Appendix Three




Although the concepts of the collective unconscious and the archetype can't be described as having mainstream acceptance among evolutionary psychologists, and may seem aery-fairy or simply speculative to many practical people, they are helpful in describing how the human brain got its foot on the first rung of the symbolic ladder, and there are few if any competing theories which cover comparable ground.

Concepts very similar to those of the collective unconscious and archetypes are in fact used by many writers who don't seem comfortable in adopting such out-and-out Jungian terminology, as will be seen below.

Anyway, enough of apologizing. This Appendix is intended to explain what archetypes are all about, but it is not essential to the main thrust of the book's argument, and if a reader is not happy in this compromised territory, it can just be ignored.

The archetype, a word used in this context initially by Jung (1958) and very much elaborated by his follower Ernest Neumann (1954) is a numinous (potent, powerful) unconscious psychic content. In itself it is not to be thought of as having a specific form – it exists in a very deep layer of the brain – but it gives rise to images in the visual cortex which partially represent it.

Jung described the collective unconscious (itself being that part of the unconscious which is common to all members of a group) as consisting of mythological motives or primordial images to which he gave the name 'archetypes'. Archetypes are not inborn ideas, but are:

'typical forms of behaviour, which, once they become conscious, naturally present themselves as ideas and images, like everything else that becomes a content of consciousness . . . When an archetype appears in a dream, in a fantasy or in life, it always brings with it a certain influence or power by virtue of which it either exercises a numinous or a fascinating effect, or impels to action.'

One thing that is sure about archetypes is that, since they are not immediately available to consciousness or to any kind of rational analysis, but can only be known through their manifestations, there are as many proposals for archetypes as there are writers about the subject. Richard M Gray, in Archetypal Explorations, quotes a bewildering variety of possible archetypes.

Gray adapts a table from Mitroff (The Unreality Industry) which lists eight primary archetypes, the classical Gods who epitomize them, and the behaviours with which they can be particularly associated. The archetype is to be seen as in some sense the organising principle which delivers such behaviour, in each case. As Gray says:

'because the archetypes are capable of almost infinite articulation and extension, the multiplication of possible root symbols is potentially endless.'

Many concepts which are essential components of human (and group) thought originated as archetypes; later on, both in time and in terms of cognitive activity, they put on the clothes of visual imagery and verbal identity. But they began in the limbic brain as archetypes.

All people have the same archetypes, and they are the instruments of cultural evolution; but they express themselves differently in different cultural circumstances.

Matt Ridley (Nature Via Nurture) doesn't use the term 'archetypes', but he does frequently refer to aspects of the genome which he sees as necessary precursors of human cultural activity, and these measure up very well to the archetype as it has been described in Jungian psychology:

'Ask why human nature seems to be universally capable of producing culture – of generating cumulative, technological, heritable traditions. Equipped with just snow, dogs and dead seals, human beings will gradually invent a lifestyle complete with songs and gods as well as sledges and igloos. What is it inside the human brain that enables it to achieve this feat, and when did this talent appear?'

Piaget (The Child and Reality) describes the mental states and figurative representations which precede and help to prepare for language and other symbolic thought, for instance the principle of reunion which is used eg in mathematics:

'If we distinguish at the core of the representations and of subsequent thought a figurative aspect linked to the representation of the states, we cannot help establishing a relation of dependence between the operations which stem from the action and its interiorization and this logic of the coordination of actions.'

Such is the theory. It is not an unavoidable part of explaining the evolution of thought, language, society and the rest, but it is certainly very helpful, and there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence for the existence of and the role played by archetypes.

The Evolution Of Archetypes

Archetypes, and the collective unconscious in which they are generated, are to be seen as a bridge between the non-symbolic cognitive processes of pre-human primate species, living in fairly unevolved groups, and the complex social and cultural exchanges that take place in human social groups and are based on symbolic communication (eventually, language).

