Depression as the Evolved Adaptation to Stress


Noting that more people die from suicide than car accidents in the U.S., and the majority of those suffer from depression, The Atlantic explores a theory put forth in a recent paper linking depression to immune system activation and associated behavioral responses. “The basic idea is that depression and the genes that promote it were very adaptive for helping people – especially young children – not die of infection in the ancestral environment,” the paper’s authors comment, by activating a set of protective behaviors – such as social withdrawal – in response to stressful events in the wild that may expose us to risk of infection.

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Of further interest:
The evolutionary significance of depression in Pathogen Host Defense

Note from Kermit Cole, “In the News” editor;
Though the article explores the concept of depression as linked to immune system response, as an evolved self-protective response that reduces the risk of infection following injury or stress, I also wonder about the concept of “inclusive fitness” in relation to this theory; that we have evolved to limit the risk to others when we ourselves are infected. I wonder whether, when we feel ourselves to be a liability in some way (perhaps having come by this feeling as a result of messages we received from family, etc., there may in fact be an evolved response that triggers isolative or suicidal behaviors; that, in fact, “altruism,” as demonstrated in much behavioral research of mammals, extends to removing ourselves out of a sense of fairness (also well-documented in primate research).
If there is anything to this thought, it would suggest an entirely different mode of interacting with the suicidal impulse; one of respect and exploration, rather than fear and censure.

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Kermit Cole
Kermit Cole, MFT, founding editor of Mad in America, works in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a couples and family therapist. Inspired by Open Dialogue, he works as part of a team and consults with couples and families that have members identified as patients. His work in residential treatment — largely with severely traumatized and/or "psychotic" clients — led to an appreciation of the power and beauty of systemic philosophy and practice, as the alternative to the prevailing focus on individual pathology. A former film-maker, he has undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology from Harvard University, as well as an MFT degree from the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He is a doctoral candidate with the Taos Institute and the Free University of Brussels. You can reach him at [email protected].


  1. Nothing but pop neuroscience evolutionary psychology BS.

    ““altruism,” as demonstrated in much behavioral research of mammals”

    Mammals? I just think it has a base offensiveness that hundreds of thousands of smarmy “researchers” stick their heads in microscopes and brag to their families on holidays that they “work in biotech” when in reality they are on a Sisyphean wild goose chase to read human experience through a microscope lens while driving to work past homeless people, never stopping to consider the story of why people are in despair is for HUMAN REASONS, common sense reasons, and not BS speculations about Darwinism.

    The wisdom found in thousands of years of religion, philosophy, and human experience is in the trash can. The eyes of fools are glued to microscopes, and Darwinian speculations rule the day.

    If I’m in despair, in a prolonging way, there is no pretender to the throne of understanding the human experience who got interviewed by The Atlantic who I’m looking to.

    Nothing but base speculation and distraction.

    ““The basic idea is that depression and the genes that promote it were very adaptive for helping people – especially young children – not die of infection in the ancestral environment”

    Gee, I don’t know of anyone in the history of labeling people with the psychiatric “depression” label who have had their genes biomarked to it, do you? And if someone “has”, in an unreplicated stack of research papers, why isn’t everyone in the world of “depression” labels getting the same fine-tooth comb?

    What did they do? Go back to the cavemen time and ask them? We will never have anything but corroded bones from prehistory. Never. The idea that someone in the modern mass society who is in despair and winds up getting a label slapped on them by a snake-oil quack, is akin to the wild speculations of a caveman/cave-child allegedly “distancing” themselves from the tribe and escaping infectious plagues, is just utterly debased, immature, offensive, and pathetic to all human logic.

    This is what a society who walks past the homeless, on their way to prestige-seeking high paying research jobs in academia has to offer us for the modern understanding of the human experience, pathetic caveman fairy tales.

    A caveman kid, is speculated, to have seen a bubonic plague break out, fellow cave-people rot and die, and walks away, and somehow this is going to give us insight into why a lonely social phobic New Yorker decides to stay in their apartment in a city of millions of strangers they feel overwhelmed by.

    It’s debased, pathetic, unworthy of serious adult discussion, but this is where we are at in The Atlantic, a once great publication.

    The cancer of pathetic pop evolutionary psychology crap.

    And I’m an angry psychiatry survivor because some caveman bashed another caveman over the head with a bone. And they found a bone, feet from the skeleton of a another caveman, it is speculated to have been used as a weapon, and it can offer us insight into all human insult and slight, including the trauma of war veterans.

    (Censored) this.

    Ways of feeling are not pathogens.

    This is not science it is “imaginations run wild” about cavemen.

    I got locked up and had my life almost destroyed for my imagination running wild. Why do others get away with it scot-free?

    When I die, and I will die, I hope in my final days to console myself, I think of crap like this, and the fact I’ll be leaving it behind will be a great consolation.

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