Archetypes in Human Evolution
Author’s YouTube video on archetypes. (opens in new window)
Jungian Psychologists tell us that the gods are instances of the archetypes, and that archetypes are the content of the “collective unconscious”. The collective unconscious is said to be a sort of racial memory which everybody shares in common. My guess is that it might be a sort of social and interpersonal catalog. Like a book of instructions telling how each type ought to relate to each of the other types.
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Archetypes come in male and female. In one interpretation , They are the medium, the mother, the amazon, and the hetaira for women. For men, they are the father, the son, the hero, and the wise man.
The collective unconscious is said to be present in every person. If there is such a thing, it must have had an adaptive value for our species at some time in our evolutionary history, or else we would not have evolved the mechanism. If each person knew subconsciously how to relate to all other social types that knowledge would serve to adapt them to their cultural environment. The frequency of aggressive behavior might be lower with a collective database than without one.
Most people instinctively know how to relate to a pregnant woman or a nursing mother. Most people seem to know how to relate to an aggressive warrior, or a very old man. The human types represented in the collective database cover most of the people we will meet. If everybody were born with an instinctive knowledge of how to interact with almost everybody else, and if everybody had an instinctive grasp of their responsibilities and status in each phase of their life, human society possibly would have functioned more smoothly in its early history. Divisions of labor would be largely automatic, and the society’s ability to respond to threats quickly would be enhanced. When the call to man battle stations was heard, every person would know their place, and no energy or time would be needed to make decisions. The call to battle might only be called in the rare case of war or the presence of a dangerous predator, but in either case, knowing who will fight, and who needs protection, and responding accordingly could save lives. Perhaps the collective ‘catalog’ is a set of relating instructions for interactions between different human types as well maps of the types themselves.
A set of instructions for how to behave with different individuals in different situations would also make it easier for a person to achieve social rank, and that always makes it easier to pass on one’s DNA.
We offer this in contrast to the popular notion that archetypes are a set of human potentials into which each man and woman must grow. Every woman is an archetype, we are told, and every archetype is a goddess. Therefore, every woman is a goddess. What’s more likely is that we are evolved to see “the goddess” in the women around us. For either gender to be programmed to see themselves as living deities would probably be quite maladaptive, and engender behaviors that create conflict. The tendency to see those around one as divine beings would produce far more advantageous ways of behaving.
If the archetypes have a location; neural structures that instantiate them, its not impossible that we can believe in god because we have a brain center that specializes in fatherly images seems not unreasonable. The idea that a young man can believe in a warrior’s code of honor because “honor’ has actual representation within his brain also seems not impossible, and if true, might explain why so many cultures have such similar warrior’s traditions. Other behavioral paradigms have been found to have neural representation, puberty being the best known of them.
The figure of the warrior is truly cross-cultural. The ancient warrior tradition is found in Africa, among the Masai; among the North and South American Indians; and among the Chinese and Japanese, to name just a few. In Europe, the figure of the warrior appeared among the Greeks, and also among the later medieval knights.
In each of these traditions, a warrior is considered an essential part of society, protector and a source of good. And in each of these traditions, the warrior is bound by a code, a rule, a way of life. This code of the warrior embodies ways to regulate and in some cases to transform or transcend aggression .
The archetypes are often, if not usually, found in the various deities worshiped in a culture, and they reinforce the roles people experience during the different phases of their lives. For example, The Mother Goddess not only provides a context for worship and prayer, known to reduce stress and anxiety, she also provides a context in which the association of motherhood with compassion can be emphasized. In other words, if mothers were subconsciously pretending to be the Mother Goddess, they might be more nurturing than otherwise. A girl may worship the Mother Goddess throughout her childhood and adolescence, and then later, having a child of her own, find a paradigm of mothering there. Stories about the Mother Goddess would imply things about the Goddess. You wouldn’t need to have a story about the mother Goddess and a wounded bird in order to infer the way such a goddess would respond to one. The stories that do exist would imply a personality whose response to a wounded bird would be easy to guess.
