Darwin, the Greatest Psychologist

Sigmund Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones, was mistaken in calling his subject “the Darwin of the mind.” Darwin himself was the Darwin of the mind; Freud was his great popularizer.

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.

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