Is depression an evolved adaptation?: envoi

October 22, 2010 • 3:10 pm

Several months ago I wrote a piece for The Psychiatric Times criticizing the idea that clinical depression was an evolved mental adaptation.  I concentrated on the “adaptive rumination hypothesis” of Andrews and Thomson, which posits that the syndrome of depression actually helps people solve knotty life problems.  Andrews and Thomson suggest, then, that becoming clinically depressed in certain situations was reproductively advantageous in our ancestors, and may still be so.

Andrews and Thomson have now responded in the journal with a piece called “Coyne battles Darwin, many other evolutionary biologists—and himself,” and if you’re following these things you might have a look.  It’s curious how they defend depression as so obviously adaptive.  Using their logic, one could judge any mental disorder as an adaptation promoted by natural selection in our ancestors.

I won’t say anything more since I’m preparing a response for the journal.

57 thoughts on “Is depression an evolved adaptation?: envoi

  1. Fun. Get the popcorn.

    You evilushunists are all in lock-step with one another.

    …no wait.

    More proof that science doesn’t have all of the answers, therefore god is like totally real and Jesus is da bomb.

    Yeah, that’s better.

  2. I’m shocked.

    As a past sufferer of light depression I wonder seriously how anybody could argue that depression promotes analytical thought.

    Depression-proneness as an artifact of other advantageous traits I can understand, but benefits of depression beats me.

    1. I whole heartedly concur. I have suffered from depression (currently controlled by Zoloft) and in my experience there is absolutely nothing about depression, per se, that is adaptive.

      Now, in the case of a Manic-Depressive I can see where the depressed phase of the cycle can be less damaging than the manic phase but I have a hard time calling that ‘adaptive’.

        1. I hope I’m not too nosy for asking this(and I’m asking because I’m curious, not to question you in any way):

          When you say “helped me write better songs”, do you mean actually writing songs while clinically depressed? Or that the memory of the feeling and the range of emotion has helped you in writing songs after the depression had abated.

          1. It’s called a high functioning depression. We are probably seeing the most stunning multitude of high functioning depressives this world has seen in decades. The world can be a bad place and people deal with depression differently, like writing songs. Let me ask you this, did you feel better after getting the song out, and on paper?

  3. That response to your critique is quite a smutty soup of smug assertions.

    The authors state:

    “We … argue that depression coordinates many traits to promote uninterrupted analytical thought.”

    Having suffered depression myself, the idea that the cognitive functioning of a depressive brain is in any way, shape, or form an adaptive response is ludicrous. Cognitive slowing, circular thoughts, inability to concentrate are diagnostic criteria for the condition for heaven’s sake. One’s ability to think is reduced to a bitter contemplation of the hopelessness of one’s situation. And that’s the upside compared to suicide ideation.

    There is nothing – absolutely nothing – about depression that could increase one’s survival, sexual selection, competitiveness, or reproductive rate as far as I can see. You might as well argue that a bout of pneumonia allows similar time for contemplation.

    The author’s biochemical model is very simplistic:

    “…uninterrupted analytical reasoning requires sustained neuronal activity in the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), a site implicated in depressive rumination.”

    Rather like the man who claims to have really seen a ghost on fence, and to prove it, he will show you the fence.

    But these authors are not seeing ghosts, they are seeing San Marcan spandrels of evolutionary selection where only maladaptive pathology exists.

  4. From the title on in, they seem to suffer from the fallacy of Appeal to Authority – including you. It reads like Creationists damning evolution because of Darwin’s (alleged) deathbed conversion.

    “we predicted future research will show that depression is useful in helping people solve the problems that triggered their episodes”
    Well that would get depressed people back to square one, but hardly confer an advantage, would it?

    “many suicidal acts are desperate gambles undertaken to elicit important social benefits” Like the triumph of Islam, perhaps, but those acts are not born of depression. Perhaps A&T are referring to attempted suicide as a “cry for help” but that is more like escape from social deficits (lack of help) rather than benefits.

    1. “It reads like Creationists damning evolution because of Darwin’s (alleged) deathbed conversion.”

      In fact, after the first three paragraphs I thought to myself, “Ken Ham could have written this.”

