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The Puzzle Of Suicide

November 24, 2010

Suicide is a strange issue if you really sit down and think about it.  Why would human beings evolve to, at times, desire suicide?  What possible benefit could that confer upon our species?  If we’re survival machines concerned with reproducing and replicating ourselves, what purpose does suicide have?

Well, I’ve had a lot of free time this past week so I’ve been doing a lot of reading, particularly David Buss’s textbook Evolutionary Psychology:  The New Science Of Mind.  He offers a really interesting perspective on suicide.

Evolutionary psychologist Denys de Catanzaro (1991,1995) has developed an evolutionary theory of suicide and tested his theory on many samples of subjects, ranging from the general public to many “high-risk” samples such as the elderly and those in a psychiatric ward. De Catanzaro’s central argument is that suicide will be most likely to occur when an individual has a dramatically reduced ability to contribute to his or her own inclusive fitness. Indicators of this dramatically reduced capacity include expectations of poor future health, chronic infirmity, disgrace or failure, poor prospects for successful heterosexual mating, and perceptions of being a burden on one’s genetic kin. Under these conditions it is at least plausible that the replication of an individual’s genes would have a better chance without him or her around. If a person is a burden to his or her family, for  example, then the kin’s reproduction, and hence the person’s own fitness, might suffer as a result of his or her survival (Buss 101).

For those of you not well versed in biology, Wikipedia defines inclusive fitness as, “the sum of an organism’s classical fitness (how many of its own offspring it produces and supports) and the number of equivalents of its own offspring it can add to the population by supporting others.”

According to evolutionary psychologists, we’ve evolved to feel depressed and suicidal when we become a burden to others sharing our genes.  If we can’t support ourselves, have no reproductive chances, feel ourselves a burden to those related to us genetically (our family), face health problems, financial problems, and anything else which would prohibit us from procreating, producing, and raising successful offspring, we feel suicidal.  Our bodies, which are gene-replication machines, become suicidal and wish to terminate themselves once they see that they can no longer contribute toward the survival of those who share their genes, or further reproduce (make copies of our genes).  Unconsciously the mind says, “There is no chance of replicating myself and I can no longer contribute toward the welfare of those who share my genes.  It is time to terminate.”

Talk about a bleak and cold outlook, but when you think about it, it’s very plausible.  It explains all the facts.  I’ve always wondered why people feel themselves a “loser” if they don’t have a well paying job, a mate, and the capability to provide for themselves.  Why those things as opposed to something else?  Why couldn’t a loser be someone who sucks a football, or anything?  Why does it specifically have to be earning potential and the capability to get a mate?  The stereotypical loser lives with his parents, has no money, and has no prospect of finding a lover.  But why?

It’s completely irrational if you think about it.  The jobs that pay the most typically aren’t even the most beneficial to society.  I’m currently attending Missouri University of Science and Technology as a Physics major, and I’ve only been attending for less than a semester, and  due to my good grades and high math and science test scores, I’m already getting job offers offering a lot of money, and from guess who?  Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and weapons manufacturers.  A lot of the most honorable members of our society take lower paying positions because what they’re doing is more important than the money.  And why should you feel suicidal just because you haven’t found a lover who is compatible with you?  Growing up I would always hear kids being picked on, “You loser, you’re going to die alone.”  These are little kids.  Nobody taught them this.  This is ingrained human psychology which we’re all born with.  But why?  I used to think, “Why would it matter if you died alone?”  And when I thought about the problems inherent in our capitalistic society, you can easily lose your job and find yourself unable to provide for your family.  You may even end up having to move in with loved ones.  That’s why its so crucial that we have a social safety net.  But yet, if your family is on welfare, you’re a useless nobody.  Where does all this come from?  It’s primitive evolutionary baggage, that’s what it is.

I can remember in high school, all the guys were concerned with their penis size and sexual stamina.  Even older uneducated crowds find themselves immersed in this primitive psychology. One of the most popular songs out there today is from Rihanna, and it’s all about penis size and sexual stamina.  When I listen to this song, all I hear is, “Are you a good replication machine?  I want to mate with you!”  This video is stone age psychology mixed with a rap beat and computer special effects.

