On a warm day in late October, I received a delightful surprise in the postal mail. Paul Quinnet sent me his book, Darwin's Bass: The Evolutionary Psychology of Fishing Man. But inside was a letter that wanted a response to a question that I thought probing enough to reply: "...I'm curious if you've ever run across any explanations for suicide in the evolutionary psychology literature? My late career work now is a national suicide prevention program (I focus quite a bit on youth suicide), but have yet to find a satisfactory biological explanation as to why young men and women would voluntarily take themselves out of the gene pool before reproduction. Any thoughts here?" Below is my reponse to his letter of October 26, 1999. If you are interested in buying his book, please do not hesitate to email him at: email@example.com
November 10, 1999
As for the second item -- suicide in young adults -- I did a quick search of the indexes of all the books that I own with evolutionary psychology as their core; there were none on the matter of suicide. It does not mean that no explanation have been presented; just that I have found none in my limited library. So I am going to offer my own speculative theory on the subject, and please regard it as such.
Since I have received your book and letter, I have been giving the subject some thought and believe that the answer lies within our human ability for self-awareness; external cultural forces surrounding the local environment where the young adult puts his or her feet on the planet. (the longitude and latitude); and the human ability of judging others and oneself in a hierarchical setting (particularly males). These three forces in combination, and in varying degrees could force the individual to believe that the elimination of her or his genes are no longer needed in the gene pool. In the end, it is the mind over genetics that wins. If you can call death a win.
First, self-awareness. In 1970, Gordon Gallup proved that the great apes,(Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas, Organatans), recognize themselves in a mirror if it is placed in front of them and a red dot is placed on their foreheads. It is the attention paid to the red dot and other facial movements that indicate self-awareness. Among other monkey species and other animals, self awareness is not seen. [Gallup, G. (1970). 'Chimpanzees: Self-recognition.' Science 167: 86-7.] As for intelligence, as early as 1917, Wolfgang Kohler concluded that chimpanzees are capable of solving problems through cause and effect realization. [Kohler, W. (1917). Intelligenzprufungen an Menschenaffen. Springer, Berline 1973. Translated as The Mentality of Apes. Vintage Books, New York 1959.] So we know that we humans and other great apes are capable of self-awareness. This is important as it is how self-judgement, and hence, self-esteem is created.
In the second force, and to me the most important, is the cultural forces that surround the person who commits the sorry fate of suicide. Far too often, blame only is placed on the individual while the group that surrounds the individual receives no blame. Let's take high school as a perfect example. In fact, perhaps we should all try to focus on the new NBC TV show, Freaks and Geeks. In it, let's focus on the tall, lanky, young male, with several pens and pencils protruding from the shit pocket, who obviously is a portrayed as a Geek. What forces have shaped this individual into being the Geek that he is as compared to say, the handsome football star who dates the head cheerleader? Are these forces cultural in nature, or are they innate biological mechanisms? Well, I believe that they are both. Taking the example of Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado, when solid reports tell us
that the young killers were taunted by "jocks," the football team was shown in living color in a prominent position in the annual yearbook, while the international debate team was given a small black and white photo near the back of the book.
Why the seemingly higher rank of the football players over the intellectual debate team? In our modern technology driven society, shouldn't it be the other way around? (Please note that the New Economy is very recent--less than ten years old). Is it the perceived image of the powerfully large male warrior, going off to hunt for food, or to battle the enemy and return with treasure that will help to make the nation-state great and prosper resonate a favorable cord? Do images of John Wayne and Indy Jones, rescuing the fair maiden and upholding truth, justice, and the American Way while at the same time finding treasure and fame reflect our biological past? Is our culture skewered toward the tall, handsome male hero while also attempting to convince females that success for them is a lush hip-to-waist ratio and whose crowning attributes are bountiful breasts propped inward and up with wodnerbras? Do these cultural icons and images affect our behaviors? Do these examples in our culture influence us and those around us and then mold the cultural and moral principles in which we raise our children--both male and female?
What happens if the children fall out of the bounds of the culture's high standards? Is there a culling process that reflects the culture expectations and that rewards the big, the brave, the beautiful, the handsome, the curviest, the sleekest, the swiftest, the nimblest, and the wealthiest? You bet there is. It fact, I hazard to guess that it is the largest and most persistent reason for various discriminations, bullyings, taunts, and exclusionary practices that occur in America and elsewhere. But the truly sorry tale that I have to convey to you is that it is the also the most ignored of all our social ills. Why? Because it benefits mostly those in the higher hierarchies in which we, ourselves, want to belong. I believe that there is an innate resistance to place blame on those in the hierarchies in which we dwell. You don't curse the thing you desire -- even if it means your continued miserly existence. Once you, as an adult, realize that you will not make the higher rings of society and the benefits that go with those positions of rank, you struggle on in the hopes that, perhaps, maybe your children will benefit from your efforts. It also is the main reason, that we in this society place the majority of the blame for failure on the individual for not succeeding. "It was her/his fault for failing." "Survival of the fittest," they say. But half of the truth is that most of people's failings are really the inability to get past the gatekeepers who stand in their way and refuse their passage. Success may really be acceptance, alliances, and then passage through social gateways.
