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David Barash on Evolutionary Biology and Mental Health

On the future of mental health

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with David Barash

The current, dominant paradigm of “diagnosing and treating mental disorders” pointedly does not ask the question, “What emotional differences exist at birth and isn’t it possible that some, even many, people are born ‘sadder’ or ‘more anxious’ than the next person?” Can evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology perhaps help us deconstruct the current, dominant paradigm? Here are some initial thoughts shared by the evolutionary biologist David Barash.

EM: Among other things, you are an evolutionary biologist. Let’s begin with an impossible question. To what extent do human beings vary at birth, would you say, making some perhaps “already sad” or “already anxious” as part of their natural inheritance and endowment?

DB: I can't give a quantitative answer to your question, but its clear that people vary in what researchers identify as their "temperament," which speaks directly to tendencies to be "sad," "anxious," and a variety of other traits. Presumably this also includes "intelligence," although it isn't clear how this plays out along the various dimensions of intelligence that have been recognized, such as "social intelligence," "mathematical" versus "verbal" intelligence, etc.

EM: People are trained nowadays to believe that when they experience emotional or mental distress that is proof that they have something called a “mental disorder.” How would you characterize emotional and mental distress, either from an evolutionary standpoint, a psychological standpoint, or both?

DB: If that's the way people are trained nowadays, it's a great disservice to them! Clearly there are circumstances that generate emotional or mental distress, when such distress is altogether appropriate: e.g., death of a loved one, serious illness or incapacity for one's self, and so forth. It seems to me that such reactions can only be characterized as "disordered" when and if they persist for an inappropriately long time, which in some cases might well have to extend over a year or more, and when and if they get in the way of normal life functions as a result. I think it’s a grave mistake to pathologize reactions to distressing life events when such reactions are suitable to the circumstance.

EM: Given that we are the creature and the species that we are, to what extent do society and culture influence how “mentally well” or “mentally unwell” we will feel? How big an influence are society and culture on individual mental health?

DB: That's a fascinating question, and one that I don't feel qualified to answer ... and that I doubt anyone is! It seems likely, however, that even "sane" people can feel (and presumably, to some extent, be) downright crazy when placed in bizarre circumstances, such as the culture of a concentration camp. On the other hand, it seems intuitively obvious that a supportive society and culture can enable people - even those whose mental health is fragile - to function relatively well.

EM: What continues to puzzle you about human nature? What continues to make you scratch your head?

DB: Frankly, what puzzles me most about human nature - and also worries me greatly - is less a theoretical or scientific question than a practical and socio-political one: how to get people to focus less on their own short-term issues and problems, and more on longer-term problems that threaten not only themselves but their descendants and other inhabitants of the planet as a whole. I am thinking here of two immense problems in particular: the twin threats of nuclear war and of global climate change. To these, I'd also add the matter of overpopulation, loss of biodiversity and socio-economic inequality. I think the failure of so many people to confront these issues creatively is due largely to our evolutionary inheritance, which in the past has only rewarded short-term, selfish considerations. But this has to change ... although I confess that I don't have any brilliant ideas as to how this can be achieved!

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress of any sort, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

DB: When it comes to mental health generally, I'm a traditionalist in that I'd advise against quackery, whether in the form of bizarre and unvalidated biochemical interventions or Freudian psychoanalysis. I would recommend honest evaluation of their situation and condition, and a willingness to seek help from acknowledged professionals.


Re David Barash: I'm an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. Most recent books are Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern religion meets modern Western science (2014, Oxford University Press) and Homo Mysterious: evolutionary puzzles of human nature (2013, Oxford University Press). Forthcoming in February, 2016 is Out of Eden: violence, sex, parenting, genius, homosexuality, monotheism, adultery and other surprising consequences of polygamy, also from Oxford.


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

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