Nautilus

Does Depression Have an Evolutionary Purpose?

I had a tough time in high school. Like many other young adolescents, I saw myself as fundamentally flawed, and felt a searing isolation. Nothing I looked forward to brought any hope. I stopped getting out of bed. I cut myself. I drafted a suicide note.

It was a terrible time that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But in a strange way, my self-destructive behavior may have had a benefit. I eventually dropped clues about my situation, leading to an intervention that put me on a better track. I was hospitalized. It scared me straight, highlighting a pathway of suffering I no longer wanted to indulge. I went back on medication and did what it took to stay at my school.

costly signal: According to the bargaining model of suicidality, an attempt to take one’s own life is a costly, and therefore honest, signal to one’s network—characteristics shared by a peacock’s tail.ngela Nicholson/PhotoPlus Magazine via Getty Images

One in six Americans will suffer a major depressive disorder at some point in life.1 That word—disorder—characterizes how most of us see depression. It’s a breakdown, a flaw in the system, something to be remedied and moved past.

Some psychologists, however, have argued that depression is not a dysfunction at all, but an evolved mechanism designed to achieve a particular set of benefits. I’ve certainly considered whether it’s done that for me, both in high school and later in life. If they’re right, it means that our thinking about depression needs an intervention too.


Theories about the evolutionary function of depression are numerous.2 One of the most popular current ideas is the analytical rumination hypothesis. This idea was described most thoroughly in a long 2009 article by Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist now at McMaster University, and J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia Student Health Services.3 Andrews had noted that the physical and mental symptoms of depression appeared to form an organized system. There is anhedonia, the lack of pleasure or interest in most activities. There’s an increase in rumination, the obsessing over the source of one’s pain. There’s

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus6 min read
Biodiversity Alters Strategies of Bacterial Evolution
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. In the closing paragraph of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin urged readers to “contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the b
Nautilus10 min read
Philosophy Is a Public Service: I design thought experiments to provoke dialogue about who and what we want to become.
Several years ago, I climbed Mt. Washington in Nevada to see the oldest complex life forms on Earth. Typically found at elevations higher than 3,000 meters, bristlecone pine trees can live for as long as five millennia. They do so by growing very slo
Nautilus4 min read
Australia’s Secret Rescue of Ancient Trees Offers an Insight Into Evolution
When I read that more than a billion animals had lost their lives to bushfires still raging in Australia, I froze, staring at the incomprehensible figure on my screen. A sort of sinking feeling came. Scientists made the estimate from the numbers of a