Homeostasis, personality, and life (part 2)

Warning: This post may get a little fuzzy, due to discussion of things like personality, psychology, and philosophy.

Yesterday we discussed homeostatic systems for normal organism/organization maintenance and defense, as well as pathological malfunctions of over or under-response from the homeostatic systems.

But humans are not mere action-reaction systems; they have qualia, an inner experience of being.

One of my themes here is the idea that various psychological traits, like anxiety, guilt, depression, or disgust, might not be just random things we feel, but exist for evolutionary reasons. Each of these emotions, when experienced moderately, may have beneficial effects. Guilt (and its cousin, shame,) helps us maintain our social relationships with other people, aiding in the maintenance of large societies. Disgust protects us from disease and helps direct sexual interest at one’s spouse, rather than random people. Anxiety helps people pay attention to crucial, important details, and mild depression may help people concentrate, stay out of trouble, or–very speculatively–have helped our ancestors hibernate during the winter.

In excess, each of these traits is damaging, but a shortage of each trait may also be harmful.

I have commented before on the remarkable statistic that 25% of women are on anti-depressants, and if we exclude women over 60 (and below 20,) the number of women with an “anxiety disorder” jumps over 30%.

The idea that a full quarter of us are actually mentally ill is simply staggering. I see three potential causes for the statistic:

  1. Doctors prescribe anti-depressants willy-nilly to everyone who asks, whether they’re actually depressed or not;
  2. Something about modern life is making people especially depressed and anxious;
  3. Mental illnesses are side effects of common, beneficial conditions (similar to how sickle cell anemia is a side effect of protection from malaria.)

As you probably already know, sickle cell anemia is a genetic mutation that protects carriers from malaria. Imagine a population where 100% of people are sickle cell carriers–that is, they have one mutated gene, and one regular gene. The next generation in this population will be roughly 25% people who have two regular genes (and so die of malaria,) 50% of people who have one sickle cell and one regular gene (and so are protected,) and 25% of people will have two sickle cell genes and so die of sickle cell anemia. (I’m sure this is a very simplified scenario.)

So I consider it technically possible for 25% of people to suffer a pathological genetic condition, but unlikely–malaria is a particularly ruthless killer compared to being too cheerful.

Skipping to the point, I think there’s a little of all three going on. Each of us probably has some kind of personality “set point” that is basically determined by some combination of genetics, environmental assaults, and childhood experiences. People deviate from their set points due to random stuff that happens in their lives, (job promotions, visits from friends, car accidents, etc.,) but the way they respond to adversity and the mood they tend to return to afterwards is largely determined by their “set point.” This is all a fancy way of saying that people have personalities.

The influence of random chance on these genetic/environmental factors suggests that there should be variation in people’s emotional set points–we should see that some people are more prone to anxiety, some less prone, and some of average anxiousness.

Please note that this is a statistical should, in the same sense that, “If people are exposed to asbestos, some of them should get cancer,” not a moral should, as in, “If someone gives you a gift, you should send a thank-you note.”

Natural variation in a trait does not automatically imply pathology, but being more anxious or depressive or guilt-ridden than others can be highly unpleasant. I see nothing wrong, a priori, with people doing things that make their lives more pleasant and manageable (and don’t hurt others); this is, after all, why I enjoy a cup of coffee every morning. If you are a better, happier, more productive person with medication (or without it,) then carry on; this post is not intended as a critique of anyone’s personal mental health management, nor a suggestion for how to take care of your mental health.

Our medical/psychological health system, however, operates on the assumption that medications are for pathologies only. There is not form to fill out that says, “Patient would like anti-anxiety drugs in order to live a fuller, more productive life.”

That said, all of these emotions are obviously responses to actual stuff that happens in real life, and if 25% of women are coming down with depression or anxiety disorders, I think we should critically examine whether anxiety and depression are really the disease we need to be treating, or the body’s responses to some external threat.

I am reminded here of Peter Frost’s On the Adaptive Value of “Aw Shucks:

In a mixed group, women become quieter, less assertive, and more compliant. This deference is shown only to men and not to other women in the group. A related phenomenon is the sex gap in self-esteem: women tend to feel less self-esteem in all social settings. The gap begins at puberty and is greatest in the 15-18 age range (Hopcroft, 2009).

If more women enter the workforce–either because they think they ought to or because circumstances force them to–and the workforce triggers depression, then as the percent of women formally employed goes up, we should see a parallel rise in mental illness rates among women. Just as Adderal and Ritalin help little boys conform to the requirements of modern classrooms, Prozac and Lithium help women cope with the stress of employment.

