A World of Trauma – Civilizational Psychosadomasochism and Emptiness

According to Google’s vast textual corpora, there was nary an instance of the term “trauma,” or its distinctly psychiatric derivative “traumatized,” in written English prior to the 1880s. The first usage of “trauma” is documented in the 1690s, at which point it referred to physical wounding only. Its “psychic wound” sense did not pick up until the tail end of the 19th century, which is now far more familiar to us than the original sense. Exactly what took root in the world between then and now? The standard narrative is that the medical profession became wiser, but what of the wisdom embedded in our species’ genetic history? Note that even most doctors and biomedical lab technicians know little of basic genetics, or, one has to assume, of evolutionary reasoning. I recall being sneeringly told by one, on introducing her to the concept, that she was only interested in “proper science.” This is about when it set in that even many “grunt-work” scientists are basically morons. She certainly was.

Applying the principles of natural selection (i.e. evolutionary reasoning) to find the aetiology of disease tends to yield different answers from those that are now fashionable. In a 2000 paper, “Infectious Causation of Disease: An Evolutionary Perspective,” the authors compellingly argue that a huge number of supposedly mysterious illnesses are in fact caused by pathogens – bacteria or viruses. The argument is simple: any genetic endowment which essentially zeroes fitness (reproductive potential) can be maintained in a population’s genes only at the basal rate of errors, i.e. mutations, in the genetic code, with the apparently sole exception of heterozygote advantage for protection against malaria. Thus, anything so destructive which rises above a certain threshold of prevalence should arouse suspicion that a pathogen is to blame. This would include schizophrenia, an alleged evolutionary “paradox,” with a prevalence of ~0.5%, especially since, unlike “psychopathy,” schizophrenia has low twin-concordance, low heritability, and is discontinuous with normal personality. At present, direct evidence of the pathogen is scant, but that is to be expected: viruses are tricksy. No other explanation is plausible.

What, then, when one turns the evolutionary lens towards “trauma”? What is commonly called psychological trauma can helpfully be divided into two categories: non-chronic and chronic. The former is what most people would call distress. It is adaptive to have unpleasant memories of situations that could kill you or otherwise incur significant reproductive costs, which is why everyone feels this. It is good to have unpleasant memories of putting one’s hand on an electric fence for this reason. It is bad, and certainly not evolutionarily adaptive, for the memory to continually torture you for years after the fact. I have it on good authority that this does nothing to attract mates, for example.

In light of this, it becomes clearer what may be behind the apparent explosion of mental “traumas” in our psychiatry-obsessed world. One may observe, for instance, that there is no record of anything remotely resembling PTSD in the premodern world. It emerged in the 20th century, either as a result of new weapons inflicting new kinds of damage (brain injuries), or from psychiatrists’ egging people on, or both. If the received narrative about it were true, then all of Cambodia ought to have gone completely insane in recent times. It did not happen. Likewise with rape. One struggles to find any mention of long-term trauma from rape for most of human history. The ancients were not very chatty about it. Of course, they saw it as wrong, as is rather easy to do, but their notions about it were not ours. Rape does impose reproductive costs, but so does cuckoldry, and being cuckolded does not cause chronic trauma. Nor would claiming that it had done so to you do much for your social status. Sadly, exactly one person in existence has the balls to comment on this rationally. Many of these problems seem to originate from something more diffuse, something about the cultural zeitgeist of our age, rather than a particular field or bureaucracy.

It is generally agreed upon in the modern West that sexual activity before late adolescence, especially with older individuals, is liable to causing trauma of the chronic kind. This alone should give one pause, since “adolescence” is a linguistic abstraction with only very recent historical precedent, and many of the biopsychological processes which are conventionally attributed uniquely to it begin earlier and persist long after. The onset of stable, memorable sexual desire and ideation occurs at the age of ~10 (it was certainly present in me by age 11), commensurate with gonadarche, and is certainly almost universally present by age 12-13. The reason these desires arise with gonadarche is simple: they exist to facilitate reproduction. It would make little biological sense in any species other than humans to experience sexual desire but also experience some strange latency period of 1-8 years (depending on the country) during which any acting upon those desires causes inconsolable soul-destruction. Any time something seems completely unique to humans, one has to wonder if it has something to do with uniquely human cultural phenomena such as taboos. It is even more obvious when one observes human cultures which lack these taboos, e.g. Classical Greece. When they married their daughters off at age 13-14, they were concerned chiefly about whether the groom could provide her and her children with a stable living. But they were not concerned about soul-destruction. At least, I’m fairly sure of that. For the record: this is not an endorsement of lowering the age of consent. I am decidedly neutral on that question, but I do not believe Mexico’s answer is any less correct than California’s or vice versa.

