Why Sapolsky’s Take on Schizotypal Personality Disorder and Religion is Problematic
June 7, 2009 11 Comments
BoingBoing posted one of Robert Sapolsky’s (Stanford neurobiologist and author of Monkeyluv, The Trouble with Testosterone and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers) lectures on schizophrenia and schizotypal personality disorder today. It’s an hour long, but makes for pretty interesting listening if you have the time to give it. In this installment he starts off speculating about the possible selective evolutionary advantages of schizophrenia, which—unlike cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia, which protect heterozygotes (carriers, usually with one good copy of the gene) from cholera and malaria, respectively—hasn’t been thought to confer any kind of selective advantage.
He suggests an advantage exists, and that it lies in schizotypal personality disorder—sufferers who display milder schizophrenic symptoms and are labeled “half-crazy.” A group of scientists studying adoptive and biological schizophrenics in Denmark discovered, after interviewing all the parties concerned over a period of (I think ten years) that many relatives of schizophrenics display this attenuated version of the disease, which he characterizes as “movie-projector syndrome.” These people tend toward the antisocial; they prefer isolated occupations and are guilty of “metamagical thinking,” a near-schizophrenic kind of mental process that protects the sufferer from ostracism by successfully channeling odd or schizophrenic qualities into their proper contexts.
I haven’t tracked down his lecture on schizophrenia itself yet and I’d like to, because that definition of schizotypal personality disorder is rhetorically a bit too pat and makes it easy for him to (for example) retroactively ascribe it to shamans, witch doctors, medicine-men and religious founders generally. Anyone who thought he heard a burning bush talk or believed he was talking to a man who’d risen from the dead (or indeed claimed to have risen from the dead himself) would, today, be diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder.
This is clever, of course, but it’s the argumentation I’m objecting to. I realize this is just a lecture, but it’s disappointingly poor logic from a defender of rationalism. To suggest that a newly developed (and rather hazy) diagnosis, rooted in a spectrum of sane vs. insane behaviors and defined only by a list of symptoms that have a priori been categorized as “schizotypal” or “insane,” can be applied to someone thousands of years ago who has precisely those milder “insane” symptoms is a textbook example of petitio principii, begging the question. I have developed this definition, it says, and look! someone a thousand years ago fits it!
(The difficulty lies, I think, in locating the definitional limits of schizotypal metamagical thinking. Is there any irrational or metamagical belief that wouldn’t be automatically classified as schizoid/schizotypal? Is it a matter of cumulative weight? Sapolsky mentions that 50% of Americans believe in UFOs, but wouldn’t (I assume) classify half the population as half-crazy. Is it then a matter of authorship—it’s one thing to hold an irrational belief that’s been culturally transmitted, another to create an entirely new one of your own? I think he’s getting at the latter, and suggesting that your evolutionary “fitness” depends on your ability to persuade other, more rational creatures of the truth of your idiosyncratic vision.)
Having established (which he hasn’t, at least not in this lecture) that important religious figures in different societies were schizotypal, he uses this to prove that in fact people who suffer from schizotypal personality disorder actually wield a hefty amount of power and had no trouble reproducing and passing on their genes. No data is cited to support this, and he dismisses the fact that many religious figures (both in shamanistic cultures and mainstream religions) were proscribed from marrying and asserts that indeed schizotypal personalities (unlike their schizophrenic counterparts) were and are reproductively quite successful.
I’m skeptical about both retrospective claims for a couple of reasons. One, I’d be interested to see hard statistics on the reproductive success of major religious founders. It seems to me that anecdotally, at least, they fall into two extremes: celibacy or some version of cult-leader polygamy. Two, the line he draws between schizotypal and schizophrenic is the second case where he uses the conclusion to prove the premise. His argument goes thusly:
- Schizophrenic people are not reproductively successful and can’t behave appropriately according to context.
- Schizophrenics are therefore ostracized from society.
- People with schizotypal personality disorder are milder cases that can channel their putative schizophrenic experience properly (for example, they’ll have an epiphany in church, not on a street corner).
- Schizotypals are not ostracized from society.
- Therefore, because religious founders who claimed to converse with bushes, etc., were not totally ostracized from society, they must be schizotypal personalities.
