A Sustainable Point of View

A Functioning Cog In Some Great Machinery: Evolutionary Purpose & Mental Health

A Functioning Cog In Some Great Machinery: Evolutionary Purpose & Mental Health

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

– Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues

This is part three of a story in four parts:

  • We Are All Individuals: The Limits of A Worldview – Individualism is a system of cultural meaning, one that make us neurotic and unhappy and hides an intuitive truth: that we have more in common than we think.
  • The Unknown Story of Evolutionary Neurodiversity: A Tale of Two Temperaments – Though culture often demands ideological conformity, an evolutionary phenomenon called neurodiversity makes that nigh impossible. Neurodiversity is the basis for broad biological differences in how a given population makes meaning of the world; yet, its story – of purpose, politics, community, and mental health – remains largely unknown.
  • A Functioning Cog In Some Great Machinery: Evolutionary Purpose & Mental Health – Neurodiversity evolved as an interaction between culture and genes for temperament; consequently, our cultural environment determines whether we experience that temperament as serving a “purpose,” or as the friction and sparks of mental ill-health.
  • Neurodiversity & Ideology: Politics In The Hive Mind – Just as invisible as our neurodiverse temperaments, are the deep coalitions they form in society, what we call “liberals” and “conservatives.” Politics aren’t battles of reason and logic because each temperament has an incompatible biological paradigm, each with its own unique function in defacto cooperation with the other, even as we busy ourselves with bloody business of the culture wars.

what is my purpose you pass butter oh my god yeah welcome to the club pal

Evolutionary Purpose & Mental Health: Synergy and Friction with the Group

The story of neurodiversityof temperamental individualism and collectivism, uprisers and stabilizers, explorers and conservers – begins to flesh out a natural history of human purpose. Purpose is often considered spiritual by nature, a divine providence that someone be destined for a particular path in life. Yet to have a purpose can also mean to serve a function. As bee drones and scouts serve different functions to their colony, human temperaments dispose individuals toward particular functions in the evolution of their group’s culture.

When a given function is synergistic, it produces social bio-feedback, a sustainable meaning that supports good mental health. When there is friction – through a mismatch of temperament and culture – it is signaled by specific mental health problems that arise for each temperament.

For the individualist strategy in particular, their are unique challenges that can make it difficult to serve a purpose in any system.


“Purpose” is a hard concept to see directly. When someone is successful at finding a group that needs them as much as they need the group, it’s the absence of friction that is notable. Nothing to see here, just another happy and successful member of society. To see the phenomenon more clearly, we must look for the sparks that arise when you put the temperament in a culture of ill-fit.

We’ve looked at one such example. Short-allele SERT carriers, purpose-built for collectivist culture like the one found in China, make up between 40-45% of the US population. But when you put people designed for a “culture of We” in a “culture of Me,” you get something very different: a global high rate of mood disorders like the 32% of American’s that will someday be diagnosed with one, including a disproportionate number of short-allele SERT carriers who face significantly greater risk.

So what happens if we do the same to an idiosyncratic DRD4.7r carrier, and drop them in China, home to the world’s most collectivistic culture with 82% of the population carrying the collectivistic SERT short-alleles. How does an individualistic 7r temperament fare in a group defined by conformity?

We don’t know. Because unlike short-allele SERT carriers in the US, who manifest their mismatch by contributing disproportionately to the rate of American mood disorders, the case of 7rs in China is more stark: there are simply none left (<1%).

This is a dramatic finding. In Kenneth Kidd’s map of 7rs across the world, there is a China-shaped hole where the DRD4.7rs should be. In East Asia, only DRD4.4rs and the rare DRD4.5r and DRD4.2r alleles are present (the latter of which is the only one with anything like 7r properties, with a cap of 50% their effect). What’s more, we know that 7r alleles went through China as the rarer variants show hallmarks of mutating from them. But we aren’t sure where the 7r carriers went.

We can speculate on what might have happened. As the human equivalent of bee scouts, DRD4.7rs are predisposed to idiosyncratic, novelty-seeking behavior. They are the spazzes, weirdos, Burners, hipsters and freak-flag-fliers. It isn’t much of a leap to say that this would conflict with the Chinese ethos, one best articulated by this Japanese proverb: “the nail that sticks up will be pounded down.” Self-expression just isn’t compatible with blend-in-the-crowd conformity. And yet, despite the sinister implications, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Chinese 7r carriers lay at the bottom of mass graves (though it may be relevant that Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution targeted the intelligentsia). Before it ever came to that, in the same way that SERT genes became pathology genes in the mismatched US, 7r temperaments likely first became associated with mental illness in collectivist environments.

