Darwin, Darwinism, and Psychoanalysis

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In 1859, when Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, Sigmund Freud was three years old. As a young student and later, during his early years as a dedicated scientific researcher, Freud greatly admired Darwin, who had gained considerable popularity throughout Europe. In his Autobiographical Study, Freud would recall that "Darwin's doctrine, then in vogue, was a powerful attraction, since it promised to provide an extraordinary thrust to understanding the universe" (1925d). From then on Darwin joined Hannibal in Freud's personal pantheon and he dreamed of becoming his equal. In "A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis," he described the three wounds inflicted on humanity's pride: when Copernicus established that the earth was not the center of the universe, when Darwin proved that mankind developed in an unbroken line from other animal species, and when he, Freud, showed that man did not have control over the most important aspects of his own mental processes (1917a).

Freud cites Darwin at least twenty times in his published writings. It is possible, however, to identify three "Darwins" in Freud's work:

The first Darwin is the Darwin of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), referred to by Freud in the Studies on Hysteria (1895d), where Darwin is cited in connection with Emmy von N. and Elisabeth von R. Freud writes that Emmy von N.'s symptoms remind him "of one of the principles laid claim to by Darwin to explain the expression of the emotionsthe principle of the overflow of excitation." In describing Elisabeth von R., Freud emphasizes the symbolic meaning of her symptoms, which, he writes, "are part of the 'expression of the emotional movements,' as Darwin has taught." Consisting "originally of acts that are well-motivated and appropriate," civilization has reduced and symbolically transposed the expressions into language.

This sort of reference occurs several times, especially in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926d), where the affects are "reproductions of earlier events of vital importance, possibly preindividual." Adaptation is involved since "anxiety must fulfill the biologically essential function of reacting to a state of danger." We can, therefore, consider the theory of anxiety presented in this work to be of Darwinian origin. Emotion (anxiety) is adaptive in two ways, for it prepares the animal for danger not just by mobilizing energy but also by aiding adjustment based on the nature of the threat (signal anxiety). Howeverand this too is taken from Darwinunder certain conditions the excess excitation can become disorganizing and nonadaptive.

The second Darwin is the Darwin of The Origin of Species (1859). This is the influence that is most often noted. It is used to support Freud's views when he postulates a correspondence between phylogenesis (humanity's evolution since its origins) and ontogenesis (the individual development of the child of today). Freud refers to Ernest Haeckel's hypothesis according to which ontogenesis repeats phylogenesis. Freud writes, "Important biological analogies have enabled us to acknowledge that individual psychic evolution repeats, in abbreviated form, the evolution of humanity" (1910c). In "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis" (1918b), he writes, "The phylogenetic schemas that the child possesses at birth . . . are the precipitates of the history of human civilization . . . this instinctive heritage would constitute the core of the unconscious."

This idea is central to Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), where it is used to establish the universality of primal fantasies, the Oedipus complex, and more generally the processes of development and human mentation. It occurs again in "A Phylogenetic Fantasy: Overview of the Transference Neuroses" (1985 [1915]), where the "prehistoric fantasy" (the expression is Freud's) is used to establish a correspondence between three kinds of time: the time of the assumed succession of psychopathologies, that of phylogenesis, and that of ontogenesis.

Freud's views were sharply criticized, even within psychoanalysis, for a variety of reasons, among them the questionable nature of the anthropological data on which they were based and the impossibility of accepting Haeckel's hypothesis.

It is worth noting that in these texts (especially in the "Overview") Freud is more Lamarckian than Darwinian: it is essential to his theory that individual traits be transmissible by incorporation into the genetic heritage. Freud never abandoned this postulate in spite of the discredit that befell Lamarck's ideas.

The third and final Darwin is the Darwin of The Descent of Man (1871), a work that postulated a process of continuous evolution from animal to man and distinguished stages within human evolution, that is, a temporal sequence that was also a form of progress, a hierarchy ranging from the most primitive forms to the most noble: lower animals, higher animals, the "savage," civilized man. Darwin distinguished between "inferior" human races and "superior" races, even superior nations (such as Great Britain). Like many others at the time, Freud accepted these ideas and used them to support his views on the progress of civilization through the difficult, but necessary, repression of instinctual drives, a repression that made necessary the phenomenon of sublimation, which directed these energies to more "noble" ends.

This notion of the evolution of civilizations remains a source of continued interest. However, we can obviously no longer adhere to the idea of a hierarchy of values among human "races" that would "naturally" follow from the process of evolution as described by Darwin. And we know only too well what excesses and crimes "social Darwinism" can lead to. Nor is it any longer possible to postulate, as Freud once did, an equivalence between prehistoric humanity, or "primitive peoples" of today, and the child.

Roger Perron

See also: Brentano, Franz von; Heredity of acquired characters; Primitive horde; Phylogenesis; Totem, totemism; Totem and Taboo ; Vienna, University of.


Buican, Denis. (1987). Darwin et le darwinisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.

. (1918b). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 7-122.

. (1926d). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

. (1987 [1915]). A phylogenetic fantasy: Overview of the transference neuroses. (Axel Hoffer and Peter T. Hoffer, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Ritvo, Lucile B. (1990). Darwin's influence on Freud: a tale of two sciences. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Thuillier, Pierre. (1981). Darwin and co. Brussels: Complexe.

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