You may have seen recently the numerous publications of Steven Hayes -founder of ACT and Relational Frame Theory- about the centrality of evolutionary theory to the understanding of symbolic thinking and the promotion of pro-social behavior. I myself have published several chapters with Steve on the place of evolutionary processes in clinical psychology and psychotherapy, which lead us to consider that clinical psychology is an applied evolutionary science. Evolution, psychology, natural selection, these ideas have already been brought together before in a field called “evolutionary psychology”, which should not be confused, because the two approaches are radically different. So what are the differences between the two approaches?
For a long time, the use of evolutionary theory in psychology has consisted in looking at what benefits certain behaviors or emotions might have, assuming that these behaviors and emotions are adapted in some way, or that they have been adapted to environments in which our ancestors lived. This is called adaptationism, which is highly criticized, and this is what evolutionary psychology proposes. For psychological disorders, evolutionary psychology has looked at what benefits they might have had in the past, in order to explain why they still exist today. The idea is that, if the psychological disorders called depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, etc., have not disappeared, it is because they have or must have had an advantage at some point in the evolution of our species.
There are two problems with this kind of hypothesis. First, in addition to being hardly testable, they are almost unusable in every day clinical practice. Indeed, it is impossible to change the evolutionary history of our species, or to modify our genetics.
Secondly, this approach has followed the conception of evolutionary theory that has prevailed until now, which gives a central place to genes and applies over a long period of time. Very long. Over thousands of generations in fact, the time it takes for genetic mutations to be selected and transmitted. However, only a few behaviors – reflexes – are genetically coded. To remain adapted to constantly changing environments, our behaviors must remain flexible, which would be impossible if they were “hard” coded at the genetic level. However, behaviors can change in a few minutes. In a few seconds even. Sometimes even faster. When we are interested in the evolution of anatomical structures, such as the eye for example, it is normal to reason over a long period of time – we rarely see eyes transform in a few minutes – and it is logical to be interested in what codes this anatomical structure which remains almost identical from generation to generation. However, focusing exclusively on genes to understand behaviors does not allow us to understand their evolution moment by moment.
Over the last fifteen years or so, important discoveries have put the importance of genes into perspective and have highlighted the central role of behavior in the evolution of species, particularly of our species. By changing our environment, notably by means of our behaviors, we change the trajectory of our evolution. We even modify the expression and selection of our genes. Also, more and more researchers consider that evolution does not only take place through genetics, but also through epigenetic, behavior, and culture, that is, on various materials and time scales.
As such, since evolutionary processes apply to behavior on our individual time scale, psychology is an integral part of the evolutionary sciences, as I have explained in this other article. Through recent discoveries on the mechanisms of language and cognition by Relational Frame Theory, psychology allows us to better understand the particular evolution of the human species.
Since psychology is an evolutionary science, psychotherapy is an applied evolutionary science. Knowledge of these processes at the behavioral level allows clinicians to analyze psychological difficulties and intervene to help patients find a more beneficial adaptation to their emotions, thoughts, and environment.
Evolutionary principles are observed in all life sciences, so much so that the theory of evolution is sometimes referred to as the “model of models“. In psychotherapy, these principles make it possible to define a general framework that structures the different psychotherapeutic models, towards an integrative model of therapeutic methods.
If you want to learn more about the use of evolutionary processes in clinical psychology, have a look at my online workshop Darwin as your clinical supervisor! Mastering the evolutionary processes of Process-Based Therapy.
Translated by Chelsea Davis-Laurin
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