Evolutionary Psychoanalysis

The Adaptive Design of the Human Psyche: Psychoanalysis,
Evolutionary Biology, and the Therapeutic Process

Malcolm Slavin
Daniel Kriegman

Though over the years it had been in development through many published papers by the same two authors, '''evolutionary psychoanalysis''' fully came into being with the publication of The Adaptive Design of the Human Psyche: Psychoanalysis, Evolutionary Biology, and the Therapeutic Process by Malcolm Slavin and Daniel Kriegman (ISBN 0898627958 Guilford Press, 1992).

Leading evolutionists have recognized that evolutionary psychoanalysis bridges a gap between psychoanalytic theory and the extrospective biological and social sciences. Psychoanalysis, which is largely the study of human experience and meanings derived from introspection and empathic understanding of another (i.e., vicarious introspection) has been contrasted with the extrospective sciences and branded "unscientific" by some critics. Science, in this view, is seen as being based on observations that can be intersubjectively verified. In contrast, analytic constructs and theory have been seen as rooted in politics and the charisma of Sigmund Freud or the founders of specific psychoanalytic "sects" that create theories that are incapable of falsification.

One of the sources of this belief was the apparently intractable conflicts between analytic schools, in which there was a tendency to react with religious fervor, i.e., to "excommunicate" a "heretic" who dared to deviate from doctrine. Such conflicts contributed to psychoanalysis being categorized by some as a cult phenomenon, not science. Thus, building a bridge between psychoanalytic (introspective) methods of observation that yielded sects and appeared to some to follow the rules of religion, not science, and extrospective sciences such as evolutionary biology was thought to be an impossibility. To bridge this gap, evolutionary psychoanalysis roots the introspection-based, competing analytic constructs themselves—i.e., the conflicting theoretical creations of the differing analytic schools—in the extrospectively derived concepts of evolutionary biology.

Outside of psychoanalysis, among evolutionary biologists, this has been seen as the basis for a successful linkage between these two fields and two methods of observation. Evolutionary psychoanalysis renders

the biological work in a new psychological form ... [showing] how to critique and transform psychoanalytic thinking using evolutionary logic (Robert Trivers in the Foreword to The Adaptive Design of the Human Psyche).

In contrast to analysts who rejected biological thinking out of

the fear of simplistic reductionism, of "biologizing" psychodynamic phenomena, [evolutionary psychoanalysis has shown] that even the most hermeneutic tradition incorporates implicit assumptions about human nature (Irven DeVore, Chair Department of Antrhopology, Harvard University).

Within psychoanalysis, the evolutionary reframing of psychoanalytic observation in adaptive terms is recognized to have made possible the integration of competing analytic theories that were formerly seen to be incompatible. In the evolutionary psychoanalytic view, the major analytic schools are all seen as having specific truths at their core, i.e., they each capture a piece of the adaptive design of the human psyhce. Simultaneously, they are also seen as being biased in their emphases and limited by exclusion of other views, i.e., each major analytic perspective leaves out essential aspects of the adaptive design of the human psyche that are often (over)emphasized in other psychoanalytic traditions.

There is a growing recognition among psychoanalysts that this evolutionary approach succeeds in resolving the often intractable conflicts between competing schools of analytic thought and that

modern evolutionary biology can provide an overarching framework for psychoanalysis that both illuminates the complexities of human interrelatedness and provides a basis for synthesizing disparate currents in contemporary psychoanalytic thought. By bringing into sharp focus their hidden, evolved, adaptive dimensions, [evolutionary psychoanalysis] sheds new … and valuable light on such clinically crucial phenomena as repetition, conflict, repression, transference, and resistance …" (Robert Stolorow)

The evolutionary psychoanalytic paradigm uses evolutionary biology to deconstruct the biases found in competing visions of human psychological design and function. For example, the one-sided, drive gratifying, human animal of the Freudian perspective cannot be a biological product of the natural world. No mammals—whose offspring require (often considerable) parental investment—could exist if their only central motives were self-serving sexual and aggressive drives. On the other hand, relational perspectives that reject the selfish, driven components of human motivation also cannot be natural products of evolution. There are no social animals that are not designed to protect and promote their own interests over the interests of others. From this evolutionary perspective, relational theories that minimize conflict are also seen as biased.

Beyond bringing a biological view of the underlying nature of the human psyche that gives rise to the data of psychoanalytic observation, the evolutionary psychoanalytic view is seen by some analysts as resolving much of the tension in the classical (Freudian)-relational dialectic. Evolutionary psychoanalysis can "unify classical and 'relational psychoanalysis" (Arnold Modell) and offers a "synthesis … to resolve the dichotomy between classical drive-theory-based ego psychology and the relational theories …" (Paul H. Ornstein).

The basic principle is that any major viewpoint on the nature of the human psyche is an attempt to capture in theoretical terms some existing, important aspect of human behavior or experience. For varying reasons, some theories and theorists emphasize different aspects of human experience and then develop competing explanations, with often incompatible theoretical constructs. According to the evolutionary psychoanalytic perspective, if the underlying adaptive function—i.e., the "ultimate," evolved aims and and the "proximal" psychological structures that were shaped by natural selection to achieve those aims—to which the competing theories are responding can be identified—as in the example of the adaptive, pro-social motivations seen as central in the relational analytic perspectives versus the adaptive, selfish hungers ("drives") seen as central in the classical perspective—the tension between the theoretical views takes on new "deconstructed" meaning.

Given the adaptive problems that have confronted all people in all cultures at all times (e.g., the need to maintain social ties and simultaneously to protect one's self-interests from usurpation by others), both pro-social aims (e.g., caring about others and the vital need to maintain relational ties) and narrowly self-interested aims (e.g., equally vital "driven," selfish hungers and self-promoting aggressive impulses) must exist within an evolved "semi-social" human animal. Classical Freudian theory relegates pro-social motives to deceptive reaction formations (i.e., the need to repress and hide one's "true," central sexual and aggressive drives and present an asexual or unaggressive image to others). On the other hand, in relational theories relational aims are central (e.g., selfish sexual and aggressive behavior are seen as "breakdown products" due to thwarted relational needs).

In contrast, in evolutionary psychoanalysis, evolutionary biology is used as a "balancing rod" to avoid tilting too much toward either extreme. In this way, the essential vision of each of the competing perspectives is retained in a dialectical tension that is seen as a part of the human condition. That is, the tension between these theoretically competing systems of motives, aims, and structures—rather than being an intractable political struggle between leading theorists and their followers comprising competing schools of thought—is seen as an essential dynamic that exists within the human psyche itself.

While evolutionary psychoanalysis does not present a new approach to the clinical practice of psychoanalysis (i.e., the provision of psychoanalytic treatment), it does have powerful implications for practicing analysts. For example, because of universal interpersonal and intra-psychic conflicts involving these competing needs/aims, the analytic setting cannot be considered to be conflict-free. The idea of a "well-analyzed," objective analyst working for the best interests of the patient is seen to be naive in this view. Conflicts in the analytic relationship and in the course of the work of treatment are seen as inevitable. As in all relationships, the inherent meanings and negotiation of conflicts are thus a central focus of psychoanalytic treatment.