Whereas there is ample physical evidence about how our bodies evolved from apes, how our minds evolved remains a mystery. This is an important problem because it intimately affects how we perceive human nature. Seeping down from both Darwin and Freud is an inchoate popular attitude that our basic emotional nature is similar to that of apes, but that we have somehow become cognitively smart enough to superimpose a culture containing reason, which has led to our becoming civilized.
The limitations of observational science in discovering how the human mind with all of its extraordinary powers evolved from a mind similar to those observed in apes are profound. Perhaps the world’s foremost scientist on the subject of mind evolution is Michael Tomasello, Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He states in his most recent book, A Natural History of Human Thinking (2014):
The main problem is that collaboration, communication, and thinking do not fossilize, so we will always be in a position of speculation about such behavioral phenomena, as well as the specific events that were critical to their evolution. Most critical, we do not know how much contemporary great apes have changed from their common ancestor with humans because there are basically no relevant fossils from this era.
There are also limitations to the scientific study of the human mind itself. The mind can only be submitted to scientific evaluation indirectly by studying the behavior that results from it. During the early part of the last century the study of psychology was dominated by extreme behaviorism in which the internal processing by the mind was considered irrelevant. More recently, psychologists have viewed the mind as a collection of evolved computational modules configured to solve problems. In 35 years as a psychiatrist, I have come to believe that the core of human nature cannot really be understood by just the study of cognition, how we know what we know, but rather by examining how we feel what we feel. In other words, emotion and motivation are at the core of human nature, not cognition.
the language of the emotions…is certainly of importance for the welfare of mankind. To understand, as far as possible, the source or origin of the various expressions which may be hourly seen on the faces of the men around us, not to mention the domesticated animals, ought to possess much interest for us.
Although Darwin the Victorian believed that most human emotion is vestigial and not actively functional, recent studies of rare neurological disorders have demonstrated that emotion underlies all behavior including that of thinking. Unlike Tomasello, I would never discount that someday we will develop the scientific tools to understand the evolutionary physiology of conscious emotions, but that day is nowhere in sight, and we will all be long gone when and if it arrives.
In light of the limitations of observational science in the area of the evolution of the emotions, it is entirely appropriate that other, non-scientific avenues of inquiry be brought to bear. One such method was used by Sigmund Freud to create psychoanalytic theory, which dominated the study of mental illness for almost an entire century. Throughout my own practice of psychiatry and psychopharmacology, I have found that a psychoanalytic understanding of the mind was essential in treating and understanding mental illness. While in recent times, the brain science of mental illness has appropriately overshadowed a psychoanalytic understanding, it is a field still in its infancy, and has not yet described pathophysiology of any major mental illness.
Not only does psychoanalytic theory pertain to mental illness, it also provides a vision of how normal human emotions function. The psychoanalytic elaboration of the emotional dynamic between id impulses (aggression and sexuality) and the social demands of the superego (guilt and shame) producing anxiety arguably has been as influential on our present commonly-held cultural view of human nature (as reflected in literature and art) as all the science inspired by Darwin. Freud’s method of inquiry is formally known as phenomenology, which is the study of emotions by means of directly asking people—specifically psychiatric patients—to describe precisely their experiences of them. The descriptions of something as inherently abstract as emotions are inevitably metaphorical. Freud’s metaphor of the mind as a machine run by the drives of the id that are regulated by the suppression of the superego is the expression of self-evident truth articulated in the metaphor of the “machine age.”
By “self-evident,” I invoke the deployment of our highly developed mental capacity to judge the veracity of a description of the mind’s emotions by “test driving” it in situ, within the emotional laboratory of our own minds, as to whether it feels right. This process of evaluation by second-hand experiencing is called empathy. The ratification of a phenomenological theory is accomplished in the same way that art is judged, that is by a consensus of subjective opinions.
Psychoanalysis is also a phenomenological system of understanding emotions on the basis of how they progressively develop in the mind of the child. Indeed, as mentioned, Michael Tomasello has studied the cognitive development in children with the premise that ontogeny (development of the individual) recapitulates phylogeny (evolution of the species).
My phenomenological studies have found a different path. I have attempted to link together a half dozen indisputable findings plucked from the African desert representing different periods of our evolutionary history into a vibrant narrative animated by changes in our ancestors’ emotions and motivations. Very unlike science in which the validity of a hypothesis is based on the certainty of individual facts that support it, a phenomenological theory draws its validity from the whole of it as a paradigm based on its capacity to meaningfully unite the facts. It is who we feel the inside of ourselves to be that validates the ideas in this blog.
In working with violent criminals early in my career followed by many years of persistently examining psychiatric illnesses, I have concluded that, far from distorting normal emotions, psychiatric illnesses and criminal behavior both delineate and magnify detailed aspects of the specific emotions that serve central social functions in normal behavior, which, when analyzed through the lens of evolution, indicate the core narrative of the evolution of our social emotions.
I propose that the two major forms of depression reveal the principal emotions that cohere social groups together: the fear of interpersonal separation and the fear of entrapment at the bottom (periphery) of groups. I also propose that schizophrenia disables the communication of normative values from groups, and that the manic phase of bipolar disorder reveals emotions that were exclusively evolved in our own Homo sapiens species. Melding these insights with evolutionary science I suggest that there were two major reconfigurations in the dynamics of social emotion resulting in respective evolutionary transitions in social structure: one from apes to hominins ~6 million years ago, and the other marking the appearance of our own species ~200,000 years ago.
Arising from the posts in this blog is a broad view of the emotional experience and social life of our extinct hominin forebear species. What little is known about these early humans is consistent with the idea that these ancient peoples lived their lives immersed together within collective, naturally selected emotions and motivations that were evolved at the level of their associations with one another. A vision emerges of their inherent nobility: they lived their lives peacefully within a social structure ruled by a living spirit that banished the law of the jungle by the enforcement of justice. Critical to an understanding of human nature is the recognition that ninety-seven percent of our evolution involved the development of a communal mind built upon a foundation of right and wrong, which I designate as our Old Mind.
While the legacy of our Old Mind is portrayed as aversively motivated by social fears (“Do not”), our own species evolved a New Mind, which is goal-driven and highly sexualized with a passion for individual self-display, better known as vanity. The “two mind hypothesis” proposes that human nature consists of a dynamic interaction between an Old communal and spiritual Mind and a New egocentric Mind. The comprehension of our most mysterious capacities such as reflective self-awareness leading to thought and the complexity of recursive language are clarified by an understanding of their underlying emotional dynamics created by our New Mind involved in artful self-display within the context of intricate communal rules constructed by our Old Mind.
The history of our Hominin Tribe is interpreted as a struggle that is very different from the one Darwin defined. The struggle for individual fitness within groups was suppressed (due to its wasteful inefficiency in deteriorating climates) by the rise of an intentional agency (selected on account of its productivity) residing within the relationships between individuals. Although the genes of this mental agency exist within the individuals of a given group, its expression, or phenotype, arise from the thin ether of their associations. I call this virtual space that contains the phenotype of evolved group intentions spiritual. So, the long struggle of the human spirit is the struggle for justice against the Darwinian struggle. How much grander is the vision of a nature grounded not in tooth and claw, but in a sacred mission to transform its evil into the bounty of communion.
Our recorded history is interpreted as the tumultuous culmination of our Tribe’s noble struggle. The evolutionary meaning of the enigmatic vanity of our New Mind is to effect an expansion of the dominion of the human spirit in the Old Mind from small kinship groups to all people, all groups, and thereby to eventually redeem Isaiah’s prophesy of peace on earth.