Is There an Evolutionary Advantage to Depression? What About Today?

John McManamy Health Guide
  • There can’t possibly be anything good about depression, right? I mean, how can there be?


    The evolutionary psychologists have a more nuanced answer. Their thesis is that any maladaptive trait would have been bred out of us naturally by now. So depression, horrible as it may be, has to have some kind of adaptive silver lining.


    An opinion piece in the New York Times a few days ago, What If We’re Wrong About Depression, cited Paul Andrews, a professor of evolutionary psychology at McMaster University, in support of the proposition that depression may assist in the type of focused rumination essential to solving complex problems.

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    If this sounds far-fetched, we need to consider what evolutionary biologists call “trade-offs.” Sickle-cell anemia, for instance, is the price of resistance to malaria.


    We see support for this on a genetic level. Years ago, at an American Psychiatric Association annual meeting, Daniel Weinberger, then of the NIMH, gave an example of a certain gene variation - COMT val/met - that may enhance cognition but interfere with emotional processing.


    In other words, there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” gene variation, per se. Just genes going about their business. The cost of being smarter, very possibly, may be a brain less stable emotionally. 


    OK, you say, that may make a bit of sense. But surely, isn’t depression one hell of a price to pay for being able to ruminate with greater efficiency?


    To tell you the truth, I found Dr Andrew’s theory far-fetched myself. I tend to go along with the more standard evolutionary psychology speculations, namely:

    • Depression may be a way of shaking us out of our denial. The rose-colored glasses come off. We wake up to grim reality and begin to make intelligent choices.
    • Depression may enhance creativity. Kay Jamison explored this theme in her 1993 book, Touched with Fire.
    • Depression may be a call for help, a type of primate distress-signal.
    • Depression may be the psyche’s way of calling time out - forcing us to slow down, not waste energy, and regroup our resources.

    Fine, you say. That may have been all well and good back in the days when we didn’t know how to make fire, but what about today? Sure, maybe we can pen melancholic poetry but who in today’s world is going to be impressed?


    Therein lies the rub. In the words of evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby of UC Santa Barbara, “our modern skulls house a stone age mind.” Evolution has not caught up to modern times.


    This may explain why even a mild depression today may have a catastrophic effect - when you are unable to perform to the levels needed to do well in school, hold down a demanding job, be there for loved ones, or attend to your own needs.


    When you have experienced all that - and believe me, I have - any talk of a “depression advantage” sounds like a cruel joke. Nevertheless, evolutionary psychology can give us valuable insights into the nature of our condition and help us in our coping and recovery.


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    On a personal level, I tend to think of myself as someone not born on this planet. Not exactly true, but my guess is a good many of you reading this also feel this way. We feel ill-suited to a noisy crowded vulgar world that seems designed for another species.


    Who wouldn’t be depressed?


    From this perspective, my depressions are more of an expression of my wholeness - my worth as a human being - rather than as evidence of a broken brain that needs to be fixed.


    Bottom line - I find that much easier to live with.

Published On: November 30, 2014