One thing is certain; the future of our civilization and of our planet rests in our own hands. G-d will not save us nor will his wrath destroy us. If there is a G-d—which there very well may be—every indication is that this G-d has placed the responsibility for human survival...
Sigmund Freud and Evolutionary Psychology
Evolutionary psychology can tell us much about our chances for planetary survival. We need to start with three quotations from Sigmund Freud:
"Civilized society is perpetually menaced with disintegration through this primary hostility of men towards one another."
"I have found little that is "good" about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. That is something that you cannot say aloud, or perhaps even think."
"One might compare the relation of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse. The horse provides the locomotor energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it. But all too often in the relations between the ego and the id we find a picture of the less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction in which it itself wants to go."
Over 99 percent of human history our ancestors lived under conditions unlike those we live in today. For their own survival they were forced to develop behaviors in response to the often hostile world that surrounded them. Evolutionary psychology makes the claim that these responsive behaviors from the past are an indelible part of each of us. They are ingrained in our nervous systems through our DNA. If this is true, the question then arises; are these behaviors working against our survival on this planet? Is the circuitry in our human brain about to destroy us? Sigmund Freud said pre emptive power over our DNA is limited. We do not control it: it controls us. In the quotation above he compares our helplessness to riding a powerful horse.
If this is true, and there a mismatch between our genetic makeup and the demands for species survival on the planet, how ominous could the outcome be? How much time do we have?
Here is a brief history of experiences from our past that evolutionary psychology claims made us what we are today:
- 250 million years BCE; Permian mass extinction wipes out 95% of the existing species and begins the age of the Dinosaurs.
- 50 to 65 million years BCE; Mass extinction wipes out Dinosaurs.
- 1.7— 4 million years BCE; Hominid Beings appear.
- 250 thousand years BCE; Hominid Beings emerge from pre human to what we now call human. Sometime after, we leave the protected shelter of the trees for the open savanna to become plant eaters and scavengers.
- Slowly we go from flight to fight, from being prey for the stronger animals to being predator of them. This transition from plant eater/scavenger to hunter may have occurred as recently as 70,000 to 90,000 years ago.
- As this was occurring; we humans were developing primitive weaponry; first spears and clubs, then the sling and the bow and arrow, thus giving us superiority over our prey.
- Working together in hunting groups we are able to stalk and attack large animals. In the hunting group we are able to increase our individual strength. It gives us a feeling of exhilaration and takes away the fear of injury and death. It nullifies fear and turns it into self confidence.
- With this follows internecine (mutually destructive) group behavior. We begin to kill other humans, first as a defense against encroachment and then out of a deeper psychotic need to kill and be killed.
- As we are increasing in numbers, the animal population declines from over-killing, and we are forced to defend our own hunting grounds as well as take over others’ hunting grounds.
- At some point, as back as 15,000/20,000 years BCE—and possibly even earlier—we become consciousness of a transcendental higher power beyond ourselves. Cave paintings from the period illustrate this.
- At the same time, the journey from life to death, both natural death and heroic death, becomes associated with the will of this transcendental higher power.
- What began as awe quickly turns into subservience. Control by this power enters our consciousness. Awe becomes law. We begin to allow this power to control our lives.
- By the years 6,000/3,000 BCE a Sumerian civilization has emerged along the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers. In its societal consciousness are inculcated all of the above evolutionary imperatives necessary for the formation of what we understand today as organized religion. This civilization along with its epic legends, myths and Gods marks the beginning of the religion we now call Judaism.
- The Garden of Eden and the Great Flood are a part of these legends and myths.
- Another is the belief that we exist in an inferior state under the power and control of our God or Gods.
- Another is the belief that the Gods are tricksters. Their actions can not be logically explained.
- Another is the belief that we are separate from nature but with the mandate to tend to it and not as prior civilizations had believed under it and integral to it.
