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Evolutionarily speaking, mutations that are detrimental to a species eventually die out through the process of natural selection. Thus, if a trait has no adaptive qualities whatsoever, it will cease to exist. It is essential to keep that in mind when examining the evolutionary adaptations of psychopathology. While psychopathology is considered a mental disorder, it has clearly demonstrated an array of adaptive qualities throughout the centuries. This paper will examine the complexities of different mutative and adaptive theories that serve to illustrate how psychopathic tendencies can be seen as conditional defense mechanisms. It is difficult to associate advantageous benefits with a psychological disorder such as psychopathy. But through the use of psychological theories, real life examples, and scientific journals and experiments this article will provide a multifaceted lens through which to explore psychopathy from an evolutionary standpoint.
Good or evil. Black or white. Zero or one. Binary thoughts and concepts such as these are simplistic in essence. There are only two distinct choices to pick from. However, when it comes to complex conceptualizations such as evolutionary psychology, psychological theories are far less transparent in comparison to such binary notions. Evolutionary psychology examines ancestral psychological adaptations, and how those adaptations are related to sexual and natural selection. In simpler terms, human behavior is contextualized. Rather than solely looking for biological, environmental, or genetic reasons for an individual’s (or group of individuals’) behavior, evolutionary psychology amalgamates those concepts in order to see how one’s behavior transforms in order to further their chances for survival and reproduction. In most cases, one would believe that a given psychopathology would hinder a primates ability to survive and reproduce; however, evolutionary psychology’s multifaceted approach for studying psychopaths suggests that there may be evolutionary adaptations which promote psychopathic tendencies. Given the vast scientific advancements in the fields of biology and psychology in the last century, the topic of psychopathy (and mental disorders in general) has been expanded greatly. It is no longer thought of as just a mental psychosis, rather it has evolved to become a group of unified traits that constitute a disorder and may even facilitate survival.
How has psychopathy evolved throughout the centuries? To answer that question, one must first understand what psychopathy is. Psychopathy is not insisting that your ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend is “a psycho!” Psychopathy is a personality disorder which inhibits empathy, compassion, and remorse while simultaneously promoting egotistical, aggressive, grandiose, and manipulative traits. Each person holds a certain level of each of those traits; however, those considered to be “psychopaths” are on the extreme end of the spectrum for those qualities. Psychopathy has been observed throughout the centuries, from Tomás de Torquemada, to the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, to the 1940’s character the Joker, to corporate psychopaths who work in many fields to this day. Its evolution does not stem from neurogenic mutations alone, it stems from adaptations to one’s given conducive environments. In a sense, one’s biological genes influence how they are raised, but simultaneously the way one is raised also influences their genetic biology (certain genes are emphasized while others are repressed).
The first theory this paper will discuss is the most prevalent, the mutation theory. In opposition to adaptationist models (which will be discussed in the upcoming sections of this article), the mutation theory focuses on the dysfunctions of psychopathy and states that the neurodevelopmental mutations that have been passed on in the gene pool are the main cause for psychopathy. One particular study which examined abnormal limbic system developments in fetuses, found that those fetuses who retained their cavum septum pellucidum into adulthood expressed higher levels of psychopathic tendencies (ex. antisocial tendencies). An additional study found that for the three psychopathic traits found in five year old twins, seventy-four percent of the variance of these traits was explained by genetic factors (the rest being accounted for by environmental factors). These two studies serve to illuminate that fact that much of the evolution of psychopathy is mutation based. When discussing the nature versus nurture debate, this theory heavily promotes the nature side. This is because genetic mutations which have been passed down generation to generation propagate the psychopathic behaviors associated with these mutations. However, it is prudent to note that conducive environments and primitive survival strategies may also play an important role in the creation and evolution of psychopaths.
The adaptationist models (contingent shifts versus balancing selection) take on a more conducive environment approach, and focus on the flexibility of traits to adapt to one’s given environment. To further elaborate on this topic, consider Tomás de Torquemada (1420-1498), Spain’s first inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition. Torquemada headed the removal, persecution, and execution of thousands of muslims and jews throughout Spain. Many of those who refused to convert to Catholicism were executed through gruesome deaths such as being burned alive, starvation, or garrucha (pulling someone’s arms and legs from their sockets). While the fifteen hundreds were violent times, Torquemada was one of the few who was single handedly responsible for over two-thousand deaths. And yet, there are no historical accounts of him ever expressing remorse or sympathy for his actions. This behavior may be explained using the contingent shifts theory (the theory that one’s traits adapt in response to contributive environments, or environments that yield benefits for a given person), and more specifically the psychopathological trait of not being sensitive to social feedback (#4). Torquemada’s lack of empathy, remorse, and insensitivity could have been an evolutionary adaptations which allowed him to enact these gruesome killings without the fear of disapproval or shame. To him, those killings were of benefit to him, “thus, it is possible that low stress responsivity could be fitness-maximizing in high-risk environments.” His behavioral adaptations of low stress responsivity, which were akin to those of a psychopath, allowed for his serial executions.
