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Evolved Madness

Why did our minds evolve with the capacity to go mad? Why are our emotions capable of disabling us? Why did we end up with feelings at all?

Let’s start with the last question. When evolutionary biologists study emotion, they usually ask about its survival value. What is it that makes feelings useful to a creature’s reproductive success?

This approach troubles me, because it suggests (implicitly) that animals might just as well have evolved as heartless robots, devoid of any true investment in life. The only reason for feelings in this style of evolutionary logic is that they increased mammalian ability to foster viable offspring. And note that the word mammalian is not arbitrary. Such hypotheses generally go on to assert that reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates are devoid of meaningful emotion. Which, if you think about it, is another way of saying they don’t care about their lives.

But as I’ve pointed out in another post, even spiders seem pretty insistent on their preference for living over dying. So-called lower animals don’t appear robotic and unaffected. They behave quite passionately when their survival is threatened. Could it be that feelings aren’t just utilitarian, but fundamental to life?

Consider next how this reductionist style of evolutionary reasoning gets applied to psychiatric conditions. How does this rubric explain the persistence of mental afflictions in human populations? After all, psychiatric conditions strike during reproductive years and carry a significant mortality rate (possibly as high as 20% for bipolar conditions). If we argue by selection, we must conclude that the reproductive benefits outweigh the risks.

What are the positive qualities that accompany mental instability? Here we start by considering that intellectual and artistic abilities might have evolved because they increase a mate’s desirability. The idea is that the cavemen who could paint evocative bisons had more success with the cave-ladies. Those who created also procreated.

Then remember that mental health conditions occur more commonly among artists and visionaries. Could the persistence of madness result from its tendency to increase creative output, not to mention reproductive drive?

It’s a reasonable argument, and probably one with some underlying truth. But to me it seems a surprisingly uninspired view of inspired lunacy. It sounds like something a bureaucrat would think up.

And in fact, one criticism of Darwinian theory has always been that it suits capitalists. Bean-counters like “survival of the fittest,” because it justifies the hoarding of beans. To say that passion, creative drive and wild thinking evolved through better baby-making may not be wrong, but it may leave out mysterious and vital undercurrents in human life.

Let’s imagine, momentarily, that there is more to the cosmos than the material realm. It could be, after all, that mystical forces affect our lives. In which case we might expect that some of our qualities result from influences other than competitive insemination and over-protective child-rearing. We might have lessons to learn, for instance. Maybe some human qualities arose to help us evolve in the spiritual rather than biological sense.

So could it be that mental health problems are serving a higher purpose? Just possibly, the pain of psychiatric distress serves to break down egos and open minds to realms beyond the physical. Maybe “mental illnesses” are not as disastrous as many believe. Maybe they are Grace in formation.

If that were true, and I admit to wild (creative?) speculation here, we would be completely misguided in trying to suppress such conditions. By doing so, we would be robbing people of their chances for growth. We’d be better advised to help the potent energies of psychiatric distress play out in safe and instructive ways.

Unfortunately, the choice in current society is all-too-often between medication and alienation. Or between hospitalization and jail. Inner turmoil no longer has any chance of creating shamans or prophets, because we drug down or lock up anyone who deviates too far from the claustrophobic modern mold.

This is the danger of accepted wisdom. Everyone assumes that natural selection is the sole element at play in evolution only because that’s what everyone assumes. While selection is no doubt a potent force, it has not been proven to be the only influence on evolution, and many scientific facts suggest that we need a more encompassing theory. Postulating purposeful nudges that supervene among the changes sculpted by selection would resolve the evidentiary problems in conventional evolutionary theory. (These nudges wouldn’t necessarily require an omnipotent deity, but could arise as part of the natural self-organization of the cosmos—but this is a topic for another essay.)

Yes, it may be that feelings, madness, artistry, and the like can all be explained in terms of robotic animals competing for resources and mates. But let’s at least admit that richer and more interesting possibilities remain. Until they have been ruled out, we are neither scientific nor inspired if we dismiss them from consideration. And if other explanations deserve attention, then so do other treatment models. If mental conditions are meant to teach us, our society should honor rather than abhor them, and our psychiatric care should promote rather than hinder their flowering.

Evolved Madness

Will Meecham, MD, MA

In late 2014, Will Meecham, MD, MA, launched to combine clear explanations of biology with meditations on Life.

Before he felt ready to start, Will needed to overcome a highly traumatic upbringing. In young adulthood he coped with his past by over-achieving, completing years of higher education in ecology, biophysics, neuroscience, and medicine. But in mid-life, when neck disease ended his career as an oculoplastic surgeon, he was forced to confront vulnerabilities such as low self-esteem, high reactivity, interpersonal conflict, dissociation, and an unstable sense of identity, all of which are common problems for those who suffered hardship early in life.

After years of inner work, he grew more stable, grounded, and secure. Along the way, he discovered that his lifelong love of biology helped him find meaning and purpose in Life. He now works to encourage greater appreciation, gratitude, and compassion for the human body.

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APA Reference
Meecham, W. (2011). Evolved Madness. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 18, 2019, from


Last updated: 20 Nov 2011
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