Special Issue: History of Evolutionary Psychiatry

The June 2010 issue of History of Psychiatry, dedicated to “A Hundred Years of Evolutionary Psychiatry (1872-1972),” has just been released online. This special issue features a number of articles of interest to historians of psychology, including, among others, an article on Harry Harlow (left) and the nature of love by Marga Vicedo of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology and an article on the work of Lauretta Bender and the African American psyche by Denis Doyle. Titles, authors and abstracts to these and the other articles in the June issue follow below.

“The evolutionary turn in psychiatry: A historical overview,” by Pieter R. Adriaens and Andreas De Block. The abstract reads:

Ever since Darwin, psychiatrists have been tempted to put evolutionary theory to use in their efforts to understand and explain various aspects of mental disorders. Following a number of pivotal developments in the history of evolutionary thought, including degeneration theory, ethology and the modern synthesis, this introductory paper provides an overview of the many trends and schools in the history of ‘psychiatric Darwinism’ and ‘evolutionary psychiatry’. We conclude with an attempt to distinguish three underlying motives in asking evolutionary questions about mental disorders.

“Schizophrenia, evolution and the borders of biology: On Huxley et al.’s 1964 paper in Nature,” by Raf De Bont. The abstract reads:

In October 1964, Julian Huxley, Ernst Mayr, Humphrey Osmond and Abram Hoffer co-published a controversial paper in Nature, in which they tried to explain the persistence of schizophrenia from an evolutionary perspective. This article will elucidate how the reputed authors composed this paper to make it a strong argument for biological psychiatry. Through a close reading of their correspondence, it will furthermore clarify the elements which remained unspoken in the paper, but which were elementary in its genesis.The first was the dominance of psychoanalytical theory in (American) psychiatry — a dominance which the authors wanted to break. The second was the ongoing discussion on the boundaries of biological determinism and the desirability of a new kind of eugenics. As such, the Huxley et al. paper can be used to study the central issues of psychiatry in a pivotal era of its history.

“‘This excellent observer…’: The correspondence between Charles Darwin and James Crichton-Browne, 1869-75,” by Alison M. Pearn. The abstract reads:

Between May 1869 and December 1875, Charles Darwin exchanged more than 40 letters with James Crichton-Browne, superintendent of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield, Yorkshire. This paper charts their relationship within the context of Darwin’s wider research networks and methods; it analyses the contribution that Crichton-Browne made to the writing of Expression, arguing that the information he provided materially affected Darwin’s thesis, and that it was partly the need to assimilate this that led Darwin to publish Expression separately from Descent. The letters help to reconstruct Crichton-Browne’s early research interests, and document Darwin’s little-explored role as a patron. Both men are revealed within a collaborative scientific network, with each of them at various times a beneficiary or a promoter.

“‘Birdwatching and baby-watching’: Niko and Elisabeth Tinbergen’s ethological approach to autism,” by Chloe Silverman. The abstract reads:

Biographers have largely dismissed Nikolaas ‘Niko’ Tinbergen’s late research into the causes and treatment of autism, describing it as a deviation from his previous work, influenced by his personal desires. They have pointed to the incoherence of Tinbergen’s assertions about best practices for treating autism, his lack of experience with children with autism, and his apparent embracing of psychogenic theories that the medical research community had largely abandoned. While these critiques have value, it is significant that Tinbergen himself saw his research as a logical extension of his seminal findings in the field of ethology, the science of animal behaviour. The reception of his theories, both positive and negative, was due less to their strengths or faults than to the fact that Tinbergen had inserted himself into a pre-existing and acrimonious debate in the autism research community. Debates about the relative role of environmental and hereditary factors in the aetiology of autism, and the implications of both for the efficacy of different treatments, had political and material significance for the success of parent organizations’ lobbying efforts and financial support for research programmes. Tinbergen’s approach was welcomed and even championed by a significant minority, who saw no problem with his ideas or methods.

“The evolution of Harry Harlow: From the nature to the nurture of love,” by Marga Vicedo. The abstract reads:

Harlow deserves a place in the early history of evolutionary psychiatry but not, as he is commonly presented, because of his belief in the instinctual nature of the mother-infant dyad. Harlow’s work on the significance of peer relationships led him to appreciate the evolutionary significance of separate affectional systems. Over time, Harlow distanced himself from the ideas of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth as well as from Konrad Lorenz’s views about imprinting and instincts. Harlow’s work did not lend support to Bowlby’s belief in an innate need for mother love and his thesis that the mother was the child’s psychic organizer. Nor did Harlow agree with Lorenz’s view of instincts as biological, unmodifiable innate needs, unaffected by learning.

“‘Racial differences have to be considered’: Lauretta Bender, Bellevue Hospital, and the African American psyche, 1936-52,” by Denis Doyle. The abstract reads:

This paper examines one US psychiatrist’s engagement between 1936 and 1952 with a racialist strain of evolutionary thought. When Lauretta Bender began working with Bellevue Hospital’s disproportionately black population, the psychiatric literature still circulated the crude evolutionary proposition that blacks remained stuck at a more primitive stage of development. In the 1930s, drawing insights from holistic, mechanistic and environmentalist thinking on the relationship between mind and body, Bender developed her own more circumspect racialist position. Although she largely abandoned her underdetermined version of racialism in the 1940s for an approach that left out race as an active factor of analysis, this paper contends that she probably never wrote off black primitivity as a theoretical possibility.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.

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