Emotional Fossils – II – “too harsh for a human being”

Having determined that the various mental illnesses were all reflective of evolved segments of normal emotion, and that the majority of these illness – the anxiety and depression disorders – reflected motivation by aversion to the fears of separation and being trapped, I concluded that much of normal human behavior is inhibitory of primate aggression with the function of creating stronger and more productive social bonds.

Primatologist, Frans de Waal has spent the latter part of his illustrious career emphasizing fairness and empathy in chimpanzees.  However, one’s first impressions are usually the most correct (cf. Blink.)  When he started working at the chimpanzee colony at Arnhem, Holland, he had the following dream he related in his book, Chimpanzee Politics.

“I clearly remember the first dream I had about chimpanzees. In it my preoccupation with the distance between them and me was apparent. During this dream the large door to their quarters was opened for me from the inside. The apes were pushing each other aside in order to get a good look at me.  Yeron, the oldest male, stepped forward and shook my hand.  Rather impatiently he listened to me request to come in.  He refused point-blank.  That was out of the question, he said, and besides, their society would not suit me: it was much too harsh for a human being.”

It became clear to me that the evolutionary meaning of the prevalence of anxiety and depression in humans is their inhibitory function.  These painful emotions have repressed antisocial behavior and have replaced it with coordinated behavior.  Please note that I used the word coordinated and not cooperative.  Group selection produces the unity of  coordinated behavior, with the implication of centralized, “neurological”  command and control, whereas selection at the level of the individual produces cooperative behavior of mutual self-interest, the hallmark of which is decentralized, local communication.  This is the crucial distinction to be grasped.

I will end with a question that is also a clue.  Why is it that dogs are the only other species that come close to us with respect to suffering from the same debilitating anxiety and depression illnesses that we do?

About J.V. Wylie

Retired psychiatrist, who is writing a book called "How We Became Human"on the origin of the human mind. My blog, "Apes, Ants, and Ancestors" - is a "laboratory" for the ideas in the book.
This entry was posted in Evolution of Emotion, Evolutionary psychology, Group Selection and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Emotional Fossils – II – “too harsh for a human being”

  1. “I concluded that much of normal human behavior is inhibitory of primate aggression.” This seems key and a major point: we are more complex creatures than apes; more checks and balances, more emotional costs.

    Your question on dogs is a timely one. Our six year old pound rescue suffers from separation anxiety, and I am convinced shows depression as well. For instance, when we took a long January vacation to Florida her anxiety worsened; when my wife left, the dog appeared depressed: she stopped playing with her toys and moped around; I am convinced she thought the beach condo was our new home, and she missed her old home and my wife. My perception of her suffering was hard on me; I could not explain we’d be going back soon. Dogs I have raised have dealt with such upheavals better, but she had been adopted twice and who knows how she was raised. After we adopted her, she did not eat for a week. It is very clear she suffers from anxiety, and I am becoming certain she suffers depression.

    So to your question: why dogs. We evolved with them, the first domestic animal. Canines are very social and hierarchical creatures naturally, and surely we have intensified that with respect to their relations with us. Domestic dogs transfer their allegiance to humans, which is rather amazing: to give up their own species. They know we are not dogs but treat us as alpha dogs. I think we have intensified their similarity to us in selecting, in essence, for our own faults or, as you say, corrective and civilizing behaviors: anxiety and depression.

  2. Yes, dogs suffer emotionally more than we realize. All of mine have had their own special issues, but separation anxiety is particularly tough on them. Just as they have paid a price for their domestication by us, we have paid the same price for our domestication by the appearance of another kind of being, the description of which I am slowly edging these blogs towards.

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