This wouldn’t be hard to do. Like the SERT gene, the DRD4.7r creates a temperament with intrinsic liabilities. A heightened need for dopamine means greater sensitivity to the environment and an insatiable drive for all things stimulating: unpredictability, risk-taking, curiosity, creativity and so on. Such high needs are often translated into an unstable and idiosyncratic lifestyle, one that strains to sustain the constant flow of novelty and social support needed. As we’ve articulated previously, that strain begins with the fickle needs of a temperament with less dopamine to go around. Such a brain demands novelty under constant threat of depression, ADHD, addiction, bipolar, anti-authoritarian personality disorder, anti-social personality disorder, hypersexual behavior and other dopamine-related maladies.

Yet, with greater liability, comes the opportunity for greater rewards. Evolution has deemed it a calculated gamble that the costs of instability are worth the benefits of eccentric genius.* The cultures that embrace this cost-benefit logic not only provide more infrastructure for these temperaments, they tolerate more instability when their high needs can’t be sustained.

*In those cultures where iconoclasts are valued, that is, which is kind of the point.

Cultures or subcultures that have less use for those roles, however, interpret the contrasting dispositions unfavorably. When a person is inundated with antagonistic feedback, such as hostility toward their “neediness” or instability, it can create circumstances that are mentally unsustainable. A systemic lack of community, support, fairness, purpose or social status, for instance, is the stuff conspiracy theories are made of; frameworks that help to explain a feeling of a deliberate, coordinated mental erosion.


One measure of how friendly a culture is to a given temperament is how that culture makes meaning of minority temperamental struggles. A culture can interpret such struggles sympathetically – keeping the afflicted in society and offering greater support – or find justifications to pull those people out of society, often stacking the deck even further against their mental health and survivability. In the US, for instance, the mental health system selectively targets individuals who exhibit such instability (not to mention, the hallmarks of lacking social, economic and political support) with the individualistic rationale that such disorders are “pathologies” that start from the inside out.

That is what the US does to SERT carriers, for instance, who are disproportionately labelled with mood disorders. But that makes a certain sense, as SERT is a collectivistic gene in an individualistic culture.* Short-allele carriers crave rigid hierarchy, social conformity and uncertainty avoidance in a culture of informal hierarchy, social independence and chronic uncertainty. When short-allele carriers struggle, American’s find it hard to sympathize with people embodying values they don’t understand.

What makes less sense is why the 15-25% of 7r carriers in the US (or as high as 40-60% according to John McGeary) are still prone to being labelled with diagnoses of ADHD, addiction, depression, personality disorders and other pathologies. Theoretically, these temperamental individualists reside in the world’s most individualistic culture, a culture that should be friendly to them. What gives?

The answer is that the evolutionary stable strategies of individualism and collectivism are qualitatively different. Cultural collectivism is a crowd strategy built on a lack of temperamental diversity. Eighty-two percent of Chinese have the SERT short allele because the strategy is premised on exaggerated conformity, coordination and cooperation; accordingly, it helps if everyone is temperamentally on the same page. But almost no other system can afford to be so homogeneous, with most systems asking not if there should be temperamental diversity, but how much. And still, within that spectrum, a society of individualists pushes things to a different extreme by shifting the balance among the temperaments. In a bee hive, for instance, individualists make up a minority of the group, performing their function with a comparatively few scouts while the overwhelming majority are needed for the hive’s day-to-day duties. Cultural individualism is the equivalent of taking the role of a few explorers and change agents and extrapolating that to the whole; it dreams of a hive with all scouts and no drones. Functional individualism is optimized for a small subset of a given populace.

Consider that from our vantage point on social insects, scouts – the bee analogs of 7r carriers – are evolutionary gambles. Most scouts will not only fail to find new sources of pollen or colony locations, they are designed to. The whole point of a scout is that the colony doesn’t know where to go for food or shelter next, so it uses each scout to “test” each possibility, sending them out in as many different directions as there are scouts. Even then, only one or two will ever return with a substantive find, at which time they will “report” their findings to their drone audience by way of a dueling “bee dance.” There, scouts will square off to convince the crowd that their find is superior, with the most enthusiastic butt shaking – a sexy figure 8 pattern – considered a proxy for the magnitude of the find, and winning over the crowd. This function of the scout as a solitary, often competitive, and experimental agent, might be considered central to the scout’s purpose, a purpose that works best in combination with a drone majority to put action to scout discoveries.