In relation to Torquemada, further along in the evolution of psychopathy, psychopathic killers began to prey upon women. The notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, was known for luring women into quiet hidden places where he brutally raped and murdered them. He was known to be extremely charming (manipulated his victims into believing he was charming), and used his lack of empathy and his compulsion to “totally possess” his victims in order to kill over thirty women. While he is similar to Torquemada in the sense that he possessed many similar psychopathic traits, he was divergent in the sense that his victims were all women. A study found that psychopathy in men correlated with a higher rate of pilfering women from other men. This could be seen as an evolutionarily adaptive method of procuring a female mate. The theory of sexual selection focuses on the idea that memebers of one sex compete with same sex ompetitors for access to mates (in this case women), Mr. Bundy used his psychopathic traits of manipulative charm and deceit in order to acquire more mates (his victims who were all exclusively women). In fact, his adroit charm was so powerful that countless women were rallying for his release during his court trials. Thus, this adaptation of deception and lack of guilt when it came to poaching women allowed Ted Bundy to accumulate as many female victims as he desired. An area of further study for men like Ted Bundy is the white matter in their prefrontal cortexes. Studies have shown that pathological liars (psychopaths tend to exhibit pathological lying in order to manipulate others) have more white matter in comparison to the normal human prefrontal cortex. This is in part due to the fact that lying requires one to “override their amygdala,” which requires more effort than telling the truth. Thus, psychopathic liars who constantly lie in order to gain an advantage over others, such as Ted Bundy, may have more white matter in their prefrontal cortexes.
With regards to psychopathic serial killers, another infamous name comes to mind. While he may be fictional, his actions are no less psychopathic. The Joker, one of DC’s most well known villains, is a complex character whose main goal is to cause pure and utter chaos in Gotham City. In a recent film released, the Joker’s abusive childhood background is brought to light. Constantly being beaten at a young age, being left alone for hours, and lacking any maternal protection, the Joker has a horrendous childhood which consequently leads to numerous psychological disorders. While this is just a fictional character, one study found a link between adolescent physical abuse (coupled with poor parental bonding) and higher psychopathic traits later in adulthood. Now although this study does not prove a direct causation between parental abuse and psychopathy, it serves to highlight a correlation. In conjugation to this study, an additional aspect of the contingent shift model suggests that the stressful environments that abused children face elicit adaptive defense mechanisms, which in this case are psychopathic traits. These traits (lack of empathy and guilt, and increases in deception and aggression) may have adapted in young abused children in order to allow them to shield themselves from further emotional and even physical harm. In the case of the Joker, the immense trama he faced as a child led to his eventual psychopathic traits. Specifically, his adaptive defense mechanism against further emotional harm led him to kill his mother and idolized father figure and television host Murray Franklin (who had both betrayed and hurt him deeply), because he did not want to be let down any further by those closest to him. Thus, by removing these emotional stressors from his life, the Joker was furthering his own survival.
In order to understand the transformation of psychopaths into what they are today, it is critical to understand the balancing selection theory and more specifically frequency dependent selection. This theory posits that certain traits are only adaptive and beneficial in decreasing frequencies. To elaborate on this theory, consider the entirety of the population; only one percent of the populace is considered as highly psychopathic (expressing high levels of psychopathic traits). The one percent of the population prey upon the rest of the ninety-nine percent of the population who are conscientious and interdependent with one another. Psychopathic individuals do not tend to interact with other psychopaths who may be able to impugn them. Thus, if the frequency of psychopaths was exponentially higher, then their adaptive fitness to their environments would diminish, because psychopaths would be competing with other psychopaths. While the aforementioned infamous psychopaths are important to examine when discussing the evolution of psychopathy, it is important to also consider current psychopathic trends that are exhibited today in the corporate world. One study looked at 203 corporate professionals and assessed their psychopathic tendencies using psychological evaluations. The results showed that a staggering 3.9% of those individuals showed high psychopathic tendencies. One may draw the conclusion that there is a correlation between these psychopathic individuals and their rise to positions of power in their respective jobs. Thus, in a sense, these individuals’ high levels of ruthlessness, egomania, and grandiose expectations are adaptations which allow them to gain the most from their given environments (in this case the environment is the corporate field). In simpler terms, these behavioral adaptations are furthering these corporate professionals’ chances for survival in their positions of employment.
What creates a psychopath? Where did Torquemada’s adaptive lack of remorse which was crucial in obtaining his religious goals, Ted Bundy’s modified manipulative charm to lure women, the Joker’s shocking lack of remorse, and corporate professionals’ ruthlessness all come from? They were all adaptations in individuals’ genetic and psychological makeup that made them singular in comparison to others that have been in similar environments. While psychopathy is a pathology, it can also been seen as a conditional adaptation method that has been modified throughout the centuries in order to yield the most benefits of a given situation. This article discusses various theories that present psychopathy as an adaptation response to one’s environment. What most of these theories have in common is that they focus on how one’s genetic makeup and behavioral traits are affected by adverse situations. A person may not even necessarily be classified as a diagnosed psychopath, but they could still exhibit psychopathic tendencies in inimical situations. To expand upon this point, consider the famous prison study conducted by Phillip Zimbardo. Twenty-four male college students (healthy and mentally sound) were chosen to participate in an experiment where half were assigned to play the role of prisoners and the other half were the prison guards. The experiment had a planned schedule of two weeks but had to be ended early, because the guards were exhibiting barbarous behaviors towards the prisoners. Therefore, even psychologically healthy individuals can present psychopathic traits in certain situations. It is important to note that the situation at hand must be one where physical or emotional stress is involved. The stress is conducive for eliciting adaptive defense mechanisms, such as certain psychological traits like ruthlessness or lack of guilt.
While there is much more research to be done revolving around the topics of genetic and behavioral psychopathy, it is clear that this adaptive pathology has demonstrated ad hoc evolution throughout the centuries. Although it is difficult to classify a pathology as adaptive rather than determinantal, numerous examples of psychopaths reacting to their given environments highlights the adaptive nature of psychopathology as a conditional defense mechanism. This paper’s purpose is definitely not to advocate for the behaviors displayed by psychopaths, rather its purpose is to hopefully shed light on the adaptive nature of psychopathy from an evolutionary standpoint. Always remember, the worst path to walk on is a psycho-path!
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