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Depression Defies the Rush to Find an Evolutionary Upside - Comments

keyfeatures's Avatar Comment 1 by keyfeatures

Depression and related hopeless mindsets seem to me to be a result of the fight or flight response being overwhelmed and therefore becoming unresponsive. It may well be that when fight or flight are no longer viable strategies, a despondent almost lifeless state is a better option from a survival point of view than continuing to put energies into the other options against the odds. Perhaps it's a more effective conservation of energy strategy that continues until the threat/danger has long passed.

It's a truly horrible condition nonetheless.

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 15:15:05 UTC | #909171

SaganTheCat's Avatar Comment 2 by SaganTheCat

Comment 1 by keyfeatures :

Depression and related hopeless mindsets seem to me to be a result of the fight or flight response being overwhelmed and therefore becoming unresponsive. It may well be that when fight or flight are no longer viable strategies, a despondent almost lifeless state is a better option from a survival point of view than continuing to put energies into the other options against the odds. Perhaps it's a more effective conservation of energy strategy that continues until the threat/danger has long passed. It's a truly horrible condition nonetheless.

makes sense. looking for an evolutionary purpose for depression is a bit like looking for an evolutionary purpose for rabbits freezing in headlights

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 15:36:03 UTC | #909178

Denial's Avatar Comment 3 by Denial

Depression cripples the sense of self-efficacy and creates dependence. In a group of hunter gatherers, depression should quite reliably stop people from leaving, or provoke loners to return.

If that was the function of depression, you'd expect it to be

  1. a chronic condition
  2. impairing a range of skills needed for autonomous survival, but not impairing reproduction,
  3. more prevalent in females than in males (because females are more valuable for group survival) and
  4. triggered by conditions that require group support, like chronic stressors or childbirth.

All of which is the case.

To test this, experimentally let depressed people live in large, fairly tight-knit groups for a while, where they work together and rely on each other. I predict that once their hippocampus notices that they're integrated in a group, it'll cease to sabotage their neocortex.

Nobel prize, please.

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 15:40:11 UTC | #909180

Meatbot's Avatar Comment 4 by Meatbot

Being that sadness and depression are often temporary, perhaps it's simply a response with benefits similar to physical pain: hey that hurts, maybe I should avoid future situations that manifest this feeling. If I avoid someone with behaviors that indicate he/she is likely to be unfaithful, I can find relationships that help me prosper.

Or maybe it's a relatively recent development that evolution hasn't addressed yet, since the last couple hundred years is the first time in human history that we have so much free time to waste on nonsense rather than having to focus our energies on finding food and shelter.

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 15:40:38 UTC | #909181

BanJoIvie's Avatar Comment 5 by BanJoIvie

I find it hard do believe, as Dr. Friedman implies, that any serious evolutionary scientist would suggest that full-blown clinical depression has adaptive value to a modern human. Clearly it does not. Any "upside" one might speculatively identify to various depressive symptoms would obviously be outweighed by the disruptive and harmful impact on a patient's life.

Nevertheless, there must be an evolutionary explanation for a phenomenon so widespread in the human population. Such an explanation need not necessarily suppose that depression itself has adaptive value to an individual. It is only necessary that some adaptive (to copies of genes not necessarily individuals) trait or traits have been selected for (over evolutionary time) and that depression is a one effect (not necessarily the selected effect) of said trait(s) which arises under current environmental conditions.

Evolutionary psychology can often be the source of "just so stories" and wild hypotheses, but I strongly suspect that Dr. Friedman is mischaracterizing attempts by evolutionary psychologists to explain depression as attempts to portray it as helpful. My suspicion is fed by the fact that Friedman offers the work of Joseph P. Forgas as an example of studies which show the value of "sadness" only to admit 5 paragraphs later that Forgas never impled that his research has any bearing on clinical depression. Forgas in fact accepts a distinction between "normal" sadness (like that in his subjects), and depressive states.

If there are E.P.s making the case that studies into the advantages of "sadness" can be generalized to depression, then Friedman is absolutely right to call them out. In such a case however, he should cite the flawed assertions in his article. The only person making such an erroneous case in this article is Friedman himself.

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 15:45:17 UTC | #909182

JuJu's Avatar Comment 6 by JuJu

Suggesting that depression must somehow give a person a positive advantage is like suggesting that chronic back pain must give some kind of positive advantage.

