Thursday 25 October 2018

Spandrels as counter-examples to evolutionary-theoretic accounts of mental disorder

Because of the debate in one of the modules of the Philosophy and Mental Health Programme we teach, Gloria and I fell into discussion of spandrels as part of a critique of evolutionary theoretic approaches to the concept of mental illness, disease or disorder.

One example of implicit reference to this is in a discussion of Boorse by Elselijn Kingma in Analysis. She comments:

A final interpretation of design as Natures intent is closely related to ‘natural’. This should capture the idea that Nature intended there to be men and women, but it did not intend blind people. The latter are an accident, perhaps a ‘freak of nature’. Since I, and I suspect Boorse, reject an appeal to intelligent creation, the most obvious place to justify an appeal to design or Natures intent is evolutionary biology. This is not an attractive position for Boorse, however, who explicitly rejects the idea that evolution is relevant to physiological function and health (1976: 85). To evaluate this solution in detail goes beyond the scope of this paper, but if, as I suspect it must, this solution appeals to a difference between polymorphisms that are maintained by natural selection, such as eye-colour and sex- differences, and polymorphisms that are not maintained by natural selection, such as heart-defects, then it must at the very least dispose of the following problem. It must give a non-question begging account that explains why certain traits that are maintained by natural selection, such as sickle cell-anaemia, are nevertheless diseases. Since natural selection can enter into the explanation of both diseased and healthy traits (Sober 1980), this seems neither easy nor obvious... [Kingma 2007 italics added]

One of our students expressed the following eminently reasonable worry (in fact three good concerns) about the appeal to sickle-cell anaemia as a potential counter-example.

The reference to sickle-cell anemia isn’t entirely convincing to me. For one, this seems to be a fairly unique example, which is often the sole reference (at least that I’ve heard) for this type of argument about nature selecting disease. While, yes, one example is enough to disprove a general theory, are there any other examples of this conflict? I have a hard time thinking of conditions exactly like sickle-cell in this way, though there are certainly no shortage of traits originally selected by evolution which have become maladaptive in our present environment (insatiable hunger, metabolic problems, our capacity for salt-retention and resulting hypertension). The other argument I can see is that it’s actually sickle-cell trait (heterozygous allele) which has been selected by evolution; sickle-cell disease (homozygous allele) may be understood as an unfortunate consequence of that selection.

The problem for an evolutionary-selective account that Kingma flags stems from the thought that some things are maintained by natural selection but are nevertheless diseases. And hence the norm of maintenance by natural selection cannot be the norm whose failure is being tracked by, and hence sheds light on, intuitive judgements of illness, disease and disorder.

It seems to me, however, that this is rather the point of spandrels in thinking about natural selection. Spandrels are features maintained by natural selection. In other words they are selected. But they are not selected-for: the spandrel does not possess a function that would be appealed to in giving a natural selective explanation of fitness. This is implicit in our student’s comment that it is the ‘sickle-cell trait (heterozygous allele) which has been selected by evolution; sickle-cell disease (homozygous allele) may be understood as an unfortunate consequence of that selection’. It seems to me that this isn’t quite right. It is the sickle-cell trait (heterozygous allele) which has been selected-for by evolution. The sickle-cell disease (homozygous allele) is the spandrel: a feature selected but not selected-for. It occurs and is maintained because of the former and some biological laws and laws of probability, I imagine. Maintaining is thus disjunctive: occurring as either what is selected-for or what is selected but not selected-for.

This suggests that the misstep was to think of the relevant norm for assessing disease as being maintenance, instead of function or selection-for. But it leaves open whether, nevertheless, a spandrel such as sickle-cell anaemia serves as a counter-example to a general evolutionary-theoretic approach to disorder. It would, if there is no way to answer the challenge Kingma raises: It must give a non-question begging account that explains why certain traits that are maintained by natural selection, such as sickle cell-anaemia, are nevertheless diseases.

But it seems to me to be plausible that there are resources available to evolutionary theorists if they alter their gaze. Sickle-cell anaemia (homozygous allele) counts as a disease because it produces dysfunctions in the cardiovascular system. Short lived, too large red blood cells cannot perform the functions that explain, in natural-selective terms, the existence of the cardiovascular system. It is because of its effect on the performance of this that sickle-cell anaemia counts as a disease. Hence there are two natural selective characterisations in play: the disease is maintained as a spandrel because it rides piggy back on the heterozygous allele, which confers selective advantage in, let’s call it, the malaria-protecting system but itself, in the form of homozygous allele, is biologically dysfunctional in the cardiovascular system. One explains its prevalence; the other its disease status.

