Randolph M. Nesse, Research Professor, Arizona State University
Wednesday, July 15, 2020, 2:30-3:30 p.m., a Zoom Webinar*
Note: The Arizona Senior Academy Building remains closed.
The persistence of human suffering has puzzled philosophers and scientists for centuries. Trying to explain why some people are especially prone to experience anxiety, depression and other bad feelings, psychologists tend to blame previous trauma or faulty thinking; psychiatrists tend to blame brain abnormalities. Evolutionary psychiatry, a field in which Randolph Nesse is a pioneer, asks a different question. Why did natural selection leave us all so vulnerable to so many diseases and so much emotional suffering?
The big answer is that painful emotions exist for the same reason as physical pain—they were useful in certain situations that recurred during our evolutionary history. Anxiety is useful in the face of threat, low mood when pursuing an unreachable goal. The Smoke Detector Principle explains why false alarms and excessive responses are normal and necessary. We put up with shrieks from burnt toast because accepting the price of that annoyance is small and worth it to guarantee a response to any real fire.
Natural selection did not shape our minds to maximize our health and happiness, it shaped brains that maximize the success of our genes. We are plagued by desire, envy, shame, guilt and grief that often help our genes at a big cost to our personal lives. Evolutionary psychiatry is not a kind of treatment, it is a foundation that encourages doctors to evaluate bad feelings the same way they evaluate physical pain. First try to find the cause and eliminate it. If that is not possible, then relieve the suffering in whatever safe way you can.
Academy Village resident Randolph Nesse is a physician/scientist and author notable for his role in creating the field of evolutionary medicine. His 1994 book with George Williams, Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, framed a new question about disease, asking why natural selection has left us all with traits that make us vulnerable to disease. He was Professor of Psychiatry, Professor of Psychology, and Research Professor at the University of Michigan, where he led the Evolutionary and Human Adaptation Program, founded the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, and helped to develop one of the first anxiety disorders research clinics. In 2014 he moved to Arizona State University as Founding Director of the Center for Evolution and Medicine. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and the Founding President of the International Society for Evolution, Medicine & Public Health.
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