  5. As one who is himself familiar with depression and its strong hold on one’s psyche, I will say that yes, granted, depression may not confer any immediate advantages while it is occurring — quite the contrary. One’s life is hell, as long as depression rules over it. But, should the person be lucky enough to overcome it, it has offered an opportunity to create a better human — a person who has known the depths of pain and sorrow and thus possesses deeper empathy for the pain of others and a better understanding of how hard it is at times just to go through the day.

    If that accounts for nothing, then by saying so we may well prove to be deeply cynical, or perhaps just afraid of the pain and suffering within each of us.

    1. More to the point, does the benefit (potentially increased empathy) outweigh the harm? A friend’s husband has BPD and he said that it was the cause of many breakups, they just couldn’t stand to be with him during his episodes. I imagine depression must be similarly difficult.

      I would also imagine that clinical depression would negatively affect your ability to maintain work and relationships which is bad enough in a money-based economy but during the long period where we evolved most significantly we were hunter-gatherers or agrarian where this could threaten the lives of the victim and his dependants.

      Just rhetorically, I would think that anti-depressants would be useless as people would enjoy the opportunity to grow and develop as a person.

      The question isn’t whether there are some intangible benefits but whether these outweigh the costs.

      1. The test of our humanity is often in our ability to be with those we love when they are at their least lovable.

        Otherwise we are just immature, fundamentally childish “consumers” just of “happy” relationships, whereas we should know, by the time we are older and hopefully more “mature”, that we all go through lows in life.

        To me, abandoning a friend in a time of need, because we find it “disagreeable” or “difficult” or “inconvenient”, is among the lowest thing anyone can do.

      2. The test of our humanity is often in our ability to be with those we love when they are at their least lovable.

        Otherwise we are just immature, fundamentally childish “consumers” just of “happy” relationships, whereas we should know, by the time we are older and hopefully more “mature”, that we all go through lows in life.

        To me, abandoning a friend in a time of need, because we find it “disagreeable” or “difficult” or “inconvenient”, is among the lowest thing anyone can do.

        As for the tone of ridicule in your reply, I will let others be the judges of what to make of it.

        1. What “tone of ridicule” are you referring to? I detected no tone of ridicule in Tyro’s or in Pliny’s responses.

          Furthermore, pronouncements about how leaving someone in their time of need is “among the lowest thing anyone can do” (Of course it’s low. Who would refute that?) do not address the fact that people – friends, spouses, family – do leave depressed individuals in their time of need. It’s happened to me repeatedly. I despise it, but to a degree I can understand because being around a depressed individual is depressing! And if no one wants to be around you, you certainly are not going to be having sex (even with yourself, since depression often robs you of your sex drive) and thus not reproducing.

          The point that many posters here are making, and that you seem to be overlooking in your comments, is that depressive behaviors are not adaptive while you are depressed. You state that you feel as though recovering from depression has given you the opportunity to become a better, more empathetic person, but unless that increases your chances to pass on your genes (and it might – empathy is a good thing!), then in terms of depression being adaptive it does count for nothing.

          It comes done to this: the point you are making has nothing to do with A & T’s “adaptive rumination hypothesis.” It’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t speak to the adaptiveness of depression.

          All that said, congrats on your recovery! : ) Not everyone is so lucky. For many, depression is nothing but destructive.

          1. My apologies for dumping all of this on you. While I had issues with your posts, my anger has more to do with the ridiculous hypothesis put forth by A&T, even just their suggestion that depression – which for me has been nothing but destructive – is adaptive really gets my blood boiling.


        2. Marco,

          Can we please try to separate what is upstanding and good from what really happens?

          I’m not saying that we should abandon friends or partners because they’e clinically depressed but neither would I fault someone for doing this. In the end, evolution does not work on what we should do, it works on what we do do and personality disorders like depression do place a large strain on any relationship.

          There’s also the fact that relationships do not happen instantaneously and if a person is depressed it is harder for them to form social bonds and potential mates may be more likely to select other people. Perhaps there are healer/martyr-types who would seek out depressed people which negate this effect but I think the potential negatives are real enough that we should expect some supporting evidence that the benefits outweigh the costs.

