Sigmund Freud Meets Charles Darwin in Prison

While in my residency, Freudian psychoanalytic theory was still dominant. There are several cornerstones from my training that, through all the vicissitudes of my career, remained as foundations. First and foremost is the validity of the mind as a subject of study as opposed to the brain. This was difficult to maintain when psychiatry was turning to drugs and neurotransmitters. Then there is Freud’s emphasis on the predominance of two aspects of human emotion and behavior. One was his recognition of the sheer prevalence of anxiety apart from his theory of neurosis. The other was his celebrated observation about the ubiquity of sexuality in humans, much of it unconscious in his Victorian era. Finally self-evident is Freud’s view of the mind as involved in an emotional dynamic between the Id, consisting of primitive, atavistic impulses, and the superego representing the inhibitions of society.

I became interested in the various psychoanalytic theories as to how the superego becomes installed into the developing child and came to the conclusion that the concept of identity was the key. Very briefly, in the process of identity, social prohibitions become internalized into the child’s mind through a combination of fear and attachment to key parental figures . I later became convinced that a more general conception of identity both actively underlies our thinking process throughout life and had been at the center  of the hominid evolutionary narrative since the beginning.

So, It was with these basic Freudian assumptions that I began my career at a high security prison. I immediately observed in prison that the organizing social principle was dominance and submission ordered roughly into feudal hierarchies. As I examined these vertical relationships, I became immersed in Darwinian evolutionary psychology. I became aware that dominance and submission is a core structure in most social animals, particularly primates, and represented inhibited forms of the fight and flight responses and thereby permitted the advantages of social living.

By that time, I had transitioned into thinking about human evolution instead of the growth and development of individuals. I had the simple insight that, over the course of the 6 million years of hominid evolution, the external dominance-submission relationships in apes somehow  became internalized into a single mind producing not just a dynamic akin to Freud’s superego and id, but enabling the internal interaction of self-conscious thought. By means of some evolutionary mechanism a very basic external primate relationship had become an internal one inside a single human mind. As Alfred Wegener later wrote when the idea of continental drift (now plate tectonics) first struck him in 1911, “A conviction of the fundamental soundness of the idea took root in my mind.”

About J.V. Wylie

Retired psychiatrist, who is writing a book called "How We Became Human"on the origin of the human mind. My blog, "Apes, Ants, and Ancestors" - is a "laboratory" for the ideas in the book.
This entry was posted in Evolution of Emotion, Evolutionary psychology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sigmund Freud Meets Charles Darwin in Prison

  1. Succinct and tantalizing. How ironic that something as simian and basic as fight-flight may produce the internal tension that gives rise to humans’ higher consciousness and self consciousness.

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