The Freud Museum

Events Archive

8 May 1999

Evolution and Psychotherapy

Conference Report

Why does Freud regard the Oedipus Complex as a universal of his theory, and not, for instance, the conditioned reflex? Because psychoanalysis is a species specific psychology which rests on certain evolutionary hypotheses that define and limit the scope of its object. He is concerned about creating a psychology that will apply to those organisms that exhibit a long period of childhood dependence, diphasic onset of sexuality, loss of oestrus, a change in the relation between male excitation and female menstruation (as he puts it) and elaborate kinship systems (i.e. an incest taboo and forms of regulation of sexuality, sexual exchanges and procreation). Funnily enough Freud does not say 'language' as one of the defining features of the object of psychoanalysis, as if he was concerned to see the development of a symbolic capacity as a result of libidinal reorganisation rather than a possible determinant in its transformation. In this sense, despite an emphasis on the species-specific Freud is maintaining a continuity between man and other animals. Darwin took more or less the same view in his Expression of the Emotions.

Given that Freud's evolutionary hypotheses were absolutely vital to his theory it is surprising that so few psychotherapists are interested in the subject. Or is it? How can it help, when faced with an unhappy individual asking for help, to relate his suffering to a two million year stretch of human evolution? That was the underlying question this conference set out to investigate and in some measure to answer.

In his introduction Malcolm Pines, a group analyst and thus concerned with a multi-person psychology, highlighted the way in which social systems become the containers for emotional tension and violence. He put forward an interactive view about the development of a complex society and the development of a big brain. As Freud once said, we are all amateur psychologists. For reasons of survival we try to work out what is in other people's minds, their thoughts, feelings and intentions, and in the process complex symbolic systems arise which modulate conflicts and anxiety.

In his paper 'Evolutionary Models of Psychopathology: Evidence and Therapeutic Implications' Paul Gilbert took the issue of anxiety as central. Why do we go into therapy? Because we have too little pleasure in life, too much pain, or not enough energy and interest. And in a sense we recognise that these 'failings' are self-induced. Evolutionary psychology would argue that these states are the result of certain behavioural stategies that we have adopted, which relate both to our innate predispositions and environmental contingencies. In much the same way that external threats set in train biological defence mechanisms, so threats can come from the internal world and produce similar results. We in effect infect or attack ourselves with threatening signals or internally generated images that start biological programmes to behave as subordinates, inhibiting our capacities for enjoyment. Much of Gilbert's paper could be related directly to Freud's Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, I thought, or to ideas about the role of the superego in the analytic process.

One of the debates out of which sociobiology and evolutionary psychology emerged was concerned with the problem of 'altruism'. Thus why organisms might have evolved to help each other despite a cost to themselves was central to Randolph Nesse's paper 'Evolutionary Origins of Subjective Committment; A Foundation for Psychotherapy'. If we see relationships as a game involving winning and lossing, it turns out that a stable arrangement is 'tit for tat'; if someone helps you, help them back; if they defect, then you defect. Another solution to the problem is to express commitment to a community of 'believers', including a code of action which makes defections obvious so that members can be trusted. (Any parent who has had the experience of having their adolescent child lie to them, occupying as they do a different 'community of believers', will know just how frustrating and stressful it is). Nesse humorously suggested that neuroses may be defined as a situation when we respond inappropriately to defection; somebody defects and we cooperate more. Similarly if this is the picture, then there will be a premium on not being detected when defecting on one's commitments, and the best way to get away with that is not to know it yourself. Thus self-deception - having unconscious motives - may be shaped by natural selection.

Whereas Nesse talked of a 'foundation' for psychotherapy, David Smith, a practising psychotherapist, brought the argument right into the consulting room. Deception and self deception take place in the analytic relationship, and what may be uncomfortable to accept is that the therapist is caught up in it as much as the patient. Sandor Ferenczi was one of the few analysts to acknowledge this. The self-deception of the analyst is what is usually called countertransference, but when the patient sees through the self-serving nature of the analyst's behaviour or interpretations the validity of the patient's perception is usually denied. Rather than seeing his countertransference reaction as imposing something on the patient it is now assumed that countertransference feelings pick something up from the patient. Thus there is always the temptation and possibility for the therapeutic relationship to become exploitative. In asking the question of how the analyst can overcome this kind of bias, David Smith showed just what a difficult thing it is to help another person.

If the therapeutic relation and social interaction showed the existence of endemic conflict between people, Christopher Badcock's monumental presentation 'The Evolution of Psychological Conflict' brought the issue right into the brain itself. It is impossible to do justice to his paper here, which offered a compelling argument of brilliant originality. He first set out his stall by exposing the myth of 'adaptationism' and showing just how badly adapted many parts of the body are for their function, and the many forms of adaptive failure that animal bodies are subject to. Then, using recent work on sex-linked imprinted genes he showed how genetic conflict may be at the heart of our organism. To use teleological language, it may be said that paternal genes try to get the mother to provide as many resources as possible for the foetus; maternal genes try to protect the mother against their influence. Even the structure of the brain may be a result of some such conflict: the lower-brain 'id' looks very much like the agent of paternal genes - unconscious, compulsive, selfish, fixated on the mother-as-provider; the cortical functions of the 'ego' - cognitive, pro-social, verbal, partly conscious - look very much like the agent of maternal genes. Badcock suggested the intriguing possibility that brain expansion was a result of an 'arms race' between maternal and paternal genes. Thus Badcock reaffirmed the essentially Freudian position that 'psychic conflict' is an inescapable part of what makes us human.

I would like to thank all the speakers for their formidable contributions to a thought-provoking day.

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