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THE RELEVANCE OF SOCIOBIOLOGY FOR MENTAL ILLNESS JOHN D. GAMBILL* Since the publication in 1975 of E. O. Wilson's book, Sociobiology [1], increasing controversy has centered around its scientific, ethical, and political implications for man [2-4]. Although the controversy has involved mainly human behavior in general, and the validity of comparing it with behavioral patterns of other species, sociobiological theory has important implications for special types of human behavior such as mental illness. This article will examine arguments for and against viewing psychopathology from a sociobiological perspective. First, a review of some of the salient points of sociobiology will be helpful. Sociobiological theory is based on evolutionary biology, and it assumes that behavioral variability within a species often plays an important role in the evolutionary survival of that species [1, pp. 3-31]. This variability, expressed in part as altruism and a division of labor, may decrease the survival ofspecific members of a population. However, it frequently enhances the behavioral efficiency and thus survival fitness of the population as a whole. The concept of behavioral variability includes "deviant" and psychopathological behavior, and sociobiology implies that these behavioral variants enhance survival of the species. As yet unanswered are the major questions of how specific forms of psychopathology, which may be to the detriment of the individuals exhibiting .them, promote species survival, and what are the numbers of such deviants that optimize the fitness of the population. Too little deviance , and therefore too little behavioral variability, will decrease a population's ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Too much deviance will disrupt social organization and therefore decrease *Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, 200 Springs Road, Bedford, Massachusetts 01730, and Department of Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts 02215.© 1981 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved 0031-5982/82/2501-0251101.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Autumn 1981 | 155 population fitness in a stable environment. Ginsburg characterizes this problem as follows: From a teleological point of view, if aspects of the phenotype that are important for survival value vary appreciably, then the variants are less adaptive than the modal form that has been developed under selection pressure. Selection will favor the latter over the former. If, on the other hand, a species becomes genetically static, it loses its evolutionary mobility under changing conditions. Most species have solved the dilemma of the necessity for maintaining both genetic variability and phenotypic constancy by developing a variety of buffering mechanisms such as epistatic effects [the modification of phenotypic expression ofone or more genes by other genes], dominance, and interactions that modify the phenotypic expression of genes which, in other genetic contexts can contribute much more to phenotypic variation. [5, p. 66] Sociobiological theory derives much supporting evidence from relatively stereotyped insect, bird, and animal social behavior. Being grounded in an evolutionary approach, it implies that man exhibits homologous behavioral patterns (similar in structure) as well as analogous behavioral patterns (similar in function) when compared with other species. However, problems arise when trying to extrapolate from relatively stereotyped behavior to complex human behavior that is shaped by a long period of postnatal brain growth while exposed to varied environmental and cultural conditions. This article will analyze some of these problems, and in so doing, it will attempt also to meet the challenge issued by Wilson: Most psychologists and animal behaviorists trained in the conventional psychology departments of universities are nonevolutionary in their approach. Yet, like good scientists everywhere, they are always probing for deeper, more general explanations. What they should produce are specific arguments for ultimate causation rooted in population biology. What they typically produce instead are the nebulous independent variables of theoretical psychology—attractionwithdrawal thresholds, drive, deep-set aggregative or cooperative tendencies and so forth. And this approach creates confusion because such notions are ad hoc and can seldom be linked either to neurophysiology or evolutionary biology and hence to the remainder of science. [1, p. 23] Argumentsfor a Sociobiological View ofMental Illness Most forms of psychopathology, including neuroses, psychoses, and personality disorders, form a continuum with normal behavior [6, pp. 58-59]. While the prototypes of these conditions are easy to diagnose, there are often subtle...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 155-166
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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