A Coat of Dr Pangloss

Commentary upon the Editorial by Randolph Nesse MD: Evolution at 150: time for truly biological psychiatry. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2009) 195: 471-472

This was a welcome Editorial for our Psychiatric Journal to include and I am sure it is bound to generate healthy discussion. (1) We are rather good at recording anniversaries but this is a most rightful one. Yet, I cannot help wondering what Charles Darwin would have made of the continuing debate that lies centrally within the academic field that has become ‘Evolutionary Psychology.’

Firstly we must consider that Randolph Nesse is an example of a new generation of polymaths. This is refreshing and exactly the wish of Dr Bettina Piko, who in her rather excellent summary paper: The Physicians of the future, concluded:

“The greatest scientific discoveries have proved to be the epoch-marking ones that see beyond the specific facts of a particular discipline. Medicine may be essentially scientific, and ‘boxing science’ will continue to exist and bear fruit for medicine. However, medical scientists as future polymaths will need to break out of the boxes. The task is not to get rid of the boxes, but rather to see the information in those boxes not just from the inside but from the outside as well.” Bettina Piko (2)

There can be no doubt that Professor Nesse has done just this. We must welcome such, and encourage just so, in other doctors. However, and isn’t there always an ‘however’ in open debate, in my opinion, Professor Nesse has borrowed the coat of Dr Pangloss.

This may need explanation. Firstly – as one most tiresomely must do – can I confirm that I am a ‘good Darwinian,’ an atheist, and I am utterly persuaded by Darwin’s accounts of our origins at a level biological. There can be no ‘intelligent design.’ Secondly, I do think evolutionary psychology can help in our quest in our understanding of mental human suffering.

Theodore Dalrymple, the gout-wracked curmudgeon of the BMJ, often returns in his short commentaries to the theme of honesty by doctors – not deliberate dishonesty – but that borne of trying to ease with words our often troubled patients. (3) I mention this only, as Nesse opens his Editorial by stating rather polemically but evolution is just now being recognised as the missing-half of a truly biological psychiatry” (1). There is great debate about this matter, wonderfully exposed in the seventeen essays put together by Valerie Gray Hardcastle: Where Biology Meets Psychology (4). When you get past the terminology of evolutionary psychology, this book, essentially progresses the seminal thoughts of Gould and Lewontin in their Spandrels paper of 1979 (5). Speaking of which this year also celebrates its Anniversary!

As I understand it the main claim of Evolutionary Psychology, by the likes of Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby is that the human mind is a set of cognitive mechanisms that are adaptations to the environment of Pleistocene. This may well be right but it surely reduces out culture and assumes our mental responses are borne only of a series of adaptations. What about non-cognitive adaptations and their influence? Further, not all phenotypic characters are adaptive. And as every second year medical student should know, there are other restraints upon the adaptive power of natural selection – there are spandrels, allopatric speciation with relatively rapid change due to migration, reproductive isolation, and the increased power of drift etc etc.

“It is a fools errand to guess the aetiology of future discoveries in science, but we maintain that Cosmide and Tooby don’t have any good arguments to support their claim that reflecting on adaptive problems will lead to the discovery of an abundance of unexpected cognitive mechanisms. Indeed, we think that their arguments depend crucially on Panglossian assumptions.”(4) Taud Gratntham & Shaun Nichols

I believe the approach of Professor Nesse might show some hitherto unknown psychological mechanisms. However beyond the Pangloss, my concern is underneath the coat; the problem of methodology as stated by Paul Sheldon Davies.

“It is practically impossible to discover the evolutionary origins of our cognitive capacities without first knowing the architecture of those capacities” (4) Paul Sheldon Davies

In pulling together our current understanding of narrative biological, nobody writes better than Professor Steven Rose. His paper written in 2002 on the future of biology is an exposition of clear thought, inside and outside, of many many boxes. Rose writes simply avoiding the pitfalls of metaphor. In his paper, he only once returns to fable, yet he uses it with wonderful clarity and balance of consideration: it relates to five biologists on a picnic, each considering WHY a frog jumped?

“The first, a physiologist, describes the frog’s leg muscles and nervous system. The frog jumps because impulses have travelled from the frog’s retina to its brain and thence down motor nerves to the muscle. The second, a biochemist, points out that the muscles are composed of actin and myosin proteins—the frog jumps because of the properties of these fibrous proteins that enable them, driven by the energy of ATP, to slide past one another. The third, a developmental biologist, describes the ontogenetic processes whereby the fertilised ovum divides, in due course forming the nervous system and musculature. The fourth, a student of animal behaviour, points to a snake in a tree above where the frog was sitting: the frog jumps to escape the snake. The fifth, an evolutionist, explains the processes of natural selection that ensured that only those frog ancestors able both to detect snakes and jump fast enough to escape them had a chance to survive and breed.” (6) Steven P. R. Rose

Historical review, even if covering recent history, as in this peri-millennial debate on ‘Evolutionary Psychology’ can be misrepresented through selected quotes. I have tried to balance the selection of thoughts of those who academically study this subject. In truth I think that most of us operate somewhere in the ‘in-between ground’ of Spandrel or Panglossian understanding.

I recently wrote a piece on the village doctor who served generations of my family in the time of Darwin. Dr Daniel Rankin was a favourite eccentric in a rural Scottish village where he was regaled for his long flowing hair, massive torso and estranged but kindly temperament. He spent all his non-doctoring moments collecting fossils and supplied them to the Hunterian Museum and met with the Bulldog but not Darwin himself. Anyway Dr Rankin – I have his carte-visite photograph – used to wear a long coat, and for reason presumably only to shock, used to greet returning ‘heart-sink’ patients by standing on his head! This has left me wondering what his Pangloss coat revealed underneath: presumably a man living and shaped as much by his culture and family, as he was by the evolution that he helped understand.

“The truth of Darwinism is to see how we are natural in our origins; the error of Darwinitis is to imagine that we are defined by our origins; in short to confuse our biological roots with our cultural leaves.” (7) Raymond Tallis


This is not a picture of Dr Daniel Rankin. You can see Dr Rankin in a later post. This is a theatrical picture for Candide’s  Dr Pangloss, professor of “métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie”


1. Nesse, RM. Editorial: Evolution at 150: Time for truly biological psychiatry. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2009) 195: 471-472.

2. Piko, BF. Physicians of the future: Renaissance of Polymaths? The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health; December 2002; 122 (4), pp. 233-237

3. Dalrymple, T. Double Trouble (Between the Lines Editorial) BMJ. 10June 2009

4. Hardcastle, VG. Where Biology Meets Psychology – Essays edited by Valerie Gray Hardcastle, 1999 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

5. Gould, SJ & and Lewontin, RC. The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” Proc. Roy. Soc. London B 205 (1979) pp. 581-598

6. Rose, Steven PR. The Biology of the Future and the Future of Biology Journal of Molecular Biology (2002)

7. Tallis, R. Darwinism without Darwinitis. Newcastle upon Tyne, October 2008 as part of The Great Debate 10th Anniversary

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