Saturday, June 11, 2011

Depression as a Tool of Adaption?

I know this is not law school related, but I felt like playing amateur scientist for this evening.

I am interested in the concept of evolution.  Whatever trait we have originated because of a need in the past to help the species survive.

Now, people love to go on about "women be different than men!" jive, and only think about evolution as fast runners outstripping a pursuing lion, but there are all sorts of other traits that serve other purposes.

Before I explain the title of my piece, let me back up and give a back story.

A friend of mine told me that she was being treated for Vitamin D deficiency.  I was curious about this condition, so I looked it up on the internet.  I read that people of different races needed different amounts of Vitamin D, and that African-Americans needed much more than people of European descent, and that people in more northerly climates get most of what they need from eating sea food.

As you know, people in Norway and Iceland are pale and blond, so I began to wonder how those people effectively adapted to that environment.  After all, it's not like the pale people from ancient Africa decided to go north one day.  Something happened where they all eventually became that way. 

Even with genetic mutation, how can one explain such uniformity in personal characteristics?  Dark skin and dark eyes tend to be a dominant trait.  If a person from Iceland has a child with a person with dark skin, that child is going to tend towards darker skin.  It's not like you can simply breed it out of the population on that scale like lab rats.

...Or CAN you?

Now, we know that illnesses from lack of sun exposure do show up in the form of Ricketts, but, on the whole, illnesses of the body tend to be slow acting.  If your family has a tendency towards heart disease, it's not going to be genetically bred out on its own because the illness is going to strike long after that person has popped out a multitude of children.  As such, people in northerly climates were probably already eating a sizable amount of sea food and probably could have gotten by with some level of nutrition.  They may not have lived a long, healthy life, but still would have survived long enough to have children.

So, then, my thoughts turned to this:

What part of the United States has the highest suicide rate in the entire country?


Seattle also has the most cloudy and rainy days of about any city in the nation.

Although everyone acknowledged the link between the two issues, I started looking at it differently.  I then asked myself, "what if depression is a tool of adaptation to the surroundings?"

When one thinks about it, depression is not only a genetic issue where it tends to run in families.  It can be triggered by the environment---particularly when a person is not adapting well to their surroundings.  They lost a job.  They lost a family member.  They were rejected by the community for being different.  They have run out of food.  They are in the middle of a war.  In response to their conditions, they either become lethargic and do nothing, or become restless and are spurred into running away from the situation.

Obviously, the people who did not commit suicide were better-tolerated to that environment, but it is a deeper issue than simply saying that people who were intolerant to the weather simply killed themselves.  It can also be a passive act.  It causes social isolation and lack of sexual drive, which obviously means fewer children.
  But, the illness can also cause a group of angry malcontents who simply become tired of the situation and leave.  If people are ill because of nutrition, it directly affects their mental abilities.  The body, sensing that it is not getting what it needs, creates a depressed state in the mind to seek immediate change in environment.  If that person simply stays in their current environment, they are less likely to socially participate and genetically contribute to the blood line.  As opposed to physical illness from stress, such as diabetes and heart disease that generally will not kill people until well after they had children, depression is much more immediate in effect.  Considering the fact that depression usually rears its head during the teenage years (the time when a person could start having children), it may simply be a necessary part of a person's makeup to ensure that they are well-motivated to try and find suitable surroundings in which to raise their children. 

In essence, the depression from malnutrition is signalling the body that this is an inappropriate environment to have children.

Let's say, hypothetically, that in the case of a country like Iceland, a large group of people once settled there that once looked as dark as people in the Mediterranean.  Illness from lack of sun and an inability to get everything that they need from nutrition would begin to scourge the population.  Over the centuries, the people whose bodies could not adjust to the level of sunlight in the place engaged in self-destructive behaviors, had fewer children, or simply moved somewhere else, while the people who could better tolerate the environment stayed, had more children, and continued to thrive from the available resources.


  1. How do you explain the fact that depressed women are more likely to be "loose" sexually? Women with lower self-esteem tend to be more sexually permiscuous.

  2. I don't think evolution works that way. People wouldn't evolve depression if the "advantage" was to engage in self-destructive behavior or not procreate. That would eliminate depression from the population - not encourage it.

    The idea of depression being an advantage because it encourages people to move out of harmful environments makes sense, but it doesn't explain why people from Iceland are just as likely to be depressed as people from Africa. If your theory was true, you'd think that anyone with a capability of being depressed would have moved away from iceland, leaving in Iceland only those with small capabilities of be depressed.

  3. Actually, it is bipolar women who tend to be sexually promiscuous because that trait is associated with the manic phase of their illness. And even though bipolar people have a much higher tendency towards suicide than the average population, you can see why the illness lives on if its sufferers tend to engage in risky sexual behavior.

    As you point out, self-esteem issues are related to sexual behavior as well. However, the behavior stems from a desire for acceptance, past sexual abuse, or desire to replace a social bond that is absent from their lives. Sexual predators are known for targeting people and children who are not getting enough attention at home.

    As for the people of Iceland being as depressed as the people in Africa: My point is that it was not the tendency for depression that was weeded out of the population. It can't be done. It would be like weeding out eyes and ears within a few generations. Having low moods is as much of a survival tool as having feet. Happiness with exactly what you have doesn't ensure survival. While we hold monks in high esteem for being happy with a vow of poverty, the Bible itself is filled with stories about unhappy people looking for the promised land. If they were simply happy with what they had, then they would have exposed themselves and their children to war, disease, and famine while letting their numbers slowly be decimated by lack of inaction.