    2. Creating a morally better human really isn’t the same thing as being adaptive, and saying something is not adaptive really isn’t the same thing as saying it counts for nothing. It’s not even close. “Adaptive” is not the same as “good.”

  6. I’m trying to figure out why they even bother to claim adaptation.

    Complex mechanisms break down. Not all fixes are either a)possible or b) handled in short evolutionary time. Why trot out an unneeded hypothesis?

    1. 1: Faculty etc is pressuring for you to publish and you can’t think of any valid ones?

      2: Confirmation (giving ones own brushes with depression meaning – though I doubt this one)

      3: Never underestimate peoples ability to be stupid

      4: Ambition and gambling instinct. A far-fetched hypothesis gives more cred/brownie points/copulation opportunities if it is accepted.

      5: (ok, this one is a bit snarky): Psychology as your major field.

      1. Well, the authors are actually not psychologists. One’s an evolutionary biologist and the other is a psychiatrist (a doctor).
        And as an student of psychology I’d like to dispel the notion that we’re all either evolutionary psychologists or post-modernists – both for reasons of my own ego and because I don’t want my field to be misunderstood by the public. Evo-Psych is gaining ground but it’s still not close to being dominant even though it unfortunately gets a lot of press.

        1. As I said, I was being a bit snarky. I only got the outside view into psychology, but it seems to range from the good to the bad to the ugly. Much the same problems as most social sciences in other words 🙂

          1. I would agree. It’s very important to pay attention to what kind of psych (or any other social “science”) one is dealing with when evaluating research (which, in some instances would also deserve scare quotes).

            But in this case, we’re talking about a biologist & an M.D., so snark about social sciences doesn’t really matter, I guess, eh?

            Showing that rampant hypothesizing is not beyond the scope of ‘real’ science.

  7. A few years ago I broke my leg and while I was laid up I invented a new kind of support boot for people with broken legs.
    Now I realize that flimsy tibia evolved to increase contemplative time.

    I haven’t perfected the boot but I still have another leg. Hmmm, where’s my hammer?

  8. Evolution may be “the greatest idea ever” but I’m always somewhat skeptical when it is used as a new explanation for things observed in the natural world.

    1. Change a couple words and it could fit into any postmodernist anti-everything rag. Let me share just one sentence (and I swear that it really is just a single sentence) which wonderfully demonstrates the way Tan lashes wildly at everything and hopes to score a point:

      Specifically, despite the clarity of the rebuttal above — in their own rights and reasoning — I thought the A&T arguments above are still besieged — and subliminally haunted — by the pseudoscientific, pseudo-genetic dominancy, sophistry & ghost of neo-Darwinism — especially the Harvard-MIT complex-type of neo-Darwinist-bias syndrome — an intellectually-agonizing, paralyzing & degrading, pseudoscientific, pseudo-genetic syndrome & sophistry & scientism since Thomas Huxley (1825-95) the British evolutionary biologist-turned-sophist: a fervent advocate of Darwinism vs. Creationism fallacy & fame of the 1860s — a syndrome which has had been further exacerbated by Richard Dawkins at Oxford since the 1970s — and a severe case of Darwinitis which Coyne might have had unconsciously inherited or contracted at Harvard; and only recently, it has had begun to exhibit his Darwinitic symptoms of “public square-type” or cross-disciplinary sophist-transgressions & corruptions in neuroscience & religion issues, since the publication of his first neo-Darwinist scientism book “Why Evolution is True” (2009)!?

      I mean “pseudo-genetic dominancy” and scientism? Give me a break.

      1. Interestingly, I think the only punctuation mark it’s missing is a period (and it’s disreputable cousin the ellipsis). Tan even managed to cram in both an exclamation mark and a question mark. Well played sir, well played.

        1. @ Tyro:

          Your comment also suffers from overpunctuation, albeit in only one case. 🙂

          As inveterate German writer, even in English, I welcome our semicolon and Gedankenstrich overlords!

          1. LOL! And I see I wrote “and it’s disreputable” instead of “its” so perhaps we have more in common after all. Hmmm, maybe I’ll have to give it some thought.

            For the moment I’ll look for more opportunities to use the word “Darwinitic” in conversation and see if it helps my credibility.