The natural world doesn't owe us a "positive advantage". Severe pain from a broken bone may be informative of our physical condition, but without modern medicine we very well might die from those injuries. Depression may be a result of unfavorable social circumstances like a failed personal relationship, but in the end a person suffering from it may not excel socially and began to feel like an outcast, I can't fathom a "positive advantage".

It seems to me that other primates get severely depressed in certain social circumstances, and usually its not a favorable outcome.

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 15:45:42 UTC | #909183

peter mayhew's Avatar Comment 7 by peter mayhew

Just thinking out loud: I like to imagine that depression is what happens to individuals (in primate societies) of low social rank. It keeps them from challenging those of higher social rank until circumstances in their favour allow them to realistically challenge for higher status. It's also a signal that they might need to change circumstances (e.g. emigrate) to achieve higher fitness.

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 15:51:41 UTC | #909185

Red Dog's Avatar Comment 8 by Red Dog

It seems to me that Dr. Friedman is confusing two ideas: he seems to think that finding an evolutionary explanation for depression equates to "embracing" depression. It seems to me that its quite possible to look for an evolutionary explanation while still believing that "the grim outlook of depressives is evidence that their thought process is distorted and erroneous. It must be fixed,"

The example of the rabbit in the headlights is a good one. Its a maladaptive behavior because rabbits didn't evolve to deal with cars. Their normal response to freeze in the face of unexpected potentially dangerous stimulus is all wrong when faced with a car at night. But if we wanted to treat rabbits for headlight-phobia so that they didn't freeze it would be useful to know the evolutionary basis for their behavior.

In the same way, you don't have to "embrace" depression or think its a good thing in order to understand the evolutionary explanation(s) for why it exists.

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 16:00:59 UTC | #909189

Mr Blue Sky's Avatar Comment 9 by Mr Blue Sky

There are many here who have and do still suffer from depression of one form or another. The lows are often tempered by corresponding highs. In a manic phase one can feel invincible and achieve much whereas in the depressive phase life can be almost unbearable or totally not worth continuing. I am not sure if the stable state without the highs and lows would be attractive. The well known depressive Stephen Fry has said he can accept the depression because of the manic phases but has suffered terribly over the years.

In my own case if I had been living thousands of years ago I would have starved to death without the help of a caring community or family as I could be virtually lifeless on a daily basis and even when you know you should make an effort you do not because you just don't care and have a fatalistic approach.

Of course I should not extrapolate from my own personal database but I can accept that depression is a disease that needs a cure. Without the manic phase I can see no useful features of clinical depression. We learn to live with it partly because of the social stigma still attached to mental health failure or emotional breakdown.

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 16:11:34 UTC | #909193

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 10 by AtheistEgbert

Fair enough. The guy makes good points. People do seem to forget that humans have kinda transcended their animal nature to some degree, while also forgetting they are still an animal. So there is some truth in both approaches.

Psychiatry offers some interesting and valuable insights, but it still abides mostly in the philosophy of medical science. The mind is seen in terms of healthy or unhealthy. If you put a wild animal in a cage, then it displays all sorts of disorders, no surprise really? Mankind creates its own cages, and that is the price we pay for transcending our animal nature.

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 16:15:30 UTC | #909194

Tyler Durden's Avatar Comment 11 by Tyler Durden

Findings like these may suggest some benefits to sadness, but lately they have been generalized to patients with full-blown depression. For example, Dr. Andrews and Dr. J. Anderson Thomson Jr., a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, have proposed that the rumination of depressives is an adaptive strategy to solve a painful problem.

Hardly a benefit if one's family actually starves to death due to one's rumination over a painful problem instead of hunting\gathering or farming.

Depression, albeit a debilitating condition, can be viewed by some as entirely cultural i.e. a first-world disease, simply because we can afford the time to suffer from it. Would depression be as debilitating in sub-Saharan Africa, the outback of Australia or the jungles of the Amazon?

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 16:17:20 UTC | #909196

rookieatheist's Avatar Comment 12 by rookieatheist

This article appears highly flawed. Firstly, in the following extract, who are the evolutionary psychologists he is talking about?

Some evolutionary psychologists think this painful and often disabling disease conceals something positive.

