Mentor-menteeDeep concernA wise mentor of mine, who is steeped in the psychoanalytic tradition, has been reading my manuscript. He commented on the negative, even snide, references to psychoanalytic theory, telling me, “John, that’s not who you are.”

Well, that really got to me —particularly when I have so touted that the coordination of divided labor is the essence of the human genius. Below is an amended chastened passage from my manuscript.

Sigmund FreudFreud’s ideas (broadly, psychoanalytic ideas) are sometimes discounted by modern psychiatrists who have turned to medications as their central treatments, but the topic here is philosophy, not medicine. For over fifty years, his paradigm attracted the finest minds in the field who contributed to the most dynamic and intellectually stimulating era in psychiatry. The issue that intrigued me most was the psychoanalytic perspective about how the superego is instilled in the child’s mind. A firm understanding of this process became vitally important to me as I later entered into the world of Darwin because I became convinced that this particular Freudian mechanism held important information about how the Homo people communicated and spread their culture. I agree with researchers like psychologists Michael Tomasello and Patricia Greenfield that “ontogeny [the development of the child] recapitulates phylogeny [the evolution of the species]” and pertains more to the mind than the body.


Chalres DarwinFreud’s overall id–superego topography of the mind is directly applicable to the Darwinian view I have been discussing. In effect, the evolutionary paradigm I am introducing extends Freud’s most fundamental insight about our mental structure back to the founding of our tribe. The id represents the dominance interactions of pre-hominin primates, including promiscuous sexuality. The superego represents obedience to the authority of groups that developed among hominins. Crucial to the understanding of how psychoanalytic thinking informs Darwinian thinking is the following distinction. The Freudian paradigm is a self-contained system that has the burden of explaining causal psychic mechanisms in childhood development. When one regards Freudian insights from a Darwinian perspective, that burden of psychic causality is contained within the larger cause of the superego, which is its natural selection for group survival. Now relieved of its causal baggage, the growth of the Freudian superego in the child becomes the unfolding of an emotional fossil which can be closely examined. I had been primed from the very beginning by my initial grounding in Jung to view the superego not just from the standpoint of its personal-developmental relevance to a specific patient, but as a repository of the deep history of our species.

Isiah: Swords into PloughsharesA central example of this distinction is Freud’s celebrated oedipal complex. Freud observed that the infant needs and loves his mother until roughly the age of five when sexual instincts lead to wishes to be rid of, or get rid of father. This in turn engenders fear of the father’s wrathful vengeance, including castration. Further normal development brings years of forgetfulness of this Oedipus complex. This latency is a period in which the sublimation of the id occurs whereby the raw material of the ape-like id is rendered into socially productive behavior.

When one grasps the Darwinian dimension, all the exquisite riches of a century of this creative thought about the inner dynamics of child development can viewed as the effect of natural selection. One can appreciate that this developmental unfolding was evolved over millions of years by the process of natural selection—for those relational behaviors that, at the end of each and every generation, have resulted in the most productivity and fecundity. Basically, this behavior was, and still is, the expansion and refinement of the ability to coordinate divided labor, which is, in my judgement, the fundamental human adaptation (you and I are doing so as you read this blog). The psychoanalytic description of how this was accomplished gives spectacularly rich insight into how Nature (as opposed to man) achieves her goals (in this case group survival) by countless deft alterations in the dynamics of emotion-and-motivation in the developing child’s  internal responses to social interactions.


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5 Comments on “Why So Snide About Psychoanalysis?”

  1. Once grasped, the evolutionary approach puts some science into Freud’s insights about id and super-ego. It’s probably another chapter, but the ego is not really treated. I guess we just have to stay tuned.

    1. Thanks Laird. You put your finger on a very honest and legitimate difference I have with Freud. I believe that his ego is not biological, but a cultural construct that arose in the so-called Axial Age of the Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophers, and has gained ascendance in the Enlightenment Era: “I act rationally, therefore I am.” This heroic cultural icon is wonderfully portrayed on the envelope sent to me over 20 years ago in response to an ad I placed in the Washington Post for a cartoonist to represent “abstract psychological concepts.” I believe our biologically-based ego is what is normally meant when you say someone has a “big ego.” That gets into what our Homo sapiens species has brought to the hominin table, which is vanity – the motivation to “advertise” how wonderful, smart and good-looking, etc. we are as individuals. I believe that this biologically-based ego has been selected because of its capacity to bind large groups-of-groups together (the discernment of the “audience” was co-evolved to weed out the flagrant bullshitters [Trump]), which is the main reason that we Homo sapiens have been so successful (in combination with our previously evolved capacity to coordinate divided labor mentioned above).
      Thanks again Laird for your comment.

  2. John, your reference to the id emphasizes its “promiscuous sexuality.” But equally important to Freud’s concept of the id is aggression. As I recall, Freud tied the aggressive side of the id to the death instinct, which if I recall correctly, is the desire to return to an inanimate state. It seems to me that your evolutionary theory of the mind and mental illness needs to refute or otherwise come to grips with Freud’s death instinct.
    On another matter, you say that the ability to coordinated divided labor is the “fundamental human adaptation.” This statement makes me think of my work on knowledge theory and its relation to education. I define knowledge as representations of reality. Now it happens that reality is infinitely complex, so we need to foster specialists who can master various aspects of it (e.g., engineers who deal with structures and engines; lawyers who deal with legal matters). If we could not divide labor, we’d still be hunters and gatherers.

    1. Mark, Thanks as always for the comment. I meant to emphasize the motivation for individual dominance, which is all about aggression, and to imply promiscuous sexuality is a “tag-along.” Yes Freud’s preoccupation with the death instinct. Although, I purport to be interested in Freud philosophically, my study of him was in my psychiatric residency, and from a clinical point of view, his philosophical meanderings about the death instinct were irrelevant. So although it is my intention to rehabilitate my attitude toward Freud, some of his philosophical positions, I still think are downright wacky, particularly his foray into evolution in Totem and Taboo, and his Future of an Illusion seems utterly trite to me–But there I go again being negative! That’s what I am trying to get away from. I thought Civilization and It’s Discontentsthe best of that genre of his.
      Yes, I only recently latched onto the phrase coordinate-divided-labor as a zippy little nugget to explain our adaptation. Actually, I think that has really taken off in the last 10,000 years, but I believe it also explains the success of “our” entire 6 million-year evolution as hunter-gathers (although not much hunting going on for the first 3.5 MY hominin phase). Although other species that have evolved coordinated behavior, such as wolves and lions, have done so as an adaptation for pack-hunting, I believe that the conversion from the dominance-submissive interactions of apes into obedience to the authority of groups defines our entire hominin tribe. And that gets into the whole ball-of-wax philosophy of the blog.
      Thanks so much again for your most stimulating comments.

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