Why are there psychopaths? How can they possibly have survived the rigours of Darwinian selection? Surely, in the intensely pack-oriented societies to which humans are evolved, people with the slightest signs of psychopathic personality—selfishness, dishonesty, frequently getting into fights—would have been driven into the wilderness or simply killed. They wouldn’t have passed on their genes.
The enduring presence of psychopaths in human societies has long puzzled evolutionary psychologists. A recent book by British psychologist Richard Lynn—Race Differences in Psychopathic Personality, 2019 which I reviewed for VDARE.com—has argued that cold winters are a key pressure against these callous, un-cooperative manipulators. As it gets colder and more stable, societies that plan for the future and cooperate are more likely to survive, meaning that psychopaths are gradually selected out.
But Lynn also argues that geniuses, and other highly inventive people, have some psychopathic traits to a modest degree—they don’t care about offending people (which revolutionary breakthroughs usually do) and they can think laterally (not bound by rules and conventions). However, they combine these traits with very high intelligence. Populations with an optimum small number of geniuses are selected for, due to the benefit of their brilliant ideas, such as better weapons, to their entire society.
The flip side of these geniuses: psychopaths, among whom intelligence is lower and the psychopathic traits more pronounced. Thus, argues Lynn, the very low psychopathology Northeast Asians, while averaging high IQ, have few per capita geniuses and few per capita psychopaths.
But could there be further supplementary explanations for the perennial nature of psychopathology in human populations?
A team of researchers, based in Serbia, think that they might have cast further light on the conundrum. Some psychopathology traits actually increase “fitness”—meaning the number of offspring you have—while others reduce it, depending on the nature of the environment. This variation means that you will always end up with some archetypal psychopaths manifesting in the population to various degrees.
According to the lead author, Janko Međedović of the Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research:
Our hypothesis is that psychopathy shows evolutionary trade-offs: it may elevate some evolutionary fitness components (e.g. reproductive success) but decrease some other evolutionary fitness components (e.g. longevity or parental investment). If both low and high psychopathy may have adaptive consequences, this may maintain the variance in psychopathy traits.
[Psychopathic personality traits can enhance evolutionary fitness, new research suggests, By Eric. W. Dolan, PsychPost, December 6, 2017].
The study, originally published in 2017 [Interpersonal and Affective Psychopathy Traits Can Enhance Human Fitness, By Janko Mededovic et al., Evolutionary Psychological Science, 2017], noted that the evolutionary survival of psychopathology is bizarre because the presence of psychopaths means that society will be less well-organized and cooperative in the face of competing societies at times of war that and psychopaths will generally damage of the lives of those with whom they come into contact.
To try to understand what was going on, the team surveyed 181 convicts in Serbian prisons—a useful means of surveying psychopaths as, for example, according to researchers at Cornell University, though one percent of the US population are psychopathic, they are 25% of the prison population [How to Spot Psychopaths: Speech Patterns Give Them Away, By Wynne Parry, Live Science, October 20, 2011]. The Serbian team administered to their sample a test of psychopathic personality and asked them how many children they had.
According to the team, it is generally accepted by psychologists that the key components of Psychopathic Personality (also known as Anti-Social Behavior Disorder) are:
According to the authors, some of these traits turned out always to predict fitness relative to non-psychopaths and other psychopaths, while some of them only predict fitness in certain contexts.
From lead author Međedović’s interview in PsychPost:
The obtained findings showed that manipulative and grandiose psychopathy traits were positively related to reproductive success, while affective callousness and coldness was positively related to evolutionary fitness only in individuals who lived in a harsh environment. This means that natural selection may propagate the genes which contribute to these two psychopathy traits.
Manipulative and grandioise traits predict success in easy environments. like Africa. But in a “harsh environment,” the authors note, there will be strong Darwinian selection for highly cooperative groups, as these are more likely to survive in the battle of group selection, for limited resources, with other groups. In such a “harsh” ecology, people will be increasingly trusting—a function of strong social bonds and a general tendency for people, in general, to be more altruistic to each other.
Psychopaths will, potentially, be able to flourish in this ecology, by taking advantage of gullible people. To some extent, they are like parasites. But there can never be too many of them, because once there are, then societal trust-levels will fall and the society will potentially lose the battle of group selection to another, more internally cooperative group.
So, as we celebrate Christmas and the birth of Christ who proclaimed “The poor you will always have with you”(Matthew 26: 11) it seems that evolutionary psychologists have found that “the psychopaths will be with us always” as well.
Lance Welton [email him] is the pen name of a freelance journalist living in New York.