That song has almost 114,000,000 views.  Young and old alike are watching this video and they don’t even understand why it appeals to them.  It’s all primitive savage psychology.  You sit back and think to yourself, “Why in the world do people act like this?”  Well, we’re gene replication machines competing for whose genes will be passed on to the next generation.  It all comes down to sex, procreation, and being “strong” to provide for the next generation.

To test this evolutionary theory of suicide de Catanzaro looked at suicidal ideation: whether a person had ever considered suicide, had recently considered suicide, intended to kill himself or herself within one year, intended to kill himself or herself ever, or had previously engaged in suicidal behavior. The dependent measure was a sum of responses to these items. Suicidal ideation is not actual suicide, of course. Many people have thoughts of suicide without actually killing themselves. Nonetheless, because suicide is usually a premeditated event, a lot of suicidal ideation will almost invariably precede an actual suicide. So suicidal ideation is a reasonable index to examine as a proxy for actual suicide.

In another part of the questionnaire de Catanzaro asked participants a series of questions about their perceived burdensomeness to family, perceived significance of contributions to family and society, frequency of sexual activity, success with members of the opposite sex,  homosexuality, number of friends, treatment by others, financial welfare, and physical health. Participants responded to each item using a seven-point scale ranging from -3 to +3. The participants varied-a large public sample, a sample of the elderly, a sample from a mental hospital, a sample of inmates at a maximum security center housing those who had committed antisocial crimes, and two samples of homosexuals.

The results supported de Catanzaro’s evolutionary theory of suicide. When the measure of suicidal ideation was correlated with the other items on the questionnaire, he found the following results. For men in the public sample, ages eighteen to thirty years, the following correlations were found with suicidal ideation: burden to family ( + .56), sex in last month (- .67), success in heterosexual relations (- .49), sex ever (- .45), stability of heterosexual relations (- .45), sex last year (- .40), and number of children (-.36). For young women in the public sample, similar results were found, although they were not quite as strong: burden to family (+ .44), sex ever (-.37), and contribution to family (- .36).

For older samples health burdens took on increased importance and showed a strong correlation with suicidal ideation. For the public sample of men over the age of fifty, for example, the following significant correlations were found with suicidal ideation: health (- .48), future financial problems ( + .46), burden to family (+ .38), homosexuality ( + .38), and number of friends (- .36). Women over the age of fifty in the public sample showed similar results: loneliness (+.62), burden to family (+.47), future financial problems (+ .45), and health (- .42).

Findings such as these have now been reported by independent researchers. In a study of 175 American university students, Michael Brown and his colleagues tested de Catanzaro’s theory of suicide using a 164-item questionnaire (Brown, Dahlen, Mills, Rick, & Biblarz, 1999). They found that individuals with low reproductive potential (e.g., who perceive that they are not attractive to members of the opposite sex) and high burdensomeness to kin reported more suicidal ideation, as well as more depression and hopelessness (Buss 101-102).

Suicide is a real tragedy.  The man or woman who has “nothing to live for” feels that way because they lack the means to provide for those who share their genes, and have no reproductive prospects.  How ridiculous.  This world is so stupid I want to scream.  Sometimes I just can’t believe the truths I come to.  You really get in there and start digging, wondering about a profound mystery such as why someone you loved committed suicide, and you find out it was ridiculous evolutionary baggage which isn’t even relevant to the modern world.  This world of ours is simply cruel.

Solomon was right when he wrote,

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
– The Holy Bible, Ecclesiastes 1:18

The other day I posted a video of Bertrand Russell’s Three Passions.  He talked about how he was moved by the needless suffering he saw all around him, but he couldn’t fix it.  That’s how I feel all the time.  What can you possibly do to fix something like this?  This is primitive psychology embedded in people’s brains from millions of years of evolution.  Our brains aren’t wired up for the modern world.  What can anyone do?  All you can do is hope that people will get educated and learn about all of this, but deep down, I know that’s never going to happen.

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

– Bertrand Russell, the prologue to his autobiography

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