Imagine an ordinary porcelain bowl sitting on a table in front of you. There’s nothing special about this bowl. It is plain without any distinguishing features. There are thousands, if not millions, of bowls like this in the world. They are useful, one can put rice in it, a salad, water, fruit or any other number of things. Despite it being useful, it would be odd if anyone missed it should it fall to the floor and smash to pieces. The bowl has utility, but it doesn’t have value. One day a tattoo artist was feeling bored and decided to paint an original and intricate art work depicting Norse gods from an epic saga. Now something peculiar has happened: the bowl that was once so ordinary that its destruction would have been inconsequential has gained a new quality: value. It’s still just as useful as a bowl, but now it requires more protection, care, and respect. This bowl that was once so ordinary could now sit comfortably in a museum or an art gallery. It has become important not just because of its usefulness for holding objects, but because it has acquired a value through the beautiful art work now inscribed on it. People are similar, they can be useful, but they have a value that extends beyond their utility. Surprisingly enough, an incomplete understanding of these terms can actually lead to suicidal thoughts.
Last night I was chatting to a friend about depression. As someone who is still recovering from depression she kept referring to it as “her weakness” which bothered me a little. This lead to her sharing with me a perspective on depression she had encountered recently: that depression was a method by which nature would rid a tribe of weaker members. Presumably it worked something like this: a person who couldn’t meet the expectations placed on them by their tribe would develop depression and end their own life so that only the strong members would survive. Thus it is a form of eugenics programmed into our psyche to effectively off ourselves for the benefit of the rest of the tribe. Now, I am trained as a biologist and such a genetic trait is unlikely to be passed on via natural selection because it actually lowers the probability of an individual passing on their genetics. Such genes usually die out quickly. However, this got me thinking about something: if so many people have the potential to get depression – why would such a trait be preserved by natural selection? What survival advantage does a propensity for depression actually have? Here is my case on why depression is helpful rather than harmful.