Happily, I have won a postdoc grant of 126,600 francs to attend Cambridge University, on a two year project (01.08.2024-31.07.26) titled 'Evolutionary Psychiatry and Stigmatisation'. I will be joining Nikhil Chaudhary at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies.
Here is a summary of the project:
Evolutionary psychiatry is an emerging field in the study of mental disorders. It asks questions regarding evolutionary rather than mechanistic cause: why is the human species so vulnerable to these common, early onset, heritable conditions, which cannot be pinned down to any precise pathology? Why have we not evolved to be perfectly mentally healthy? Possible answers reference functional systems which become harmful due to unusual aspects of modern environments; adaptations which we misinterpret as mental disorders due to the suffering they cause; and more. Despite boasting a broad range of theoretical perspectives, one crucial dimension is missing – evidence of potential to reduce harm. Evolutionary perspectives offer explanations, but don’t lead to any obvious novel pharmaceutical or therapy.
However, practicing psychiatrists and therapists who adopt an evolutionary perspective have proposed that evolutionary explanations may in themselves be therapeutic – by offering patients an explanation for their situation which is destigmatizing, and encouraging different public health and social approaches to acceptance and integration. For example, if autistic traits (excluding severe cases meeting autism criteria due to identifiable pathology) are products of an evolutionary process leading to a combination of strengths in systemizing and memory with trade-off weaknesses in certain social domains, as suggested by Simon Baron Cohen, there are presumed implications that their strengths may be nurtured and weaknesses more happily forgiven in education and employment. Despite widespread attempts by the ‘neurodiversity’ movement to push such inclusion, there has been no investigation of how evolutionary explanations may justify it.
The proposed project aims to fill this critical gap in the evolutionary psychiatry literature. Firstly this requires developing a ‘Stigmatisation and Integration’ questionnaire (SIQ) which can pick up major critical factors related to third party stigmatization (e.g. willingness to work with an individual; willingness to be romantically involved with an individual) which may be affected by explanatory frameworks, including evolutionary ones. This will be a collaborative project engaging a global community of psychiatrists, psychologists and anthropologists who are interested in evolutionary psychiatry, and will involve item-pool generation, stakeholder consultations and content validation, focus groups to develop the scale, followed by surveys and factor analyses to determine its psychometric properties and refine the items in the scale. Participants will be drawn from convenience samples and using online questionnaire platforms. The SIQ will be developed explicitly with wide generalisability across disorders and cultures in mind, as it may serve a future purpose of assessing stigmatization and integration in non-industrialised societies (e.g. are autistic or ADHD individuals better integrated into such environments?).
In the project’s second phase, the SIQ will be used to measure the effects of evolutionary explanations of autism in comparison to explanations-as-usual, using online questionnaire platforms. The expected results are for evolutionary explanations to meaningfully reduce stigmatization and increase willingness to socially integrate autistic individuals in comparison to currently dominant explanatory frameworks which emphasise pathology. This could provide critical justification for the further development of evolutionary psychiatry, both scientifically and in general and specialist education, and encourage research on the effects of evolutionary explanations of other mental disorders.