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Why philosophers of psychiatry should care about evolutionary theory 

Why philosophers of psychiatry should care about evolutionary theory
Why philosophers of psychiatry should care about evolutionary theory

Andreas De Block

and Pieter R. Adriaens

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date: 26 January 2022

But how about philosophy of psychiatry? Why would Darwinian theory matter specifically to philosophy of psychiatry? We believe that there are three reasons why philosophers of psychiatry have taken an interest in evolutionary theory.

First of all, there is the nascent field of evolutionary psychiatry. “Evolutionary psychiatry” and “Darwinian psychiatry” are umbrella terms used to refer to various attempts to make sense of mental disorders within the general framework of evolutionary theory. While biological psychiatrists have always been interested in the causation of dysfunctional behavior, and while psychoanalytic psychiatrists have taken a distinctly developmental perspective, evolutionary psychiatrists engage with ultimate, rather than proximate, questions about mental illnesses. Being a young and youthful new discipline, evolutionary psychiatry allows for a nice case study in the philosophy of science. Thus, philosophers have asked questions about the scientific status of evolutionary explanations of mental disorders, as well as about the conceptual and empirical assumptions underpinning these explanations. Many hypotheses in evolutionary psychiatry are indebted to human sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and therefore confront us again with the plethora of philosophical criticisms that have been leveled against these controversial disciplines.

Secondly, philosophers of psychiatry have engaged with evolutionary theory because evolutionary considerations are often said to play a role in defining the concept of mental disorder. The basic question here is: Can the concept of mental disorder be given an objective definition, or is it rather a normative concept? The most influential “objectivist” proposals rely heavily on evolutionary theory. Wakefield, for instance, argues that mental disorders are disorders because people suffering from them fail to meet a natural norm that is brought about by natural selection. Other “objectivists” do not necessarily agree with Wakefield's “selectionist” approach of biological function, but some of them do maintain that other key concepts of evolutionary theory, such as adaptation and fitness, are necessary to understand what mental disorders are.

Thirdly and finally, evolutionary thinking in psychiatry has often been a source of inspiration for a philosophical analysis of human nature. Many philosophers have claimed that psychopathology can give us a unique perspective on different aspects of human nature. In their view, mental disorders would (partially) reveal what it is like to be a human being. Evolutionary psychiatrists have taken up this line of thought in suggesting, for example, that man's vulnerability to mental disorders may well be one of the defining features of our species.

These three reasons for philosophers of psychiatry to engage with evolutionary theory provide the backbone of the themes and chapters of the present volume. In the last three sections of this introductory chapter we will briefly elaborate on these themes: the many philosophical critiques aimed at evolutionary explanations of mental disorders, the importance of evolutionary theory in analysing the concept of mental disorder, and the relevance of evolutionary psychiatry for various issues in contemporary philosophical anthropology. The first two sections of the present introduction are devoted to an overview of the main hypotheses of contemporary evolutionary psychiatry and a very brief history of evolutionary thinking in psychiatry. We consider this historical section to be necessary because we strongly believe that the best philosophy of psychiatry is always informed by the history of psychiatry.

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