evolutionary psychologist? I sure wouldn’t. Would anyone? Not many, probably not many evolutionary biologists for that matter. But if they did, there are worse things than irrelevance. Treating serious problems of the soul with a touch of narrative gloss could be nothing less than catastrophic. Read the rest at Mind Matters.

The Evolutionary Psychologist Will See You Now by David Klinghoffer

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