Human Paleopsychology

​Human Paleopsychopathology

​Basic Principles

Normality Gone Awry: An Integrated Model of Paleopsychopathology

     There are three great questions that go to the heart of the human condition:

1.  What is the human species and what is its natural or "normal" characteristics?
2.  Once we have some notion of species normality, how do we deal with deviations from the assumed norm? 
3. And then, how do we deal with the question of what is “good” and healthy for the species and its individual members?

     These are fundamental questions, but answers continue to elude us.  Even as the earth becomes a Global Village within the reach of anyone with internet access, consensus on concepts of normality, abnormality, and "the good life" remains elusive. 

     Paleopsychology proceeds on the assumption that questions one (“normality”) and two (“abnormality”) are best answered by evolutionary approaches supplemented by the social sciences and philosophy of science. 

     The third question (goodness) falls more squarely within the domains of philosophy, ethics, and theology.  Human beings ought not to simply emulate the animals in the moral, ethical, and even spiritual spheres, but it is equally misleading to avoid the species aspects of our normality, abnormality and “goodness.”

     Homo sapiens as a species is central to the field of Human Paleopsychopathology.  This evolution-based approach addresses psychological symptomology caused or exacerbated by internal psychological deviations from the species norm, and/or debilitating conflicts between species norms and cultural pressures and demands.    Clearly, the species norm is the baseline from which biological and psychological normality may be deduced, and without this conceptual foundation concepts of "normality" and "abnormality" simply float in space.

     In the shifting disciplines of psychopathology and abnormal psychology, there is one fundamental zone of agreement- whatever abnormality is, it is somehow a deviation from a pre-existing normality.  Thus, abnormality becomes "normality abnormally expressed.” 

     For example, in physical medicine, disease exists "When some of the structures and functions of the body deviate from the norm to the point where the ability to maintain homeostasis is destroyed or threatened or where the individual can no longer meet environmental challenges" (Abrams, 1986).  Psychologists Rosenhan and Seligman (1995) state it in the obverse: "Normality is simply the absence of abnormality" (p. 16, emphasis in original).  

     The fundamental question of "what is normality?" is begged in traditional definitions, and here the evolutionary approach offers enlightenment.  Sociobiology, for example, is primarily concerned with how normal species patterns are directed toward maximization of reproductive fitness, and the field of evolutionary psychology is erected on the notion of a universal human nature that implicitly defines species normality.

     I suggest that human structures, functions, and structure-function coordinations are normal when they are more-or-less consistent with our evolved human natures, non-normal when they deviate significantly from human nature with no apparent maladaptive consequences, and abnormal when they deviate significantly with maladaptive consequences. 

Type I and Type II Disorders

     Despite vagueness in defining normality and abnormality, there is general agreement in the social sciences and helping professions that biological and cultural processes interact in some fashion to produce normality in one instance and abnormality in another.  Unfortunately, the mechanisms underlying the nature-culture interface are seldom addressed.  Things are even more problematic when "biological" is expanded to include evolutionary functions as well as strictly hereditary, neurological, and biochemical ones. 

     Human Paleopsychopathology addresses a major piece of the broader biology-culture interface, that of the antagonsitic/synergistic interplay between our phylogenetically old natures and the unique and severe demands placed on human resources by modern technological cultures (Bailey, 1987). 

     When phylogenetically old dispositions of the individual interfere with or obstruct cultural adaptation in a way that increases the likelihood of internal disharmony, social punishment, psychiatric symptoms, and/or "deviant" social status, paleopsychopathology is the likely result.

     Paleopsychopathology may also occur when cultural demands seriously impair the individual's access to or expression of his/her healthy older phylogenetic nature- as for example, when unemployment, minority status, or cultural favoritism interferes with securing a mate and producing offspring. 

     We see that human paleopsychopathology takes two general forms:

Type I or disinhibitory forms where older evolved adaptations are released in culturally-inappropriate contexts, and Type II or inhibitory forms where older, health-sustaining adaptations are denied access to the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral systems.

     Type I disorders are characterized by relaxation/disruption of neocortically mediated, culturally programmed inhibitions, thereby allowing release and/or amplification of normally latent tendencies that were adaptive (“normal”) in original evolutionary environments.  Indeed, there are numerous human tendencies that were once-adaptive but are now maladaptive and/or socially proscribed in current contexts.  Exaggerated concerns over “rank” relative to peers, extreme anxiety around strangers, or “cave man” stalking of females illustrate these Type I disinhibitory reactions.   

     Type I disorders are relatively simple conceptually, for they merely require a relaxation or disruption of controls over “normal” or species-typical mechanisms and adaptations. 

