Oliver James: Survival of the maddest

Why does schizophrenia exist all around the world, albeit that its prevalence varies as much as sixteenfold? In evolutionary terms, genes causing vulnerability to madness should have been selected out of the human genome, because mad people are much less likely to reproduce. To deal with this problem, all manner of theories have been advanced to explain the upside of going mad for the species. Paranoia has been offered as a useful mentality when living in the primordial swamp, liable to be set upon by sabre-toothed tigers.

Socially disruptive madness could have helped to split up groups of hunter-gatherers when they got too large for their ecosystem. The most plausible theory has been that madness is strongly linked to the creativity and originality necessary for the advance of the species.

Several studies have found high levels of imagination and innovation among relatives of the mad. While no one has written a great symphony or created a Nobel prize-winning theory when in the midst of a schizophrenic episode, mania has definitely aided a few geniuses. As Anthony Storr brilliantly documents in his book The Dynamics of Creation, it is between rather than during phases of severe mental illness that mad geniuses do their stuff.

But the key points missing from all accounts of the evolution of madness are that its symptoms express important meanings rather than being electro-chemically driven nonsense, and that genes play less of a role than environment in causing it. Between 51 to 97 per cent of schizophrenics suffered sexual or physical abuse as children. Children of mothers who said they had considered aborting during pregnancy are four times more likely to suffer. Afro-Caribbeans facing racism and low-class status in British life are up to 16 times more prone to schizophrenia than their cousins who stayed at home.

Madness as a way of coping with intolerable childhood or adulthood experiences makes a lot of sense. A great deal of high achievement is explicable as an attempt to express or to compensate for trauma.

While adversity usually just causes emotional problems, converting the lead of pathology into the gold of achievement also happens.One in three prime ministers, US presidents or of the highest achievers in any field lost a parent before the age of 14, twice the average rate before the arrival of modern medicine. This astonishing fact is very compelling evidence for the role of adversity.

Madness is a way of coping with trauma, a set of psychological defences, like delusion, paranoia and hallucination, with which we survive. That these mechanisms exist at all must ultimately be the product of evolution to some extent - we have no meaningful theories other than Darwin's with which to explain them. But they endure as inner ways of functioning when reality becomes unendurable. Droning on about their evolution is far less important than getting to grips with what they mean for afflicted individuals. The time has come to stop treating them as individual or species-wide genetic destinies.

oliver.james@observer.co.uk. Oliver James is unable to enter into any personal correspondence

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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