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Freud used the term phylogenesis to encompass the process of human evolution from its earliest origins. He hypothesized that individual development (onto-genesis) repeats the main stages of evolution, with the traumatic events in the history of humanity thus reappearing and having a structural influence on the individual. This would explain the universality of primal fantasies, the Oedipus complex, and, more globally, a general outline for the development and functioning of the human psychical apparatus (or psyche).

The idea owes much to Darwin, whom Freud admired from adolescence onward: "The theories of Darwin, which were then of topical interest, strongly attracted me, for they held out hopes of an extraordinary advance in our understanding of the world," he wrote in "An Autobiographical Study" (1925d [1924], p. 8). The idea appeared with a reference to Darwin in Studies on Hysteria (1895d, p. 181) in which, while discussing the symptoms of Elisabeth von R., Freud comments that they "belong to the field of 'The Expression of the Emotions,' which, as Darwin has taught us, consists of actions which originally had a meaning" ("originally" here refers to the history of the species) but, Freud adds, civilization has reduced and transposed these expressions symbolically in language.

Freud had already begun reckoning with the axis of time in his early research on the pathways of nerve conduction. He continued to do so in his study of aphasia (where the influence of Hughlings Jackson is notable) and so he quite naturally placed it at the heart of psychoanalysis, in accordance with two axes that he claims to be complementary, ontogenesis and phylogenesis. For Freud, the ontogenetic explanation takes precedence, but reference to phylogenesis may be used to support it, albeit cautiously: "I regard it as a methodological error to seize on a phylogenetic explanation before the ontogenetic possibilities have been exhausted" (1918b [1914], p. 97).

In spite of this reservation, Freud made great use of Haeckel's hypothesis whereby "ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis," and it is worth bearing in mind that his mentor, Carl Klaus, was a fervent disciple of Haeckel. Freud is very explicit in this regard: "Impressive analogies from biology have prepared us to find that the individual's mental development repeats the course of human development in an abbreviated form" (1910c, p. 97), and again (1913f).

Freud made frequent references to phylogenesis in his writings, but it is of central importance in two of them, in which he attempts to paint a vast picture that brings together both the history of the individual and that of humanity in general. In Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), which Freud based "upon a hypothesis ofCharles Darwin's upon the social state of primitive men": like apes "men, too, originally lived in comparatively small groups or hordes within which the jealousy of the oldest and strongest male prevented sexual promiscuity" (p. 125). Every human being retains a trace of this domination, which was broken when the sons killed the father: this is the Oedipus complex. And in A Phylogenetic Phantasy: Overview of the Transference Neuroses (1985 [1915]), Freud created a sweeping fresco in which he tried to coordinate three stories marked by three temporalities: that of a postulated succession of psychopathological states, that of onto-genesis, and that of phylogenesis (Perron, 1994). In this attempt, conducted jointly with Ferenczi, Freud was in fact more Lamarckian than Darwinian in spite of the discredit that came to bear on Lamarck in the scientific world at the time. Lamarckism informs many passages of his work: in fact, in order to support his hypotheses it was important to believe that individual acquisitions could be preserved and passed on from generation to generation. He often returned to this: "The phylogenetically inherited schemata [. . .] are precipitates from the history of human civilization [. . .] This instinctive factor would then be the nucleus of the unconscious" (1918b [1914], pp. 119-120), and again: "Affective states have become incorporated in the mind as precipitates of primaeval traumatic experiences, and when a similar situation occurs they are revived like mnemic symbols" (1926d, p. 93).

Freud's positions here have received intense criticism for several reasons:

  • A certain assimilation of prehistoric man with contemporary "primitive" man and with children, in vogue at the beginning of the twentieth century, is no longer acceptable;
  • The "social Darwinism" from which it derives, even if it were based on Darwin's own propositions, has since seen such detestable developments that we are bound to distrust it;
  • Most contemporary specialists refute the ethnological and anthropological bases for Totem and Taboo;
  • Haeckel's hypothesis, which is only very approximately valid in terms of anatomy and physiology, cannot be transposed to behavior, culture, or psychic function without running great risks;
  • On his own admission, Freud had recourse to the phylogenetic explanation only when the ontogenetic comprehension ran up against the "biological bedrock." When he writes, "All that we find in the prehistory of neuroses is that a child catches hold of this phylogenetic experience where his own experience fails him. He fills in the gaps in individual truth with prehistoric truth" (1918b, p. 97), it is tempting to parody him by saying: "The history of Freudian thought shows that Freud had recourse to the phylogenetic explanation only when the ontogenetic comprehension ran up against the inexplicable. He filled in the gaps in his construction of individual history with prehistoric elements";
  • It is important to bear in mind that Freud used the word "phylogenetic" to designate the successive stages in human civilization (supposing, moreover, a single line of development), which implies intraspecific evolution, whereas the term is more usually used to designate interspecific evolution in the succession of living forms;
  • Finally, it is difficult to see on what organic bases (postulated each time that Freud had recourse to the notion of "constitution") the transmission could be effected. In this respect, modern research into "intergenerational phenomena" opens the debate concerning means and modes of transmission that correspond more closely to psychoanalytic thought.

Roger Perron

See also: Biological bedrock; "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Cultural transmission; Darwin, Darwinism, and psychoanalysis; "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis" (Wolf Man); Heredity of acquired characters; Instinct; Ontogenesis; Prehistory; Primal fantasies; Primal, the; Primitive; Primitive horde; Psychic causality; Thalassa. A Theory of Genitality ; Totem and Taboo .


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

. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1913f). The theme of the three caskets. SE, 12: 289-301.

. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.

. (1925d [1924]). An autobiographical study. SE, 20: 1-74.

. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

. (1985 [1915]). A phylogenetic fantasy: overview of the transference neuroses (Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, Ed., and Axel Hoffer and Peter T. Hoffer, Trans). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Lacoste, Patrick. (1986). "Destins de la transmission". In S. Freud: Vue d'ensemble des névroses de transfert (pp. 165-210). Paris: Gallimard, N.R.F.

Perron, Roger. (1994). Une fiction préhistorique de Freud In A. Fine, R. Perron, F. Sacco (Eds.). Psychanalyse et préhistoire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Ritvo, Lucile B. (1990). L'Ascendant de Darwin sur Freud. Paris, Gallimard. (Original work published 1974)

Further Reading

Barchilon, Jose. (2000). Darwin revisited: The phylogeny of emotions. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 81, 328-330.

Fliess, Robert. (1956). Phylogenetic vs. ontogenetic experience. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 37, 46-60.

Hoffer, Peter T. (1992). The concept of phylogenetic inheritance in Freud and Jung. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 40, 517-530.