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Psychopathy: An Evolutionary Perspective

Posted by Jen on: Thursday 15 August 2002

Thesis Are psychopaths the result of human evolution? The goal of evolution is to maximize a specie's chance of survival, and there is evidence to show that the basis of psychopathy is an heritable predisposition to the disorder, a disorder which enhances the psychopathic individual's chance of survival. Therefore, is psychopathy indeed the result of human evolution?

Why Psychopathy? There are few altruistic societies(most of which are insect societies), but is this altruism by choice or instinct? Ants, for example, live in a society based on a caste system in which ants with different roles in society are physiologically different than others. This physiological difference renders them incapable of selfishness, for each ant must depend on the others for survival, as others are depending on them. Some would argue that if humans were an altruistic creature, we may not survive. This view has been represented timelessly through many different vehicles in societies throughout the world (with the most widespread probably being anti-communism and/or capitalism). Each human must set a goal for themselves of survival, and quite often the means by which this goal is reached is selfishness, and lack of regard toward other humans, for to survive you must be strong, and this is where psychopathy comes into play. If we carefully examine the idea of a conscience we soon realize that it may not always be an advantage in terms of our species' survival. In fact, conscience could very well be the downfall of our species. It is in this sense that I put forth the proposal that psychopathy is the antidote to this human dilemna. Evolution The process of evolution is slow and gradual, changing a species in a manner so as to enhance the likelihood of survival. For an evolutionary change to occur it must be a necessity for the survival of the species. When studying human behaviour we must ask ourselves, do we truly act of free will, or are our responses to external stimuli instinctive? Do we behave instinctively? Are we born a 'certain way' or are we the product of our environment? From an evolutionary standpoint I would argue that many of our behaviours are governed by genetic predispositions but they are also subject to revision and shaping by our environment (Mealey, 1994). And it is an inherited genetic predisposition that may be the basis of psychopathy. Psychopathy The term psychopath is often used interchangeably with sociopath, and psychopathy is often diagnosed as antisocial personality disorder (Hare, 1993).However, antisocial personality disorder merely describes behaviours, this diagnosis does not measure emotion and conscience. Psychopaths are individuals who lack remorse and guilt, they are selfish individuals who only look out for themselves, they are cunning and resourceful, often leaving behind a trail of individuals whom they have victimized, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, and sometimes financially (Cleckley, 1982; Hare, 1993). It is not known if the number of psychopaths is increasing as their numbers are difficult to predict in the general population. They rarely seek help voluntarily, and therefore most of the diagnosed psychopaths are found in prison populations (Cleckley, 1982; Hare, 1993). Heredity and Psychopathy It can be theorized that pscyhopaths have evolved from "normal" human beings, that they are better equipped for survival due to human evolution. I believe that by presenting evidence of the heritability of psychopathy we can infer a genetic predisposition, and then later ask why, the answer to which I believe is evolution (which could account for the growing numbers of psychopaths in our society, if indeed, this statistic is accurate). Most of the research involving genetic heritability is conducted using twin studies. These studies have been used repeatedly to show the high correlation of psychopathy among monozygotic twins, with a correlation, only slightly lower, also seen in dizygotic twins (Rainer, 1985). These studies have also been conducted with adopted-away children, whose biological parents were psychopaths, in an effort to rule out the effects of family or environment. Studies concluded that adopted children whose biological parents had mental disorders exhibited higher rates of mental disorders themselves than did children of adoptive parents having mental disorders. "The difference was even greater when only psychopathic spectrum disorders were considered, and it was highest of all among biological fathers" (Rainer, 1985). Gunderson (1988) notes that "twin and adoptive studies have pointed to a genetic predisposition to this disorder but have also indicated that its development can be modified by good parental care." While inadequate parental care alone does not likely cause psychopathy, it may exacerbate the disorder if the individual has a predisposition to it. Hutchings and Mednick (as cited by Vaillant and Perry, 1985) concluded that "while environment may not solely cause psychopathy, it does contribute if the individual possesses a genetic predisposition to it", and that "in the absence of an antisocial biological parent... a criminal adoptive parent... does not increase the risk of antisocial behaviour in the child. The effects of criminal adoptive parents, however are additive to the already increased risk of criminal behaviour in offspring with criminal biological parents, if both factors are present." These studies put forth very strong evidence to suggest a predisposition to psychopathy, which also suggests that pscyhopathy will quickly become much more common for, as Kessler (1975) writes, "the risks for relatives of an affected