     By contrast, the Type II inhibition disorder requires that culture be available to the individual, that it be inculcated, and, then, that it be capable of repressing, suppressing, or sublimating age-old natural systems of response.  In the Type I disorder ancient instinctive patterns win out over culture whereas culture prevails over the instincts in Type II disorders.

     In Type I disorders such as rape, sexual deviations or pronounced xenophobia, society and culture loses control and our ancient animal/human nature wins .  By contrast, Type II disorders are characterized by overcontrol of the instincts and alienation from the pleasures and satisfactions that come with acting consistently with our evolved human nature.

     Type II disorders reflect the "tyranny of the new" where natural kinship feeling, sexual pleasure, or the exhilaration of feeling dominant are inhibited and suppressed in deference to sociocultural pressures for conformity, order, productivity, and prestige.  For example, anxiety-related disorders, anorexia nervosa, psychophysiological disorders and depression exemplify instances where culture and conformity wins at the expense of the individual.

Evolutionary Approaches

     Human Paleopsychopathology is one of several evolutionary approaches that address matters of physical disease and psychopathology. A sampling of these includes, paleocriminology, human ethology, human sociobiology, biocultural anthropology, paleoanthropology, evolutionary archaeology, evolutionary psychiatry, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary psychoanalysis, evolutionary psychotherapy, Darwinian medicine, evolutionary medicine, evolutionary social psychology and the paleoneurology of Paul MacLean. 

     These various evolution-based approaches are premised on the fundamental idea that the millions of years of phylogenetic shaping that have produced our physical bodies and many of our behavioral predispositions are of the utmost importance in understanding our species natures as mammals and primates, and, ultimately, our human natures as well.

     Clearly, our evolved natures will be reflected in our needs, our wants, our systems of social organization, our systems of meanings and symbols, and, indeed, our very existence as human beings.

     Evolutionary psychopathologists vary in their particular emphases and domains of research and theory, but they all share the belief that human joy, success, misery, and suffering cannot be fully understood without an understanding of our status as a species and our kinship with the rest of nature.

     Therefore, normality in any aspect of the living being would imply operation within the “designed” range of response for the organ or organ system in question.  Likewise, abnormality in any structure/function aspect of the organism would imply operation above, below, or otherwise discrepant from the “normal” range of response.  Genetic mutation, organ dysfunction or failure, metabolic dysfunction, or cancer illustrate serious deviations from natural design.

     Human beings add another monumental level of complexity to this straightforward scenario- that of culture and all the benefits, pleasures, and cosmological meanings that go with it.  But culture is not just a gigantic security blanket for people too far from nature to turn back; with its pressures, stresses, and demands to conform, it extracts generous payment for any benefits granted.  A modern human being in a technological meritocracy cannot get by being natural or “normal” in the ancestral sense (viz., biological normality), he or she must also compete for acceptance, respect, and prestige in the cultural context.  
     Thus, I suggest that psychological normality requires some degree of reconciliation between the often antagonistic domains of human nature and culture; failure to achieve some minimal degree of reconciliation is at the heart of psychological abnormality.  Failure to reconcile the archaic self with the current psychological self, produces a condition of mismatch that is associated with a wide range of physical and psychological pathologies (see page ).

Psychological Normality
     Normality in human beings involves functioning and acting in accordance with the inherent physical and psychological design features of species Homo sapiens in a manner consistent with the natural drive for biological success (survival/reproduction) and the acquired drive for cultural success (acceptance/prestige).

Psychological Abnormality
     Psychological abnormality in human beings reflects failure to act in accordance with inherent physical and mental design features such that the natural drive for biological success (survival/reproduction) and the acquired drive for cultural success (acceptance/prestige) are significantly compromised or nullified. 

Human Paleopsychopathology: The Integrated Model

     My version of psychopathology builds upon the broader field of human paleopsychology and it features four major conceptual branches: phylogenetic regression theory, psychological kinship theory, mismatch theory and the fourfold model.  My approach to paleopsychopathology serves as a heuristic device for understanding the etiology and maintenance processes of psychopathology, and it also has broad relevance for treatment and psychotherapy


Abrams, G. D. (1986).  Introduction to general pathology: Mechanisms of disease, in S. Price and L. Wilson (Eds.),  Pathophysiology: Clinical Concepts of Disease Processes (3rd. ed.), New York, McGraw-Hill.
Bailey, K. G. (1987).   Human Paleopsychology: Applications to Aggression and Pathological Processes.  Hillddale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum.

Rosenhan, D. L. and Selifman, M. E. P. (1995).   Abnormal Psychology. ​ New York, W. W. Norton.

Study these pages and become a paleopsychologist!
Kent G. Bailey [email protected]