A devotee of the Mother Goddess would be able to make all sorts of inferences this way. After some time, the total lore about the mother Goddess might be able to advise about almost any situation. Indeed, we find that many Christians believe that the Bible contains guidance for every possible circumstance. Many Muslims and Jews hold similar beliefs regarding their holy books, that they contain answers to every problem imaginable.
The Hero is another archetype, one more appropriate for men young enough to hunt and go to war. Stories about heroes contain not only tactics for use in hunting and warfare, but also explain the warrior’s code of honor. Among the Plains Indians after a successful hunt, the hunters would re-enact their exploits in dance, as well as telling the story in words and gestures. Particularly clever stratagems would be remembered, and become part of a hunter’s education. A warrior God’s personality can easily be inferred from the stories about him, and that personality would imply other behaviors. Actions which don’t ‘fit’ with a warrior’s persona wouldn’t be part of the lore of the warrior god. The stories about him would give warriors ideas that would help them respond to threats and opportunities more effectively.
Once all the archetypes had been made explicit in stories and deities, they would have found a new role as a culturally cohesive force. Although we speculate they were evolved to maintain the division of labor and smooth interpersonal relationships, ceremonies and stories centered around the archetypes could have increased the knowledge the culture possessed and preserved.
One of the most salient aspects of many points of religious faith is that they aren’t true. Diseases aren’t caused by evil spirits or black magic, or, even if they are, infections, old age and genetic predisposition will still play some part. One could pass the point by quite easily by saying that in our early history people didn’t know the “real’ reasons things happened, and so it’s no surprise that their explanations were wrong. It’s surprising that there were any explanations at all.
According to Philosopher\historian of science, T.S. Kuhn , even the most absurd or confused explanation of a phenomenon can find acceptance in the absence of a competing idea. Once any explanation is offered for a phenomenon that phenomena will have an explanation from that time on. Each succeeding speculation is better able to explain the relevant phenomena better than its predecessors.
The deities are the opening lines in the drama of understanding human subjectivity, and many of the lessons they offer are still the best lessons available, especially for children, or the uneducated. The latter group still represents most of the people on earth.
One of the most important manifestation of any religious tradition is in its fairy-tales, parable, epics, etc. It is through these that religions gets their ideas and beliefs into the minds of its people. Christianity has had a detailed theology for many centuries, but it still relies on stories from the life of Jesus as its main pedagogic tool. It’s the same in Buddhism. Most Nepalis, Thais, Chinese, etc. have no idea what the Buddha himself taught, But they will know what kind of tree the Buddha was sitting under when he attained enlightenment, and they will most likely have learned as children. These stories are a very important part of a child’s education and rearing. Stories are cathartic for children, and help them to process the stresses they live with.
“Which story is most important to a particular child at a particular age depends entirely on his psychological stage of development, and the problems which are most pressing to him at a particular moment”
…”the older person might find it considerably more difficult to admit consciously his fear of being deserted by his parents, or to face his oral greed; and this is even more reason to let the fairy tale speak to his unconscious, give body to his unconscious anxieties, and to relieve them, without this ever coming to conscious awareness.”
“In “Rapunzel’ we learn that the enchantress locked Rapunzel into the tower when she reached the age of twelve. Thus, hers is likewise the story of a pubertal girl, and of a jealous mother who tries to prevent her from gaining independence-a typical adolescent problem, which finds a happy solution when Rapunzel becomes united with her prince. But one five-year old boy gained quite a different reassurance from this story. When he learned that his grandmother, who took care of him most of the day, would have to go to the hospital because of serious illness-his mother was working all day, and there was no father in the home-he asked to be read the story of Rapunzel. At this critical time in his life, two elements of the story were important to him. First, there was the security from all the dangers in which the substitute mother kept the child, an idea which greatly appealed to him at that moment. So what normally could be viewed as a representation of negative, selfish behavior was capable of having a most reassuring meaning under specific circumstances. And even more important to the boy was another central motif of the story: that Rapunzel found the means of escaping her predicament in her own body – the tresses on which the prince climbed up to her room in the tower. That one’s body can provide a lifeline reassured him that, if necessary, he would also find the source of his security in his body. This shows that a fairy tale – because it addresses itself in the most imaginative form to essential human problems, and does so in an indirect way – can have much to offer to a little boy even if the story’s heroine is an adolescent girl.”
