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MatGMax

Depression: an atheist/evolutionary perspective

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MatGMax

Depression from an atheist/evolutionary perspective.

 

I'm writing this as I am an atheist with a science background and a big fan of evolutionary biology.

It is not an argument for or about the existence of God. That is well beyond the scope of this article and forum. All of us with depression have much that binds us together that splits us apart. So this is more aimed at other atheists in the same way Christian perspectives aim more to christians.

 

 

What causes depression?

From an evolutionary point of view it does not matter to our genes whether we are happy or sad. What matters to genes is that we pass them on to the next generation.

Happiness and sadness are tools to our genes like strength and good looks.

This is not surprising. What is surprising is the number of very depressed people in modern society.

Where do we all come from?

We clearly aren't breeding like rabbits.

( I have 2 kids but consider myself very lucky)

A couple of reasons spring to mind to explain our modern depression.

The cause is mostly likely a combination of the following:

 

1. Disease resistance

It is possible that U.S. getting depression is a price we pay for disease resistance.

Evolution uses the closest tool at hand when dealing with a new threat.

The sickle cell gene for malaria resistance is a prime example. Away from malaria areas it is a disadvantage. But it confers an advantage when you live in a swamp.

Mthfr gene mutations may well contribute to depression because it was the fastest way evolution could come up with something to combat malaria.

That we have quinine now does not help us.

Tolerance for lack of food or the mundane work of ploughing a field comes under this category to. If depression is the price evolution pays to plough a field then it will pay it.

2. Biding our time.

For a large part of human agricultural existence human life was difficult, horribly and hierarchical.

Peasant revolt were common and rarely successful. The best a dirt poor serf might hope for is the bide his/her time till things get better. Sometimes it might be better to accept the unfairness of life and hope that in 10 years time your lord will be carried off by the plague and then you can start to get somewhere. Depression could be in our genes ways to achieve this. It allows you to bide your time without launching a peasant revolt that will get you killed.

3. Niche

There is likely a natural niche in a society for a depressed person anyway. We all know that we often see things more clearly than the average people who are mistaken by their eternal optimism. Depressive realism can offer real value to the people who have it. (possibly to those around them to).

4. Modern life and contaminants

It certainly possible that modern life could cause more depression for us than the past as we are not adapted for it. Resistance to lead/arsenic/tv/red cordial has not had enough time to develop. While some people thrive others will not.

If none of your ancestors had to deal with mercury poisoning then it was not high on your genes list of priorities to deal with.

 

So what does it all mean?

What is the point?

 

Many philosophers have grappled with this question. (Far better than I can).

My favourite life philosophies are

Stoicism

And

Absurdism

 

But how does this relate to depression?

 

Well while depression can be bad for a Christian believer, their is potentially an afterlife that makes it all better.

 

Take away the afterlife and depressed persons meaning of life doesn't look so thrilling.

The best I can offer is that many of the great philosopher have not valued happiness for its own sake.

And a life lived for the aims you set is a valid life.

 

Cheers

 

Damien

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chicken

Also, modern society doesn't give you time to heal. You will lose your job and be out on the streets if you don't get better quickly, ie. with drugs.

 

Years ago, in a agrarian culture, one had large families and the sickly were taken care of by other family members, not pumped with drugs or sent off to the nursing home.

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clearday

Hi -

 

Thanks for your great post. I too have spent a lot of time studying Human Origins and Evolutionary Biology. 

 

Here is a good link exploring Depression as an adaptation:

 

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/depressions-evolutionary/

 

Also, have you seen the recent movie Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland?

 

It was made by a Swedish director who survived Major Depression. Kirsten Dunst does an excellent job depicting Major Depression. There is much symbolism in the movie. The director believes that persons who have survived Major Depression tend to remain calm in the most dire emergencies and crisis of impending doom. He portrays this in the character Dunst plays, in how she calmly handles the end of the world. Her sister, who never went through Depression, just freaks out.