Two million years ago, or thereabouts, the collective unconscious evolved as a kind of cognitive glue that binds together a set of individuals in a social group, defining a common set of behaviours which allow the group to develop greater sophistication and effectiveness. Archetypes evolved as a means of ensuring commonality of symbolic communication among the members of the group. A symbol is of course useless unless it is understood identically by all members of a group, and in the non-symbolic late primate brain two million years ago no means existed by which symbols could emerge. Archetypes provided this commonality of understanding, being delivered to the individual members of the group via the collective unconscious.

Although Jung may have been the first person to recognize and name archetypes in the human psyche, he had a rather Lamarckian view of how they came into being: '(Archetypes) origin can only be explained by assuming them to be deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity.'

Jung admitted the possibility that archetypes exist in animals as well as people, which would fit well with the Lamarckian explanation; but it would also fit well with a Darwinian explanation – the moon seems to have an archetypal fascination for wolves, for instance (easier to hunt when there is moonlight?). Dogs dream, everyone accepts, and their dreams, just like human ones, are presumably populated by archetypes as well as remembered fragments of reality. Dreaming about hunting under the moon would increase the amount of psychic drive in the animal to do just that, which could be adaptive.

Although Jung does not display a clear understanding of Darwinian evolution, at least when it comes to archetypes, Gray (ibid) accepts the idea that culturally determined patterns of behaviour can come to be incorporated in the individual genome. As usual, this does not entail 'group selection', but involves the impact of the group on the evolutionary success of its members – a member who does not conform to prevailing group mores will lose the chance to mate.

Lumsden and Wilson hypothesize that it takes about 1,000 years (only!) for a cultural element, or a propensity to express some culturally defined trait, to become established in the gene pool as an inherited trait. So Jung wasn't wrong in talking about 'endless repetitions of typical patterns of behaviour', he just didn't understand the mechanism which would give them a genetic basis. If Lumsden and Wilson are right, Dawkins's 'memes', or at least pre-linguistic ones, may have played a greater role in genetic evolution than he dared to propose.

Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) himself doesn't make such grand claims for memes. He says: 'When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitise my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation.' No doubt so, but one must address the issue of what makes a meme fertile; a believer in archetypes might speculate that memes are often successful because they bind to archetypes, helping the effective expression of the archetype, rather than parasitising the brain in any general sense.

Such speculations seem to provide a basis for the genetic development of culturally-determined and elaborated archetypes, during the early evolution of human society in groups, and without requiring language to describe or maintain archetypal ideas or images.

This line of reasoning also emphasizes the inseparability of social groups and archetypes; it's hard to imagine how one could have developed without the other. Does that go too far? Wolves may be social animals but their groupedness is not a pre-condition for 'howling to the moon' in some sort of hunting-connected behaviour. Unless they're howling as a demonstration to other wolves? What otherwise is the purpose of drawing attention to yourself?

The Cognitive Nature Of Archetypes

In neuro-cognitive terms, archetypes are perhaps as widely rooted in the brain as other symbols, and more than that, they are seen by most writers who attempt to describe them as being more like statistical concentrations of psychic content than clearly delimited packets of content. Gray quotes von Franz (Creation Myths) as describing archetypes as 'excited points in the field of the objective psyche which behave like "relatively isolatable nuclei" '.

Archetypes are also highly connected to each other. Von Franz (Projection and Recollection) says: 'In studying any archetype deeply enough, dragging up all of its connections, you will find that can pull out the entire collective unconscious'. In this, archetypes are very similar to groups: if you pull at a human social group long enough, you get the whole of humanity. And that's because groups have a highly archetypal construction.

This is reflected in the essential bi-polarity of most archetypes and groups. Archetypes are almost always described in pairs, and it is of the essence of most groups that they define themselves not only in terms of what they are but also in terms of what they are not (eg motorists are not pedestrians, men are not women, and kin are not non-kin).

McDowell (2001), sets out to relate the Jungian archetype to modern cognitive neuro-science. McDowell sees the archetype as an organizing principle, as does Jung, and says that Jung's intuitions about the existence of archetypes have been largely borne out by recent science, He explores differing schools of thought as to the location and time of development of archetypes ('genetically-transmitted patterns of behaviour' or 'culturally-determined symbolic forms', to take two of the competing visions of an archetypal organizing principle).