Similarly, we might look at the link between genetic temperament and culture as a similar kind of role or purpose. The purpose of SERT stabilizers, for instance, is seen when people hardwired for deep cooperation are organized by a collectivistic culture that harnesses the same strategy, making incredible feats possible. We can even imagine that such a culture is experienced as synergistic or purposeful, resulting in social biofeedback that feels sustainable in the balance of its rewards and challenges. The absence of Chinese mood disorders might be considered evidence for this.

A hypothetical strategy dominated by a 7rs, however, wouldn’t be quite as neat.

  • A crowd of loners: Like scouts, exploration need not cover the same ground twice. 7rs interests take them down idiosyncratic paths, paths informed by their unique experiences, interests, circumstances and environments. 7rs are as different from each other as they are from stabilizers. This makes consensus-building something of a pipe dream among individualists (the Tea Party, embodying extreme individualist values, was a good example of the deadlock that results).
  • Social chaos: According to one model, temperament unpredictability and instability are a good thing. By being unpredictable, taking risks and experimenting with their surroundings, 7rs court death in order to find new way of doing things that might someday save the tribe. This can be critical when tradition proves unable to solve some new environmental challenge, or when society itself evolves. Yet the same study found that too much of a good thing can be poison to the group. Too many 7rs and there is too much instability and change, a force that quickly becomes disruptive. This logic may be shifting in an age of exponential development, yet previous social models have suggested that even if as many as a quarter of the population have 7r alleles, it can sabotage group fitness and lead to social chaos.
  • Rebel without a cause: Uprisers possess innate values that tend toward independence, anti-authoritarianism and social ambivalence (if not downright anarchy); such a disposition can create friction with a more conservative, traditional, conformist majority. This antagonism is purpose-built for change-agents, but what happens when these same values are used to maintain a system as well as change it? You get a country that can’t justify it’s own leadership or legitimacy (think: rallying cries against “big government”).
  • Evolutionary Diversity: As we mentioned above, a 7r strategy is unlike collectivism in that it requires diverse roles to carry it off. In fact, most strategies have some role for a large contingent of hyper-cooperators and hyper-novelty-seekers; someone to build infrastructure under innovation; to conserve and aggregate past lessons in an evolving cultural way of life. When you try to push the individualist strategy as a one-size-fits-all approach – by making them our culture’s ideals – you highlight how paradoxical it is as a social strategy.

For all these reasons, it follows a society can have too many 7rs.

In fact, possibly one of the best pieces of primary research on the subject (the research on unpredictability from above), argues that because complex adaptive systems balance change and stability delicately, all groups have a sweet spot for how many 7r roles they can support. It holds that a society of individualists will need to prune some back;* of all the people born with “The Edison Gene,”** many will be culled by a society that can’t use them for their intended purpose. For all the Ben Franklins and Thomas Jeffersons, there are scores more who will succumb to the constant social friction of being “weird” until they are finally pulled from society and pushed into the mental health system. And for all the Thomas Edisons, there is a Nikola Tesla who lost the battle to fill a particular niche, dying penniless and alone thanks to a rival 7r.

*Although one could make the argument that “the nerds are inheriting the Earth:” that is, in an age of exponential technological and social change, selection logic might be shifting to favor the hyper-adaptable as a new temperament baseline.
**The title of a book by Thomas Hartman on DRD4.7rs with many similar themes.
DRDR.7r Chart 01A

From “The evolution of hyperactivity, impulsivity and cognitive diversity”: 7rs are framed as a cost-benefit to a group with both adaptive and maladaptive traits at both individual and group levels. Such factors contribute to the overall “brittleness” of a group and select for an optimal number of 7rs in a given population.

On paper, America is a great example of a 7r culture – a culture of freedom, independence and individuality. But for two reasons, it will never become the 7r utopia of our dreams. The first is that 7rs were designed to be one-half of a yin-yang strategy, meaning that a group composed entirely of 7rs cannot actually work; the individualist Mecca will never be the individualist utopia. The second is that any culture, even one built on 7r ideals, will naturally find equilibrium closer to a 7r minority and a stabilizer majority. The US may be culturally individualistic, but it is likely not significantly more temperamentally individualistic than many other countries, and certainly no where close to the 82% collectivist majority for the opposing temperament in China. And that means that 7r ideals will always prove inadequate to the needs of the system as a whole. For both reasons, it makes for a US ideological landscape that is surreal and contradictory, one that obfuscates our real political, social and economic problems.

 Continued in: Neurodiversity & Ideology: Politics In The Hive Mind