  9. I have not been depressed*, but when I have problems, maybe there’s a drug for me to induce depression, so that I can better solve my problems?

    *I think, but am not sure how broad their definition is. I have been sad on many occasions, and really wonder if that’s what they are talking about.

  10. Evo-psych is becoming one minefield after another. It seems most fashionable these days to describe every syndrome in the DSM as showing adaptiveness under certain conditions. I’ve run into that discussion regarding ADHD more than once.

    Not that some of this speculation (“speculation,” because I can’t see how it gets beyond that; no matter how many statistics one invokes, the conclusions are still just descriptive hypotheses, it seems to me) might not be true–just how can it ever be proven, as opposed to how vested are some people’s interests in insisting on its truth?

    Of course when it comes down to it, many of the explanations put forward by evolutionary biologists for why or how a certain trait is adaptive are mostly speculative as well. Things like camoflage & mimicry are pretty testable; things like sexual & kin selection not always so…and a trait may be demonstrably (statistically) adaptive but for a different reason than that proposed…

    Though this sort of thinking does at least do something in getting people to remember that having a reservoir of variation upon which to act is as important to selection as any other factor. Too often the lay person’s conception of selection is of an inexorable march in one direction, to perfection of some set of traits, unmindful of the need for variation & thus, the tendency for selection to maintain same…

    Decades ago I happily embraced the concept of “genetic load,” which at that time was a term for the sort of variation that is maintained in a population at some low frequency because it is occasionally adaptive, even if during other conditions it was neutral or even maladaptive. (This was popular in the lab, in that we could shrug off our dopiest moments as just the burden we accepted for carrying our share of the genetic load…) Last I looked, it had gotten all math-ed up, which I guess is an improvement, though I don’t seem to hear it discussed at all anymore…

    As addictive as it is to commit evo-psych, I can’t think of a more dangerous field.

    1. As to adaptive explanations: they may have the sense of a silver lining for those suffering (or those associated with the suffering).

      Re evo-psych: in many cases, the field draws causal connections between behavioral phenomena and behavioral* or ecological** phenomena, which connections may be unsupportable. Neither seems to take the intermediate step of looking at the neural phenomena (e.g., hormone balances).

      *e.g., depression good for contemplaton (both are, I’d guess, in the realm of behavior; sounds a mite circular)
      **e.g., musical activity increases mating frequency (not consistently, depends on standards of quality for musical activity)

    2. Maybe, but we still animals not gods, only superficially imbued with the trappings of culture (boots and all), so let’s not throw the sociobiolgical baby out with the bath water.

  11. I agree that the adaptive rumination hypothesis sounds ridiculous. As someone who has suffered from depression, I cannot imagine how feelings of wanting to hurl myself out of a window could possibly have any benefit for me. Feedback from uncertainty and self-hatred becomes uncertainty and self-hatred, and this fall, I think, is depression. Depression for me was a yearning for the end of life and from pain perceived endless – an obsession in negative thought, a heavy pull toward the earth, a true depression. I cannot imagine how this had any benefit for me and I am lucky to have moved away from my abusive family and gotten mentally better before it was too late.

    I agree that depression may just be a byproduct of a system that works pretty well, but I do wonder if it can be adaptive. Although I cannot imagine how feeling depressed was beneficial for me, I can imagine a kind of benefit for the gene. I am talking about the depression that is associated with suicide. I wonder if it could not have coevolved with the wiring that prevents us from killing family members. Not a benefit for me, but a benefit for others who share my genes and cannot kill me.

    How could genes benefit from a resource consuming family member of a particular kind being dead? Imagine a time of scarcity. If altruism-wiring prevents family members from killing each other (or prevents them from not sharing food and shelter) perhaps some advantage may be imagined for genes that induce familial pruning by a self-destruction mechanism. They may be triggered by social and environmental cues aimed at certain individuals in the group.

    What kinds of characteristics would those individuals possess? Perhaps low replicative potential like gayness or unattractiveness, perhaps low workload capability like being a female or being young or being old, or perhaps anti-group thinking or behavior patterns. Stressful times may induce familial or social bullying in the form of physical or verbal abuse (or perhaps something much more subtle) aimed at these individuals and that may in turn trigger a self-destruction mechanism. Groups without these genes do not have pruning mechanisms and spread their resources much thinner in times of scarcity. And one can imagine why the family-killing wiring is nonnegotiable.

