Evolutionary Factors

...A gargoyle in one environment might be a godsend in another...Even good and bad, adaptation and deformity, were not the absolutes they once seemed. Their value fluctuated with the environment...

Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin

Could the depression that I experienced in adolescence have been an evolutionary adaptation?

A number of authors have suggested that depression is an evolutionary adaptation. A low or depressed mood can increase an individual's ability to cope with situations in which the effort to pursue a major goal could result in danger, loss, or wasted effort. In such situations, low motivation may give an advantage by inhibiting certain actions. This theory helps to explain why depression is so prevalent, and why it so often strikes people during their peak reproductive years. These characteristics would be difficult to understand if depression were a dysfunction, as many psychiatrists assume.


It seems to make sense that adolescents would feel discouraged or down when faced with the realities of the world in which they are expected to assume responsibility. There are many unpleasant social realities which result in some teens having more difficult obstacles to overcome than others. If those who are less 'normal' become depressed, and stop putting energy into the strategies that all the other teens are putting energy into, they may discover other paths for themselves, and adapt for their differences. They don't get to choose the 'first choice' options, and abandoning those involves more risk, but it may be their best chance at finding a new environment in which their differences turn out to be strengths.

Depression is a predictable response to certain types of life occurrences, such as loss of status, divorce, or death of a child or spouse. These are events that signal a loss of reproductive ability or potential, or that did so in humans' ancestral environment. Depression can be seen as an adaptive response, in the sense that it causes an individual to turn away from the earlier (and reproductively unsuccessful) modes of behavior.


In my case, the above quote is definitely applicable regarding my family. All of the major changes experienced during childhood and adolescence left the family as a unit less strong, and possibly reduced the potential of the individual offspring. It makes a kind of sense that some or all of us would try alternative approaches to those adopted by others with more stable family units.

Divorce resulted in divided resources - and as there was a considerable amount of animosity and conflict, further depleted resources regarding lawyer's fees. New partners for my parents would not have an evolutionary motivation to care for us or invest in our futures, and with our parents living at opposite ends of the province, we had less access to both of our parents. Our mother died when I was 16 and the three others were all younger. Our father then had a major accident which almost killed him, and one of the results was that he lost credibility in his line of work, which further reduced our resources.

Shortly after our mother's death, the depression which resulted in me withdrawing from the usual teen social activities and schoolwork resulted in me staying home and concentrating on my siblings and their development.

An alternative theory posits that depression is a plea for help. However this view is not widely credited by evolutionary biologists: depression is observed in other species that are not social, and depression in humans is often actively hidden from others; even when it is apparent, it often fails to elicit a positive response.


Later on in my teens, I eventually learned to hide depression or 'act normal' even if I didn't feel normal, because expressing depression was met with anger (or interpreted as manipulation), by family members and those in the psychiatric profession.

As an adult, my family expected to me to act 'appropriately' when we got together or conversed. When I made attempts to articulate my situation, I understood that in their eyes I was being inappropriate, and I felt somewhat ashamed. As a result, they ended up with a strange idea of who I was. It took so much energy to come across calmly or at least not as a complainer, that after any contact with family, I would go into a period of breakdown. As time went on, I found it was impossible to keep up the impression necessary to keep the peace, and I withdrew.

Members of my family have not commented on my massive website - except the parts that have to do with possums, and vaguely, travel. I think that the rest, which has to do with me trying to untangle and understand my depression, and to explain it, is not something they can relate to, or find appropriate.

...Evolution, he believed, explained every mental tic, every bodily posture: not only the spine and spleen, but people's habits, instincts, thoughts, feelings, conscience, and morality...

Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin

And all of us are here because our ancestors possessed adaptations which were selected.

...His pioneering contribution was to treat emotions and their manner of expression as products of evolution. Facial expressions and body postures, he argues in The Expression of the Emotions, are communication signals that adapt individuals for life within the complexity of social existence. The expressions of the emotions, in short, are instincts, and as such they have evolved by natural selection in essentially the same manner as traits of anatomy and physiology have evolved...

Edward O Wilson on Charles Darwin

Could all of the faces and expressions that I demonstrate in images (what I call 'face dancing') represent a range of adaptability? That since I lack social situations in which to employ such communication signals, my adaptation has been to create a situation (a personal website in the internet 'community') in which I can send out such signals to those who might be receptive and able to respond in turn?

Are they an example of pathology? An exaggeration which forces attention to and helps us to identify or understand 'normal' human response in comparison?

...'good of the species' is really about each selfish individual within a species trying to gain more benefit than it could alone, or if it did not contribute to the group...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

People still commonly talk about the 'good of the species' as if altruism is natural, innate, when in fact both Darwin and Dawkins agree that it is not, but that it can be taught or chosen, in a species with some possibility of rational self-determination.

But when people talk about 'giving back' or 'contributing to society' are they always choosing altruism, or are many of them bowing to pressure to conform, which in itself is another evolutionary adaptation?

...Although I do not believe that any animal in the world performs an action for the exclusive good of another of a distinct species, yet each species tries to take advantage of the instincts of others, as each takes advantage of the weaker bodily structure of others...

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

On the level of individual families, when it comes to parental investment of resources:

It may not make sense to invest more into a runt to 'catch it up' with its siblings. It may make more sense to feed its share to the others, to feed the runt to its siblings, or to the mother.

In this case, it is about the animal world, but metaphorically speaking, or when it comes to the sharing of a family's resources, it may also apply to human families.

