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Evolution of anorexia

Posted Oct 12 2009 10:00pm
There are many theories out there as to what causes eating disorders--perhaps even more theories than there are people to profess them. Some of them are opinion, some of them are based in science, and some of them incorporate both. When I first read of Shan Guisinger's" Adapted to Flee Famine" hypothesis on anorexia, I will admit that I thought the woman was a little cracked. Guisinger hypothesized that the traits so problematic in anorexia nervosa--an ability to go for long periods without eating, hyperactivity--could actually be beneficial during famine, as people could either escape their immediate surroundings to find food, or search longer and wider for food to bring back to the group. Which, from an evolutionary standpoint, did make sense: people with these genes would be more likely to survive a famine, therefore, they would be preserved in the gene pool.

What I didn't get was what a bunch of starving cavepeople had to do with anorexia. Anorexia was, like, about control and wanting to be thin like [insert cover model here]. It wasn't about evolution.

I have, of course, changed my thinking on that a bit. I don't think Guisinger's theory explains everything about anorexia, but it does provide an interesting perspective that is worth listening to. But my motive for posting this stems from an excerpt of her 2003 paper she quoted in a recent letter to the editor that really addresses the resistance many professionals have had in acknowledging the biological basis of anorexia:

Eating disorder specialists have overlooked the adaptive significance of these symptoms because current theories were developed when the pendulum in psychology and psychiatry had swung away from evolutionary explanations. For example, as late as the 1960s researchers had difficulty publishing findings showing that rats have innate abilities to learn to easily associate taste with subsequent nausea because reviewers assumed the rat mind, as well as the human mind, was essentially a tabula rasa at birth. . . . Twentieth century clinicians were not trained to look for evolutionary adaptive processes.

Furthermore, it has been difficult to see a connection between the behavior of starved animals and dieting girls because humans tend to explain behaviors and beliefs in psychological terms. Today’s anorectics often attribute their self-starvation to a desire to be thin, while medieval women with holy anorexia explained the same behaviors with reference to piety. Humans try to make sense of their behavior post hoc, even when it emanates from sub-cortical structures.

(Emphasis mine)

Which really makes me wonder: how much of what we think about anorexia comes from a culturally-evolving script? And can we understand anorexia without that script?

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