It is wrong to say that psychiatrists, or therapists, have a superpower of changing people’s phenotypes. This is impossible, as any such change they could impart would be genetically confounded, i.e. it is genetically non-random sample of the population who are “successful” subjects to their interventions. So it seems fair to assume that a lot of mental health problems are explicable in this way rather than through straight-up iatrogenesis, and their prevalence is inflated somewhat through media hype and social media shenanigans. However, an interesting question is: how much of an evolutionarily novel phenomenon is the field of psychiatry? Are our minds equipped to deal with it? Well, not everyone’s. It seems possible to confect illnesses out of thin air if you subject the right person to the right conditioning, as is the case with the probably purely iatrogenic “dissociative identity disorder.”

Masses of people these days shell out large chunks of their finances on “therapy,” a form of psychiatric intervention which has shown itself to be of at best mixed efficacy. Many long-running randomised controlled trials of its effects turn up jack shit, which ought not to be shocking given what is known about the non-effects of education, extensively documented by Bryan Caplan and others. It has to change the brain in a dramatic way. Still lingering though, is the question of whether it may in fact make matters worse. Many social commentators have taken notice of the way in which mental illness, especially “depression,” seems to be afforded a kind of bizarre social status in some circles, such as within university culture in Canada. Even more galling is that it is not even clear whether “depression” of the garden variety is a disorder; it may be an adaptation that evolved to ward people off hopeless pursuits. Status is a powerful motivator, so this weird grievance culture cannot help, but encouraging people to make their living from talking to such people and consoling them with soothing words cannot be great either, since it is likely to induce the kind of institutional inertia on which the pointless continuance of America’s “drug war” is sometimes (correctly) blamed.

Legalising drugs and investing more energies into high-precision “super-drugs,” e.g. powerful mood-enrichers with no side effects, would do more for the true chronic depressives who literally have never even known what it means to be happy – a malady probably induced by rare mutations if it exists – than what is on offer today. Drugs are the only guaranteed way to do profound psychological re-engineering without gene-editing. It is not clear, though, if the psychiatric industry as it currently exists would be happy to see such problems vanish.

The Chavs Are Not Listening

Many self-identified antinatalists adhere to some form of negative utilitarianism and are convinced that their not having children will reduce the net suffering of the world. Let us set aside the thorny question of whether beliefs have non-trivial causal efficacy independent of genes – which I doubt (<< skip to table 3). Who, prima facie, finds these ideas attractive?

Socially liberal, virtue-signalling (I use that phrase descriptively, not pejoratively), high-IQ persons of northern European descent who enjoy burying their heads in esoteric thought. In other words, the group who are most interested in, and most likely to, improve the lot of the living world. Any suffering that might await the children of these people is nothing compared with the Third World, nothing compared with what lies behind us, and with what may yet lie ahead. What will their beliefs do to arrest current population trends, such as Africa’s population boom, which is certain to engender much suffering? Can we market antinatalism to Africans – in a profoundly, brilliantly, orgiastically non-racist way?

That these problems do not occur to otherwise intelligent and well-informed people tells you a lot about how important keeping up appearances is as a human motivation, even or perhaps especially in “rationalist” circles: what matters is whether the ideas sound coherent to others in your social group, not whether they take account of reality as is.

If there is one thing that the cognitive elite of the West could really do with keeping in mind, whatever else happens, it is this:

The chavs are not listening.

Diseases, Disorders and Illnesses, Oh My

This will serve as an addendum of sorts to my article, The Harmless Psychopaths.

Medicine as a science is a modern phenomenon. It was not all that long ago that going to a doctor was more likely to hurt than help, a fact which persisted, some think, until as late as the 1930s. Medical researchers tend to just keep plugging away at their specialist interest and are unconcerned with what to them seem like instrumentally useless philosophical minutiae. Moral philosophers might argue about meta-ethics: the essence of moral statements, but this does not seem a necessary prerequisite to a relatively harmonious social order. One might just as well ask what is the use of “meta-medicine,” to wonder at the underlying assumptions of medical diagnoses, when scientists are quite happy getting on with finding cures for cancer, and whatever else.

