Evolutionary Clinical Psychology

Historically, there has been little overlap between clinical psychology and evolutionary science. Evolution can be purposeful and even conscious, and evolutionary principles can provide guidance and consilience to clinical psychology, mainly as it focuses more on transition processes. The timing is suitable to regard clinical psychology as an applied evolutionary science. A multi-dimensional strategy is required to introduce evolutionary ideas into clinical psychology: one that encompasses many biological dimensions and extends to all other types of evolutionary strands at all-time scales.

For clinical psychology to fully benefit from evolutionary research, evolution must be viewed as a multi-level process, not only a multi-dimensional one. Selection operates on a tiered hierarchy of groups rather than individual units in each evolutionary dimension. Natural selection explains self-oriented features more simply than group-oriented traits since it promotes people who survive and reproduce better than others.

Defining Evolutionary Clinical Psychology

The study of mental disorders from an evolutionary perspective is known as evolutionary clinical psychology or evolutionary psychopathology. Evolutionary psychology generally explores how the mind functions in its normal and universal state. Different evolutionary approaches consider both the conditions that mainstream mental health care and research have defined as abnormal or pathological and evolutionary perspectives on how these conditions may be considered adaptive or even how one may fundamentally understand what psychopathology is.

It is difficult to distinguish between non-disorder and disorder, particularly in psychopathology. One fundamental explanation is that mental diseases have biological and value-based underpinnings regarding what is considered "normal" and "abnormal." From an evolutionary standpoint, it is clear that neither the number of people who suffer nor the subjective experience of pain nor physical squeal are sufficient grounds for identifying illness. Illness can be prevalent, but some evolutionary qualities can be uncommon.

According to the current definition of dysfunction, evolved mechanisms can fail in three ways −

  • The mechanism fails to become activated when the relevant adaptive problem is confronted (e.g., one encounters a dangerous snake that is threatening to strike but fails to become afraid or take evasive action)

  • The mechanism becomes activated in contexts not designed to become activated (e.g., sexually attracted to inappropriate people, suicidal).

  • The system fails to coordinate as it was intended (e.g., self-assessments of mate worth fail to direct the kind of persons to whom one commits mating effort).

Causes of Mechanism Failure

Each of the three forms of mechanism failure—activation failure, context failure, and coordination failure—can be caused by genetic variables (e.g., random genetic variation or genetic abnormalities), developmental traumas (e.g., brain damage), or a combination of these factors. Aphasics with brain injuries, for example, have impairments in the developed systems underlying speech production and comprehension.

They appear to grasp language yet are unable to communicate effectively. This implies that language information is adequately received and processed, but the processes underpinning speech production are not effectively coordinated with the mechanisms underlying speech comprehension. Instead, activation or processing errors within the speech-production process themselves might arise.

Inevitable mechanism failures may be caused by random genetic variation. Although natural selection tends to generate species-typical evolved mechanisms, heritable variation may persist in a mechanism's surface aspects. Although nearly all people have functionally similar eyes, hearts, and lungs, there are heritable individual variances in the structural shapes acquired by these processes (e.g., lung shape). This variant is mostly neutral in terms of selection.

However, there may be occasions when genetic variations co-occur to cause mechanism failures. These variations are not detrimental when present alone. However, they are dysfunctional in unusual combinations. Several researchers believe unusual gene couplings may cause certain kinds of schizophrenia.

Mutations are another cause of variety. Although mutations provide the variety required for natural selection, solitary mutations seldom improve functionality and can be harmful, resulting in mechanism failures. Humans have over 30,000 genes, and mutations can arise in any of them. We all have some mutations, but some have more than others.

According to Keller and Miller (2006), many common mental diseases, such as autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and moderate mental retardation, occur in people who have a high "mutation burden" (a significant number of mutations). A high mutation load can produce brain disorders, interfering with the regular functioning of developed psychological systems.

Problems within Evolutionary Clinical Psychology

Looking at clinical psychology from an evolutionary standpoint is beneficial for the same reason that it is beneficial in general psychology: it provides a unifying framework for formulating hypotheses about human nature. Nonetheless, there are still unresolved issues in evolutionary clinical psychology.

The Problem of Explaining Diseases as Evolved Traits

Queries like "why did schizophrenia evolve?" can be deceptive since they imply that we must look for hidden evolutionary advantages that the disease may have. A more useful evolutionary question is why people are susceptible to disorders like schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression. In practice, this entails taking an adaptive approach to species-typical design, such as understanding the mood systems involved in fear and sadness, the situations in which they are activated, and the selection pressures that led to their design, and then disentangling how that design makes humans vulnerable to dysfunctions in those systems.

The Problem of Genetic Variation

Why genetic differences occur across the population is an essential evolutionary question. Three central evolutionary mechanisms can explain the persistence of genetic variation. The first is balanced mutation selection. In this case, genetic variation is continually a balance between new harmful mutations and their eventual eradication by selection. The second type is neutral mutation drift, which means that genetic diversity is preserved since these variants are immune to the selection, and hence their introduction and removal are random. The third type of evolutionary process is balancing selection, which is a group of evolutionary mechanisms that actively maintain genetic variance because its relative frequency is adaptive in specific genetic and environmental situations.

The Problem of Evolutionary Mismatch

One main argument within evolutionary approaches is that current living situations result in abnormal development or do not appropriately stimulate cognitive systems within their predicted bandwidth for normal development or output. After the agricultural and industrial revolutions, "civilizational diseases" such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease became more prevalent in Western or contemporary countries. When features arise due to incompatibilities, they are not adaptations in and of themselves but rather a manifestation of a vulnerability resulting from evolved design. This viewpoint is frequently overlooked in adaptation models of mental diseases.

Many intriguing possibilities are emerging from evolutionary research on psychopathology, which promises to merge data and theories from biological psychiatry, cognitive neuroscience, and clinical psychology into a true biopsychosocial theory. A few theoretical points are already making their way into clinical practice in the form of clinical heuristics; however, from a strictly empirical standpoint, this is probably premature. The effectiveness of these therapies must be documented. At the moment, this research promises to widen our theoretical understanding of human nature, including the nature of psychopathology.


Evolutionary biology and genetics provide innovative and insightful ways of thinking about human psychological problems and methods for clinical psychology practice that complement and extend its schools and tactics. Although proximal and ultimate perspectives on psychological problems are complementary, little previous research has explicitly aimed to integrate evolution and genetics with clinical psychology.

Current advancements in these sectors necessitate us to focus our interest on Evolutionary Clinical Psychology. There is reason to believe that shortly, the theory-to-data ratio, which has been a source of concern for the field's development and relevance, will improve, and data-driven discussions will expand our understanding of how symptoms may or may not be adaptive and why some evolved vulnerabilities result in harmful dysfunctions.

Updated on: 11-Apr-2023


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