Most, including myself, would argue that, particularly without treatment, bipolar disorder is a decrease in functioning. Untreated depression and mania disrupt every part of a life in negative ways – that’s what drives people to get treatment in the first place.
But if bipolar disorder is an illness and is a decrease in functioning, why hasn’t evolution naturally selected out bipolar disorder? Why do we still see bipolar disorder today?
Evolutionary Culling of Disease
Now, if you don’t believe in evolution, I can’t help you, but assuming you do, a quick refresher – survival of the fittest. The “fittest” in this case not indicating body fat percentage but indicating the greatest likelihood of survival. The “fittest” people would survive and thus be more likely to have offspring. Those offspring would be more likely to survive due to their parents superior DNA while others, less “fit,” would die before they could have children and pass on their DNA.
But why would people with bipolar disorder be fit enough to survive when, even today, bipolar disorder has as high mortality rate?
Benefits of Bipolar Depression
When I’m in a depression I’m hard-pressed to see any benefit. In fact, someone telling me there is a benefit is a bit of a slap in the face. But looking evolutionarily there may have been some benefit to depression. For example, if you were in a lower class (in any type of society there are always classes) where other, more powerful humans would use and abuse you and take your things no matter what you did, it might make sense to sit around and do nothing. It might, in fact, make sense not to fight back if your opponent would always win no matter what you did. It might make sense to eat everything you could get your hands on because of scarcity of food supply tomorrow. The physical symptoms of depression might, in fact, protect you.
Benefits of Bipolar Mania
The benefits of mania are pretty obvious. You can get more done than your fellow homosapiens. You’re braver; you’re bolder. You’re willing to take greater risks and earn bigger rewards. You can talk yourself and all those around you to go into battle and conquer the neighboring tribe. You might also be able to find more creative solutions to the problems facing humans at the time.
Benefits of Bipolar Disorder
I’m not saying that in today’s society having bipolar disorder is a good thing. Quite frankly, I would never say that. But there is a theoretical role in bipolar disorder throughout human history. Those traits that we now find maladaptive may, at one time, have been useful.
A More Modern Take on the Benefits of Bipolar
- There Must be Some Evolutionary Advantage by Dr. Jim Phelps
- Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison
- The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America by John D. Gartner
- The Bipolar Advantage by Tom Wootton
- Hypomania’s up side distinct but linked to bipolar disorder – By Benedict Carey (a New York Times article)