Unfortunately, medicine is as subject to such human frailties as status-seeking and fashion as anything else. It became unfashionable in the 20th century to look for pathogenic causation to diseases thanks to the then nascent science of genetics, which is why it was not accepted as common knowledge that bacteria cause peptic ulcers until the 1980s despite this having been suspected, on good evidence, for well over a hundred years. Note that most cancers are only dimly heritable, in contrast with, say, autism, and have no clear Mendelian inheritance pattern. (Fill in the blank.)

Medicine is an applied science and so obviously has a prescriptive dimension to it, i.e. what is worth treating? Call this is the meta-medical question if one likes. The answer to this is not so complicated when dealing with physical disorders which glaringly go against the sufferer’s interests and those of peers, such as the flu, atherosclerosis, whatever. But what about disorders of the mind? Surely a meaningful concept, but surely far more prone to spurious theorising and fashion-biases in answering the meta-medical question, due to the diversity of moral viewpoints about what is “disordered” behaviour. For the purposes of this post, I use the terms disease, disorder, and illness interchangeably – which they more or less are in everyday usage.

This is how the DSM-IV defines mental disorder:

A. a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual

B. is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom

C. must not be merely an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event, for example, the death of a loved one

D. a manifestation of a behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual

E. neither deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual

The inadequacies of this are manifold and torturously obvious. Childbirth seems to fit quite snugly with condition B. Also, it is generally unhelpful to include a word itself or its synonyms in its own definition, such as in D. with “dysfunction.” E. seems to take it as read that the distinction between biological dysfunction and normal deviance is obvious, yet it is apparently not to most psychiatrists. It is for that reason that the traits branded “psychopathy,” for example, are continuously distributed in the population and usually harmless, but there exists an arbitrarily defined cut-off at the right tail of the distribution where it is conveniently labelled “disorder,” and the relevant convenience is just relative to the interests of whosoever finds these traits unappealing or whoever lacks the theory of mind to understand them. See also: ADHD, and teachers.

How to get around this arbitrariness? If ADHD and psychopathy are not useful to us WEIRDos, who or what are they useful to? Well, they are adaptations: they have a fitness benefit, i.e. a reproductive edge, in at least some environments, even if they are unpalatable to individual persons. This evolutionary view is what tempts some to propose a purely Darwinian definition of disease in which disease is conceived as any embodied phenomenon that is counter-adaptive across all environments. This would make homosexuality a disease, but “Asperger’s syndrome,” “ADHD,” and “psychopathy” not. This could certainly be illuminating from a solely descriptive angle where the only interest is to scientifically describe the causes of disease, but it is useless to practitioners of medicine and psychiatry, for whom the relevant question is “What ought to be treated?” If one asks doctors what the problem is with flu, they are unlikely to say anything about how it affects one’s reproductive chances, and, well, it doesn’t. Not much.

Whether one finds this distasteful to mention as a dispassionate intellectual, it is also a fact that the word “diseased” in popular usage carries a certain moral valence, even when applied to activities that one does not think morally important. To say that “Behaviour X is a disease” is not simply to say that it is evolutionarily maladaptive, but that it is wrong. This would seem an unhelpful confusion.

For the application of medicine, I tentatively suggest that what I think is the best formulation of the conventional usage of “disorder” be merged with the Darwinian definition: anything, internally generated (which may be another bone of contention, but that is a separate topic), which leads to non-trivial suffering in the individual and also has no conceivable fitness benefit. As for the descriptive-only theorists and researchers, the Darwinian definition is fine on its own, although perhaps it is worth while to find a word other than “disease.”

Unrealistic Adaptations

Of all the mental shortcuts embedded in human languages which impede understanding of mindless processes (such as natural selection), few are more obnoxious than “because.” From this comes a tendency to anthropomorphise, and read all outcomes in nature as if they were ordained by something approximating an “intention.” Religion has to be an adaptation, because the religious (currently) outbreed the irreligious.” The second clause in that sentence is (currently) correct, but the “because” makes it sound as though the current religious selection advantage represents some “design feature” with the desired (by what?) end of promoting reproductive fitness (adaptation). And fitness is where the matter rests. Contrast with the following sentence:

“Under current conditions in which the religious outbreed the irreligious, religion is adaptive.” This statement is of course tautologous, since to say that a trait or behaviour is adaptive means merely that under condition X it gives one a reproductive edge. The term “adaptation,” though, is often applied to traits or behaviours which are selectively neutral or even counter-adaptive in particular environments. Genes which contribute to an overzealous appetite may be fitness-neutral to a subsistence farmer but become obesogenic in the modern world of easily available food. The genes’ carrier still exercises this “adaptation,” but it is no longer adaptive, reproductively useful, except in an environment full of fat-fetishists.