 

General Grant and Abe Lincoln both suffered from Major Depression. They were both amazing at handling crisis where the entire world around them was in total chaos and immersed in death.

 

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MatGMax

It is certainly true chicken that modern life does not slow down for depression or mental illness.

 

The impression I get is that pre-industrial societies varied a lot in there tolerance and acceptance of depression and mental illness.

 

I'll look out for the movie and the article was great.

 

It mentions the !San people in southern Africa getting depression.

What would be intriguing is if they get it at the same rate as modern western society, or they get it more or less.

 

Cheers

 

Damien

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JanCarol

The cold way of looking at it (and I'm really good at "half empty") is that we, the depressed ones, are being pushed to the edge of the herd.  Because the herd is overpopulated, we've out-bred our resources, there are more and more of us "at the edge."

 

Kurt Vonnegut said that we accidentally evolved our brains too big, and now it's killing us.

 

At the edge of the herd, we leave precious resources and breeding to those who "fit in" better than we do.

 

At the edge of the herd, we often "fall off," and are contributing - albeit slightly - to the decrease in population.  

 

Enough half empty.  Half full - it's about the evolution of our brains, the exploring of our deeper selves and sides so that we can be more effective, richer, creative human beings.

 

People who have been through a depression (or other emotional challenge) are much more interesting, and even engaging, don't you think?

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LoveandLight

Clear day - I loved Melancholia..such an interesting film on all levels!

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clearday

It mentions the !San people in southern Africa getting depression.

What would be intriguing is if they get it at the same rate as modern western society, or they get it more or less.

 

Cheers

 

Damien

 

The book "Nisa" chronicles the life of a Kung San woman living in one of the last "relic" hunter-gatherer populations left. It's a popular, great book. The fact is that the Kung San have not really been a pure image of how we lived for 95% of our existence prior to sedentism, since modern society has been encroaching on their hunitng territories for over a hundred years. But it still gives us a window in how our ancient societies functioned.

 

Yes, it would be interesting to see if depression is more prevalent in modern societies as opposed to its prevalance during our ancient mobile hunter-foraging societies. Their lives were so harsh, brutal, and uncomfortable, high infant mortality, high death rate overall, starvation always lurking, that I suspect depression could have been even more common among them! 

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clearday

The cold way of looking at it (and I'm really good at "half empty") is that we, the depressed ones, are being pushed to the edge of the herd.  Because the herd is overpopulated, we've out-bred our resources, there are more and more of us "at the edge."

 

People who have been through a depression (or other emotional challenge) are much more interesting, and even engaging, don't you think?

 

I would argue that less-fit people are allowed to survive and propagate nowadays more-so than at any other time. For most of our existence, there were no antibiotics, life was brutal and short, and the average life expectancy of a human during the last Ice Age was mid-30s; if lucky enough to reach the age of 40, they were worn out and had the body of an elderly person. Same applied to early agricultural societies - they all wore themselves out early from the rigors of the farm. Yet hunter-gatherers before them had a much lower workload, just a higher risk of starvation since they had no food stores and depended on whether the migrating herds showed up or not.

 

I agree with Damien that pre-industrial societies were by nature more closely-knit, intimate and caring on a family/clan level. Nowadays we ship our elderly and mentally ill out of our midst and into institutions where they languish. I truly yearn for that ancient tribal intimacy, where they valued each member regardless of afflictions or age. But its easy to think it was a utopian life when it really was brutal and harsh. And everyone had to conform to rigid social rules.

 

Humans have outbred their resources ever since the dawn of agriculture 9,000 years ago - they exhausted their landscapes and all the early towns had to be abandoned, the people had to constantly move on to greener pastures until they exhausted that landscape too. Even before that, while still hunter-gatherers,humans became so hyper-successful that they over-hunted and helped cause a wave of "megafaunal" (large animal) mass extinctions over the last 15,000 years. In fact the best way to find out if humans were in a certain location on the globe way back then is to see if there was an abrupt mass extinction of large species - if so, modern humans were probably there. Wiping out animal populations became our calling card. Neandertals and pre-moderns lived in harmony with the landscape, but we moderns became too successful for our own good and now look at what we've done to the earth. 

