Dr. Bernard Crespi

October 17, 2016

2016 Sterling Prize Recipient

"Rethinking our understanding of human cognition, behaviour, and mental illness"

On October 17, 2016, the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy award was presented to Dr. Bernard Crespi for his research that re-envisions human mental illness through the lens of evolutionary biology.

Crespi’s Diametric Theory of Human Mental Illness, originally published with co-author and sociologist Christopher Badcock in 2008, proposes that psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia are diametric opposites on a mental illness spectrum. The theory also posits that human mental illness occurs in part from conflict between maternally and paternally-inherited genes.

According to the New York Times, Crespi’s theory is one of the most revolutionary ideas to psychiatry since Freud.
Dr. Bernard Crespi is a professor at Simon Fraser University’s department of Biological Sciences.

Lecture Summary

In his lecture, Dr. Bernard Crespi poses two questions:

One: How can evolutionary biology help in understanding, treating mental illness?
Two: What does the evolution of risk for mental illness tell us about ourselves and society?

Crespi answers this question by asking us to reimagine the past; what would have happened if Charles Darwin, instead of dropping out of medical school as he did, continued on, and graduated with a specialization in psychiatry? Perhaps, answers Crespi, he would have studied the relationship between mental health and evolution. And this is what Crespi himself decided to do; to study the correlation between evolution and mental health. This is highly controversial; arguing that there can be a relationship between mental health and evolution isn’t a readily accepted view. Yet Crespi looks at autism and schizophrenia, examining how they involve extremes of evolved adaptations, brought on through evolution.

He challenges conventional medical views of mental illness, which, Crespi argues, boils down to the following three points: that mental illness is due to bad genes, bad mutations; that it involves deficits in cognition; and that people are categorized into diagnoses based on said deficits. His evolutionary view of mental illness, however; involves extremes of evolved adaptations; involves both deficits and enhancements in cognitive traits; and considers people in the context of individual variation.

The implications of his assertion are revolutionary. Reassessing how we view mental health changes how we treat it; Crespi’s argument for stressing the individual circumstances of people makes a strong case for more personalized treatment, to a greater degree than is currently practiced. His conclusion is that neurodiversity, with mental illnesses at the extremes, has driven the evolution of our society: arts and humanities, and science and technology; all are part of the rich fabric of our society, constantly changing and transforming our lives and each other.