Human society has changed so dramatically in the last two centuries that it would be hasty to say the least to assume that everything with a current selective disadvantage is an “illness” (due to pathogens, mutational load, or whatever). Just as equally, one cannot assume that something with a current advantage exists having evolved by resolving an adaptive problem. Religion was ubiquitous across cultures before the 20th century, yet now the religious fraction represent an ever tinier percentage of the population in many countries, and it remains to be seen just how tiny the “genetic hard core of religiosity” will get before the trend is reversed. If the presence of religion were explicable in terms of fitness benefit, why are the genes not already more widespread? This alone should be enough to tell you that genes (and thus, adaptation) per se had little to do with religion’s evolution.

But apparently this is not obvious to some. Many people are inclined to view adaptations as intricate mechanisms, which by dint of their intricacy are delicate and susceptible to dysfunction, rather like the springs and levers of a pocket-watch. All analogies are imperfect, but this is a useless one. Some traits, and indeed behaviours, are more prone to changing by exogenous insults than others. For instance, a particularly naive person might imagine that in a pandemic of severe endometriosis, whereby female beauty and youth cease to be predictive as indicators of fertility, males would be disincentivised from their sexual attraction to these traits because the attraction would no longer perform its original “functions.” Needless to say, this would not happen. Male callogamy (“attention to beauty”) has proven so reliably fitness-enhancing over the eons, since even before the human species, that it is extraordinarily resilient to any incentive change: selection will always favour a deterministic developmental pathway for such consistently valuable traits. General intelligence is yet another example: the current dysgenic trend is a product of the last few generations and on the order of ~1 point per generation despite ramping up of mutational load globally (we’ll see how long it can last), and almost no non-genetic factors seem capable of depressing its expression to any appreciable degree. Lead looked plausible at some point, but then you remember that Victorians liked to use mercury in their make-up, and yet the 19th century was the most intellectually productive in human history.

Viewed under this light, the “religion as adaptation” thesis looks all the more dubious. Evolutionary forces – selection, mutation, drift, etc – are just as capable of acting on general intelligence and other psychological traits as anything else, hence the well-documented evolved changes in the European peoples since around AD1000: declines in violence, and probably gains in intelligence, culminating ultimately in the zenith of the 19th century. Evolution can indeed happen fast, but not that fast. The bulk of these changes took place over a period of, at minimum, 20 generations, not 2-3, and our intelligence has more or less survived the last 2-3 generations intact. Religion has not. It has none of the hallmarks of an adaptation, but all the hallmarks of a complex socially learned behaviour, maintained by powerful norm-enforcers and epistemic authorities, which has lost currency in recent decades for a variety of reasons, the most commonsense explanation being that it no longer appeals to the educated because the answers it gives are inferior to those of other epistemic authorities, i.e. scientists.

The human capacity for cultural transmission through language makes a nonsense of the notion that anything which is not adaptive, even across all environments, should be impossible to sustain. The most obvious example in Christian cultures is the vow of celibacy, and there are numerous others such as taboos against eating highly nutrient-dense foods, which persist among the undernourished tribes of Papua New Guinea. So too with the European wars of religion, which resulted in millions of young men dying childless in their haste to protect a non-existent natural resource, i.e. God’s favour.

Group selection is another temptation when formulating theories about the origin of religion – the idea that even a behaviour which reduces fitness at the individual level can persist if it provides some advantage at the level of the social group. It is a neat idea, but clearly unworkable in practice. Suppose some cohort of one’s country likes spreading the word of God through warfare – call this behaviour X. They can seize new territory in God’s name and provide new land for others in their group who are not quite so zealous, and this may look like a “success” to the people who reap those rewards, but at the end of the day: the behaviour is still going to diminish because everyone who engages in it is at a massively elevated risk of dying before reproduction. Evolution does not care about states or dominions.

