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Neoteny, psychiatric disorders and the social brain: hypotheses on heterochrony and the modularity of the mind

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The role of heterochrony in human evolution, defined as evolutionary change in the rate or timing of developmental processes, has been debated controversially among anthropologists. Early researchers suggested a single heterochronic shift towards neoteny, defined as the persistence of embryonic, foetal, or juvenile features of the ancestral species into adulthood of the descendants by slowing of growth and delayed maturation. Neoteny has been considered the hallmark of human evolution, leading to persistent curiosity, playfulness, and emotional attachment. Whereas neoteny-related non-specialisation was assumed to be of adaptive value to cope with different ecological environments, scientists now argue with reference to the thesis of a modular organisation of the mind that the complexity of the social environment forced the emergence of a highly specialised metacognitive capacity, referred to as the social brain hypothesis. This scientific shift also applies to hypotheses on the origin of psychiatric disorders, i.e. a failure of neoteny versus disturbances of social metacognition. This paper discusses the possible relation of heterochronic processes to Fodor's conception of horizontally and vertically organised modules of the mind in respect of its validity for the understanding of psychiatric disorders.
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Ruhr, University of Bochum, Germany

Publication date: December 1, 2000

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