This is logical and historical nonsense. It’s proving a neurological diagnosis (schizophrenic or schizotypal?) by a social result. What’s more, he admits that one of the three modern charismatic schizotypal personalities he mentions, Charles Manson, was in fact diagnosed as schizophrenic. So phut! goes that theory.
(Unless, of course, he counts Manson’s eventual imprisonment as “ostracism,” but this is cheating—Manson was revered by his coterie. It was legal, not social pressure that removed him from society. This is a narrative roughly comparable to Christ’s, which would then—according to the “social result defines the disease” model—make Christ schizophrenic, not schizotypal, despite his obvious ability to muster a following. This, in turn, suggests schizophrenics either are not as socially inept as Sapolsky is suggesting, or that Christ doesn’t count because he didn’t reproduce. Again, Sapolsky’s definition of “fitness” along evolutionary lines seems inappropriate, since the success of many “schizotypal” religious founders was NOT reproductive but rather “narrative” propagation. There seems to be a different kind of fitness at work—not genetic but “mythic” robustness.)
The claim, though, which does make sense, is that schizotypal personalities are both compelling and necessary to a society, which prizes the metamagical thinking the schizotypal offers because it is performed in a contextually useful way. There is a space in the culture for schizotypals to exert their “trade,” which consists of attending to the irrational and ritualistic needs of a society.
Ritual, however, raises the specter of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Sapolsky develops a similar argument here: while people with full-fledged OCD have their lives destroyed by the tyranny of a series of unceasing demands oriented around hygiene and, well, compulsion, people with milder forms of OCD are very good at performing ritual. This is religiously quite useful, as religion exists largely to provide arbitrary structures and customs that order the entropy of everyday life.
Sapolsky attempts to apply this diagnosis of half-OCD to a historical figure to demonstrate how a pathological attachment to ritual translates to a pathological attachment to religion. He chooses(quite possibly the worst historical figure for his argument, a historical figure who was largely responsible for the movement toward eradicating ritual from religion. The man who said that “every good work designed to attract God’s favour is a sin.” The man who translated the Latin Mass to German. The man who married a nun, who defied a Church expressly dedicated to the preservation of liturgy, the man who said that “vows are an illegitimate and vain attempt to win salvation” and who claimed that to call the Catholic service a sacrifice was “idolatry.”
He chose Martin Luther. And—unless I heard him wrong, which is possible—claimed he lived several hundred years before he did.
The claim makes some sense, but might be a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing: Luther left extensive records of his monastic life, and Sapolsky talks, with understandable delight, about how Luther spent five hours a day confessing sins of omission, about how he made his first Mass last seven times longer than it should because he kept having to start over, so concerned was he that he hadn’t done everything exactly right.
Two problems here: 1) this extreme behavior would (I assume) be termed a case of full, not partial, OCD. Therefore, like Manson, it’s not a particularly useful example, especially since Luther was clearly “socially” successful and we’re still trying to prove that the evolutionary advantage of OCD derives from the heterozygote’s ability to integrate into society, not the fully expressed disease. 2) Sapolsky doesn’t address (or perhaps know?) the terrific about-face that resulted—that Luther’s rise to prominence was predicated exactly on an emancipation from those tyrannical rituals. This would seem to challenge the claim that he had OCD at all?
Lastly, Sapolsky proceeds—and this is the most interesting bit—to address temporal lobe epilepsy, which produces perhaps one seizure lasting 30 seconds or so every six months. It results in hypergraphia (excessive writing) and the development of a terrific interest in philosophical and religious matters, even in those who expressed no interest in those things before.
It doesn’t, he quickly points out, make people religious. But it focuses their attention and interest on the subject, even if only in a highly academic sense. (He talks about a young boy with temporal lobe seizures who claimed not to be religious but, when asked why, gave an hour-long disquisition on problems and inconsistencies in the Bible, Bertrand Russell, etc.
He hilariously accuses St. Paul of having this. All those letters to the Corinthians!
This is the most interesting and compelling example of a neurological basis, not for specifically religious or “metamagical” thinking, but for a particular philosophical bent that can be switched on (and can perhaps be switched off). I don’t know what to think about it. It’s really intriguing. And it doesn’t have the same set of logical problems that the rest of his discussion (which I quite enjoyed) does.
On a slightly more personal note, it gave me lots of food for thought re: the appeal the Firecrackers feel for the schizotypal, if not the downright schizophrenic.