I have my doubts that such psychologists literally think that. They may think that depression conceals an evolutionary advantage, but what is advantageous on an evolutionary scale does not always translate as a positive thing for the currently living animal in question, in this case humans.

Secondly, humans living in modern civilized society are subjected to an environment completely different to the nomadic lifestyle of our evolutionary ancestors on the steppes of Africa. Our transition to a modern technological society has very likely occurred at a pace much faster than the pace of natural selection. From this, I suspect that there is therefore no reason to view all human behavior through the lens of evolutionary biology, simply because some of our behaviour may be largely a consequence of this new environment which natural selection has not prepared us for.

Also, just as Richard Dawkins suggested that religious belief could be a side effect of the natural selection of children who believe their parents without question, so too could depression be a side effect of another selective advantage that Natural Selection bestowed upon us.

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 16:24:09 UTC | #909198

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 13 by Cook@Tahiti

Comment 7 by peter mayhew :

Just thinking out loud: I like to imagine that depression is what happens to individuals (in primate societies) of low social rank. It keeps them from challenging those of higher social rank until circumstances in their favour allow them to realistically challenge for higher status. It's also a signal that they might need to change circumstances (e.g. emigrate) to achieve higher fitness.

The trouble with that just-so story is that there are numerous examples of high-status individuals that suffered from depression. Read any historical biography from the 18th or 19th centuries that chances are that depression was in the family somewhere, including suicide.

Talking about evolution, Darwin's captain on the Beagle, Robert Fitzroy came from a very high-ranking family with Viscount Castlereagh as his uncle (descendant from royalty). Both suffered from depression and both suicided.

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 16:26:31 UTC | #909200

Queen of the Pencils's Avatar Comment 14 by Queen of the Pencils

Comment 3 by Denial :

If that was the function of depression, you'd expect it to be

  • impairing a range of skills needed for autonomous survival, but not impairing reproduction,
  • but depression does impair reproduction, in so far as it tends to supress libido. It could be argued that post natal depression would also harm the prospects of both mother and child. What would be the evolutionary benefit of that?

    I can't think of any evolutionary advantages for depression apart from weeding out from the group those individuals that may have less strategies to cope with adversity. Not a cheery view I know.

    I am thinking here of Seligman and Maier's research into "learned helplessness", where dogs (and later other animals) who were put into situations where they could not escape electric shocks exhibited behaviour similar to depression in humans. When some of these dogs were then put into similar environments, but this time with a way of escape, some just laid down helplessly, others managed to find the way out of the situation. The ones that "gave up" had apparently learned that they had little effect on their environment

    What other interpretations of why some animals and human just "lay down and die" do people here have?

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 16:30:40 UTC | #909201

    justinesaracen's Avatar Comment 15 by justinesaracen

    Mankind creates its own cages, and that is the price we pay for transcending our animal nature.<

    Good point Atheist Egbert. Depression may be one of 'civilization's discontents' (to twist a theme of Freud). If depression, like obesity, has occurred only since civilization began, then it is not useful to examine it in evolutionary terms.

    After all, we are genetically programmed for only a limited number of all-purpose actions, flight, fight, teamwork, and negotiate. Those work pretty well in wild circumstances, but civilization makes everything vastly more complicated, requiring multiple reactions at once, flight masquerading as negotiation, fight masquerading as teamwork, complex evasive behaviors, etc. I can well imagine that depression could be a 'frozen screen' reaction when nothing you are programmed for works to make things better.

    Unfortunately, it's not so easy to come up with a 'force quit' and start over.

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 16:33:50 UTC | #909203

    Degsy's Avatar Comment 16 by Degsy

    Did Randolph Nesse not touch on this subject? His argument was pitched so as to not explain depression from an evolutionary advantageous point of view, but rather, argued that mood (in this case low mood) was a signifier to the individual to desist in any activity that wrought no perceptible reward. In other words, low mood has a utility, whereas depression is the result of its exacerbation. I myself suffer from depression- have done for years. The evolutionary advantage of a debilitating disease is lost on me in that regard. I do have some sympathy with JuJu, in that, the natural world may not have to owe us any positive advantage. Efficacious treatment of the disease is of more importance to me than an evolutionary explanation, regardless of how enamored I am with the theory of evolution.

