Good Reasons for Bad Feelings
Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry
About the book
Slow progress in finding causes and cures has inspired a growing chorus of calls for new approaches to mental disorders. GOOD REASONS FOR BAD FEELINGS asks a fundamentally new question. Instead of asking why some people get sick, it instead asks why natural selection left all of us so vulnerable to mental illness. The limits of natural selection offer one kind of answer, but several others are equally important. Our environments are vastly different from those we evolved in, making us vulnerable to addiction and eating disorders. Bad feelings like anxiety and low mood are, like pain and cough, useful in certain situations, but they often help our genes, not us, and, like smoke detectors, they are prone to false alarms. Social anxiety is nearly universal because our ancestors who cared what others thought about them did better than other people. Guilt makes morality possible, and grief is the nearly unbearable price of love. Recognizing the evolutionary origins of such symptoms helps to distinguish them from diseases. Trying to understand an emotion requires understanding individuals as individuals.
Topics discussed in the book include
- How emotions were shaped to benefit our genes, not our health or happiness: Jealousy increases fitness, even as it wrecks lives; it hurts to hear babies cry, so parents tend to them; sexual feelings get many people to do things good for their genes but disastrous for them.
- How the smoke detector principle explains useless anxiety: should you run if you hear a noise behind a hill that could be a lion? The cost of running is likely to be small compared to the cost of not running if a lion is really there, so false alarms are normal and necessary.
- The price we pay for deep, meaningful relationships: Grief and guilt are the price of love and goodness. They exist because we have been domesticated over thousands of years by individuals choosing partners and friends who are honest, trustworthy, kind and generous; worry about what others think of us and the pain of loss are the price of deep relationships.
- Why addiction is an unavoidable consequence of our ability to learn: We adapt our behavior as a function of our experiences, doing whatever works. Drugs our ancestors never encountered hijack the system, turning some people into zombies.
- Why sexual problems are common: Sexual systems evolved to benefit our genes, at big costs to us.
- Why eating disorders are common: Many studies ask why certain individuals are prone to eating disorders but Nesse asks a different question: how do mechanisms that evolved to cope with famine generate uncontrolled eating in modern environments?
- Why genes for schizophrenia and autism persist: Some are mutations, but others keep a system close to a fitness peak, despite the risk of catastrophic mental failure.
- Why it is usually safe to relieve emotional pain, even when it is normal: Sometimes painful emotions help us, but usually they are excessive or useless. An evolutionary perspective encourages respect for our emotions, but also determined efforts to find new strategies for prevention and treatment.
- How an evolutionary foundation can help put psychiatry on the same biological foundation as the rest of medicine: Evolution is a basic science for medicine. GOOD REASONS FOR BAD FEELINGS shows how it offers a way forward in our quest to understand, prevent and treat mental illness.
About the Author
Randolph M. Nesse, MD is a founder of the field of evolutionary medicine and coauthor with George C. Williams of Why We Get Sick. He served for many years as Professor of Psychiatry, Professor of Psychology, and Research Professor at the University of Michigan. He currently is the Founding Director of the Center for Evolution and Medicine at Arizona State University, where he is also a Foundation Professor in the School of Life Sciences. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.