 

We all know that some of the most famous and successful artists, writers, and politicians have suffered from Major Depression. So you make a great point, that depression survivors ARE ultimately favored and perhaps selected for. Successful adaptations for survival are one thing, but sexual selection is also crucial for "fitness". So those depressive, artistic, brooding types who appeal to the opposite sex are often successful at propagating their DNA. So we can blame their breeding success, passing those traits down to us, for our current depressions.... lol

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clearday

Clear day - I loved Melancholia..such an interesting film on all levels!

 

Seriously! So much symbolism. When Justine raped that co-worker on the golf course, I took that as revenge against her boss, since rape is a crime of anger. The "19th hole" is symbolic of the "endgame" - that the world was about to end. Because, the 19th hole is a golfer's term for going to the bar after the 18th hole, like apres-ski -

 

When Justine and Claire were first going to go for a ride on their horses, Claire had to yell at Justine to get moving, to nudge her out of her depression, get on the horse and RIDE. Claire represented life: she was pushing Justine toward life and the act of living.

 

Once they were riding, when Justine's horse approached the bridge, he reared up, and Justine likewise began chastising the horse, whipping him, urging him on. The bridge that the horse didn't want to cross (twice in the movie) represented death, and Justine represented death: she was pushing the horse towards death, to not be scared of death but to face it. Likewise, Justine helped Claire and the boy, in the end, to face death with composure as opposed to hysteria. 

 

The planet Melancholia also represented death (obviously, since it was about to destroy the world!) and that is why Justine enjoyed basking in it's glow that night. And of course Claire could not fathom Justine's actions.

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LoveandLight

Aha. It was ages since I watched it and I think somehow I picked up on this symbolism subconsciously but I wouldn't have being able to describe it like you have! Beautiful slow shots and cuts. I was intrigued also that it only showed one location in the whole film versus another planet.

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clearday

Aha. It was ages since I watched it and I think somehow I picked up on this symbolism subconsciously but I wouldn't have being able to describe it like you have! Beautiful slow shots and cuts. I was intrigued also that it only showed one location in the whole film versus another planet.

 

yes, at a mansion in Sweden, I think. It made it more intimate, like a play. Some of the best films have the simplest sets and least special effects. Great cinematography, like you said, and great acting. A work of art.   

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MatGMax

I wonder if depressed people handle their mortality better.

I hope to be a long way of dying yet, but the concept doesn't freak me out like it seems to freak out lots of non depressed people.

Add it to the list of advantages ;-).

And yes I think we are probably less shallow than non depressed people.

 

Cheers

 

Damien

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clearday

I wonder if depressed people handle their mortality better.

I hope to be a long way of dying yet, but the concept doesn't freak me out like it seems to freak out lots of non depressed people.

Add it to the list of advantages ;-).

And yes I think we are probably less shallow than non depressed people.

 

Cheers

 

Damien

 

I agree, Damien -

 

I think of the quote from the movie "Stand by Me" - "In the midst of life, we are in death".....

 

While I enjoy life tremendously, by nature I am constantly thinking about death, coming to terms with it and facing the fact that I will die, and so will all my loved ones. I suppose this is too "negative" for many people, so they avoid the issue; and when death arrives, they are not prepared. But I get it, that's cool; average people want to live life and not dwell on death. The way I see it, death is obviously an essential part of nature, it's part of how the life cycle works - out with the old, in with the new. People in olden times were so much more surrounded by death due to plagues and high infant mortality etc, I think they were more familiar with that reality. Today, we are so good at avoiding death with medicine,technololgy etc that we look at death as something evil. When it is simply part of life. Don't get me wrong - I want to avoid death, and the thought of my child dying is almost unthinkable.  But you know what I'm getting at -

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