...As soon as a runt becomes so small and weak that his expectation of life is reduced to the point where benefit to him due to parental investment is less than half the benefit that the same investment could potentially confer on the other babies, the runt should die gracefully and willingly. He can benefit his genes most by doing so...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Is my suicidal obsession related to my obligation to 'die gracefully and willingly'? My father had taken me to a few different doctors when I was a teen, in effect doing all he knew how to do, and the results were not satisfactory. It may have made sense to give up at that point, and concentrate on the others, which may explain why between the ages of 16-23 I was pretty much left to my own devices and not confronted about not going out into the world.

However, my contributions within the home were undervalued. The 'sacrifice' of my potential and future in 'normal' society may have been necessary such that the others would not have to forfeit their potential for normalcy.

...Genes of many organisms often impose sacrifices on their vehicles in order to facilitate the reproductive probabilities of identical genes in other vehicles that are likely to contain identical alleles...

Keith E. Stanovich, The Robot's Rebellion

With our mother dead, there may have been a genetic motivation for me to attempt to take over her role to some extent. Also, our father was exhibiting signs of instability, and it seemed possible that he might die himself (he had an accident in which he almost died), or that he wanted to bail on us (he tried to walk away on a couple of occasions - these were psychological breakdowns which professionals were not able to adequately help with).

Were sacrifices imposed upon the vehicle which was me so as to benefit identical genes in my siblings?

Compared to me, they all turned out relatively normally, and to date two have reproduced.

Another angle to consider is that by the time I was 33 years old, I had travelled to the other side of the world. My siblings were settled in their lives, out of 'danger', and I was still well within my child-bearing years, and could possibly perpetuate my genes in a new location, which perhaps suggests that the seemingly pointless depression I experienced was an adaptation which eventually made a kind of sense.

Another argument could be that I was a kind of scout for the others. I found a location (a subtropical area of Australia) in which a genetic defect (ichthyosis) might not be as much of an issue. Once settled, I could help to arrange their transition to a new environment. I have made few contacts here, but amongst those few, there is a high level of competency when it comes to dealing with legal issues and red tape. Both of my siblings with ichthyosis have children. Since (if it is ichthyosis vulgaris) there is a 50% chance of passing it on to offspring, chances are that inherited ichthyosis could be an issue.

Perhaps it is interesting to speculate that my depression in adolescence was the beginning of this strategy, a preparation for adaptation. ('Don't put your energy into the usual routes for success, adopt a more long-range plan.')

My unexamined instinct led to an unusual adaptation to circumstances, but I made a conscious choice not to breed or submit to the pressure to breed.


...outcasts accept that they have failed to gain a ticket or licence to breed; and this is part of natural population control - they do not try to breed...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Have I decided not to breed because I have failed to gain a ticket or licence to breed (I have failed to acquire a territory, a high enough social standing, high place in pecking order), or have I made a rational decision to value myself over the proddings of my genes?

...it may be in the individual's best interests to restrain himself from breeding in the moment, in the hope of better chances in the future - also, not fighting another for territory - it may be a better strategy to wait for a dominant male to die than to risk injury or death by fighting...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Many strategies may not ultimately pay off, although they may improve the odds.

I was pregnant at 16, but chose to have an abortion. In my life, I have had a few opportunities in which I could have been married or had kids, and although I experienced some confusion, I did ultimately consciously understand that I did not want either, and I was glad that I had managed not to just let events carry me along the reproductive path, but to keep trying to articulate my own aims for my life.

...The first step in the robot's rebellion, then, is to learn how to properly value the vehicle and to stop behaviors and cultural practices that implicitly value our genes over ourselves... A vehicle in which self-regard has developed has no reason to value reproductive success above any other of the goals in its hierarchy...

Keith E. Stanovich, The Robot's Rebellion

I can say that it is a conscious choice not to breed, but what are all the factors which led up to that choice? To me, the line between failure and rebellion is not at all clear.

The relatedness between child and parent is 50%, and the relatedness between sibling and sibling is 50% (if both parents are the same).

If my contributions helped my siblings to lead normal lives and to ultimately reproduce, I have helped my genes to survive, since I share as much genetic material with my siblings as I would with my own offspring.

In spite of major handicaps, and extreme isolation, I was able to find suitable mates in a variety of environments. I was adaptable. My conscious assessment is that perhaps I was able to utilize my instincts to find an unusual place for myself in the world. Although these instincts may have been related to the reproductive instinct, I was able to take advantage of them such that my quality of life improved, and I could choose not to breed.

...Children were designed by evolution to evoke nurturing from adults; they evolved that way because those who didn't have what it takes to make their parents love them were less likely to survive...

and adults who weren't good at nurturing:

were less likely to succeed at rearing children to carry on their genes...

Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption

My mother suffered post-partum depression when I was born, and I don't think that I was either my mother or father's favourite child. In a highly competitive family, that could have signalled that I didn't have what it takes to evoke nurturing, which meant that perhaps I was the runt. Or, maybe we were a family of highly adaptable individuals, and outside the family we would all have the ability to compete. I have had significant long-term relationships, which would seem to suggest that I have some ability to evoke nurturing - even types of nurturing that I was not able to evoke from my parents. So, whatever their tactics, and whatever family upheaval was experienced, we all somehow might have absorbed or demanded an amount or type of nurturing sufficient for survival.















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