If so then it seems that spandrels can be accommodated without counting as counterexamples. The norm of disease might still be natural selective dysfunction as far spandrels are concerned. It is another question, however, especially in the case of mental illness whether there is a principled and non-question-begging method to pick out functions, spandrels and dysfunctions without merely relying on antecedent assumptions about what is and is not an illness, disease or disorder.

Kingma, E. (2007). What is it to be healthy? Analysis, 67, 128–133

Wednesday 17 October 2018

The subject matter of the new Centre for the Study of Compassion

Today I went to the launch at UCLan for the Centre for the Study of Compassion including a memorial lecture by the new professor, Patrick Pietroni (pictured) on ‘What does a compassionate university look like?’ And then a talk by John Ballatt on the Darwin International Institute for the Study of Compassion (DIISC) scholarship programme.

The Centre’s key research areas include:
  • the role of compassion in health and wellbeing 
  • compassion in education and organisations 
  • mentoring and compassionate leadership 
  • mediation and compassionate approaches to justice 
  • the role of compassion and cooperation in establishing sustainable communities
The mood or tone of both of today's talks was on the multidisciplinary basis for the proper study of compassion (and hence, too, an emerging DIISC network). Patrick Pietroni pointed out that compassion might be proximal, in the response to the needs of someone present (raising a question of the psychology why some such appeals command compassion and some do not) or distal. His talk stressed the latter, giving a number of examples of projects which helped people. In one, processes to aid the resettlement of refugees cut the time they spent in cramped B&B hotels in London from 24 to 6 months. Another subtly linked (through representations of where everyone lived shown in a communal room) isolated elderly in high rise accommodation with similarly housed single parents such that they came to support each other. The stress was on practical general strategies or systems to produce good effects. It did not matter whether anyone had had any personal I-thou feelings to those who partook of the systems. One simply had to think through, accurately, their needs.

Both he and John Ballatt also stressed the multitude of disciplines on which any study of compassion should draw, in the former’s case connecting theology’s focus on the golden rule, anthropology on pro social behaviour, social science and the spirit level, psychology on imprinting and empathy, the biology of altruism and its genetic explanation via completion, neurology’s interest in mirror neurones etc. Various disciplines could feed their perspectives into a spectrum of foci from the personal, to the social, to the environmental which in turn would feed into interventions in quite distinct areas (eg mentoring in the NHS, compassionate universities etc).

I couldn’t help wondering, though, what kind of placeholder ‘compassion’ was. For example, would it matter whether a system with sufficiently virtuous ends was ruthlessly efficiently run by soulless bureaucrats? And how would that relate, say, to the Biblical widow generously but practically uselessly donating her mite? Once compassion can take as its focus the mindless environment, is it clear that this is the same virtue as that involved in fellow-feeling? If it can be elicited from listening to the fourth movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (singled out by Pietroni), how does that compare with practical effectiveness, as the systems approach emphasised?

By the end, I half wondered whether ‘compassion’ played the same role as ‘quality’ does in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Some thing, or property, or virtue that always lies on both sides all the many distinctions mentioned today. If so, does that matter providing some tacit grasp of the good is shared and communicated by examples rather than flowing from some more explicitly univocal concept?

Friday 12 October 2018

Univie Summer School on Philosophy and Psychiatry

Call For Application (Deadline: February 15, 2019)


Univie Summer School – Scientific World Conceptions (USS-SWC) July 1–12, 2019

The Univie Summer School – Scientific World Conceptions (USS-SWC) – until 2014 under the label "Vienna International Summer University" – will be held from July 1 to 12, 2019. The topic of the two-week course is „Philosophy and Psychiatry“ The main lecturers are Rachel Cooper (Lancaster University), Dominic Murphy (The University of Sydney) and Tim Thornton (University of Central Lancashire).

As an international interdisciplinary program, USS SWC brings graduate students in close contact with world-renowned scholars. The program is directed primarily to graduate students and junior researchers in fields related to the annual topic, but the organizers also encourage applications from gifted undergraduates and from people in all stages of their career who wish to broaden their horizon through crossdisciplinary studies of methodological and foundational issues in science.