Hogenson (1998) concludes that we inherit not a generalized image but the tendency or the potential to form the image. Perhaps that is a reasonable mainstream position: archetypes are inherited in the form of organizing principles ('containment', 'penetration', 'union', 'sets', 'cleavage' are some examples); but they are expressed in the psyche using the experiential material to hand in a particular individual, or maybe one should say in a particular collective.

Noam Chomsky accepts that some symbolic ideas are innate in the human psyche; of course, that is part and parcel of his proposal of a generative linguistic grammar, so he could hardly say otherwise, although inbuilt 'generative grammar' is now on the back foot.

Chomsky (Language and Mind) quotes Descartes (Reply to Objections, V):

'When first in infancy we see a triangular depicted on paper, this figure cannot show us how a real triangle ought to be conceived, in the way in which geometricians consider it, because the true triangle is contained in this figure, just as the statue of Mercury is contained in a rough block of wood. But because we already possess within us the idea of a true triangle, and it can be more eaily conceived by our mind than the more complex figure of the triangle drawn on paper, we, therefore, when we see the composite figure, apprehend not itself but the authentic triangle.'

Exactly why a triangle should appear as an archetype in the human psyche is not immediately obvious (getting home the quickest way when you have hunted two sides of a triangle is one possibility, but its use in face recognition – see below – is more compelling). This is not the only mention of geometrical figures as being archetypal in the literature: Aristotle is said to have demanded that his students should have a knowledge of geometry before they entered his academy, which testifies to its importance but doesn't directly help in determining whether some geometrical knowledge could be adaptive in human terms.

Remarkably small numbers of specialized human 'face' neurons can represent human faces using principles such as the triangle in a way that allows the brain to distinguish between large numbers of different individuals in a very economical way (Koch, The Quest For Consciousness). The existence of symbols (or archetypes) such as triangles, used in this case by the brain in pattern definition and recognition is intriguing. It is tempting to suppose that the brain may have greatly enlarged its library of geometrical shapes along with the need to function among larger social groups. It's possible to imagine that such concepts, once evolved, could then function in an archetypal way in more elaborate symbolic processes.

It is also interesting that many writers describe archetypes as mathematical principles, which therefore didn't need to evolve, any more than the symbolic idea that 2 + 2 = 4 needed to evolve. What evolved was perhaps the accretion of human psychical content around the organizing principle. So the idea of containment (mathematically a closed circle) became attached to the idea of mother's arms enfolding the child, and the various emotional affects associated with that. That could have happened in primates, or even before, without needing any advanced symbolic abilities.

Hawkins (Social Darwinism) quotes Wallas (The Great Society) who developed an analysis of the way in which images and symbols in election campaigns were used to appeal to (humans') ancient instinctual apparatus, which included affection, inquisitiveness, self-preservation, competitiveness, fear and curiosity, ie these have archetypal existence. This underlines the fact that archetypes were the forefathers of symbols, indeed they are themselves symbolic.

Archetypes And Myth

Myth is one of the main evidences for the existence of archetypes; as an integrative mechanism during the development of early human society myth was as important as language, and indeed may have been a key component of the emerging human ability to symbolize. A myth amounts to a joined-up sequence of symbolic visualizations, each of which may have had its origin in an appropriate archetype. Thus Donald (Origins of the Modern Mind):

'Every hunter-gatherer society appears to have an elaborate mythological system that is similar in principle . . . clothing, shelter, food, family – all receive their 'meaning' from myth. The myth is the prototypal, integrative mind-tool . . . It is inherently a modelling device, whose primary level of representation is thematic. . . The possibility must be entertained that the primary human adaptation was not language qua language but rather integrative, initially mythical thought.'

The scanty evidence that is available to us about the ethical basis of early societies, and the characteristics of modern survivals of primitive ways of life in Africa, Australia and South America, together suggest that myth played a large role in controlling the behaviour of social groups from a very early stage. Gray (ibid) says:

'New forms of thought and action have their origins in the collective unconscious. Before an experience becomes part of the mythic corpus that defines a people, it must enter into consciousness.'

This could be put as saying that in so far as the conscious is a necessary building block of social and cultural development, it relies on input from the (collective) unconscious.

