Wael Al-Mahdi

“It seems to me that perhaps the time has come for psychology to become a science.” -William James

The gulf between the “hard” experimental sciences and the humanities has always been wide and might seem to be widening even further.  With every advance in science, especially in chemistry, biology, and neuroscience, we ask ourselves again the worrying and unsettling question:  What is the relationship between the sciences of the senses, and the knowledge of how humans and human culture operates?  How do atoms, particles, cells and electric pulses relate to our humanly unpredictable urges, impulses, emotions and ideas?  And whence comes our almost inconceivable complexity?  How is it that a 3-year-old child, having recently acquired speech, emerges as a full-fledged human being, and possessing the full repertoire of human conceptions, emotions, and habits (storytelling, for example)?  As always, it is the commonest observations, the phenomena that we take for granted, that arouse the most amazement.

This divide between the sciences and the humanities has always been a difficult issue, and there have been correspondingly awkward solutions.  Initially it was believed that the reason we were human was that we possessed a soul.  This soul was immaterial or at least only partially material, floating above (or inside) our bodies while maintaining a mysteriously ethereal relationship the body.  It appears that a belief in a soul lies at the center of all religions and supernatural belief systems; indeed, it seems that this belief is necessary to religious life.  But how would a soul relate to the brain and the neurons of which it is composed?  Let’s see what eminent evolutionary psychologist and science writer Steven Pinker has to say:

Stimulate the brain with chemicals or an electrical current, and the person’s experience changes; let a person’s experience vary, and you can measure the changes in chemistry or electrophysiology. When a brain is damaged, the person’s mental life is diminished accordingly, and when the brain’s activity ceases, the mind goes out of existence – Wallace’s séances notwithstanding, no one has found a way to communicate with the dead. The very existence of a subjective correlate of brain activity may not be understood (if it’s an intellectually coherent problem at all, which some would deny), but positing a “soul” simply renames the problem with no insight, and leaves the perfect correlation between consciousness and neurophysiology unexplained.

Evolutionary psychology (EP) attempts to explain human psychological traits as adaptations which are the result of natural selection and evolution.  In their extremely informative Evolutionary Psychology:  a Primer, two EP pioneers, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, explain the goal of their field thus:

The goal of research in evolutionary psychology is to discover and understand the design of the human mind. Evolutionary psychology is an approach to psychology, in which knowledge and principles from evolutionary biology are put to use in research on the structure of the human mind. It is not an area of study, like vision, reasoning, or social behavior. It is a way of thinking about psychology that can be applied to any topic within it. In this view, the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

The goal of the biological organism is spread of its individual genes; all behaviors are adaptations designed to maximize this spread.  In this context, much of mammalian and human behavior can be immediately grasped through the prism of evolutionary psychology.  Indeed, gene-spreading behaviors like love of children and kin can hardly be disputed.  Other explanations, however, are more controversial, especially within religious and/or ideological quarters.  An example is the male tendency to promiscuity.  From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems that such behavior evolved to maximize spread of genes, especially since the investments males make in offspring are biologically much less onerous than females.  Many non-scientifically minded critics, however, would balk at such explanations, which they hold as promoting immorality.  At the center at such fears, it seems to me, lies a failure to distinguish explanation and exhortation, and an inversion of logic:  since so-and-so behavior is immoral, it cannot be natural, whereas in fact “natural” is not always equal to “moral”.  This stems from a general confusing of “natural” with “morally good”.

As far as I can tell, EP is currently the best scientific structure of ideas that can explain human behavior.  It is very likely that any successful organism will have developed successful adaptations to its environment.  I see no reason why humans should be any different.  While greed, selfishness and aggressiveness can be more readily understood as resulting from genetically-derived competitive behavior, many laypeople will find it more difficult to integrate positive human traits like love, altruism, and cooperation, into the EP worldview.  Yet in a Duke University study, fMRI scans showed that increased activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus strongly predicted a person’s likelihood for altruistic behavior.  And what are we to make of the so-called “God module”, that part of the brain which shows intense activity in religious epileptics?  Such discoveries make Steven Pinker’s assertion that “No feature of consciousness has ever been discovered that does not depend 100% on neurophysiology” seem more likely that in any time in the past.

Central to the PE view of the mind is the idea of mental modules.  Mental modules are specialized neural circuits designed to solve different adaptational problems.  For example, finding food, choosing a mate, and dealing with aggression all required different modules.  Psychological functions are also module-based.  We know from studies of the brain that we can pin down certain regions of the brain that are related to specific emotions.  For example, the amygdala is related to fear modulations and social behaviors such respect of personal space.  We also know that hormones affect emotions and behaviors.  As an example, the neurotransmitter oxytocin affects maternal behavior in rats, sheep and humans.  It has been shown to increase trust and reduce fear in experimental subjects.  In a study in the journal Biological Psychiatry intranasally administered oxytocin was found to “increase to envy and schadenfreude.”  Let’s have the definitive say from Cosmides and Tooby again:

Consequently, the brain must be composed of a large collection of circuits, with different circuits specialized for solving different problems. You can think of each of these specialized circuits as a mini-computer that is dedicated to solving one problem. Such dedicated mini-computers are sometimes called modules. There is, then, a sense in which you can view the brain as a collection of dedicated mini-computers — a collection of modules. There must, of course, be circuits whose design is specialized for integrating the output of all these dedicated mini-computers to produce behavior.