    Maybe, but probably just bad wiring.

  12. There can be an addiction to this. Getting a good high feeling solving a problem no one else has solved before. And the lows is trying to show these solved problem to a society already set that the current answers are good enough.
    Meanwhile the path society took in this area of science has run on the wrong course into a great many areas of fiction proped up by hundreds of theories.

  13. I think the real problem in their argument is in the very first step. They say that…

    We constructed our design analysis of depression around a key fact: analytical reasoning must be uninterrupted to be effective.

    …which seems to be much less of a key fact to me than it does to them. Alcohol, which decreases analytical prowess, also leads to an increase in copulations in many settings. Also, there are plenty of examples of spur-of-the-moment decisions (which I’m assuming are less analytical than normal, although that may not be the case) turning out just fine for the decision-ee and potentially increasing fitness. Interruptions in our thought processes happen all the damn time, and we continue to function with a perfectly acceptable level of effectiveness.

    1. Excellent point. I’m pretty confident I’ve read papers about the origin of “break through” ideas that have stressed that the light bulb often goes off when the creative individual has taken a step back and is involved in some completely different activity. Or asleep.

      We can never be too mindful of the divisions between the “hard” sciences and the “social sciences.” The latter sometimes only show “science-iness,” which is sort of like truthiness.

  14. Who is this Mong H Tan? Someone who’s always popping up on blogs to tout a forthcoming magnum opus, yes?

    If I read the first para correctly, Tan is citing a comment on another article in Psychiatric Times as if it were an article. That’s pretty funny if so.

    1. A self-promoting self-publisher…from a description of his “tome”.

      Specifically, this pop-science-first-book author, Mong H Tan, PhD, fathoms links among the chaos-orders of the evolutionary interstellar fabrics of Space, Time, Energy, and Matter; or the cosmic STEM matrixes-entities in the Universe that are all around us: From the creations of Life-Genes on Earth, to the ultimate, unique, unbound capacity-capability of our Mind-Gods within, in our brain or “memophorescenicity”, a new unified quantum Mind theory pursued from an empiricist electrochemical particle-wave or Yin-Yang propensities of holism-cosmology; a critical reader’s Theory of Everything, Biogenesis-Meanings and all. Epistemologically-“memophorescenically”, in and by all accounts, intellectual and spiritual; Dr. Tan’s critical inquiries, philosophical and psychological; his timely anatomy-synthesis of the STEM origins (particularly those of our genetics-mnemonics; our fast-advancing knowledge, consciousness, freewill, and conscience regarding Gods; and our ultimate wisdom of cherishing Life on Earth) have no doubt been sharpened, enriched, and transcended by the vast, fast advances in science-technology, multiculturalism, and pluralism of the East-West, today and beyond.

      Someone who should learn that clear writing involves the use of the “period”. And who thinks an awful lot of himself.

      1. I love it! A sentence which deserves two paragraphs, random capitalization and even a semicolon-delimited list inside a parenthetical remark which is itself inside some grammatical rabbit warren. For me the prize goes to the phrase “unbound capacity-capability of our Mind-Gods within”. That’s some serious writing, I’ve got to get me some of his books.

  15. _____ is adaptive, because it provides time for rumination.

    Being born without legs is adaptive, because it provides time for rumination.

    Being born without eyes is adaptive, because it provides time for rumination.

    Being born with a hole in your heart is adaptive, because it tilts away from physical activity to rumination.


  16. Questions –
    Is depression just extreme sadness/misery? Is happiness adaptive? Surely the evolution of the emotions must be deeply rooted in our primate past? Isn’t society all about ‘belonging’ or ‘excluding’? Is depression not just this taken to an extreme? Surely where there are multiple causes of depression there must be multiple causes?

    One suggestion that interests me is the possible connection between depression & the Borna Disease Virus.

    1. When I said “Surely where there are multiple causes of depression there must be multiple causes?” I should have said’multiple reasons’!

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