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 16:44:35 UTC | #909208

    Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 17 by Peter Grant

    Pain and fear also provide survival advantages, doesn't mean we want to experience them all the time. This article is very confused, an excellent example of the naturalistic fallacy in action.

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 17:07:40 UTC | #909219

    Cartomancer's Avatar Comment 18 by Cartomancer

    Surely if we are talking about whether depression has an adaptive value for human beings we should be looking not at how it manifests in modern human societies but how it plays out in small hunter-gatherer bands like the ones we spent 99% of our evolutionary history living in? The pathology of depression in modern humans is largely immaterial in this endeavour.

    Suffering, as I do, from depression, it seems to me that the "narrow focus to help find a solution to the problem" explanation is promising. It seems apt. The thing is that the kinds of problems we encounter in the modern world are rather more complicated, multi-faceted and difficult to solve than the ones our ancestors had. Often there simply isn't a solution to be had - not all problems can be solved, and when there is no solution you just keep on worrying at it. The condition doesn't have a mechanism for recognising when a problem is insoluble, which is where it becomes damaging.

    If it evolved as a way to deal with the soluble problems of our past then we would not have expected this kind of "that's enough worrying" mechanism to develop. When all the problems you face are soluble with enough application, a rule that says "keep worrying until it's solved" works fine.

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 17:09:47 UTC | #909221

    The Jersey Devil's Avatar Comment 19 by The Jersey Devil

    Depression cripples the sense of self-efficacy and creates dependence. In a group of hunter gatherers, depression should quite reliably stop people from leaving, or provoke loners to return.

    Depresion is associated with the individual isolating.

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 17:15:29 UTC | #909225

    The Jersey Devil's Avatar Comment 20 by The Jersey Devil

    Being that sadness and depression are often temporary, perhaps it's simply a response with benefits similar to physical pain: hey that hurts, maybe I should avoid future situations that manifest this feeling. If I avoid someone with behaviors that indicate he/she is likely to be unfaithful, I can find relationships that help me prosper.

    Clinical depression is chronic, not temporary. It would appear you are thinking of garden variety depression, which is different from clinical depression. If you get the blues on a rainy day, that is likely garden variety depression. If you feel despondent day after day to the point where it causes you to lose your job, spend a week in bed or drink copious amounts of Jack Daniels you should seek professional help.

    Also, I'm having a hard time seeing how avoiding unfaithful partners would have survival value for genes.

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 17:28:13 UTC | #909235

    Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 21 by Peter Grant

    Comment 18 by Cartomancer

    If it evolved as a way to deal with the soluble problems of our past then we would not have expected this kind of "that's enough worrying" mechanism to develop. When all the problems you face are soluble with enough application, a rule that says "keep worrying until it's solved" works fine.

    On encountering difficult problems they either devised a solution or died.

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 17:40:15 UTC | #909240

    TeraBrat's Avatar Comment 22 by TeraBrat

    Depression is very complex and has been exacerbated by the modern diet and culture where it's easy for people to see themselves as failures. Mild depression would stop a person from taking some stupid risks which would increase their survival rate.

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 17:56:30 UTC | #909251

    brighterstill's Avatar Comment 23 by brighterstill

    I have to disagree with the clinicians on this one. The author's arguments against the evolutionary psychology of depression smacks of someone who doesn't really understand evolution. The author essentially claims it can't be a useful adaptation because it doesn't work perfectly, and sometimes it's fatal. This is a non sequitur: plenty of useful adaptations don't work perfectly - they just have to work well enough.

    The author goes on to say that depression resulting from a stressor or rumination that actually solved the prolem would make sense from an evolutionary point of view, but because there are cases where no stressor was identified or the problem being obsessed over wasn't solved, it therefore can't be a useful adaptation and must therefore be a disease. This is a failure of investigation: simply because the stressor wasn't identified doesn't mean it did not exist - it just means it wasn't on their list of legitimate stressors. Simply because the problem wasn't solved, doesn't mean the solution routine wasn't trying - human minds can't solve problems they're not remotely equipped to solve and we're living in probably the most complicated time in any human's life.

    The author immediately dismisses the patient's clearly identified stressor which he insisted (likely after great self reflection or obsession) was his perspective on the state of the world - admittedly a depressing thing. That patient probably got lumped into the category of people who "had no stressor". The patient himself then admitted that the therapy he had undergone hadn't in fact solved the underlying problem for him (the thing that made him depressed), but that he felt artificially happy anyway. The author's conclusion: problem solved. My conclusion: author needs a lesson in evolution.

