One hallmark of good scientific theory is the ability to apply the theory to practical uses. Many theories help us understand the physical forces that control nature, and so let us launch satellites, communicate at great distances, generate power, etc. Not all theories are so practical of course, but it’s a good indicator of the robustness of a particular science.
A recent article Jerry Coyne details how the idea of evolution, particularly in terms of natural selection, fails miserably to be useful in aiding our understanding and treatment of an important human malady – depression. In the article Coyne critiques a specific application of Darwinian psychiatry that purports to explain the origin of depression in humans through evolutionary means, and to offer treatments accordingly – treatments that tout the supposed evolutionary benefits of depression as an adaptive trait, and thus diminish the need for medical remedies. As Coyne concludes:
Andrews and Thomson [The authors of the original article] conclude that, in view of the ARH [Adaptive Rumination Hypothesis], problem-solving therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy are the go-to treatments for depression. Further, they say, doctors should not be too hasty in prescribing antidepressant medication because the afflicted should be willing to “endure the pain” in hopes of a more permanent, evolution-based cure. Indeed, one could read the ARH as suggesting that depression should not be cured, but cultivated!
But Andrews and Thomson’s prescriptions lose force to the extent that they rest on a flawed biological premise. Of course researchers should continue to compare talk therapies and to determine which, if any, drugs are useful in alleviating depression. But in the meantime, let’s not expropriate and distort evolutionary theory in a misguided attempt to claim mental disorders as “adaptations.”
Now Coyne is to be lauded for critiquing such an approach – it is always refreshing when a staunch evolutionist and atheist can see past his own biases and offer a critique of this sort. Of course, the attempt to apply Darwinian solutions to human problems has always proved problematic, so it isn’t a hard conclusion to come to. Coyne’s problem though is that he doesn’t go far enough – the problem isn’t just the misapplication of evolutionary theory, it’s that evolutionary theory invariably fails to provide practical solutions to any problem we face. Human nature and human behavior simply aren’t reducible to Darwinian explanations – most obviously in my mind because Darwinian explanations of human origins are almost always wrong. But it would be too much for an evolutionist like Coyne to admit this, so I am just happy to see him reject this obviously flawed treatment of depression.
One more thought – I do find it interesting to see evolutionists like Andrews and Thomson recommend treatments for depression that are little different than the homeopathic remedies evolutionists so often criticize.