One of the most useful perspectives from which to consider questions in ponerology is that of evolutionary psychology. This is the field that asks how and why certain psychological traits and characteristics came about and were selected for during our long evolutionary past. And a number of thinkers have commented on how psychopathy might be viewed through this lens.
I shared some of these evolutionary views of psychopathy in previous writings, discussing:
- What a profound evolutionary development the emergence of humans without conscience was
- Whether psychopathy is best understood as an aberration of normal human capacities akin to blindness or deafness or, rather, as a reflection of a different type of human being practicing a different, perhaps detestable to many, but also successful survival and reproductive strategy
- Why some experts view psychopaths as “intraspecies predators” or even a separate subspecies of Homo Sapiens
Recently, a debate has been raging about these very issues.
It began when Canadian researchers published a study in Frontiers in Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience called “Nepotistic patterns of violent psychopathy: evidence for adaptation?”
In it, they made the case that the psychopath is indeed not “mentally disordered,” but is enacting “a well-functioning, if unscrupulous strategy that historically increased reproductive success at the expense of others.”
The way they rationalize this conclusion is the following:
They say that evolutionary strategies, since they are aimed at perpetuating one’s genes, would be expected, in addition to whatever else they entail, to help or at least not harm those close relatives who share many of those genes.
Mental disorders, on the other hand, they explain, often disinhibit restraints that typically keep us from harming relatives.
In studying violent offenders, even while controlling for other potentially confounding factors, they found that the higher an offender scored on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), the less related they were likely to be to their victim. In other words, in a sense, psychopaths are nepotistic. This, they reason, demonstrates psychopathy is an evolutionary strategy aimed at exploiting non-relatives and not a mental disorder or pathology.
A few months later, psychiatrist Liane J. Leedom, M.D. and Linda Hartoonian Almas, a member of the Board of Directors for Aftermath: Surviving Psychopathy Foundation, responded in an opinion piece.
Writing in the same journal, they argued in “Is psychopathy a disorder or an adaptation?” that the Canadian study and its conclusions were potentially flawed in several ways, namely:
- Just because violent psychopathic offenders are imprisoned more often for victimizing strangers does not tell us whether or not they also victimized kin
- Since most psychopaths are not violent, perhaps they victimize kin more often in non-violent ways
- Even if psychopaths do less often violently harm kin, that is not the same as giving aid to them
They point out that, to the extent we’ve been able to investigate it, which is not nearly enough or in a scientific enough manner, we have found that many family members of psychopaths report significant harm in many areas.
They also make a profound statement regarding the possible impact of nepotism flowing between family members and psychopaths in the opposite direction from that considered in the Canadian study – a statement that has huge implications for those considering the reasons behind our world’s dysfunction and the difficult choices involved in trying to improve it:
Psychopathy may persist in human populations in part because of kin support to (not from) psychopathic individuals.
They then focus in on the issue of whether psychopathy is a mental disorder.
They begin by reviewing a definition of “disorder” that the Canadian researchers cited having to do with “the failure of an internal mechanism to perform a natural function for which it was designed” leading to harmful consequences. Giving as an example psychopaths’ impaired processing of fear and distress cues from others that would otherwise lead them to restrain their behavior, they argue that psychopaths do meet the first part of the definition. And they point out that even the Canadian authors agree that psychopathy does lead to harm to individuals and society. Thus, they maintain that psychopathy does meet the criteria to be considered a mental disorder.
They also take issue with another argument the Canadians put forth that psychopathy lacking some of the neurodevelopmental disturbances seen in other serious mental illnesses further supports an understanding of it as an adaptation. Leedon and Almas dispute this claim and point out studies showing some links between psychopathy and psychoticism.
Finally, they take on the issue of adaptation and its relationship to psychopathy.
They review a model of four systems in primate evolution that have been subjected to adaptive selection, discussing how some of them are expressed in psychopaths.
- Caregiving – Reduced (which they point out could be considered another of the failed mechanisms required by the authors’ cited definition of a disorder)
- Dominance – Aberrant
- Sexual Systems – Hyperactive
They conclude that, rather than an adaptation, psychopathy may have evolved as what is known as a spandrel – an important term in evolutionary science referring to something that arises only as a byproduct of the evolution of something else, almost a side effect, if you will. In this case, Leedon and Almas make the case that it is dominance that has been selected for and psychopathy is simply a byproduct, with any nepotism psychopaths display simply being reflective of the fact that dominant individuals use such behaviors in an attempt to gain power.
So is psychopathy a mental disorder or an adaptation? Having read these contrasting viewpoints, I will leave it to you to decide what you think. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section.
But one thing we can all agree on is that it is a fascinating debate that cuts right to the heart of many questions about some of the core characteristics that make us who we are as a species.
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Tags: adaptation, aftermath, attachment, caregiving, conscience, dominance, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary strategy, frontiers in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, genetics, liane j. leedom, linda hartoonian almas, natural selection, nepotism, pcl-r, prison, psychopathy, psychoticism, reproduction, spandrel, subspecies, surviving psychopathy foundation, violence
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