Teen suicide

Rob Quinlan (C611417@MIZZOU1.MISSOURI.EDU)
Sun, 30 Oct 1994 12:45:33 CST

A couple people brought up the issue of teen suicide. I think this is an
interesting and complex issue that can be approached from an evolutionary
standpoint (or rather from the evolved mind perspective).

The application of a life-history approach is more difficult in this matter,
but is still possible. One's reproductive value (RV) depends on (1) the
number of offspring one has, (2) the growth rate of the population, (3) the
probability of living from one point in time to another, and (4) is discounted
by how for in the future reproduction is likely to occur (again see K. Hill
1993 in _Evolutionary Anthropology_). Thus, teens have the lowest RV of any
physiologically mature people in our society. (In other societies teens may
have very high RV as they already have children or will reproduce soon.)

Second, as I pointed out in an earlier posting, the decision to commit suicide
depends on one's economic value to close kin. In our society teens are not
particularly valuable economic assets, in fact they may be substantial drains
on a family's economic and psychic resources.

Third, we can expect suicide to be more common in segments of society where
individuals have low RV (due to a long delay in reproduction #4 above) and
where certain individuals represent costs to kin. I think middle-class teens
fit this bill. Further, many teens' sense of self-esteem is reflective of this
condition. "I'm worthless. I'm so far from being a real adult. My parents
are always on my back about drinking too much milk, wasting hot water, causing
trouble, etc. I wreaked the car. My parents ask me, `why can't you be more
like your nice little brother Johnny?'"

Fourth, often one teen suicide is followed by a rash of teen suicides. Why?
We might suggest that this is a "teen suicide meme" (see Dawkins _The extended
phenotype_) and an example of meme/gene opposition (Durham _Coevolution_).
(A meme is a very small unit of culture that replicates itself in human minds.
I suggest [cf. Durham] that memes are employed to shift one's status relative
to another individual. A joke is a good example of a meme. They (jokes) are
used to shift one's status relative to others (Alexander 1987? in _Ethology and
Sociobiology_], they are small units of culture, they have a phsiological
response [laughing], and they are replicated in human minds.) One employs a
meme according to the evolved mind. The evolved mind employs a series of
scenarios (e.g. day dreams) to test out the result of social interactions
(Alexander 1989 Evolution of the Human psyche in _The human revolution_).
We put these scenarios together in sets of plans and subplans in the service of
subgoals and goals (Barkow 1989 _Darwin sex and status_:107-113). Some of
these plans and subplans are aimed at status shifts. This is the way teen
suicide memes work. A teenager, through self-esteem mechanisms, decides to
kill him/herself and does so. This creates a big disruption in the school/
community. People focus a lot of attention on the individual who committed
suicide. Other teens observe this phenomenon and conclude that this represents
a status shift (consciously or not). They create a suicide scenario which
results in an imagined status shift for themselves (e.g. they imagine how
much attention it gets from peers and parents). So, they kill themselves, but
(oops) they forget (in their immature mind) that they won't be around to reap
the rewards of their shift in status.

So, what do you think? I know this is a just so story, but it rings true
to me. Is it testable? Again, sorry for the length of this posting. I hope
my attempt to keep this short haven't made it too unclear.

Rob Quinlan