But now let us make a dramatic volte-face from the realm of MRI scanners and rats with brain electrodes into the realm of archetypal psychology, with its study of dreams, artwork, and mythology.  The epoch-making work of Carl Gustav Jung introduced the world to concepts such as psychological complexes, introversion/extraversion, and the archetype.  An archetype in Jungian psychology is an inborn tendency, determined in form but not in content, which drives humans to have typical psychological experiences and behave in specific, typical ways.  These tendencies lie in the collective unconscious, which  is the common psychological substrate shared among all humans.  These archetypes include typically human behaviors related to kinship, mating, social adaptation, religiosity and psychological transcendence.  They also include powerful images such mother/father, child, hero, woman/man, apocalypse, wise old man, etc.  

To my way of thinking, the psychological concept of the archetype, in relation to human behavior, encompasses three main aspects:

  1. Biological instinct
  2. Psychological instinct
  3. Image:  producer of symbols, metaphors and analogies.

As an example, let us take the potent image of the great mother.  On the biological level, our inborn image of Mother allows us as infants to immediately react to our mothers or whoever takes the role of the mother.  Very young children rapidly learn to recognize their mothers’ face, voice, and even the smell of their milk.  Psychologically, Mother exerts a life-setting effect on the child.  From early childhood through to adulthood, much human drama revolves around Mother and what Mother did or neglected to do.  There is an excruciatingly intricate web of subtle connections to Mother, composed of love, hate, trust, pain, tenderness, and bitterness.  And this leads to the image of Mother:  as symbol for all that “arouses devotion or feelings of awe, or stands for fertility and fruitfulness, or protection” as Jung puts it.  Negatively, Mother can archetypify the constrictor snake, the sarcophagus, the tomb, and the stifling domesticity of the maternal nest  (the award-winning novel Coraline clearly typifies this aspect:  an underground Other Mother lures children to their death and loss of soul through the attractions of delicious food and spectacular circus shows).  Metaphorically, the nation, church, organization, company, and ship is Mother.  And then we have linguistic expressions like mother tongue, mother of pearl, and deliberate propaganda intended to arouse archetypical feelings like Saddam Hussein’s mother of all battles (which in actuality turned into mother of all defeats).  All this is contained in the archetype that is Mother.

But what is the purpose of archetypes?  My own view is that archetypes are bio-psychological instincts which produce adaptive behaviors.  In other words, when archetypes operate in the psyche of an individual, they drive him/her to behaviors which should, on average, lead to individual survival and reproduction.  They also give an individual the necessary psychological grounds in order to live out his/her life as a normally functioning human.  The mother and father archetypes allows the individual to have the required relationships of love, respect and obedience with the parents which ensure biological and social survival.  The anima archetype (feminine image in man) and animus archetypes (masculine image in woman) allow individuals to relate to the opposite sex and eventually establish a pair-bond and reproduce (Jung puts it thus:  “the whole nature of man presupposes woman, and vice versa”).  The child archetypes relates parents to their offspring and encourages behavior that will lead to survival of offspring.  The essential point is that archetypes, as instincts, not only produce biological behaviors, but also the psychological frames-of-mind which are the accompaniment, background, and basis of said biological behaviors.

When exploring causality, we know that if we remove the putative cause, we expect the effect is disappear also.  In autistics, we see certain behaviors that are absent because of the presumed lack of the corresponding mental equipment.  The result in autism is behaviors that do not seem conducive to adaptation and reproduction.  Many high-function autistics find it very difficult to relate to others, predict their intentions and behavior according to a coherent theory of the mind, or seek and select a mate.  I have known individuals with autism-spectrum disorders who appear to lack strong emotion, have little empathy, find it difficult to understand humor or envy, do not suffer from loneliness, cannot lie, and are completely asexual.  Apparently such neurologically atypical individuals lack the archetypes, and the corresponding mental tools, which produce typical human behaviors.

 So we come to the central question of this writing is:  are the archetypes and mental modules the same thing?  Did Jung discover the archetypes as the behavioral and psychological products of mental modules several decades before the concepts of EP emerged?  Both are inborn, inherited and genetically based (after the discovery of DNA, Jung postulated that the archetypes might be transmitted genetically.  Before that, he thought that they might be transmitted through the “germ plasm”).  Both produce adapted behaviors suited to the typical human living environment.  Jungian psychology and EP both reject the tabula rasa (blank slate) idea of the mind.  Jung explored human nature through the archetypes, which he accessed through the avenue of dreams, artwork, fantasies and mythology.  Evolutionary psychologists are also exploring human nature, but through experiments and “hard” science.  Can it be that both archetypical psychology and evolutionary psychology lead to the same center, but from opposite directions?

I believe that if we conceive of the archetypes as the psychological counterpart of the mental modules, we will have bridged the divide between the physical and behavioral sciences.  I predict that based on such a conceptual framework, coupled with the ongoing deciphering of the brain, humankind will come to solve many of its most baffling mysteries, and will develop a more mature understanding of religion, culture, society, psyche, learning, and ultimately, the Beyond itself.     


One Response to Relating Jungian Psychology and Evolutionary Psychology: archetypes and mental modules

  1. Moisés Herrezuelo says:

    So interesting!!
    Best regards