Natural selection has reconstructed our back and lower limbs to the degree that our upright posture is pushing the engineering envelope of what is possible to fashion from our knuckle-walking ape ancestors. Most of us do fine, but at the margins there is an irreducible price of back, hip, and knee problems that some must pay for our distinguished carriage. We don’t think of this as a genetic problem because the genes are healthy and “trying as hard as they can.” Perhaps there are a limited number of “weak” combinations of genes that result in increased vulnerability for these orthopedic problems. Conceivably, some day we might be able to define these weak permutations of normal genes and somehow shore them up. But we are a long way from that.

A Liberal Theory of Human Nature - Part V: Upright Posture, Great Big Brains, and Only one Hand ax

Mental illness can be viewed in this same manner. Nature has pushed the neurological envelope of evolving regulatory mechanisms in our brain to maintain a dynamic balance between the two motivational systems (called minds) that evolved during our six-million-year evolution.

The defining human adaptation for most of the millions of years of our tribe’s evolution has been the collective capacity to engage in teamwork. Then our own species evolved a passion for what psychiatrists call narcissism and biblical texts refer to as vanity. Appended upon the foundation of our ancient mentality evolved for the coordination of divided labor, each individual evolved a powerful ambition to seek personal happiness by eliciting social esteem (👍). Accordingly, the major psychiatric disorders are the price extracted from our species for the miraculous benefits wrought by the collaboration between our two differently motivated minds—such as reflective self-awareness and the vibrant organism of our language within which we dwell. We might say that those who develop back and lower limb injury pay the price for our stately posture, and, furthermore, the mentally ill should be honored for paying the price for our extraordinary mental capacities. 

Genetics of mental illness

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3 Comments on “The Genetics of Mental Illness in 3 Paragraphs (plus pics)”

  1. I like the path you’re taking–showing us how the genetic basis for our physical evolution has led to amazing physical capabilities, but also to various physical ailments due to genetic imperfections. It makes sense then that the genetic basis for our cognitive and emotional development also would lead to amazing capabilities, but with breakdowns in these capabilities among some of us. I volunteered at a homeless shelter last night and saw wonderful volunteers at work (they had their act together) helping individuals who were disconnected from reality and themselves (they did not have their act together. My sense is that these unfortunate souls suffer from dysfunctional family backgrounds and lack of opportunity to associate with mentally healthy members of the community. Freud focused on the unconscious. It might well be better to focus on the nature of communities and individual differences in the way we interact with them.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Mark.
      While I am sitting up here in my ivory tower with my head buried in the deep past, you are down in the present reality of those unfortunate souls, for most of whom the tough circumstances of their fragmented lives over-rides most of my genetic theories.
      The specific illnesses I focus on, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are mostly determined by (unknown) genetic factors, and it is the age-old stigma attached to these genetically loaded conditions that I am focused on.
      I do so admire your active awareness and commitment to helping the less fortunate members of your community.

      1. John, it occurred to me while I was driving today (that’s where most of my ideas arise) that you should consider writing up some case studies that illustrate your ideas, just as Freud did in developing and explicating his psychoanalytic theory. For example, a case study of someone who is functioning well in his/her social group and a case study of someone who is descending into mental illness as a result of a social-group disconnect. Case studies make ideas real!

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