As we discussed yesterday, fever is not a disease, but part of your body’s system for re-asserting homeostasis by killing disease microbes and making it more difficult for them to reproduce. Extreme fevers are an over-reaction and can kill you, but a normal fever below 104 degrees or so is merely unpleasant and should be allowed to do its work of making you better. Treating a normal fever (trying to lower it) interferes with the body’s ability to fight the disease and results in longer sicknesses.

Likewise, these sorts of emotions, while definitely unpleasant, may serve some real purpose.

We humans are social beings (and political animals.) We do not exist on our own; historically, loneliness was not merely unpleasant, but a death sentence. Humans everywhere live in communities and depend on each other for survival. Without refrigeration or modern storage methods, saving food was difficult. (Unless you were an Eskimo.) If you managed to kill a deer while on your own, chances are you couldn’t eat it all before it began to rot, and then your chances of killing another deer before you started getting seriously hungry were low. But if you share your deer with your tribesmates, none of the deer goes to waste, and if they share their deer with yours, you are far less likely to go hungry.

If you end up alienated from the rest of your tribe, there’s a good chance you’ll die. It doesn’t matter if they were wrong and you were right; it doesn’t matter if they were jerks and you were the nicest person ever. If you can’t depend on them for food (and mates!) you’re dead. This is when your emotions kick in.

People complain a lot that emotions are irrational. Yes, they are. They’re probably supposed to be. There is nothing “logical” or “rational” about feeling bad because someone is mad at you over something they did wrong! And yet it happens. Not because it is logical, but because being part of the tribe is more important than who did what to whom. Your emotions exist to keep you alive, not to prove rightness or wrongness.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. Men and women have been subject to different evolutionary pressures, for example. But this is close enough for the purposes of the current conversation.

If modern people are coming down with mental illnesses at astonishing rates, then maybe there is something about modern life that is making people ill. If so, treating the symptoms may make life more bearable for people while they are subject to the disease, but still does not fundamentally address whatever it is that is making them sick in the first place.

It is my own opinion that modern life is pathological, not (in most cases,) people’s reactions to it. Modern life is pathological because it is new and therefore you aren’t adapted to it. Your ancestors have probably only lived in cities of millions of people for a few generations at most (chances are good that at least one of your great-grandparents was a farmer, if not all of them.) Naturescapes are calming and peaceful; cities noisy, crowded, and full of pollution. There is some reason why schizophrenics are found in cities and not on farms. This doesn’t mean that we should just throw out cities, but it does mean we should be thoughtful about them and their effects.

People seem to do best, emotionally, when they have the support of their kin, some degree of ethnic or national pride, economic and physical security, attend religious services, and avoid crowded cities. (Here I am, an atheist, recommending church for people.) The knowledge you are at peace with your tribe and your tribe has your back seems almost entirely absent from most people’s modern lives; instead, people are increasingly pushed into environments where they have no tribe and most people they encounter in daily life have no connection to them. Indeed, tribalism and city living don’t seem to get along very well.

To return to healthy lives, we may need to re-think the details of modernity.


Philosophically and politically, I am a great believer in moderation and virtue as the ethical, conscious application of homeostatic systems to the self and to organizations that exist for the sake of humans. Please understand that this is not moderation in the conventional sense of “sometimes I like the Republicans and sometimes I like the Democrats,” but the self-moderation necessary for bodily homeostasis reflected at the social/organizational/national level.

For example, I have posted a bit on the dangers of mass immigration, but this is not a call to close the borders and allow no one in. Rather, I suspect that there is an optimal amount–and kind–of immigration that benefits a community (and this optimal quantity will depend on various features of the community itself, like size and resources.) Thus, each community should aim for its optimal level. But since virtually no one–certainly no one in a position of influence–advocates for zero immigration, I don’t devote much time to writing against it; it is only mass immigration that is getting pushed on us, and thus mass immigration that I respond to.

Similarly, there is probably an optimal level of communal genetic diversity. Too low, and inbreeding results. Too high, and fetuses miscarry due to incompatible genes. (Rh- mothers have difficulty carrying Rh+ fetuses, for example, because their immune systems identify the fetus’s blood as foreign and therefore attack it, killing the fetus.) As in agriculture, monocultures are at great risk of getting wiped out by disease; genetic heterogeneity helps ensure that some members of a population can survive a plague. Homogeneity helps people get along with their neighbors, but too much may lead to everyone thinking through problems in similar ways. New ideas and novel ways of attacking problems often come from people who are outliers in some way, including genetics.

There is a lot of talk ’round these parts that basically blames all the crimes of modern civilization on females. Obviously I have a certain bias against such arguments–I of course prefer to believe that women are superbly competent at all things, though I do not wish to stake the functioning of civilization on that assumption. If women are good at math, they will do math; if they are good at leading, they will lead. A society that tries to force women into professions they are not inclined to is out of kilter; likewise, so is a society where women are forced out of fields they are good at. Ultimately, I care about my doctor’s competence, not their gender.