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 18:47:10 UTC | #909273

    Zeuglodon's Avatar Comment 24 by Zeuglodon

    Also, I'm having a hard time seeing how avoiding unfaithful partners would have survival value for genes.

    That's easy. For a male, an unfaithful spouse could have offspring from a different male. That's not good for his genes because they waste time and resources helping children who don't contain copies of the genes. After enough generations of that sort of behaviour, they'd be outcompeted by rival genes. For a female, an unfaithful male may switch resources - emotional and otherwise - to another female, leaving her childless or with the burden of raising the kids.

    The genes in both bodies "want" faithful partners, but there's always the temptation to be a little unfaithful if it gets more gene copies spread further. Hence the complex intraspecies arms race between faithful and unfaithful behaviour patterns.

    This is an incomplete summary, but keep in mind the notion that energy-efficient yet competitor-beating reproduction is very important for genes, and the intricacies practically suggest themselves. It's kind of like a economical reproduction market.

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 19:14:51 UTC | #909287

    Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 25 by Peter Grant

    Are there really any evolutionary psychologists who try to argue that we shouldn't treat depression, or is Richard Friedman just misunderstanding what is meant by the term "adaptive"?

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 19:51:06 UTC | #909292

    The Jersey Devil's Avatar Comment 26 by The Jersey Devil

    Comment 24

    I can see your point that energy-efficient reproduction would have survival benefit.

    I'm still not there with the idea that clinical depression accomplishes this in any way. Clinical depression would need to actually increase the chances of subsequently getting into a faithful /healthy relationship for this to be true. This is a dubious claim. Symptoms of CD include withdrawal from social situations, reduced sex drive, inability to experience pleasure, rumination, insomnia, low self-esteem, fatigue, agitation and thoughts of suicide. I don’t see how this would help the afflicted spot and choice faithful partners.

    Indeed, some of the symptoms like low self-esteem may actually do the opposite.

    Tue, 17 Jan 2012 20:14:15 UTC | #909296

    Misfire's Avatar Comment 27 by Misfire

    It would make sense to me that a slight level of depression can have an evolutionary advantage, while severe depression is a negative byproduct of that capacity, just as too much anger or too much trust or too big ears are not helpful. We shouldn't expect to find an evolutionary advantage to any amount of any characteristic.

    Wed, 18 Jan 2012 00:03:32 UTC | #909374

    Zeuglodon's Avatar Comment 28 by Zeuglodon

    Comment 26 by The Jersey Devil

    I'm still not there with the idea that clinical depression accomplishes this in any way.

    Nor am I, to be honest. I was just picking up on that one comment.

    It must have a social dimension to it, though. A guy who goes out of their way to avoid society and behave in an apathetic way is bound to attract attention. Maybe it triggers caretaking behaviour in family members, or threatens to fragment the group structure if nobody comes to help them out. It doesn't hurt that depressed people tend to become more susceptible to illnesses and diseases, so perhaps it's a kind of manipulation that had to involve a genuine threat to one's safety.

    It wouldn't work in a weakly social species because the risk of death outweighs any survival/reproductive benefits. But in a species whose members are used to strong bonds, social health and success would be powerful motivational factors. And what better way to fake illness (and thus draw attention to oneself) than to really be ill?

    Wed, 18 Jan 2012 09:16:46 UTC | #909448

    Monkey Man's Avatar Comment 29 by Monkey Man

    -This article is wrong.

    -This is just another silly "debate" between "evolutionary psychology" (sorry what psychology is non-evolutionary?) and the people whose toes are being stepped on by it.

    -He seems to mock the trend towards evolutionary thinking instead of welcome it which is absurd. This trend was merely held back for 150 years by strange politics and religion.

    Wed, 18 Jan 2012 10:19:12 UTC | #909464

    Monkey Man's Avatar Comment 30 by Monkey Man

    Last I checked Randolph Nesse thought depression could be both a positive trait as well as something that can go wrong and become a disease. I gained this through listening to his interview with Richard on YouTube as well as a lecture on depression at the Uni of Michigan.

    Wed, 18 Jan 2012 10:22:52 UTC | #909465