"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Sep 6, 2007

Shamanic Visions of Selective Sweep

The evolution of schizophrenia reveals the nature of contingency

Shaman from the Mbukushu of Namibia

J.B.S. Haldane famously quipped that, if there is a God, he’s inordinately fond of beetles. Others may choose to be somewhat less kind and argue that, with around 2 million species of the beastly little things, such a design could only be the product of a disorganized mind. Perhaps that’s the solution Intelligent Design proponents have been looking for: God is schizophrenic! However, as it turns out, schizophrenia is the perfect metaphor for how our evolutionary history is not a well ordered and implemented design, but is rather full of twists and turns and ill-adapted consequences that are best explained through the contingencies of natural selection.

Several years ago Robert Sapolsky suggested that genes promoting schizophrenia may have been selected for in human evolution because some of them conferred benefits that outweighed the 1% of people worldwide that were disabled by the disorder. Like the sickle-cell trait that confers resistance to malaria (so long as you don’t receive two recessive alleles and develop full fledged sickle cell anemia) a partial schizophrenia may be beneficial in some way. He observed that relatives of schizophrenics have a high likelihood of “schizotypal personalities,” or a mild form of the disorder that just makes these people a little strange and allows them to see the world in a unique way. What if, he wondered, schizophrenia maintained itself in human populations because of selection for schizotypal personalites? As luck would have it, for a hundred years anthropologists had observed such individuals thriving in nearly every society they encountered: shamans.

As Sapolsky stated in 2003 while accepting an award from the Freedom from Religion Foundation:

The critical thing with schizotypal shamanism is, it is not uncontrolled the way it is in the schizophrenic. This is not somebody babbling in tongues all the time in the middle of the hunt. This is someone babbling during the right ceremony. This is not somebody hearing voices all the time, this is somebody hearing voices only at the right point. It's a milder, more controlled version.

Shamans are not evolutionarily unfit. Shamans are not leaving fewer copies of their genes. These are some of the most powerful, honored members of society. This is where the selection is coming from.

Sapolsky hypothesized that the evolution of schizophrenia was ultimately a byproduct of selection for beneficial cognitive adaptations. In the early edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences Bernard Crespi, Kyle Summers and Steve Dorus have found that schizophrenia evolved in human populations in just this way. By analyzing specific selective sweeps (or the non-coding regions of DNA that get “pulled along for the ride” when a coding region undergoes a beneficial mutation) they’ve determined that 28 of 76 genes that have been linked to schizophrenia have undergone positive selection during human evolution. These 28 genes are all closely linked to cognitive abilities involved in complex thought.

As the authors summarized their findings:

[G]enetic liability to schizophrenia has evolved as a secondary consequence of selection for human cognitive traits. . . The selective forces underlying adaptive evolution of these genes remain largely unknown, but these findings provide convergent evidence consistent with the hypothesis that schizophrenia represents, in part, a maladaptive by-product of adaptive changes during human evolution.

In other words, the same genes that make us so smart and our species so successful can sometimes (specifically, about 1% of the time) result in a debilitating mental disorder. The other 99% of us are doing so well that these genes continue to perpetuate themselves. In the evolution of complex thought, schizophrenia was accepted as a devil’s bargain.

Whether sexy shamans are the ultimate source for this selection or not remains to be seen. However, what Crespi, Summers, Dorus and Sapolsky have emphasized is that evolution is a messy business and is rarely as straightforward as we might assume. There is no long-term view or plan in the evolutionary narrative. Organisms make do with the raw materials they’re born with and the occasional beneficial mutation simply adds additional supports to a jury rigged foundation. God, if such a being exists, must be inordinately fond of such haphazard construction, his “design” is chock full of them.


Bernard Crespi, Kyle Summers and Steve Dorus (2007). Adaptive evolution of genes underlying schizophrenia. Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences doi:10.1098/rspb.2007.0876

Shamanic Visions of Selective SweepSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend


Jonathan Blake said...

Interesting. Just to make sure I heard right, any link between shamans and schizophrenia is just conjecture at this point, right?

Eric Michael Johnson said...

Yes, as far as I know there has been no systematic genotyping of the world's shamans and their relatives to determine if these genes are at a higher frequency. However I think this could be a fascinating (if logistically very difficult) project for an evolutionary anthropologist.

Chris said...


"Thomas Henry Huxley JBS Haldane famously quipped that, if there is a God, he’s inordinately fond of beetles."


Eric Michael Johnson said...

Chris - Right you are (how embarrassing).

David Harmon said...

A similar argument may well apply to autistic-spectrum conditions. The milder cases have various disabilities (social, dexterity, "eccentric") but offer a very different perspective on the world, with mordant insights on society. They also often have special talents -- memory, numbers, animals, machines, computers....

Knight in Dragonland said...

Not only austism-spectrum disorders, but also ADHD. ADHD is a much more common disorder, and I've often thought that ADHD traits may have provided a selective advantage. It was probably a good thing for a given population to have a certain percentage of its members be impulsive and hyperactive.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit late to the conversation but how certain is the diagnosis of schizophrenia, of any degree of severity, in shamans? Armchair diagnosis is pretty dodgy; look how convincing it is when applied to historical figures (e.g. did Mozart really have Tourette's syndrome?) Certainly the literature contains descriptions of some pretty unusual people, but there are plenty of others in which shamans spend most of their time engaged, without apparent difficulty, in the normal activities of life which would be fairly difficult if they had schizophrenia. This alone suggests that before examining the genetic profiles of shamans, it would to be wise to figure out what exact psychiatric disorders they have -- if any.

Anonymous said...

And one more thing -- it's too sweeping to talk of "shamanism" as one kind of thing that takes on the same form everywhere in the world. The ethnographic accounts show quite a bit of diversity: some shamans are honored, some despised; some make it a profession, some are part-time; some continue to have visions and out of body experiences, some do not. This makes the whole question far more complicated.