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kbrown's picture

The treatment of disabilities and the Evolutionary Approach

Hi guys,

   So one thing that I found particularly interesting in our discussion last tuesday centered around how the evolutionary perspective comes into play when we talk about categorizing disabilities as "difference" or "absence of ability".  The first article that we spoke about in particular seemed to bring this topic into play when it said that culture itself provided challanges and problems for citizens to solve, and it was solving those problems which created the category of disability.  When reading this, it seemed to me that instead of culture, the word "natural selection" should be inserted into the sentence. 

Possibly because I am just coming out of a class on primate evolution and these ideas were fresh in my mind, the fact that natural selection is the means by which specific individuals best suited to the challanges created by the environment are able to survive.  Now cleary things in modern day society are such that we don't need to worry about "survival of the fittest" in the same way that our ancestor's did.  However, we are in fact a product of those ancestors that for one reason or another were better suited to the environment than those who did not survive.  For that reason alone I'm not sure that it makes sense to question whether it is better to have eyes or be blind, simply because from an evolutionary perspective if we didn't need eyes we wouldnt have developed them.  If we were in a world which had no sun perhaps people who could see would be at a disadvantage.

It is true, however, that our society today is one in which we have become so advanced as to make many disabilities no longer pertinent, such as the creation of brail etc, and I am not sure that the term disability can really be used today.  It is possible, and I think many people stated this on tuesday, that these categories of disability no longer have meaning in our society because they imply a "good" and "less good" spectrum.  I think it is hard to argue that blindness is less good than sight and I don't know anyone who would choose to argue that point, if not for the simple reason that it is really untrue, but also that it goes against a paradigm of equality in our society.  However, for me this seems to be an even stronger reason not to neglect evolution when thinking about disability.  I think I can say that it is clearly wrong for society to deem people less good because it intrinsically making some sort of arbitrary value judgment.  Natural selection, however, seems to be able to perform the same task without any sort of value judgment at all.  Natural selection, because it is not man-made like society, makes decision that, while they may still seem arbitrary, impose no sort of value judgment other than that of "able to survive" and "not able to survive". However, I am not sure the degree to which we should be basing our current day labels on a natural process millions of years old and becoming more obsolete by the minute.

When thinking about "mental disabilities" especially I think it is true that the word disability is not accurate, not only because we have made advances in correcting for disabilities, but more importantly that more so than physical disabilities, mental disabilities can simply be thought of as a different path to the same destination.  I think that for many people with mental disabilities such as autism or dyslexia, they are in a way more capable of thinking in a certain way, and this doesn't necesarily mean that they cannot perform the same functions as the majority of society.  In fact, I think that we can stand to learn a lot from these types of mental differences simply because of the fact that they seem to represent not a deficiency but an ability to think in a parallel way, and that instead of demeaning people with these differences we should instead create ways in which we can benefit from their different perspective on tasks such as problem solving.

 However, I think that it is impossible to talk argue the necessity of the term disability when clumping all mental disorders into one.  Just like Alex mentioned that it is difficult to talk about both mental and physical disabilities together, mental disabilities are clearly an extremely varied group, and clearly there are exceptions to what I have said, such as those who are so mentally handicapped that they are not able to care for themselves, which seems to me a clear disadvantage.


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