The little boy was not caught in a tower, but pretending he was had a therapeutic effect for him. He was able to heal himself of the fear and anxiety his grandmother’s hospitalization caused by taking on a delusion. The urge to find solace took no account of the truth, and indeed, he was too young to have been able to understand the truth. But, he wasn’t trying to get to the truth, he was trying to cut his anxiety.
The fairy tale was effective because it used motifs that fit with the anxieties the child had at the time. Those motifs are culturally determined. Rapunzel is set in medieval Europe, where people often have blond hair. In China, no one would say, even in a fairy tale, “let down your hair, that I may climb the Golden Stair’, as the hero says to Rapunzel. In China, hair is almost always black. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out for the sciences, a crude explanation is better than no explanation. The explanations of universal dilemmas found in folklore are crude, but they answer the human need to feel that we know, as well as to reduce stress.
The phrase “human need to know’ may sound vague, but that is just what humans have. Almost everything that people knew (outside of things learned through direct experience) before the scientific revolution was wrong, and the things they did know were explained wrongly. The invalid concepts people held may have been untrue, but they satisfied our uniquely human curiosity.
Non-human primates show a great deal of curiosity during their youth, but not very much later in life. Humans show curiosity through their whole life. This, and many fundamentally human features, have resulted from the evolutionary pattern known as neoteny, or the evolutionary retardation of the development of mental or physical features. The “shut off’ switch for curiosity which is present in non-human primates, is itself shut off in humans. When we evolved language, the same play that chimps, for instance, show only in their youth was applied to the new concepts which humans used their whole life. The need for explanations and understandings is part of our evolutionary heritage and it doesn’t matter whether they are true or not.
The reasons behind any given social sanction or taboo are seldom correctly understood by the people who observe it, and yet there is almost always a reason given. It is difficult to imagine a culture without taboos, and equally difficult to imagine people living without psychological defense mechanisms. Thinking about the taboo means thinking about something forbidden. So, to maintain the taboo without causing any more stress than is needed, the taboo’s real reason for existence needs to be left out of the statement. The Lakota Indians once believed that for a man to sleep with an unwilling woman will cause the buffalo to avoid the Lakota. Sexual pressure can cause many kinds of problems, but believing its effect to be on the food supply, rather than on the pressured woman means that the taboo can be observed without making anyone think about rape or sexual harassment, which will not only make them uncomfortable, but will also draw their attention directly to the tabooed object, making it easier to consider breaking the taboo. Instead, people think about buffalo.
I’m offering the suggestion that deities have their source in Jungian archetypes, which believe may have evolved to smooth interpersonal relations by including an understanding of human types, along with rules for helping the different types relate with one another. Even if all this were true, and the deities are just reflections of ancient evolutionary pressures, with a dash of neuroanatomy thrown in because we still have same pressures today and because the ancient archetypes still work, people will go on praying. Prayer is one of the most widespread spiritual practices in the world, and the fact that almost every hunting and gathering societies practices it, suggests that it might be a behavior that evolution has preserved. With good reason. Most atheists suggest abandoning prayer, but I encourage it.
The act of prayer itself appears to have a neurological basis. Dr. Michael Persinger has theorized that the sense of an external presence happens when the two senses of self in the two sides of the brain have their activity mismatched, so that both are experienced at once. It’s not really possible to have two selves, so one of them (usually the one created in the right hemisphere) is exteriorized, and ‘felt’ as a presence. It’s not impossible that prayer facilitates this process, and can activate positive emotions; even the extreme manifestation called bliss.
The question of the objective existence of gods and goddesses is irrelevant to whether or not prayer can kindle the spark of devotional moods into the fires of wisdom and compassion; traits which are welcome in every human society.
 Dr. Anthony Stevens, Archetypes, a natural history of the self, 1983
 Rica Fields, The Code of the Warrior, 1991
 Bruno Bettlehiem, The Uses Of Enchantment, 1977
 Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of scientific revolutions, 1977
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