This isn’t about aliens from another planet. This definitely isn’t a conspiracy theory. The subjects here are limited in their cooperative skills, so they don’t work together successfully over any length of time. They have no superpowers and aren’t heroes, though they may occasionally pose as heroes. They literally have no concerns except for themselves.
When we hear the word “mutant” today, the first thought is of the heroes and villains of comics and films. The idea is of humans who have been born or been transformed with some different characteristic from the rest of us that gives them an advantage over us to use for good or evil. This characteristic comes with difficulties that create internal drama, but the external drama is about the powers and how the mutant human uses them to affect the rest of us.
Like everything else, mutation is a continuum, from something as innocent as a green-eyed child of brown-eyed parents to a superhero (or villain) child of ordinary parents. Is there anything like the latter in our real world today?
Maybe. Mutant humans in comic books possess extraordinary powers, unique traits that give them advantages over other humans. In the language of evolutionary biologists these traits are called adaptive as opposed to traits which are disadvantages and are not adaptive. Adaptive means the trait is likely to be passed on to offspring because it increases either the likelihood of survival or the number of offspring or both.
In the natural world, mutations are important only if they reproduce, so just looking for one mutated individual is usually not relevant. There must be a population with the mutation that sustains through generations and becomes a version of normal. Most extreme mutations (practically all of them) don’t survive as individuals let alone reproduce.
But some do.
In the case of humans, the picture is complicated by our large societies and our consciousness of our existence. We have the ability and sometimes the will to protect weaker individuals or segments of our population in ways that other living things can’t. This adds another factor to the survival equation on both sides.
We can continue to support traits that in the wild would die out if that characteristic increases society’s willingness to protect us and so increases our chance of survival. On the other hand, if some of us develop a characteristic that reduces society’s willingness to protect us, we reduce our chance of survival.
There is a minority population among us—about 1% to 2% of us from what I can find—with a single identifiable characteristic different from the rest of us of which its adaptive nature is not determined yet. Most of us aren’t very aware of it.
I’m talking about sociopaths.
Sociopaths have no conscience. They are unable to empathize and see no value in considering another person’s feelings, desires, wellbeing, or even existence in any way other than how it affects them. This is clinically a disorder, but it isn’t seen that way by the sociopath. It’s seen as an advantage. Where a majority person will hesitate because of moral or ethical considerations, the sociopath does what is of the greatest self-benefit without hesitation.
Sociopaths are also known as psychopaths and are a sub-class of those individuals with anti-social personality disorder. They are the most extreme of this group. Though we tend to think of psychopaths as killers, most aren’t. Not because they see anything wrong with it, but because they don’t want to do that. Maybe it just isn’t their thing, or maybe they just haven’t yet encountered a situation where their risk/reward calculation favors it.
It’s important to note that most people with anti-social personality disorder are not true sociopaths. They have a potentially treatable mental illness and can be helped. There is a line though, albeit not always a clear one, across which an individual is so devoid of human empathy that he or she will not be treated and is so destructively manipulative in personal interactions that the preservation of health and well-being of those around that person is all that matters. We are not well equipped to deal with this. We are social creatures and naturally empathetic with others. When encountering such a person, all our instincts play into their hands.
How dangerous is this? Sociopaths may come in all shapes and sizes and all levels of social and economic classes, skills, and intelligence. Most do damage only to those in their personal circle. But occasionally, a sociopath is so intelligent, skilled, and socially placed that their range of impact is wide.
A high percentage (up to 25% by one reckoning) of the prison population is believed to be sociopathic. I think also the political arena has seen this behavior lead to personal successes. It’s not simple to identify who this might be. Great evil is done by people who are mentally ill in other ways and by people with sincere intentions. At some point it doesn’t matter. If evil is being done, we must recognize it and stop it. Determining whether Hitler was sociopathic or just obsessive doesn’t seem very important compared with the need to stop him.
At earlier stages, though, it can matter. Before a person has that kind of power, they must be shown what behaviors we will permit and those that will not advance their agendas. For most deviant behaviors there are therapies, some forms of cure. For the true sociopath there aren’t, or none that they will permit. This person doesn’t have principles, just a single focused goal of self-gratification. What that gratification consists of is highly varied, but it always includes gaining power over others that is used wholly without regard to the feelings and needs of those others. When these intentions are accompanied by high social skills, the result is devasting to anyone the psychopath perceives as needed to achieve the desired goals until that person just gets away.
This is not news. If you have lived long enough, you will have encountered someone who might be a sociopath. It’s not appropriate for non-professionals like you and me to diagnose this, but it isn’t necessary. At some point you have to just remove yourself from someone who is destructive to you, even as that person plays on your sympathy and guilt in order to maintain the relationship. Whether that person is a sociopath or not is irrelevant.
What I want to consider here is whether sociopathic behavior is adaptive in the evolutionary sense. Do sociopaths have an advantage over the rest of us that will cause their population to increase relative to ours? I must point out that it’s unlikely that sociopathy is strictly biologically inherited, probably there are environmental factors, but it doesn’t matter.
Combining genetic accident and childhood environment, if sociopathy is passed from parent to child does it give advantages that mean the sociopath will out compete others for marital and financial success and produce incrementally more sociopaths each generation? I don’t know. I’d like to consider what I see as evidence for either conclusion.
Here’s an attempt, naïve as it is. There are two groups of points. One group supports the idea that sociopathy is adaptive and the other that it’s non-adaptive. Things are never quite this simple of course, some traits are adaptive up to a certain population density, then they hit a ceiling for one reason or another. Maybe sociopathy is now around its terminal density and will never grow more prevalent. Maybe its density will grow a little and then stop. Anyway, here’s what I see on the two sides.
Case for Sociopathy Being Adaptive
- They can focus on a goal without distractions from considerations of collateral damage from their actions.
- They can lie or tell the truth equally easily depending on what serves their immediate purpose.
- They naturally think in zero sum terms (“you have to lose for me to win”), so if they are in a career that rewards that behavior, they are likely to outperform others.
- They can exude confidence and decisiveness that is often charismatic and attracts others to them, at least in the short term.
- If they are successful, they can attract a healthy mate (or mates) and have lots of children, possibly increasing the likelihood of passing on the trait.
Case for Sociopathy Being Non-Adaptive
- They cannot be trusted, so they can’t work as part of a team for any extended time. This should limit the scope of what they can affect.
- Since they recognize each other easily and view others like themselves as a threat, if their numbers grew significantly, they might start to eliminate each other.
- They are focused on their own immediate self-gratification. This means they should have little patience for long-term objectives, which again should limit their scope.
- Since they live by deception, there is a limit to how long they can deceive people. Living by lies is all consuming, as you must constantly create new lies. Unless the environment is very restricted, their deception should eventually become visible, and society will restrict them. This already happens through the criminal justice system if their behavior includes crimes, but it often doesn’t, so I include more localized responses like shunning.
- If their percentage of the population grew significantly, society as a whole would probably take some action to protect the rest of us. It would be difficult. The ethical problems with “curing” someone who doesn’t think they are ill are significant, but at some point, something would be done.
I find the case against the trait being adaptive to be more convincing. None of this means there haven’t been individual sociopaths who affected society seriously, but they seem to me to be exceptions. It’s hard for me to conclude that sociopathy is an adaptive trait over the whole population. The 1% to 2% of the population is probably stable or maybe declining, but who knows really.
October 2, 2023