  4. i live in seattle, am a person of color with naturally tan (to dark tan, when in sun) skin and have had bouts of depression at times. first off, i have to point out that i think your statistic as seattle having the highest rate of suicide/depression is actually outdated. this fact may have been true at some point, but it's no longer the case. (google search: portland, st louis, nola, detroit, etc.) however, i do acknowledge that the city is infamous for this, whether true or not. perhaps, perception has contributed to reality a bit. anyway, i will wholeheartedly concede that the city does have more than its fair share of depression/suicide cases among its inhabitents. i also think that it has a direct correlation to lack of sunlight. as the northernmost major city in the continental u.s., seattle can easily go for 40+ day stretches without a single sunny day during its "non-summer" months: the long, dark, gray stretch of time between about late october through may. while spring and fall are certainly beautiful, they are still mixed with gray, overcast days with constant drizzle here. and mind you, since we are so far north, it is pitch black outside by about 4:30pm in the winter months.

    from my own experience, the environmental factors of seattle (and likely, other very northern locales) definiately contribute to, at least, seasonal depression, which easily snowballs into full-blown depression and then, for some, suicidal depression.

    interestingly enough, i also have some Native Am. friends (almost "pure-blooded", in case you're wondering), Native to this region, that also suffer from chronic depression for factors that they, too, blame largely on the sunless environment. while i agree that humans have evolved certain physical characteristics to help them survive in their environments (light skin for northern-dwellers, melanin for tropical climates, etc.), i can't see your connection about depression actually being a survival mechanism quite adding up, as you've explained it so far. maybe you could elaborate?

    and yes, law school debt is a sick joke. i'm currently paying off my glorious $120K+ debt at the rate of $1000/month (without the help of the amazing salary i assumed i would have). i wish i was still "just" an accountant!

  5. First of all, the cities you named have something else in common: They all have high rates of unemployment amongst unskilled workers with no job opportunities and a very large minority population. If you could imagine working in a factory in Detroit straight out of high school for 15 years where you can support your family and losing your job and about all you can do afterward is work as a cashier at a grocery store....that is, before the grocery store had to lay off most of its workforce because it's economic base was decimated. That is an environmental factor that directly leads to pervasive feelings of hopelessness that is remedied by either that person leaving, finding a new job,or through more extreme measures.

    At any rate, you ask why depression could be a survival tool:

    You see, depression and anxiety are not like some other forms of mental illness. If you are depressed, then you can comprehend that you are depressed.

    I know that sounds odd, but compare it to an illness like schizophrenia that destroys the part of the brain that alerts the person that they are sick. That's why you can't get those people to take medication. That would be like if I walked up to you and told you that you needed to take these powerful medications that only made you feel weird and caused no perceivable benefit. Would you want to take them?

    But you see the differences. A depressed person can do something to remedy their situation because they retain the capacity to understand that there is something wrong. If they are lucky, then they can do something such as move or change the way they are doing things. Once they become more prosperous, many of the stressors are lifted and they become more content.

    And when you think about the people who are unhappy with life, what are the solutions they talk about? They talk about how they need to get a new job, go back to school, find a new partner, or move somewhere else. In the end, they comprehend that there is a necessity to change something about their environment.

    A schizophrenic, on the other hand, does not know they are sick. Since they cannot comprehend their reality, they lack the ability to understand how to care for themselves.

    As for your $120k debt and being "just" an accountant: Funny, I just saw a "Daily Beast" article about useless degrees. While "law" wasn't on their list, they had other pursuits such as English and Music, and all of their starting salaries were somewhere in the ballpark of what a starting attorney would make! It seriously made me wonder what the point was in getting a law degree.

    I know that statement will sound money-grubbing to a lot of people, but being a lawyer doesn't not endow you with a magic wand to save the world. If it did, it would be worth every last penny.

  6. @ chief constable:

    Are you the blog's author? Either way, I really enjoy reading your posts, as they are so well-written and insightful.

    I don't have a comment for this subject, except to say that I was born and raised in Detroit, and I moved back here recently (I know, I know, but I was having my first kid and wanted to be close to the fam). I have never known Detroit to be associated with a high rate of suicide.

    But I simply MUST find that Daily Beast article. I have an English degree, which I obtained with visions of a super-fly NYC editor job, complete with corner office, personal assistant, and Anna-Wintour-caliber wardrobe (yeah, it's funny to me now, too). I was also under the impression that, should I decide to go to law school, an English degree would help prepare me for the massive amounts of reading and writing required in law school, as well as help hone my critical thinking skills.

    So since the editor job hasn't materialized thus far, I have been mulling law school. However, these anti-law-school blogs have definitely had their intended effect; I'm discouraged because I spent a good deal of undergrad partying, so my grades are just so-so, and I seriously doubt my ability to get into a first-tier school. And I definitely do NOT want to take on more debt just to find out (yet again) that employers do not care a whit about my degree. Been considering broadcasting school, but that field seems extremely selective. So I dunno...but I have to make a decision by August. Any suggestions?

  7. "What part of the United States has the highest suicide rate in the entire country?


    Are you sure about that?

  8. I have had depression for over 20 years. I also live in Detroit but the two are not connected, I've only lived here half as long as I have lived with depression. Anyhow, I agree with you about people who have depression know that they have it. It's all about what they do with it or if they let it defeat them. I will never let it win in that respect. Over the years I have used it as a tool. When I become unhappy, and the reasons behind it don't change beyond my control, I start the process of going into a relapse. I know the beginning signs. I know I must make some changes or my health and well-being will start to fail. These changes are usually very drastic - new job, removing a toxic relationship from my life, new home, etc. They could be something as minor as painting a room, taking time to do something fun, or taking time to just be alone with peace and quiet. Nevertheless, I use depression as a tool that forces me to make the changes that I actually knew for a while needed to be done but sometimes life's activities hinder that ability. In my case, it is a survival tool and once realizing it has taught me that the disease called depression isn't a burden in my life but kind of an inner guardian angel.