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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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):
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:
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:
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.
Gray (ibid), following Jung, describes how archetypes are involved in the development of the different layers of human unconsciousness and consciousness.
He characterizes archetypes as 'part of the survival repertoire of mankind'.
Neumann (ibid) says:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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):
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.
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)
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