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by Horacio Fábrega, Jr.
Rutgers University Press, 2002
Review by Peter B. Raabe Ph.D. on Mar 3rd 2003

Origins of Psychopathology

The common conception of mental illness or psychopathology is that it’s a breakdown or malfunction of the human mind; a very personal problem that some individual must struggle to overcome.  While Horacio Fábrega admits this is true on one level, he argues that on another level psychopathology can be seen as a product of evolutionary changes both within the human organism and within the human environment.  More surprising to me than this is his claim that psychopathology is not only an end product of the evolutionary process but that psychopathology has actually had (and is still having) an effect on the course of human evolution. 

Fábrega is professor of psychiatry and anthropology.  But he bases his examination of the evolution of psychopathology on knowledge from a diversity of fields in both the natural sciences and the social sciences including paleoanthropology, paleoecology, evolutionary biology, ethology  (the scientific study of animal behavior), evolutionary psychology, archeology, and of course psychology, and psychiatry. 

The book is divided into two main parts in which facts are presented and arguments are made, and a lesser third part in which the previous facts and arguments are recapitulated and synthesized.  The first part deals with the relationship between psychiatry and evolutionary biology and covers topics such as how psychopathology can be defined or described using the language of evolution, how the universality of psychopathology may be accounted for by using a biological evolutionary perspective, how important psychopathology is to a description of the evolutionary process, and the limits of an evolutionary conception of psychopathology.  Here the discussion focuses on the important differences between the humanistic perspective on mental illnesses  (which include the subjective and cultural aspects such as meaning, suffering, social deviance, moral values, and a community’s response to the sufferer) and the objective or impersonal perspective  (which has to do with the relationship between mental illnesses and their effect on biological functions such as survival, reproduction, the stressors within a particular environment, and natural selection).  These two points of view are not mutually exclusive, according to Fábrega, but complementary.

If psychopathology is in fact a product of evolution then, logically, some semblance of it ought to be evident in species that were precursors to humanity, such as apes and higher primates.  The second part of this book examines observations of non-human species in their natural habitats, in general captivity, and in laboratory settings.  The collected data seems to suggest that psychopathology does indeed exist in nonhumans, and especially in primates.  The data allows for the devising of models of the social ecology of early or archaic human groups, and for the framing of reasonable assumptions regarding the culture that arose from the interplay between their language, their cognitive abilities, and their emotions.  These models then provide an evolutionary baseline for what might have been their normal behavior onto which hypothetical constructs of mental illness can be arranged.  This chapter also considers arguments against conclusions reached in this way, such as the problem of generalizing research findings from lower cognitive functioning animals—necessary in hypothesizing the behaviour of archaic human groups—to higher functioning humans in matters such as their behavioral responses to psychopathology in one of their kind.  This part also discusses the importance of the uniquely human condition commonly referred to as altered states of consciousness, such as might be experienced during “spiritual enlightenment,” and clinically referred to as dissociation.  The author cautions that, while this state  (and related others) is a common universal experience, it’s definition as either a spiritual experience or a pathological condition is always culturally dependent.

Throughout this book Fábrega deals with a number of thought-provoking questions such as, “What essential biological properties of human beings might explain the genesis and persistence of human behavioral problems?” and “Could it [psychopathology] have also played a role in human evolution?” (5).  He freely admits that specific information about our distant ancestors is not only very sparse or non-existent, but that evidence which does exist can be, and has been, interpreted in many different and contradictory ways.  He also recognizes that any talk about psychopathology runs up against the very real difficulty of distinguishing between the normal and the so-called abnormal.  So why is the study of evolution important in relation to psychopathology?  Fábrega explains that behavior is based on “evolutionary residuals [that] are naturally designed mechanisms and systems of information-handling keyed to basic biological functions of survival and reproduction”  (367).  Mental illnesses or “syndromes of psychopathology” are both physical and mental in nature and are produced when these “mechanisms and systems of information-handling” suffer what he calls “harmful perturbations.”  Therefor, he argues, knowing how evolution has shaped the human being in relation to our environment will help us to understand the origins of psychopathology.  But more importantly, an evolutionary perspective reveals how psychopathology has functioned in helping humans to adapt to their ever-changing ecological and cultural environment.  Psychopathology as adaptation or as an adaptive mechanism is the focal point of this book. 

While there are many dense passages full of technical language, this is a well-written book.  And though it may be a struggle for some non-academic readers, I believe anyone interested in the relationship between animal behavior, the biological, cultural, and ecological evolution of humankind, and what we humans consider to be psychopathology is likely to find it well worth the effort.  

© 2002 Peter B. Raabe

Peter B. Raabe teaches philosophy and has a private practice in philosophical counseling in North Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of the books Philosophical Counseling: Theory and Practice (Praeger, 2001) and Issues in Philosophical Counseling (Praeger, 2002).