Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Darwin, the Greatest Psychologist

CORONADO, CALIFORNIA – Most people do not think of Charles Darwin as a psychologist. In fact, his work revolutionized the field. Before Darwin, philosophical speculation shaped our psychological understanding. But even great philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others – could only describe current mental events and behaviors; they could not explain their causes.

Darwin provided the profound understanding that evolution has influenced the shape of our minds as strongly as it has the shape of our bodies. Since humans evolved from the same primate ancestor as modern chimpanzees or gorillas, he suggested one could learn more by comparing human instincts, emotions, and behaviors to those of animals than one can surmise from subjective speculation. As he put it, “he who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”

Philosophy is inadequate to understand the roots of human psychology, because self-reflection does not make us aware of the forces that drive most of our reactions to the environment. Rather, we are subject to inborn tendencies, which develop through the reciprocally influential forces of natural and sexual selection.

Natural selection is the process by which the variants within a species that are best adapted to survive in their environment win the reproductive contest – at least until an even better-adapted variant comes along. The traits that enable people to feed and protect themselves increase the likelihood that they will live long enough to produce offspring, whom they will be able to feed and protect until maturity.

In a sense, sexual selection is the psychological extension of natural selection. But, instead of gaining an advantage from traits that enhance one’s ability to survive, one gains an advantage from qualities that potential mates have evolved to find appealing.

Given that humans’ sexual choices determine who reproduces most and, in turn, which physical and psychological features are favored over time, a trait that may not help a person to survive can still provide a reproductive advantage that is passed along to offspring. In other words, in choosing a mate, one shapes the course of evolution.

Moreover, the principle of sexual selection implies that, in addition to regulating bodily functions, the nervous system indirectly influences the progressive development of bodily and mental structures such as ornamental appendages; cognitive skills like musical ability; and characteristics such as courage and perseverance. Peacocks have evolved to have long, colorful feathers simply because peahens have evolved to find them attractive.

Darwin explained that such qualities are propagated and enhanced over generations, through “the exertion of choice, the influence of love and jealousy, and the appreciation of the beautiful in sound, color, or form.” Indeed, while natural selection is blind, sexual selection has an eye for beauty – although the nature of beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.

Given that human psychology has developed through a sometimes-uneasy balance of natural and sexual selection, evolution and psychology influence and interact with each other. Darwin’s contributions to understanding human psychology involved careful study of child development, which he reported in 1877 in “Biographical Sketch of an Infant.” For the first three years of his first-born son William’s life, Darwin observed him with the practiced eye of a naturalist, recording developments as diverse as his ability to follow a candle with his eyes to the first manifestations of conscience. Darwin also pioneered the experimental tools of scientific psychology, such as the use of photographs of facial expressions and surveys to determine the universality of human emotions.

Darwin had already made most of his major psychological discoveries even before he identified natural selection as the mechanism of evolution – but he waited 35 years before publishing his findings. This decision can be partly attributed to his meticulous approach to research, which entailed carefully collecting and studying evidence before presenting theories.

But Darwin also knew that, if he needed time to accept his own conclusions, the rest of the world was not ready to face such a materialist view of humanity. He shied away from the inevitable confrontation with critics – among whom were friends and colleagues.

By the time Darwin died, his ideas had gained significant influence among psychologists and neuroscientists – even if they did not always fully realize it. Sigmund Freud never met Darwin, but most of his mentors were enthusiastic Darwinists. Just as Isaac Newton revolutionized astronomy and physics by “standing on the shoulders” of his predecessors, Freud built on Darwin’s evolutionary insights in order to understand psychological symptoms, dreams, myths, art, anthropology, and much more. Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones, was mistaken in calling Freud “the Darwin of the mind.” Darwin himself was the Darwin of the mind; Freud was his great popularizer.

Since Darwin, academic psychology has expanded significantly, enriched by the sophisticated tools of cognitive science, cybernetics, and brain imaging. But most of these developments have been derivative elaborations of Darwin’s grand evolutionary model. The fundamentals of our conception of human nature can all be found in Darwin’s notebooks, written 175 years ago and before his thirtieth birthday.

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  1. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    Darwin influenced me to follow the second volume of the Dimensional Encyclopedia, which is devoted to psychology, with a third volume devoted to biology. Indeed, I agree that in some ways psychology is a natural devleopment of aspects of biology, when insight is provided. However, according to the tradition of deontic and ex posteriori logical reasoning, it may be more useful to consider biology as a function of psychology. That is the approach I am taking with my books. Don't forget that one of the major influences upon Darwin himself was the primordial, perhaps psychological aspect of the animals he studied. Even if psychology was not a discipline at the time of Darwin, there were some previous signs that psychology was in vogue. In some ways the 1800's were the golden age of psychology, a time when humankind was said to be 'understood'. Theories increasingly since that time have focused less on humanity than on the human enterprise, in a sense that depends on ulteriors. Even the dedication to sex is a kind of reaction to the evasiveness of the inner soul of psychology. Oftentimes, the inner life of the mind and behavior is not said to be empathic, simply because people shy away from instances of congenital disorders. There is far more territory involving intermediate virtues than most materialists seem to bargain with. We shouldn't dedicate ourselves only to the tools that already exist, we should sometimes instead apply an artistic eye and envision new words, conundrums, and modalities which describe the---yes, evolving---nature of humankind, or even post-humanity.

    Life isn't just the 1800's, but then again, we can thank Darwin for one very good word---evolution. In my encyclopedias I adopt dynamics as a useful principle with that concept firmly in mind. And as you say, it may be as useful for psychology as it is for biology. For those that want an empathic view of psychology, I recommend the second encyclopedia, The Dimensional Psychologist's Toolkit. It contains advice about therapy, concepts of cognition, and behavioral organizations. Highly recommended. It will be released in 2014.

