4 min read

121 - On Instincts And Archetypes - Moral Letters for Modern Times

We have the capacity to respond to our circumstances, and some responses will bring better results than others.
121 - On Instincts And Archetypes - Moral Letters for Modern Times

You are not happy with my recent description of how humankind is to live in accordance with Nature. You think I have too quickly brushed past the physical needs of people to arrive at the emotional chaos that can only be tamed by well-ordered reason. Thus, you ask me to remain for some moments more in the realm of the physical and address a separate question. How is it that nature provides animals with instincts to drive their survival, and these instincts work to great effect, but in people those same instincts lead us to terrible outcomes?

Even though it is dissatisfaction that drives your question, Deuteros, I take it up with the greatest satisfaction. Teaching and learning are two sides of the same conversation, and in our talks, I find I learn as much as I try to teach. So let’s discuss this together and see if we may both come to a better understanding. As our prior assault on the fortress of knowledge was unavailing, let us try another avenue of attack.

For over two thousand years it was understood that physical traits acquired by an animal during its lifetime could be passed on to its offspring. In this way, creatures developed over time from simple things to ever more sophisticated beings. The idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics came to be associated with the French zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in the early 19th century. His reputation was then tainted by the increasing number of scientists who failed to find solid evidence confirming the idea and came to associate Lamarck’s name with the singular failure.

Later that century, Charles Darwin proposed the mechanism of natural selection as being sufficient to explain the variations between and among species. The variation in starting conditions (creatures differ in their constitutions from birth) and in the environments they find themselves in means that some animals will be better suited for survival than others. Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection driving evolution has served us well as a conceptual framework for the last 150 years. How interesting, then, that there are recent developments that demonstrate once again it can be fruitful to approach conventional wisdom with a dose of caution, if not skepticism.

One development in particular offered a bridge between Lamarckism and Darwinism. Named after the American psychologist James Mark Baldwin, the Baldwin Effect deals with the fact that animals change their behavior in response to their environments. The ones that learn the most successful new behaviors are more likely to reproduce, and hence the propensity for learned behavior is itself a natural characteristic that is then passed on via natural selection to the next generations.

I find this component of the modern synthesis of our understanding of evolution wonderful, Deuteros, because it not only takes into account our mental processes, but embraces them as a key driver of our progress through life. We have the capacity to respond to our circumstances, and some responses will bring better results than others. From a survival perspective, the creatures most able to craft successful responses will be most likely to reproduce. We have physical instincts that drive us, but we also have mental characteristics that allow us to respond to our environments.

One of the earliest explorers into the mental realms that dwell within people and drive our actions was the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. From his interaction with and observation of patients, Jung hypothesized that people possess what he called a collective unconscious, shared across time and culture. He described archetypes as universal and recurring mental images or themes. It is a simplification to call archetypes instincts for mental processes, but the analogy suffices for our purposes. Just as animals inherit instincts that drive their behavior, for example in avoiding certain dangers automatically, so humans inherit archetypes, a kind of innate knowledge of human behavior across history, that drive mental processes without our being consciously aware of it.

I have not forgotten your question, my dear Deuteros, and I hope you see that we are getting nearer to an answer. Thus far we have suggested that humans possess both physical instincts and mental instincts of a sort. I don’t suppose you will contest that the mental processes of most humans are more advanced than that of most animals. I think this helps explain why human instincts do not always operate to the same good effect that animal instincts do. It is because we can use our minds to override our positive instincts. Or as Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson put it,

Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering. That is the best definition of evil I have been able to formulate.

We do not need to posit evil deeds to see that people inflict suffering on others. It is, moreover, undeniable that we also inflict suffering on ourselves. Sometimes the harm comes from being unaware of the consequences of our actions. Just as often, I would say, people are willfully blind to the long-term consequences because they are stubbornly pursuing a short-term gain. Perhaps it is a question of listening to the wrong instincts, or impulses if you will.

One of the boons of philosophy is slowing down and taking time to think. By evaluating actions and considering consequences we increase the chance that we will listen for and hear the voice of the collective unconscious, the instinctual archetype, calling out guidance. If these things exist, they can be of great benefit to humankind because they allow us to put our base, physical instincts in their proper place. I won’t say we can learn to override our negative instincts, because I think every instinct evolved for a reason. But when we use reason to consider our highest and best purpose, and then take action in accordance with that purpose, we are surely taking steps along the path to wisdom. Hence, the very thing that leads people astray (using our mind to override positive instincts) also holds the key to our salvation.

Be well.

Next Letter →
Overview of All Letters ↑