Anthony Stevens and John Price


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2001).

This book is an extension of the authors' discussion of the origins of schizophrenia in their earlier book Evolutionary Psychiatry. At the core of their argument is a distinction they make between the immediate cause or causes of schizophrenia (perhaps a biochemical abnormality or something of that sort) and the evolutionary origin. Clearly they are right in supposing that there is a problem here. It's generally agreed that there is a genetic factor in schizophrenia, but, if that is the case, why hasn't it been selected against during the course of evolution? Their answer, in brief, is that although full-blown schizophrenia is disadvantageous, a schizoid tendency may have positive advantages in certain circumstances, especially the circumstances that prevailed in our hunter-gatherer past.

They begin by posing a number of questions, in addition to the question about the origin of schizophrenia alluded to above. Why do some people start cults which others then join? Why have all known societies possessed religions? Why do people persist in believing in seemingly irrational things? Is the claim that we use only a fraction of our capacities true, as certain esotericists claim? Why do human groups come into conflict with one another? What are the roots of racial prejudice? Why does every human group, tribe, or nation think that it is superior to all others? Not all of these questions are dealt with fully in the book, which is perhaps hardly surprising in view of their complexity.

The authors first consider the relation between madness and genius. which they think is close. They look at a number of cases which they think illustrate this connection, and they aren't afraid of where their conclusions lead them, for at the end of the chapter they ask whether Jesus of Nazareth was schizophrenic. They do find certain features in him that are suggestive of schizophrenia and which he shares with other religious prophets, but they think he also presents features which differentiate him clearly from a schizophrenic. A difficulty I found with their discussion is that they seem to take the statements attributed to Jesus in the New Testament at face value, as authentic. For example, they think that Jesus claimed to be divine and that his followers accepted this, but not all New Testament scholars are convinced that Jesus ever made such a claim or that it would have been comprehensible in a Jewish context.

The greater part of the book is concerned with the "group-splitting" hypothesis put forward in their earlier book. In outline, Stevens and Price think that in our ancestral societies there would at times be a need for a group to split up, perhaps when the resources of the site had been exhausted. A charismatic leader would facilitate this process and found a new group, whose members he would lead away to pastures new, a Promised Land. Such a leader would have certain schizoid features though he (or, rarely, she) would not be frankly schizophrenic. Such leaders often had numerous opportunities to produce offspring and so to pass on their genes, which would explain why genes favouring schizophrenia have continued to be present in our genotype. This thesis is illustrated throughout with numerous examples.

I have summarised a complex argument here, which certainly deserves to be read in its entirety. This is an important book, with lots of fascinating ideas, and I'm persuaded that Stevens and Price have shed valuable light on what is certainly a vitally relevant subject in today's world, where, as Yeats said, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. I do, however, have some difficulty with parts of their argument. They may not allow sufficiently for cultural differences in the way in which the role of the guru is seen. In India, the guru is a recognized social phenomenon, sanctioned by tradition, and having had the opportunity to observe an Indian guru at close quarters I'm not sure that the schizoid model always fits such people very closely. Even the bauls of Bengal, whom Stevens and Price appear to regard as frankly schizophrenic, may make more sense within their own context and may be acting out a socially sanctioned role. I was also not entirely clear about their distinction between the charismatic and the messiah, The messiah, we are told, advocates renewed submission to the Almighty, whereas the charismatic becomes alienated and represents himself as God. But the boundary between these two seems blurred to me and in fact the authors acknowledge that sometimes the same man combines both characters.

At the end of their book, Stevens and Price suggest that charismatics will continue to appear in our society and may even become more numerous in reaction to our prevailing materialism. They suggest that we need to find ways to avoid the evil influences of those who resemble Adolf Hitler, Shoko Asahara, or Jim Jones and hope instead for prophets with the benevolence of a Mohammed. a Jesus Christ, or a Mother Teresa. "Whether [a charismatic leader] proves to be a fount of wisdom or a wolf in sheep's clothing depends on the ethical stance adopted by his followers and himself." This is no doubt true, but it leaves unanswered perhaps the most interesting question of all. It's one that the authors pose intriguingly at the outset but don't, I think, really come to grips with: do any such people ever have an insight into Truth, or is it just a matter of which delusion we choose to immerse ourselves in? A great deal hinges on the answer we give.

%T Prophets, Cults and Madness
%A Stevens, Anthony
%A Price, John
%I Duckworth
%C London
%D 2000
%G ISBN 0-7156-2940-9
%P ix + 246 pp
%K Psychiatry
%O Personal Afterword by the authors

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