“Is there a doctor in the fish?”
Mental disorders are a hobby of mine, not a field of study (and we evil reductionist biologists generally look askance at the actual field devoted to studying them). But some of them are a little too odd not to pay attention to. I include in this the entire spectrum of factitious disorders.
Factitious disorder, sometimes and sometimes not synonymous with Münchausen syndrome, is characterised by exaggerating, faking, and sometimes even producing symptoms of a disease for the perceived emotional and social benefits of being sick. That last bit is important, someone who employs chicanery for an external benefit: money, draft-dodging, etc. is a malingerer and deemed not mentally ill. The genuine factitious disorder is considered difficult to treat and recovery is low (although notably some people do suffer from intermittent episodes of the disorder rather than being chronic sufferers).
There are several variants on the basic theme of the syndrome: Münchausen by proxy, in which the sufferer induces disease symptoms in another (usually a child). And the modern variant of Münchausen by Internet, in which the sufferer pretends to have a disease in interactions with individuals or communities over the Internet. It seems likely, given the relative lack of risk, that this latter expression has become the most common in recent years. Indeed there may even be several undocumented subtypes of Münchausen’s by Internet, consider the modern wave of so called “Internet Asperger’s” sufferers.
But why does this occur? It’s an interesting object of speculation. Dishonesty has been suggested as an individually beneficial, albeit ultimately self-limiting social behaviour (more details on this can be found in the works of Robert Trivers, and to a lesser extent Richard Dawkins). And it is easy to see the simplistic explanation of why: Organisms work for the benefit of their genes, meaning that we are skewed towards A) breeding, and B) survival. If we deceive others we are more likely to outcompete them, which is good on the gene scale. However, the genome (not the individual gene, sorry Dawkins) is the unit of evolution, and so we serve the propagation of those with similar genomes as well, thus kin-selecting behaviour arises. Kin selecting behaviour leads to the formation of society and society provides a certain base-line benefit to us all. So a little deception goes a long way to individual success, but a lot of deception leads to destabilising society, screwing over ones kin, and generally being more self-detrimental than it is beneficial.
That said, the urges for deception should naturally be towards staying alive and comfortable and getting laid. Münchausen’s sufferers fail at this. There deception is, evolutionarily speaking, faulty. Sickness is not sexy (to most people). A great deal of cosmetics and beauty involve providing the appearance of health (making eyes look wide and alert, lips fuller, hiding blemishes, etc). What we as creatures generally like to see in mate selection is evidence of health. So excluding a subset fringe, Münchausen’s sufferers seem to be lowering their chances of propagation for temporary creature comforts. Yet another manifestation of the fascinating way that individual consciousness can subvert evolutionary drive. Albeit a disturbing example.
Sources & Further Reading
- Seriously, pretty much everything Robert Trivers has written. Even if I don’t 100% agree with him the guy is a genius with fascinating theories.
- By the same token, most Dawkins (although the guy is an ass, and has a gene, as opposed to genome, focused view of evolution).
- A solid review of Münchausen’s by proxy.
- A 2010 review of Münchausen’s by Internet.