He describes myth as being at once the source and the legitimation of group behaviours:

'From the perspective of sociology, myth generally takes the form of legitimations for the current system of group function. But from the archetypal perspective they begin not so much as the rationale as the source of the behaviours themselves.'

He gives examples from Chinese cultural history.

Myth has all the appearance of being a universal feature of human social life, strongly associated with archetypes. Just as, in the case of archetypes, the visual or conceptual instantiation of the archetype may vary across cultures, but the underlying archetype is invariable (genetically hard-wired), so with myth: the forms that myths take vary widely, but the meaning of the myths, their social and psychological purpose, remains constant.

The Role Of Archetypes

Gray (ibid), following Jung, describes how archetypes are involved in the development of the different layers of human unconsciousness and consciousness.

'The most primitive levels of the collective unconscious are almost indistinguishable from instinct, but these are uniquely human responses that not only link humankind to the animal world but also distinguish it from it. The archetypes define at the most primitive level what it means to be human. On the next higher level, the unconscious is characterised by patterns that are typical of specific racial or national groups . . . As we move more towards the conscious psyche, the next layers become more specific to national and linguistic groups and tend to be mediated less through the biological mechanisms that order the collective unconscious as by linguistic and cultural processes.'

He characterizes archetypes as 'part of the survival repertoire of mankind'.

'They function first to co-ordinate the linkage between the organism and the environment through perception, and then to ensure the bonding of mother and child, child and family, individual and society.'

Neumann (ibid) says:

'The individual adapts himself to the cultural canon by way of the links between the complexes and the archetypes. As consciousness develops, the childlike psyche's bond with the archetypes is continuously replaced by personal relations with the environment, and the tie with the great archetypes of childhood is transferred to the archetypal canon of the prevailing culture.'

Archetypes also have a major role in the development of religious sentiment in humans, either directly as with their expression as classical God-figures, or indirectly through mythic behaviours which became assimilated to religions when they emerged.

Ramachandran and Blakeslee (Phantoms in the Brain) see this only as a speculative possibility, but that seems unecessarily coy:

'Could it be that human beings have actually evolved specialized neural circuitry for the sole purpose of mediating religious experience? The human belief in the supernatural is so widespread in all societies all over the world that it's tempting to ask whether the propensity for such beliefs might have a biological basis.'

The authors then speculate about the existence of a gene for religiosity, which they understand will never be found as such; but eventually lean towards an evolutionary explanation for Gods and religion:

'One possibility is that the universal human tendency to seek authority figures – giving rise to an organised priesthood, the participation in rituals, chanting and dancing, sacrificial rites and adherence to a moral code – encourages conformist behaviour and contributes to the stability of one's own social group – or "kin" – who share the same genes.'

All of these components of religious behaviour have archetypal antecedents, and it is hard to imagine how they might have evolved without a shared, symbolic, archetypal beginning.

Another use of archetypes in early human groups was probably as a basis for generating symbolic characterisations of differing descent groups. Distinctions between groups (largely kin-based distinctions) had considerable importance; prior to the development of language as such, which could be used to express such distinctions, it could be done through dress, or through totemic, ritual and mythic symbolic expression. Everybody has to believe in the importance of dance movements before variation in them can come to have expressive power, and it is here that the archetype has its use. But we're up against the usual 'group selection' problem: how can a mutation that benefits the group survive and spread if it occurs only in isolated individuals? The answer appears to be that the group 'sharpens' genetic evolution by choosing members who conform to a required standard and excluding those that don't. This would make evolution happen very quickly, at least within the currently available pool of variation, since excluded individuals would not survive or mate.

Fortes (The Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups) explains how different but related descent groups are distinguished:

'Cults of gods and of ancestors, beliefs of a totemic nature, and purely magical customs and practices, some or all are associated with lineage organization . . . every significant structural differentiation has its specific ritual symbolism, so that one can, as it were, read off from the scheme of ritual differentiation the pattern of structural differentiation, and the configuration of norms of conduct that go with it.'