It is understandable why post hoc stories about religion as adaptation are popular, even among well-informed people. Intelligence is not a good predictor of having sensible views where political matters are concerned, since politics is about group loyalty more than anything else. This is why the number of US Democrats who thought immigration was an important social issue declined precipitously in the 2010s when it became the issue “of” the right; what mattered was showing solidarity against rival political coalitions (i.e. the right) rather than the truth. Adaptive stories about religion seem to appeal an awful lot to European traditionalist-nationalists who are hoping to use Christianity as the conduit for some kind of renewed ethnocentrism to uplift the European spirit. The Chinese do not seem to need it, oddly enough. Nor even the Czechs, much closer to home. It did not work for Rome, and it sure as fuck won’t for us.

The Age of Orangutans

There is much talk of incentivising fecundity. It did not work for Imperator Augustus, nor will it for us, for a simple reason: kids are a pain in the arse. And land grants for chavs are probably not the best idea; need I explain why? One must differentiate based on intelligence or education level (a proxy for the former) to avoid pouring money into the sewer, and since no earthly government has the balls for that, we can forget it.

Alternatively, technology promises that which the Romans could scarcely have dreamt of. The demographic “problem” is not low fertility. Only in light of mass migration, which need not be, is low average fertility bad, and selection pressure will deal with that regardless. The problem is that the cognitive elite are infertile. Conversely, would the African population explosion be worrisome if the children all had IQs upwards of 180?

Even if you adhere to an ethical system such as libertarianism and so place all emphasis on freedom from coercion, there is a lot to be said for a state-enforced rewriting of human genetics, perhaps even a global one – setting aside the practicalities thereof. If the rewrite is imposed on all, well, there goes the problem of an inherited continuity of stupid. I am sympathetic to a lot of anti-paternalist intuitions where paternalism is liable to exacerbate a problem or make no odds, but it does make odds when one contemplates a future of regression to the mental acuity of orangutans. There will be no liberty then, nor indeed anything worth speaking of (assuming people could still speak). The desire for paternalism often arises from the knowledge that most people have poor reasoning abilities, but that need not always be, thanks to forthcoming technological interventions, too numerous to list. True, this may not be coming soon. What was that about caring for the long-term?

As per, pessimism is sensible. In the zeroth approximation, bet on China. Beyond that, don’t bother. This is where we are at.

The Harmless Psychopaths

Psychopathy probably does not exist in the way most people think of it.

Any psychological trait that varies between individuals is distributed on a continuum whose limits are defined by the trait’s fitness benefit. This is why the personality disorders are considered dubious by some: how much sense does it make to cordon off a particular quartile, decile, centile of the distribution and declare it an illness?

Antisocial personality disorder, which most people still call psychopathy or sociopathy, is characterised by a suite of “extreme” traits, and is identified through behavioural indicators. Those are the cases that go to prison and the ones that show up in the media. But if these people’s predilections were that abnormal, they would not exist – thanks to selection pressure. The heritability of APD is no lower than the general heritability of personality, suggesting that this concatenation of traits is a (mal)adaptation.

Estimates of the prevalence of APD are on the order of 1-3%. It is not the case that 1-3% of people are violent criminals, nor that everyone in prison has the diagnosis, so it is neither necessary nor sufficient for most crime. A good chunk of diagnoses must occur because of repetitious criminal behaviour. What of the rest?

It is news to no one, of course, that most psychopaths are not criminals. The question is: what separates the criminal from the law-abiding variety?

This is a moment of revelation for some, when they have their heads scanned and realise that their neurology is “consistent” with that of a Jeffrey Dahmer. But they are not Jeffrey Dahmer. So much for the notion that it is impossible to be unaware that you have this psychological profile. Thus, they turn to parenting and other things that do not matter as an explanation to assuage the headfuck.

One hypothesis, and a testable one, is that the difference is made by IQ. One begins to sounds like a broken record, but the link between IQ and crime is well established, and given that 1 US adult in 7 is unable to perform mental operations more complex than finding the expiration date on a driving licence, it is not hard to imagine what this does when combined with a temperamental disposition towards narcissism. Not only do they feel social norms “don’t apply” to them; they are too stupid to understand the consequences of violating them.

High-IQ individuals with Dark Triad traits often go undetected or are even wildly successful. You probably know a few, and it probably isn’t worth giving them a second thought. The proto-criminal types are easier to spot, but no one wants his or her child to be branded “high-risk” before any criminal wrongdoing is committed. Nor are they prepared to confront the fact that there is essentially nothing they can do to “fix” the problem, and so nothing (useful) is done. Isn’t that just too fucking bad?