  2. CommentedJoshua Soffer

    "Frances' "comment that "Philosophy is inadequate to understand the roots of human psychology" expresses a common bias in favor of a materialist vocabulary among scientists. Nietzsche considered himself a psychologist who also did metaphysics. His researches not only parallel Darwin's concerning the adaptationist basis of life but probe deeper in this direction that Darwin. Freud belatedly recognized the close relationship between his work and Nietzsche's.

  3. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Kropotkin’s book ‘Mutual Aid’ had so many number of evidences that proved the theory that societies from ancient times including in the case of animals, both for the wild and the timid to have prospered with one helping the other to face adversities; it is not natural selection or sexual preferences alone that has mattered for people to come together for survival, it is something beyond that. The survival of the fittest theory and natural selection on the other hand had to contend with the later developed logic that genetic patterns have helped the stronger, farer or more beautiful and attractive to progress than the less endowed ones; truth perhaps lies somewhere in between.

    But the connection to psychology that which predates the work of Freud in explaining human behavior had the same treatment that Freud had to go through, rejection and partial acceptance by the learned community. Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson have brought in new questions that raise the doubt even further. Freud on the other hand had been completely taken in by Ernst Haeckel's fraudulent Biogenetic Law and believed that, “just as the human embryo recapitulates prior stages of evolution, so the various psychoneuroses tend to develop in the human psyche recapitulating particular crises in prehistory”.

  4. CommentedEdward Ponderer

    I think what is important here is not so much realizing the nature of how of former evolution has molded our present psychology, but how we can use that information to positively effect the psychology of the presently developing, singular, global humanity -- homo globalis, perhaps we could call it. This being is not some large-headed, six-fingered monster from the old Outer Limits, but rather Humanity as an entity onto itself. As a matter of fact, recent studies showing a decrease in independent creative thinking since the Victorian Era, may well indicate a backing up exactly into this type of global corporate evolution.

    To wit, we must take specific note of the "4th pillar" of evolution, natural altruism. From the bacterial mega-colony, to communal rooting systems of grasses, to insect colonies, to school, flocks, and herds -- we see that there is a point where individuals link in an altruistic manner to a group, eventually reaching some higher sense of individual.

    This idea rings in deep accord with the concepts of endosymbiotic theory per Lynn Margulis's 1966 landmark paper, "The Origin of Mitosing Eukaryotic Cells" (The Journal of Theoretical Biology). While at this point, it is only considered established that certain cellular organelles evolved through a prior mutualist relationship formed between cell and viral invader, evidence of such symbiotic development (or "altruistic" in human terms), seems to be present in all of nature per the above -- along with the establishment of unified behaviors, and balance become the homeostasis of greater-self.

    In fact there is an almost eerie organizational structure from the subatomic level up through macro-molecules -- especially noting the crucial role discovered for quantum mechanical tunneling in enzyme function discovered in 2006. [I believe it was the quantum physicist Wigner who first proposed a fundamental role for quantum mechanics to explain protein stability, but was pushed off by biologists at the time who claimed that enzymes provided stability without need of QM principle. -- ironic...] It seems that at the grander scale of the macro-evolution -- the inorganic into the living cell -- there may be a fundamental role here for quantum mechanics and related fundamentals of physics in holistic organization. -- A natural quantum computer effect of sorts, if you would.

    So I would propose that linking mutual concern, responsibility, and guarantee may be the key to the next stage of human evolution where we are everybody else, and they are us. But because we are human, the jump will require all the free will that we can muster against our individual egos that would hold us back to remain -- well, basically, germs (or worse, the clever powerful ones remain cancers).

    Perhaps that strange 21st Century oddity that we are evolving, the Internet, is our coordinated mind, calling to us from the future, leading us -- begging for us -- to be born. Lets us consciously implement the integral education and societal environment it will take to steer us in this direction despite our unique human egos. In fact, let our unique human minds use those egos as tools exactly to the accomplishment.

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Very interesting article.
    There are indeed very important questions related to evolution and psychology looking at humanity today.
    Why is it that most humans think evolution has stopped with the modern human, and we do not need to innovate ourselves but instead we stubbornly try to keep the same human system, even if the signs are growing that our present system has exhausted itself?
    Also how is it possible that a species that has evolved directly from the natural system, still exists in the natural system, keeps on promoting, developing an unnatural, fully artificial environment for itself, again even when there are multiple signs that by this they threaten their own survival?
    It seems that as humans became more and more self-conscious, the developing human ego increasingly separated us from the natural path, we started comparing ourselves to others, trying to overcome each other, developing a first seemingly productive competition within our species, which competition has become self destructive as humanity fully matured into the global, interconnected and interdependent system we observe today.
    With this integral humanity we entered a new evolutionary stage that would requite completely new paradigm and behavioral patterns.
    This would require humans to rise above their previous, instinctive egoistic development, and start a fully aware human path where the human would establish control over its own ego using it in a positive way, not for only self-fulfillment as today, but for the benefit of the whole species as the vast, surrounding natural environment and its laws dictate.
    The ego, by separating us from the natural path, but at the same time bringing us to the brink of existential threat gave us the opportunity to become truly human, a living creature that has true free choice, either instinctively subduing to its egoistic nature, or overcoming it as a "rodeo rider" using the force of the inherent nature for a positive development.
    The conscious, freely chosen adaptation to the natural environment, opposed to the natural, unconscious adaptation as we observe in animals gives us our uniqueness and offers our next evolutionary stage.