The Relationship of Evolutionary Psychopathology to Evolutionary Psychology

In my inaugural post on this blog, called Darwinian Psychiatry, Evolutionary Psychopathology, blah blah blah, I covered the history of evolutionary psychopathology in a way that treated the field as a sub-discipline of evolutionary psychology (EP); EP, in this case, is broadly defined as the entire set of approaches to understanding the mind which take perspectives of evolutionary biology into account. This perspective can be used to study any of the disciplines within psychology, from developmental to cognitive to, yes, even clinical psych.

There is another, narrower, definition of EP that is sometimes used, of course. This is the specific type of cognitive-based research program which views the mind as largely comprised of a collection of modules (i.e., evolved, domain-specific mechanisms) adapted to solve problems of particular species’ evolutionary histories (often associated with Cosmides, Tooby, Buss, Daly, Wilson, etc.). While this research program is, by definition, part of evolutionary psychology writ large (and happens to be a position to which I personally subscribe), some folks consider these perspectives only to be a specific approach within the full spectrum of evolutionary psychology perspectives–see, for example, David Sloan Wilson’s article from several years ago on how the press often picks on “narrow EP” as if it represents the entirety of “EP writ large.”

While I personally utilize the term “evolutionary psychology” in its broad sense, I don’t claim that those who use it in its narrower sense are incorrect; in fact, when the term EP first came into widespread academic use, it referred to the particular new-synthesis research program at the time, which was of the Cosmides/Tooby brand. From there, it was only natural to use the term “evolutionary psychology” to differentiate this particular evolutionary approach to psychology from other such traditions, such as Jungian perspectives, behavioral ecology, and sociobiology (the direct predecessor of EP — comparisons/contrasts between the two fields are becoming increasingly fuzzied).

Anyway, the point of this post is to point out that, if one construes “EP” in its more specific sense, the field of evolutionary psychopathology (hereafter “evolutionary clinical psychology,” to avoid confusion) is actually older than the field of evolutionary psychology (again, narrowly construed). This was pointed out by Leif E. O. Kennair in his excellent chapter entitled “The Problem of Defining Psychopathology and Challenges to Evolutionary Psychology Theory” which appeared in the Buss and Hawley edited volume The Evolution of Personality and Individual Differences (2011). In it, Kennair points out that evolutionary psychopathology can be considered to date back to the evolution-informed work of Freud and Jung, as well as the ethological perspectives of Bowlby and Ainsworth — whereas modern EP didn’t come along until the late 70’s at the very earliest, and, depending on who you talk to, maybe even later.

The main thrust of Kennair’s chapter is that Evolutionary Psychology (in the specific, not the broad, sense) is perhaps the most useful evolutionary paradigm to apply to evolutionary clinical psychology. Rather than describe the chapter further, I’ll recommend that anyone who is interested in evolutionary clinical psychology read it. In short, though, Kennair believes (as do I) that a better understanding of the modular systems of our mind is crucial for a true understanding of mental disorder. …which is why [shameless plug] the project is so important to the field of clinical psychology, as I argue here.

I hope this post makes clear that there are multiple perspectives on what “evolutionary psychology” entails, and how it relates (or should relate) to the discipline of evolutionary clinical psychology.

Daniel Glass

About Daniel Glass

Daniel Glass is a doctoral student at Suffolk University. He is interested in evolutionary approaches to clinical psychology. Evolved This Way explores this burgeoning field, which uses evolution to understand, classify, and treat mental disorders and other clinical phenomena.
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