In a properly balanced society, male and female personalities complement each other, contributing to the group’s long-term survival.

Women are not accidents of nature; they are as they are because their personalities succeeded where women with different personalities did not. Women have a strong urge to be compassionate and nurturing toward others, maintain social relations, and care for those in need of help. These instincts have, for thousands of years, helped keep their families alive.

When the masculine element becomes too strong, society becomes too aggressive. Crime goes up; unwinable wars are waged; people are left to die. When the feminine element becomes too strong, society becomes too passive; invasions go unresisted; welfare spending becomes unsustainable. Society can’t solve this problem by continuing to give both sides everything they want, (this is likely to be economically disastrous,) but must actually find a way to direct them and curb their excesses.

I remember an article on the now-defunct neuropolitics (now that I think of it, the Wayback Machine probably has it somewhere,) on an experiment where groups with varying numbers of ‘liberals” and “conservatives” had to work together to accomplish tasks. The “conservatives” tended to solve their problems by creating hierarchies that organized their labor, with the leader/s giving everyone specific tasks. The “liberals” solved their problems by incorporating new members until they had enough people to solve specific tasks. The groups that performed best, overall, were those that had a mix of ideologies, allowing them to both make hierarchical structures to organize their labor and incorporate new members when needed. I don’t remember much else of the article, nor did I read the original study, so I don’t know what exactly the tasks were, or how reliable this study really was, but the basic idea of it is appealing: organize when necessary; form alliances when necessary. A good leader recognizes the skills of different people in their group and uses their authority to direct the best use of these skills.

Our current society greatly lacks in this kind of coherent, organizing direction. Most communities have very little in the way of leadership–moral, spiritual, philosophical, or material–and our society seems constantly intent on attacking and tearing down any kind of hierarchies, even those based on pure skill and competence. Likewise, much of what passes for “leadership” is people demanding that you do what they say, not demonstrating any kind of competence. But when we do find competent leaders, we would do well to let them lead.

Back to part one.


11 thoughts on “Homeostasis, personality, and life (part 2)

  1. I used to work in a railway company and the women drivers were in no way deferential to the men. They were confident and secure in their gender as far as I could see. Maybe the culture of my company was different?


    • As occupations go, driving trains may select for certain kinds of women who are confident and self-assured. (Plenty of female writers, by contrast, have anxieties up the wazoo.)

      I suspect there is actually a huge difference in mental illness rates by class, with most of the “depression” and “anxiety” disorders concentrated in middle-to-upperclass women. If I had to pick “who is most likely to be a neurotic wreck?” between a female train driver and a female lawyer, I’d pick the lawyer. But that’s because the female lawyers I know are on tons of medication.

      I also suspect that most people don’t really do things like count how often in a conversation the men interrupt the women and vice versa. My personal sense is that men tend to interrupt more and be more conversationally dominant, but they don’t notice because they’re used to it.


  2. Well yes that’s a factor re: confident and assured although unfortunately we have some train drivers of both sexes that should not be driving trains because of a lack of self assertion and decisiveness.

    Huge difference in mental illness by class? It would be nice to see some stats on this. Take the legal profession where I suspect there is still a strong culture of sexism which would mean that that profession would have a disproportionate numbers of neurotics etc.

    Also in the transport industry (at least in the UK) there is like the armed services a great mix of classes and many have come from professional or semi professional backgrounds when they have been made redundant in those professions. Add to that a good number of university graduates and you have a good mix of people that makes it difficult to categorise drivers (and other “front line” workers in transport) as working class or coming from just one class.


  3. The more I read about human evolutionary biology, the more I realize women are so different. I feel as I have been fed with lies from most of my life until now. My own problem is to accept reality sometimes, and in that case, the reality is what it is and still I am deluding myself. Even you try to consciously believe that women are equals.
    ps. Why no schizophrenics in the countryside? Schizophrenia is one of the oldest known mental illnesses due to its salient symptoms. . Simply in the past they called psychotic patients possessed, gifted, communicators with god etc. And not forget every village had its so called idiot. Moreover I don’t think mental illnesses were so uncommon in the past, just then people thought them more as failings of character rather than illnesses in mechanistic terms. Someone with depression could be called lazy, another with ocd overly preoccupied with order, he could also be considered as pious etc. Mental conditions might have not changed, just our way of thinking.


    • I suspect that mentally ill people in the countryside travel to the city to get treatment/food (often before they start showing symptoms.)
      In the past, mentally ill people probably just died a lot.

      Realizing that you have been lied to over and over and that society is still lying can be distressing. It used to bother me a lot, but I think I’m getting used to it.


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