The topic of the two-week course is „ Philosophy and Psychiatry “:

By its very nature, psychiatry – the medical specialism devoted to mental healthcare – raises as many conceptual as empirical questions. The philosophy of psychiatry is a rapidly emerging field which draws broadly on philosophical traditions – centrally analytic philosophy and phenomenology – to address a range of questions as broad as the demands made on psychiatry to address problems of human suffering, distress and disorder. It is also an area where philosophical methods, accounts and theories can be applied to and thus tested against psychiatric and psychopathological phenomena. But at its heart lies the question of whether, since psychiatry sees itself as part of medicine, the medical conceptualisation of illness and disease can be articulated in such a way that it properly applies to the distinct ‘problems of living’ that psychiatry addresses in response to the crisis of legitimacy often raised. This summer school will address a number key questions which impact on mental health care.

Application form and further information:

The Main Lecturers:

Rachel Cooper (Lancaster University)

Dominic Murphy (The University of Sydney)

Tim Thornton (University of Central Lancashire)

Guest lecturer:

Raffaella Campaner (Università di Bologna)

USS-SWC operates under the academic supervision of an International Program Committee of distinguished philosophers, historians, and scientists. Its members represent the scientific fields in the scope of USS-SWC, make contact to their home universities and will also support acknowledgement of courses taken by the students. USS-SWC is organised every year by the Institute Vienna Circle of the University of Vienna.


Venue: Kapelle, Institut für Ethik und Recht in der Medizin, Campus der Universität Wien, Entrance 2.8

Time: Monday, July 1, 2019, 9 a.m.

Further Information

Since 2010 USS-SWC is a part of the curriculum of the doctoral programme "The Sciences in Historical, Philosophical and Cultural Contexts"

There is an exchange programme with Duke University (North Carolina):

For further inquiries, please send email to or consult the IVC's Web site


Robert Kaller
Institute Vienna Circle
Spitalgasse 2-4, Hof 1, 1090 Wien
Tel. +43-1-4277-46504

Scientific director:
Prof. Martin Kusch
Department of Philosophy
University of Vienna

Monday 1 October 2018

Idiographic Approach to Health

Idiographic Approach to Health

Edited by:
Raffaele De Luca Picione, University of Naples Federico II
Jensine Nedergaard, Aalborg University
Maria Francesca Freda, University of Naples Federico II
Sergio Salvatore, University of Salento
A volume in the series: Yearbook of Idiographic Science. Editor(s): Sergio Salvatore, University of Salento. Jaan Valsiner, Niels Bohr Professor of Cultural Psychology, Aalborg University.
In Press 2018
The concept of health is a challenge of great complexity in terms of theoretical, methodological and intervention within the idiographic frame.

Health cannot be considered an abstract condition, but a means, a resource aimed at achieving objectives that relate to the ability of people to lead their lives in a productive way - individually, socially, and economically. Health is a process that is not based on the definition of standards and categories on the basis of which typifying the states of health. Rather, it has to be considered a process, on a large scale and on many entangled levels, aimed at generating a culture of the health as a resource for individuals and communities and to promote skills needed to transform these resources into developmental goals.

The notion of health, indeed, defined and interpreted in terms of "state" and not of process, meets the immediate paradox of being an indicator of normativity by reason of which we risk a proliferation of new and potentially infinite forms of "deviation". The approach of the idiographic sciences (see previous volumes of the Yearbook Idiographic Science Series, by same publisher IAP) considers that every psychological process (but in general every process, from organic to the social and cultural ones) is characterized by a contextual, situated and contingent dynamics. That dynamics is always characterized by a never-ending opening of its cycles and great variability. Conditions of stagnation and hypostatization are characteristic of all forms of disease (physical, mental and social) that sclerotize relational links between people and their environments. Health is therefore a process that presents oscillation in the same way of any developmental process that has moments of crisis and rupture in order to re-organize new forms of relationship with the social and cultural environment.

This book represent a fruitful way to deep many cogent issues and to dialogue with an idiographic perspective in order to discuss the concept of health, to define its cultural meanings and possible polysemy (e.g., wellness, care, hygiene, quality of life, resilience, prevention, healing, deviation/normality, subjective potentiality for development, etc.), its areas of pertinence and intervention (somatic, psychological, social) trying to offer possible alternatives to the "normalization" of health and creating new incentives for the reflection.

