Mechanics And The Collective Unconscious
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
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
All people have the same
archetypes, and they are the instruments of cultural evolution; but they
express themselves differently in different cultural circumstances.
(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?'
(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
e.g. 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
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
Assuming that it didn't happen
long before among non-human animals, 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.
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.
(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 (e.g. motorists are not pedestrians, men are
not women, and kin are not non-kin).
(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
(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
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.
(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
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
(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, i.e. 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):
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
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.'
'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.
and Blakeslee (Phantoms in the Brain)
see this only as a speculative possibility, but that seems unecessarily
'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
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
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.
(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.'
(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'
'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
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.
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