Asper (The Inner Child In Dreams) writing within the Jungian tradition, demonstrates how archetypes can assist a child to survive or at least accommodate to bad parenting – and by the way retain a satisfactory mother or father image to assist parenting in the next generation. Mother and father archetypes therefore have direct benefit in terms of 'generation-hopping' parental attitudes:

'This means that a child's experience of the father, for example, is dependent on (a) the inner father image possessed by the individual from birth and (b) the personal father and the fatherly qualities of the people to whom the child relates most closely. Thus a father complex always has, aside from its personal significance, a general archetypal root and meaning. . . . This makes it possible for an individual not to remain stuck in accusations against his parents . . .'

The archetypal concept of 'The Fathers', as the fount of accumulated group wisdom and the source of law needs to be accepted as at least partially genetic in nature; later on, with the development of conceptual language, much of the controlling and law-giving apparatus surrounding 'The Fathers' came to be culturally transmitted, but in the early stages at least there was a major genetic component.

Jung (ibid) bases his identification of 'The Fathers' as being archetypal on dream material (he was primarily a practising psycho-therapist):

'The psychic manifestations of the spirit indicate at once that they are of an archetypal nature – in other words the phenomenon we call spirit depends on the existence of an autonomous primordial image which is universally present in the preconscious makeup of the human psyche . . . In dreams, it is always the father-figure from whom the decisive convictions, prohibitions and wise counsels emanate.'

But this could just be because at the time Jung was seeing patients, human mid-European culture was heavily man-dominated, so all children were brought up with a senior father image. On Jung's side, it's fair to add that with rare exceptions, human cultures have always been that way around.


Asper, K (1992) The Inner Child In Dreams, Shambhala Publications, Mass. (originally published in German, 1988)

Chomsky, N (1972) Language and Mind, enlarged edition, Harcourt Brace, Orlando, Florida

Dawkins, R (1989) The Selfish Gene, OUP, Oxford (new edition; first published 1976)

Donald, M (1991) Origins of the Modern Mind, Harvard University Press, USA

Descartes, R (1988) Reply to Objections, V, in The Philosophical Writings Of Descartes in 3 vols, eds. Cottingham, J, Stoothoff, R, Kenny, A, and Murdoch, D, Cambridge University Press (originally published in French in 1641)

Fortes, M The Structure of Unilinear Descent Groups, American Anthropologist, 55:17:41

Gray, R M (1996) Archetypal Explorations, Routledge, London

Hawkins, M (1997) Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860 – 1945, CUP, Cambridge, UK

Hogenson, G B (1998) Response to Pietikainen and Stevens, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 43(3)

Jung, C G (1958) The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, Princeton University Press, USA

Koch, C (2004) The Quest For Consciousness; A Neurobiological Approach, Roberts and Company, Englewood, Colorado

Lumsden, C J and Wilson, E O (1981) Genes, Mind and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass

McDowell, M J (2001) The Three Gorillas: An Archetype Orders A Dynamic System, The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 46(4)

Mitroff, I I and Bennis, W (1989) The Unreality Industry, Carol Publishing Group, New York

Neumann, E (1956) Amor and Psyche: The Psychic Development of the Feminine, tr Ralph Manheim, Bollingen Foundation, New York (originally published in German in 1954)

Neumann, E (1954) The Origins and History of Consciousness, tr R F C Hull, Routledge & Kegan Paul, UK (originally published in German in 1949)

Piaget, J (1973) The Child and Reality; Problems of Genetic Psychology, tr A Rosin, Viking Press, USA (originally published in French in 1972)

Ramachandran, V S, and Blakeslee, S (1998) Phantoms in the Brain: Human Nature and the Architecture of the Mind, Fourth Estate Limited, London

Ridley, M (2003) Nature Via Nurture, Fourth Estate, London

Von Franz, M-L (1972) Creation Myths, Spring, Dallas

Von Franz, M-L (1980) Projection and Recollection, Open Court, La Salle, IL

Wallas, G (1920) The Great Society, Macmillan, New York


To read the remainder of Agent Human, go to or to

Copyright 2008-2010 M G Bell. The material contained on this site is the intellectual property of M G Bell and may not be reproduced, transmitted or copied by any means including photocopying or electronic transmission, without his express written permission. Contact the author.