Series Editor’s Preface: Health: The General in the Unique, Jaan Valsiner. Health: A Current Challenge for the Idiographic Sciences, Maria Francesca Freda, Raffaele De Luca Picione, Jensine. Nedergaard, and Sergio Salvatore. SECTION 1: THE DYNAMIC CONSTRUCTION OF BORDERS BETWEEN HEALTH AND ILLNESS SECTION 1.1: CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE HEALTH NOTION. AN IDIOGRAPHIC LENS ON THE TOPIC. DIFFERENT PATHS BETWEEN GENERALIZATION AND IDIOGRAPHY. Five Inconsistencies in Scientific Discourse, Sven Hroar Klempe.The Enigmatic Soul of Health: From Balance to Inscape, Robert E. Innis. Values and the Singular Aims of Idiographic Inquiry, Tim Thornton. Psychopathology: Mental Illness and Relationship Between Idiography and Health: The Case of Transsexuals’ Experience, Roberto Vitelli. SECTION 1.2: HEALTHCARE RELATIONSHIP AND POSSIBLE FUNCTIONS OF IDIOGRAPHIC APPROACHES.Crisis of Medical Institution: An Idiographic Approach, Annalisa Venezia and Chiara Marangio. From Medicalizing Discourse to Situated Practices. From Reification to Semiotization of Processes of Sensemaking: The Function of Psychological Scaffolding in the Experience of the Disease Within the Healthcare Relationship, Raffaele De Luca Picione, Francesca Dicé, and Maria Francesca Freda. Communicative Partnership Between More Than Two: When a Child Becomes a Patient, Jensine Ingerslev Nedergaard and Elise Snitker Jensen.SECTION 1.3: THE CARE OF SOCIAL CONTEXT. THE EXTENSION OF IDIOGRAPHY TO WIDER FRAMES. Growing up in the Suburbs: Stories of Adolescents at Risk and of Their “Maestri di Strada”, Santa Parrello. The Generational Shift in the Family Business: Defining the Condition to Plan the Intervention, Barbara Cordella and Assunta Capasso. SECTION 2: NARRATIONS OF HEALTH AND ILLNESS SECTION 2.1: THE NARRATION OF THE UNSPEAKABLE. HEALTH AND ILLNESS IN ONE’S OWN EXPERIENCE. Disquieting Experiences, Borders, and Healthcare Processes, Lívia Mathias Simão and Giuseppina Marsico. “I Get Along Without You...”: On Billie Holiday, Clichés and Psychological Truth, Yair Neuman.Lessons of Pathosophy—And Implications for Medical Care, Elin Håkonsen Martinsen. SECTION 2.2: THE MODELLING OF NARRATIVES PROCESSES IN THE CLINICAL CONTEXT. Narrative Functions to Support the Meaning-Making Process During Cancer Traumatic Experience in Pediatric Oncology, Maria Luisa Martino and Maria Francesca Freda. The Power of Self-Narratives in Health, João Tiago Oliveira, Miguel M. Gonçalves, João Batista, and Adrián Montesano.Commentary: The Enchantment of Stories, Luca Tateo. SECTION 2.3: THE IDIOGRAPHIC CHALLENGE OF NARRATIONS IN THE RESEARCH PROCESSES. The Idiographic Science Perspective Applied to the Treatment of Younger Women with BRCA Mutation, Emanuela Saita, Sara Molgora, and Chiara Acquati. Risk and Prevention: Women’s Experiences of Barriers to Cancer Screening, Daniela Lemmo and Adele Nunziante Cesàro. The Role of Narrative in Promoting Changes in Illness Transitions of the Life-Span: An Idiographic Approach, Andrea Smorti and Chiara Fioretti. Author Biosketches.

Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental and Neuro Sciences – Volume 11, Issue 1 (June 2018)

“Dear Colleague,

I'm pleased to inform you that the new issue of the international online journal Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental and Neuro Sciences has been published, it is freely readable at:

Volume 11, Issue 1, June 2018


M. Aragona
The influence of Georg Simmel on Karl Jaspers' empathic understanding (Verstehen)

M. Aragona et al.
Translation and cultural adaptation of the Arabic version of the List of Migration Experiences (LiMEs)

A. M. Petta et al.
Cultural adaptation of the Lifespan Memory Interview in the Asylum Seekers (LMI-AS)


V. Pettinicchio et al.
Unaccompanied foreign minors victims of violence: a comparison between new and old arrivals in Rome


M. Aragona

Causal understanding: Max Weber and the interpretation of human actions


R. Henman
A Response to Maung's Commentary on Moreira-Almeida and Araujo

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