Freud's "Totem and Taboo"

My psychiatric training in the early 1970’s was completely dominated by Freudian ideas. After finally comprehending the basics of how the superego is installed into the child’s mind during growth and development (last post), my interest shifted to the evolution of human emotion since the last common ancestor about six million years ago. This blog contains a theory about how the superego (aka: God) was evolved. However, Freud had his own ideas about the evolution of his notion of superego.



The following is taken from Richard Milner’s excellent and very readable Darwin’s Universe:

"Totem and Taboo" by S. Freud

“In this imaginative classic [Totem and Taboo], he concocted his own psychoanalytic myth of “the primal horde” the Freudian version of original sin. Freud imagined that the first prehistoric society was a patriarchal clan, ruled by a dominant father who monopolized food and sex. In order to get at the women, the sons murdered their father. But then they were too guilty to enjoy the women, which Freud thought was the origin of the incest taboo.

Later, the sons assuaged their guilt by merging the memory of their father with a symbolic totemic animal that it was taboo to kill. However, once a year, the sacred totem was symbolically slain and eaten…

Even more far-fetched speculations surfaced in Freud’s manuscript A Phylogenetic Fantasy, written in 1915 but forgotten and stored in an old trunk for 70 years and finally published in 1987. This strange work traces hysteria, obsessions, anxiety neurosis, and other modern disorders to the harsh life of our ancestors during the Ice Age. Anxiety, for instance, arose because ‘mankind, under the influence of the privations that encroaching Ice Age imposed upon it, has become generally anxious. The hitherto predominantly friendly outside world, which bestowed every satisfaction, transformed itself into a mass of threatening perils.’

In Freud’s view, we’ve been plagued by anxiety ever since. In addition, under harsh conditions, people had to limit their numbers, which caused redirection of libidinal urges to other objects and resurfaces today as ‘conversion hysteria’ or fetishism (sexual desires redirected at objects like shoes or leather rather than to the opposite sex). His idea was that behaviors that make no sense in today’s world must have had a utility in the past, and have been handed down as sort of inherited memory.

Freud’s conclusions about the origins of dysfunctional behaviors are therefore based on two antiquated theories in biology: recapitulation and Lamarckian inheritance. Most present day Freudians, unfamiliar with the history of evolutionary theory, cannot appreciate how deeply Freud’s theories rest on these two major 19th-century scientific fads, which have long since been abandoned by biologists.”

In my own writings, I do take the Freudian conclusion about the psychology of superego formation in the child seriously, but then erect a theory of how it was evolved based on modern evolutionary theory.     

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