Can Evolutionary Theory Help Us Define Mental Disorder?

Jan 4, 2013 | All News, Blogging

New blog post on The New Existentialists:

Raskin, J. D. (2013, January 4). Can evolutionary theory help us define mental disorder? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Jerome Wakefield (1992a, 1992b) offers a provocative alternative to the vague atheoretical definition of mental disorder presently found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (APA, 2000). Rooted in evolutionary theory, Dr. Wakefield argues that mental disorder should be defined as a condition that (a) society deems harmful to the person, and (b) results from the failure of an internal mechanism to operate according to its naturally designed function. Dr. Wakefield contends that if the mental health professions adopted this definition, they would be better able to distinguish between what truly is a disorder and what is not. He maintains that while essentialist concepts sometimes lead us astray, other times they do identify common underlying properties of things. This is the case, he believes, when it comes to mental disorders, which leads him to conclude: “With respect to mental disorders, the common property that we now know is picked out is failure of evolved mental functions, so here the essentialist definition succeeds in picking out a real property” (Wakefield, 2002, p. 259). I’d like to pose several questions about Dr. Wakefield’s position as a way to further generate discussion.

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