Old Mind, New Mind: Emotional Fossils and the Evolution of the Human Spirit is a memoir of the author’s lifelong search for the human narrative. He is inspired to enter the field of psychiatry by Carl Jung, is trained in classical Freudian theory, and begins his career at a maximum security prison, where he becomes a fervent Darwinist. He begins to realize that the social structure of the inmates echoes the dominance hierarchies of our primate ancestors. He recognizes that the dimension that distinguishes us from apes lies in our mind which is the functional experience of our brain. Yet he finds that there is virtually no science on the process by which the ape mind evolved into the human mind—minds do not fossilize and all prior hominin species are extinct. As explained in the book:
Huge amounts of scientific knowledge about the minds of apes and humans (particularly children) are neatly being stacked upon the cliffs on either side of the six-million-year canyon of time that separates apes from us. But it is within this vast silent chasm that all our human ancestors, whose ghosts animate the very core of us, passionately forged the destiny that now is ours.
Dr. Wylie then enters private practice and for decades listens to his patients describe their depression, panic disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. He slowly realizes that in each of these maladies there is a failure of the regulation of a specific social emotion. As a result, this emotion becomes pathologically hyperactive (similar to the rampancy of cancer), which then causes the paralysis of all mental function. He comes to believe that the emotions revealed in each of these illnesses respectively have served vital social functions for hundreds of thousands, and in some cases, millions of years. Major mental illnesses, he realizes contain “emotional fossils.”
He begins to conceive how these emotions explain the key transformation six million years ago from dominance by individuals in apes to authority of groups in hominins. In the course of collecting paleoanthropological and psychiatric evidence for this transition, he comes to the conclusion that the defining phenomenon of group authority in hominins consists of a collective force of will that resides in a virtual group-space. This collective authority was, and still is, naturally selected to suppress disruptive elements of apelike dominance. The pursuit of justice that has been bequeathed to us as a living spirit has made possible not just cooperation but the harmony needed to coordinate labor. The coordination of divided labor is the hominin species’ sole adaptation and source of their success.
While identifying this evolutionary expansion of Jung’s collective unconscious as our old mind, he turns to the symptoms of the manic phase of bipolar disorder as an emotional fossil: he recognizes clear evidence that this narcissistic illness only recently arose in our own Homo sapiens species. On top of the wise, group-oriented old mind of our hominin ancestors, our species emerged with a clever, egoistic new mind that is highly sexualized. The new mind has a passion for self-display and a love of being loved, long known as vanity. With the insight that we actually have two very differently motivated minds, a brilliant new light is thrown onto our capacities for self-awareness and linguistic syntax, our vulnerability to mental illness and, most meaningful of all, the current dysfunctions and future destiny of the human spirit. As Dr. Wylie writes:
Arising from the pages of this book is a broad view of the emotional experience and social life of our extinct hominin forebear species. . . . The long struggle of the human spirit is that of imposing justice upon the Darwinian struggle. How much more majesty there is in the vision that the unique aspect of our nature is animated not by tooth and claw, but rather by our tribe’s ancient mission to transform the power of aggression into the bounty of communion.
“In this breathtakingly original book, John Wylie proposes a new theory of mind, one that reconciles evolutionary biology with psychodynamics. This is a great endeavor of the intellect and a deep review of consciousness itself.” Andrew Solomon (Noonday Demon & Far from the Tree)
- John V. Wylie graduated from Yale with a degree in history and received his medical degree from Columbia, in 1969. After two years of surgical training, he was inspired by the writings of Carl Jung to switch to the field of psychiatry. He completed his psychiatric residency at Georgetown University and began his career at Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security prison in Maryland with a treatment program. He spent 35 years in private practice in Washington, DC, where he served as the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Sibley Memorial Hospital. He retired in 2007 and wrote Diagnosing and Treating Mental Illness: A Guide for Physicians, Nurses, Patients, and Their Families, published in 2010, second edition in 2012. Dr. Wylie was a founding member of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.