Jane Goodall calls this culling process Cultural Speciation. It is the excluding of people by the "in" group towards those "outsiders" who lack resources into even further isolated areas of exclusion, banishment or containment. Every hear of DWB? Driving While Black/Brown? Is it profiling by a dominate culture in attempts to prevent crime from happening? Or is a mechanism to transfer disrespect to certain minority groups that send the message that they are not welcome? Cultural Speciation in its worst form includes ethnic cleansing and racial discrimination on one side of the spectrum, to taunts and bullying in the schoolyard as the least offensive on the other side. But in either case, results are the same. The outsiders, or the "others" are pushed away from the hierarchies that enjoy the most benefits and being told by their "superior" peers that they are worthless and should just go away. Why is the obvious so overwhelming ignored? Because the majority of our society is not aware of the innate mechanisms that move us yet, and even if they knew, the truth there would be resistive to change, because to reverse such mechanism would mean the loss of the advantage that such cultural mechanisms convey to those of the higher ranks. Also, as a speculative opinion, I believe that males, who make up the largest percentage of the scientific community, and who benefit from the very thing that I suggest may be part of the problem, are also the most aggressive at maintaining their positions. Would you announce to the world your findings that it is partly your fault that you cause low self-esteem and depression in people who aren't culturally acceptable? Or would you continue to find "facts" about peoples' "inferiorities" and "intelligence" to justify their lowly positions in life, while ignoring the basic fact that it also assists in advancing or perpetuating one's own exalted status?
This leaves us at the door of the third force in suicide, and that is the self-esteem judgement of unworthiness. To me, it is without a doubt, hate drawn inward and the most likely reason for suicide.
What makes a young person decide to take their life? I believe that the person believes that the world has judged them as worthless and that they should just go away and die for the sake of the clan/village/nation-state. If you look at my observation: Gender Differences in the DSM-IV, you will see that the largest percentage of those that suffer from depression are women. Also included in their prominent maladies are anorexia nervosa and Bulimia, both food intake issues which ultimately determines the physical appearance, and attractiveness-- self-image. And their self-image is strongly linked to personal appearance -- The Golden Key of Approval, and hence the ability to attract a mate, and hence pass one's genes. It should be noted that even though more women suffer from depression, more males are successful at suicide because of their more aggressive means of taking their own lives.
Once again, I can only speculate, but I believe that the final nudge that puts people at high risks lies with the parents,(of lack there of), or more importantly; the reinforcement of parental judgement that coincides with the forces of exclusion that the person "perceives" or thinks they face. Do the parents really care about the child? Do they take an interest in their child's activities? their friends? their hopes? their dreams? Or are the parents absorbed with their own social orders, rankings, and material possessions? Do the parents criticize their child's every move? Do the parents ridicule the child's attempt at anything? Do the parents fail to give encouragement to the child's studies? Is their no praise when a child does a task well? Is their constant disapproval of the child's dreams and hopes? Do the parents really accept the child? Does the child feel needed? The young person already has the perception that the world outside the home in the social setting of jr. or high school does not want them for some reason or other--taunts, bullying, ridicule, exclusions, etc. But if one can not find safety and solace at home -- what self-image conclusion do you think this "loser" will arrive at?
But how can that be? If the majority of Social Darwinists believe that the "selfish gene" overrules all of our behaviors, then how can someone commit suicide and stop the gene continuance? More simply put, and to answer your question in your correspondence Paul, how can someone exclude themselves from the gene pool? Well, the answer lies in your own book, on page 182-3. The development of the neo-cortex that allows the human brain to reflect inward and outward. It can also reflect on the past, or go forward into the future; speculate and dream about what the world and one's place in it.
The sad conclusion is that people who commit suicide believe that they are doing the world a favor by eliminating themselves, and along with themselves, their genes. After all, have they not received enough messages from peers and parents concerning their "uselessness?" But, it also points out the importance of the human brain's ability to rise up above the prison of being attached to our genetic force that lies at the predisposition center of our behaviors, and prove beyond a doubt that we can overcome this genetic bondage. We do have free will -- yet the task is difficult, and most of us are not up to the level of discipline required to achieve such a state of pure thought minus physical emotional attachment. The sad event of someone's suicide does carry with it both the height of human ability over genetic predisposition, while at the same time, the lowest act of personal action one can reach. God teaches us many lessons, but we must be ready to accept the truth. And, as we all know, the truth will set us free.
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