individual would be relatively higher for rarer disorders than for more commonly occurring ones." Cheating Strategies Mealey (1994) suggests that psychopaths have a deficiency that leaves them at a competitive disadvantage in finding a mate to reproduce with. MacMillan and Kofoed (as cited by Mealey, 1994) "presented a model of male sociopathy based on the premise that sexual opportunism and manipulation are the key features driving both the individual sociopath and the evolution of sociopathy." However, this could not explain the behaviour of the psychopathic "I-5 Killer", who raped and murdered numerous women and who Andy Stack (1984) describes as the "handsome, athletic boy next door" who was "picked by Playgirl as a centerfold candidate" and "had his pick of willing sexual prospects." He was also of high intelligence and came from a reputable, upper-class family. This young man wasn't at a competitive disadvantage in finding a mate. However, Mealey (1994) compensates for this contradiction by stating that individuals who do not seem to be at a competitive disadvantage for mates may have a stronger predisposition to psychopathy. This individual may only appear to be at an advantage (good-looking, athletic) while suffering from severe self-esteem problems which, John Doulas writes (1999), is a common factor in sexual predators. Mealey (1994) also suggests that "...sociopaths are designed for the successful execution of social deception and that they are the product of evolutionary pressures which, through a complex interaction of environmental and genetic factors, lead some individuals to pursue a life history strategy of manipulative and predatory social interactions," here suggesting again a genetic predisposition subject to shaping by their enviornment. Mealey (1994) also offers the concept of a cheating strategy used by the competitively disadvantaged, which may consist of behaviours such as rape, in order to access sexual activity. Clearly, these types of cheating strategies (which also consist of lying, swindling, conning, deception, etc.) are quite commonly used by psychopaths in their everyday lives, and normally work well for them, particularly in gaining access to mates and resources necessary for survival (Hare, 1993). Physical Evidence It has been suggested that there are 'primary' emotions, which are related to survival, and 'secondary' emotions, which are thought to be specifically human. Secondary emotions are also called social emotions and consist of such emotions as guilt, love and sympathy (Plutchik, 1980). It is theorized that emotions have evolved in humans, bettering our likelihood of survival by helping to predict the behaviour of other individuals (Griffiths, 1990). Nesse (1990) adds that emotions are "...shaped by natural selection." However, if an individual is more likely to act according to their emotions rather than logic, how rational is this behaviour? In the Prisoner's Dilemna, to be selfish is the logical response in order for one to maximize their own gain, but this selfish behaviour is followed by negative emotions (Mealey, 1994). The psychopath however, does not have this negative emotional response to selfish behaviour, and therefore can act purely to ensure they benefit, without any emotional repercussion. That is to say, they will act logically, to ensure their own survival (Hare, 1993;Mealey, 1994). But if emotions evolved in humans, perhaps this is the point at which psychopaths branched off. Zuckerman (1979) put forth an arousal model after finding "a similar pattern of behaviour associated with his measure of sensation-seeking...sensation-seekers describe 'a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure through extraverted activities including social drinking, parties, sex and gambling". He also states there is a "high degree of heritability" of sensation-seeking. This type of sensation-seeking is highly correlated with psychopaths (Hare, 1993). Eyseneck(1989) wrote that "the common biological condition underlying all these behavioural predispositions is the inheritance of a nervous system which is relatively insensitive to low levels of stimulation." This would suggest a much higher threshold to obtain satisfaction, or arousal, from any external stimuli or activity. This is consistent with the outrageous and often dangerous behaviour that psychopaths exhibit, and often describe as exciting or fulfilling. They must go to a much further extent to achieve arousal (Hare, 1993). Psychopathy has also been linked to abnormal levels of three neurotransmitters: dopamine, seratonin and epinephrine. Monamine oxidase, an enzyme which breaks down these neurotransmitters, has been reported to be "low in anti-social and sensation-seeking individuals" (Mealey, 1994). Hare (1993) writes that the victims or everyday acquaintances of psychopaths are completely unsuspicious and that it is the language and hand gestures of the psychopath that act as his disguise. I would compare the psychopath's language, or way of expressing himself, to that of a predatory animal (like a tiger or cheetah) using camouflage in the wild. Seldom does the victim of a pscyhopath, much like the victim of a wild animal, 'see' their predator coming. Hare (1993) also suggests that psychopaths are lacking inner controls. This means that although they know they shouldn't do something they can not stop themselves. This is consistent with what I have seen in my studies of psychopathic serial killers and throughout my studies in psychological profiling of sexual predators. A psychopath can not usually stop himself from taking what he wants, even if the chance of being caught is extremely high, as seen with Ted Bundy (this especially being reflected in extraordinarily high recidivism rates of psychopathic criminals) (Hare, 