Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 18th, 2015

The healed madmen

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Robert Sapolsky

What’s evolution about? Evolution is the process by which adaptive traits become more common. Schizophrenia is not an adaptive trait. You can show this formally: schizophrenics have a lower rate of leaving copies of their genes in the next generation than unaffected siblings. By the rules, by the economics of evolution, this is a maladaptive trait. Yet, it chugs along at a one to two percent rate in every culture on this planet.

So what’s the adaptive advantage of schizophrenia? It has to do with a classic truism—this business that sometimes you have a genetic trait which in the full-blown version is a disaster, but the partial version is good news…

It’s the shamans. It’s the medicine men. It’s the medicine women. It’s the witch doctors. In the 1930s an anthropologist named Paul Radin first described it as “shamans being half mad,” shamans being “healed madmen.” This fits exactly. It’s the shamans who are moving separate from everyone else, living alone, who talk with the dead, who speak in tongues, who go out with the full moon and turn into a hyena overnight, and that sort of stuff. It’s the shamans who have all this metamagical thinking. When you look at traditional human society, they all have shamans. What’s very clear, though, is they all have a limit on the number of shamans. That is this classic sort of balanced selection of evolution. There is a need for this subtype—but not too many.

The critical thing with schizotypal shamanism is, it is not uncontrolled the way it is in the schizophrenic. This is not somebody babbling in tongues all the time in the middle of the hunt. This is someone babbling during the right ceremony. This is not somebody hearing voices all the time, this is somebody hearing voices only at the right point. It’s a milder, more controlled version.

Shamans are not evolutionarily unfit. Shamans are not leaving fewer copies of their genes. These are some of the most powerful, honored members of society. This is where the selection is coming from. What this shamanistic theory says is, it’s not schizophrenia that’s evolved, it’s schizotypal shamanism that’s evolved. In order to have a couple of shamans on hand in your group, you’re willing to put up with the occasional third cousin who’s schizophrenic. That’s the argument; and it’s a very convincing one.

Robert Sapolsky

Written by nevalalee

April 18, 2015 at 7:30 am

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