Professor of Philosophy
Hunter College of the City University of New York
Does Evolution Belong in Psychiatric Classification? Some Cautionary Remarks
February 23rd, 2015
Academic Building A G008, 5:05 PM
Cosponsored with the Department of Philosophy
What is a mental disorder? How do we decide what is sane and insane, normal and abnormal? In the 1970s and 1980s, American psychiatrists had heated debates over the very meaning of “mental disorder.” In the 1990s, the philosopher Jerome Wakefield proposed that “mental disorder” should be defined in evolutionary terms. Specifically, he argued that mental disorders are harmful dysfunctions, and something “dysfunctions” when it cannot do what natural selection designed it for. If he is right, then psychiatric classification should be grounded on evolutionary reasoning. Wakefield’s proposal has met with some acceptance amongst psychiatrists and philosophers but has also generated substantial controversy. In the following, I discuss the historical context of the psychiatric debates and the controversy surrounding Wakefield’s proposal, and I make some cautionary remarks. First, as evolutionary biologists know, it is often very difficult to discover whether a trait is an adaptation and, if so, what it is for. Second, some psychiatrists have argued that some mental disorders actually represent adaptations to Pleistocene conditions or to unusual developmental contexts, and hence would not count as “dysfunctions” on Wakefield’s view. Finally, Wakefield’s view touches upon a long-standing philosophical debate about the very concept of biological function and dysfunction.
Justin Garson is a philosophy professor at Hunter College-CUNY. He has authored or co-authored dozens of scholarly articles on the philosophy of science, the history of neuroscience and medicine, and biodiversity conservation. His first book, The Biological Mind: A Philosophical Introduction, shows how philosophical reflection on biology is crucial for solving long-standing puzzles of the human mind, such as altruism, consciousness, language and meaning, mental disorder, free will, and the role of nature and nurture in shaping our lives. He is also an editor of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Biodiversity.
Reading will be posted to the EvoS blackboard group. Anyone with a Binghamton University email address can request to be added to the blackboard group by emailing EvoS[at]binghamton[dot]edu.
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