1993). And, true to survival, they "look out for number one", showing no loyalties to anyone else (in this way resembling a non-social creature), and acting on their own self-gratifying impulses (Hare, 1993). This lack of control however, does not equal a psychotic compulsion. Homicidal psychopaths, for example, do not kill people in front of police officers. They seem to be able to delay their gratification until it seems safe for them. Their self-preservation generally overrides their need for self-gratification. The value of psychopathy "Man is a product of biological evolution. Gene variations introduced into the human gene pool by mutation are shaped, primarily by natural selection, into integrated or coadapted gene complexes that promoted the various individual and species adaptations to the range of environments in which man lives...Man is also a product of cultural evolution."(Kessler,1975). Theoretically, if evolutionary changes occur out of necessity, and if the basis of psychopathy is an heritable genetic predisposition, then is it possible that psychopaths are more evolved than "normal" humans or have evolved differently or as a subspecies? Yes, because they are more likely to access resources by use of cheating strategies (lying, deciet, threats, etc.) and theoretically then, are more likely to survive (Hare, 1993; Mealey,1994). How else could this genetic change have come about except by evolution? The goals of all species are reproduction and survival in their environment (Rainer, 1985). By studying psychopaths it is quite evident that they are better fit for survival than non-psychopathic humans, largely due to the fact that they look out for no other person and ensure their own survival, no matter what the expense is (Hare, 1993). Psychopaths are quite commonly depicted as the epitome of evil. From an evolutionary standpoint however, we as humans, may view them as our superiors, saviours of our species (as preposterous as that sounds on the surface)! They are "social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life...completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret" (Hare, 1993). If it is the strong who survive, and we allow natural selection to take it's course, then I fear the psychopath will be the end result. Future Research I feel that the key to obtaining a clearer view of psychopathy is studying psychopaths in all walks of lives as well as cross-culturally. In my studies I have found that virtually all of the material was based on studies conducted in North America, and the results may be tainted by some culturally determined confounding variables. There also appears to be too much focus on criminality when investigating psychopathy, and researchers must be cautious when using the terms psychopath and criminal interchangeably (unfortunately, pscyhopaths don't normally walk into a psychiatrist's office and ask for help, they are usually only diagnosed in prison, which makes researching psychopathy in the general population). I feel that we may learn more if the focus is shifted toward the internal workings of psychopathic individuals rather than their external behaviours. And, with advances in mapping the human genome I hope we will soon find the genetic answer to, "what makes a psychopath"?. Conclusion What can we do to control the psychopathic population? There is evidence to verify the suspicions of the public, who have a tendency to blame the parents when a psychopath is produced (Hare, 1993). Although a psychopath is genetically predisposed to the disorder, in most cases, a warm and caring family environment can inhibit the development of psychopathy, while a cold and uncaring environment can exaggerate the disorder (Gunderson, 1988). Perhaps only by individual introspection can we see our own mistakes and faults as parents, and perhaps inhibiting the development of psychopathy is the key to deterring the population growth of psychopaths. Will psychopathy ever be eradicated? If it is genetic, then only by stopping psychopaths from reproducing will the disorder be annihilated. It is possible that " a subclinical manifestation of this underlying genetic continuum is evident in many of us, becoming apparent only at those times when immediate environmental circumstances make an antisocial strategy more profitable than a prosocial one" (Mealey, 1994). We look at the psychopaths as evil (and surely many have committed horrific acts), but we should keep in mind that in a certain situation we may also be capable of committing atrocities, particularly when feeling backed into a corner. Maybe psychopathy is a human trait inherent to us all, and the only difference between 'normal', feeling people and a psychopath is our tolerance level for how much abuse, distress, hurt we can take. Perhaps we all are born with the same capabilities and the only thing deciding our capacity for feeling is our environment and external factors that we have no choice over. We can cross our fingers and hope not, we can hope that only a handful of people in our society are born with a genetic abnormality, that they are a human abherration, that there is some clue that we'll find that will help us solve the mystery of why they hurt so many people. Only if that clue actually exists will we be able to prevent the pain they cause. However, in the meantime, we have to stay open to all possibilities, if we close our minds we may be closing the door on an answer. And we can not overestimate our species by assuming that we are inherently gentle, and kind and want to help one another. Lest we forget, we are animals. *** if anyone would like full references please email me, I'm in the process of moving and will post references in full once my reference page is found!!




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