- Somewhere during this period, around 1800 BCE, the Sumerian tribe of Abraham migrates north. It takes with it many of the Sumerian religious practices, legends and myths, incorporating them into its own Hebraic belief system. Older evolutionary psychologically ingrained traits remain a part of the mix.
- Today, a commanding part of the psychological makeup of Jews, Christians and Muslims rests on these early Sumerian/Hebraic beliefs (along with some other pagan beliefs added along the way). It is reinforced by religious liturgical practice in Synagogues, Churches, and Mosques through scripture, creeds, myths and dogma.
- This is reinforced through our DNA by the aforementioned age old Freudian evolutionary conditioning.
- At the same time, we remain as we were over the generations; biologically compulsive. Unlike the character in Star Trek, Spock, we respond by way of a need for immediate gratification to stimuli without regard for long term outcomes.
The mix of all of these influences has held us back from taking the immediate actions that would mitigate the long term effect of the current compulsive behaviors that are leading to the destruction of our planet.
Also, this mix has left a path of death and destruction in the past. Millions perished during World War I an II. During the Second World War between six and eight million Jews, only because they were not of the same religious beliefs as the Christian Germans, were systematically exterminated. An American Christian fundamentalist president dropped atomic bombs on innocents in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. (He could have chosen military encampments or the Royal Palace) More recently, another sent one hundred fifty thousand American troops into an internecine conflict in a Muslim country as payback for an attack on America from another source.
In this century, with the development of atomic weapons by rogue and religiously fanatic nations, the numbers of deaths could run into the hundreds of millions. Sigmund Freud’s observations on our uncontrollable internecine impulses are proving to be correct. They nullify any reference to the love of any one group of humans towards another.
It is not surprising that Freud, an atheistic post Enlightenment European Jew, would be able so precisely to identify this dark side of human nature. Isn’t this what his ancestors did in that desert when they mined those Sumerian myths and turned them into a way to describe the human condition as a constant and unrelenting battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil?
Recent statements coming from Islamic fanatics throughout the world reflect the worst of this Sumerian-Hebraic-Islamic religious primordial human behavior. Here we see the dark side of human nature as it is being reinforced by the words of their prophet Muhammad in the Koran.
According to Freud, our identity is already pre determined by past rhythms of attunement, by ingrained webs of ideas, symbols and actions that have over our history vibrated through us. If he were living today, he would be the first to agree that many of these psychosomatic religious and other responses inculcated from our past are not only inadequate for our adjustment to the social and ecological realities of our 21st century world but are self defeating and self destructive. They draw us into the darkest reaches of the human psyche. Isn’t this what we see with extremist Islam today? Isn’t this what we saw with Christianity when anti Semitism swept over Germany in the 30’s?
Is there a hopeful side to this dismal Freudian picture? Yes there is; but it is conditional. It rests on the inadequacy of Freud’s observation. The allure of Freudian evolutionary psychology is that it organizes all behavior into one eternal theory, impervious to the serendipity of time and place. It leaves the impression that human nature as it was carved out over a period of 250 thousand years suddenly stopped. It says we are helpless in the face of these impulses.
Human nature is adaptive. It adjusts itself to the world by means of its responses to a continuing flow of information—adjusting genes in an idiosyncratic blend. Herein rests the hope for human civilization. But, this biochemical change takes time. We do not have the hundreds of thousands of years we had in the past. We may only have decades or centuries.
There are those positivists who would argue that technological advancement and expanding global interconnectedness are moving us toward ever more mutually beneficial relationships. There are those who say we can override genetics. There are those who say that each of the Abrahamic faiths is being forced toward change as each finds itself interacting with other faiths on a multinational level. True; but are we moving fast enough?
One thing is certain; the future of our civilization and of our planet rests in our own hands. G-d will not save us nor will his wrath destroy us. If there is a G-d—which there very well may be—every indication is that this G-d has placed the responsibility for human survival and elevation to a higher level of dignity on each of us, on you and on me.
Only time will tell whether or not Sigmund Freud turns out to be the winner.
David Anderson is the author of Inquiry Abraham