Friday, 25 February 2011

Helping Homo Sapiens - Bringing an Evolutionary Perspective to the Therapy Room

One of the key elements of a fully naturalistic perspective on psychotherapy will be the integration, without reservations, of our growing knowledge of the evolved basis of human nature.

This perspective implies at least three essential points. The first point is that we do not have an “evolved-nature-plus-something-else”. Like any other organism, our characteristics as a species are fully determined by the long evolutionary process of which we are a product. This view can be described as Evolutionary Naturalism.

Of course this doesn’t mean that each of our day-to-day behaviours is directly determined by this process. As the ethologist Tinbergen pointed out many years ago in his famous “Four Whys”, any particular behaviour is based on

1. Immediate causation , responding to the proximate factors of the environment in which the behaviour takes place

2. Our individual learning/development

3. The function/purpose of the behaviour, i.e. what it is designed to achieve

4. The evolutionary history of our species, which gives rise to our evolved nature

Another way I look at this is by viewing our behavioural, emotional, physiological and cognitive responses as being the product of Three Environments:

A. Our immediate, current Environment (this matches Tinbergen’s first point)

B. Our individual histories, i.e. earlier developmental Environments, where crucial relevant learning took place (this matches Tinbergen’s second point)

C. What Evolutionary Psychology (after Bowlby) calls the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation of our species, i.e. the typical ancestral environment where the main adaptations of our species were laid down (this matches Tinbergen’s third and fourth points)

The second key point is that the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) of our species, Homo Sapiens, was the environment experienced by hunter-gatherer tribes on the African savannas in prehistoric (specifically Pleistocene) times. Many of our main characteristics as a species were laid down then (and some long before, as we share many of our characteristics with other primates, indeed with other mammals). This means that as a species we are not necessarily always well-adapted to our current environments.

The third point goes even deeper: our evolved drives/instincts do not necessarily always serve us well in any environment (including even the EEA), because evolutionary theory clearly shows that the characteristics of any species will be primarily naturally selected for or against on the basis of gene propagation, not individual adaptation. Of course, satisfaction of individual needs is often a useful shortcut from an evolutionary point of view. For example, as humans (indeed as primates) we enjoy the feeling of achieving status within our community, and it may help us to propagate our genes, even in modern environments, but that satisfaction is often short-lived, and rarely matches our anticipation.

In fact, we are saddled with drives which sometimes serve us well, sometimes quite the opposite. It would be convenient, for instance, if once we had settled down with a partner we never became infatuated with anyone else, but of course our Mating drives/instincts doesn’t just switch off that easily. Similarly, someone who has a harsh, unloving mother could save themselves a lot of emotional pain if they could just say to themselves “My mother is a toxic person; I’ll have nothing more to do with her, because she is bad for me, and I won’t feel any more guilt or grief about it because I am better off without her”. But like all mammals, we are “imprinted on” and attached to the mother we have, whether we like it or not. We may still choose to distance ourselves, but the pain is unlikely to ever completely leave us. Kinship in general is also a very powerful instinctual drive in Homo Sapiens, so the same conflicts can arise for us in relation to abusive siblings, for instance.

I find that taking this evolutionary perspective with certain client problems can be invaluable both in terms of case formulation and psychoeducation. Anxiety disorders are a particularly clear illustration of this, as many of their main themes (contamination, fear of strangers, fear of the dark/small animals etc) make more sense when we consider the EEA of our species, where such things were actually more dangerous to us than they are nowadays. This doesn’t mean that everyone responds with high levels of fear to these perceived threats in their own immediate environment, because not everyone learns/develops all these specific fears – the point is that as a species we find it particularly easy to develop these types of fears at an early age, sometimes following on quite a small trigger (this is often called Prepared Learning), whereas we are unfortunately rather slow to develop fear/anxiety in relation to realistically more dangerous objects such as cigarettes and electrical sockets, because they were not part of our EEA.

This perspective can be helpful because it means that, along with the usual task of helping the client gain an increased understanding as to why they may have been susceptible to developing their particular anxiety problem, we can also help them to understand why human beings in general are susceptible to these problems. This understanding can be very freeing for the client, helping them to have less shame and more self-compassion in relation to their anxiety problems.

Of course, all of this can equally be interpreted in a negative way, and may seem unfair and not very hopeful, a bit like inheriting an old house with lots of problems. But a fundamental aspect of Naturalism is that it sees no reason to assume that the world was in any way made for us, nor that there is any greater plan which has our needs built into it. Therefore a Naturalist like myself is not surprised that there is no particular fairness, nor indeed any ultimate purpose or point, to our human nature and where it brings us – it is simply a given.

This is reminiscent, of course, of where Freud was trying to take us, only somewhat prematurely, as he simply did not have a lot of the relevant information. Evolutionary theory, in particular, was still very confused in Freud’s time.

I’ve mentioned here some specific “drives/instincts” which are important in understanding Homo Sapiens in and out of the therapy room – Mating Attachment, Kinship. I prefer to call them “Themas”, Typically Human Evolved Motivational Axes, because of the baggage which has attached itself to the terms “drive” and “instinct”, and I’ll look at these three and some other important ones in more detail in next month’s blog. See you then…

Some recommended reading:

Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker

Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

Diamond, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee

Wright, The Moral Animal

Gilbert & Bailey, Genes on the Couch

Stevens & Price, Evolutionary Psychiatry