Preparatory Notes towards a Dialectic of the Psyche : Part 3

Preparatory Notes for a Dialectic of the Psyche : Part Three

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Pre-Conditions for the Origination of the Psyche in the Modes of Life and Learning Capacities of Ancestral Pre-Homo Hominoidea

We need to look at the relationship between activity and learning capacity in those Hominoids which preceded the Homo line and how the two mediate each other. The natural pre-conditions for the emergence of society and thus of the psyche are to be found in the modes of life, behaviour and learning capacities of these ancestral hominoids of humanity. It was the capacity of these primates to learn and develop new skills that constituted the most essential pre-condition for the origination of humanity, for the rise of consciousness, and thus for the origination of the psyche itself which proceeded out of the transformation of the non-conscious animal primate awareness. [1]

In primates, the acquisition and development of new skills and forms of behaviour arises out of their response to demands placed on them by their natural conditions of life. This means that the directly conditioned knowledge of their conditions of life arises out of their activity, their active relationship to these continuously impacting conditions. This active life-process in primates serves to generate new modes of behaviour and also to augment and develop the primate’s knowledge of its conditions of life. It is, of course, a direct, immediate awareness of these conditions and not reflective in the human sense. In the primate forerunners of Homo, the ability to learn new skills and for these skills to be transmitted to others in their group through mimicry was a crucial aspect of their mode of life which gave them a distinct advantage over other primates and animals in the struggle to survive under the prevailing conditions of existence. Such learnt abilities – their acquisition and transmission – are observable in contemporary primates within the ‘social’ context of the group where imitation is the main vehicle for transmitting established skills to offspring. [2]

Behaviour which has been learned contrasts with those forms of behaviour in primates which are instinctive. However, instinctual and learned behaviour mediate and modulate each other in their distinction so that any response in a primate contains degrees of both, constituted and expressed in the actual response. [3]

In evolving new skills and behaviour, the primate learns in order to adapt itself to and, at the same time, to actively engage its conditions of life. Therefore any adaptive activity is not simply a passive response to conditions. Such adaptations serve the primate in its active struggle to survive in the course of which it assimilates a wider and augmented knowledge of its immediate conditions of life. In the course of its struggle and evolution, it becomes better adapted for the struggles to come. The evolutionary origination and development of stereoscopic vision is an obvious example of this. Stereoscopic vision emerged in our arboreal primate ancestors but was also essential in the modes of life of their ground-dwelling descendants. In the operation of instinctive capacities, the animal responds to the impact of its conditions of life on itself by means of the activation of innate capacities which are not learned but can be modulated by learning.

These innate capabilities themselves originate and evolve in all organisms in relation to their conditions of existence [4]. They serve as a collective means of survival in the struggle for life. These innate responses function at all levels in the life of the animal and, by serving to maintain its survival, also facilitate its propagation as a species. However, it is in the learning capacities of the primate ancestors of humanity and in the behaviour and skills associated with them that the seeds of the human psyche must be sought and identified. Humanity inherits a legacy of ‘instinct’ from its animal predecessors.This legacy is itself modified with the rise of consciousness so that its activity as an aspect of the psyche is distinct from its activity in the life of ancestral primates. Notwithstanding the importance of this inheritance, it is towards a consideration of the learning capacities of the ancestral hominoid primates of humanity that our attention must be directed.

By ‘capacity’ is meant all those forms of behaviour, skills and associated neurological mechanisms that serve the primate in its struggle to survive. These capacities constitute the most essential natural ground (natural pre-condition) out of which consciousness arose and, therefore, out of which the human psyche as a whole originates in the course of the transition from animal to human. We identify a distinction here between ‘consciousness’ and ‘psyche’ in the sense that ‘psyche’ is the totality and ‘consciousness’ is its highest expression and articulation. This is a difficult question which we will need to address more closely but not at this moment. For example, where do we locate the unconscious (if this category can be admitted) within this psychic totality?

The capacity to learn in primates is as much ‘instinctive’ as instinct itself [5]. Survival in primates depends on the development of definite skills and forms of behaviour that are not instinctive but are learned in the course of their life activity. In the fight to obtain food, avoid predators, etc, those forms of learnt behaviour that gave ancestral primates an advantage in the struggle to survive would have been “selected” and passed on to their offspring through mimicry. A ‘meme’ is established which facilitates the survival of succeeding generations [6].

By widening their repertoire of acquired skills and diversifying their modes of behaviour, the primate ancestors of humanity became more capable of surviving and reproducing in different environments and conditions of life. Learnt behaviour in primates which is advantageous to their survival is not selected at the genetic level in the same way in which an advantageous change in physiology or biochemistry resulting from genetic mutation is selected. However, in the sense that a specific mode of behaviour or skill is associated with – but has no direct genetically-linked causal relation with – the specific biological character of an organism, then the transmission of that mode of behaviour to offspring through mimicry becomes associated, inevitably, with the transmission of the general biological character which defines the nature of the species in question and which is associated with definite modes of behaviour.

Therefore, if learnt behaviour facilitates survival because it gives an advantage in the struggle for life, then the continued survival of a population, whilst others are perishing, means that it will be in a favourable position to reproduce. In so doing, the next generation inherits its genotype and hence displays its general biological characteristics. Thus, where advantageous modes of behaviour ensure the propagation of a species and are associated with the given biology of an organism, the latter will be passed on to the next generation which learns and assimilates the acquired skills and behaviour of, and from, the previous generation. An indirect relationship becomes established and develops between acquired skills and behaviour and the actual biology of the species. Acquired skills and behaviour, in facilitating the survival and propagation of a species, also simultaneously and necessarily facilitate the transmission of the biological character of the species. The specific character of the biology of the species, in its turn, serves as a physiological basis for the further development of the acquired forms of behaviour and skills.

The demands placed on the ancestral pre-homo hominoidea by their natural conditions of life are the real determinants which govern the necessity of these species to learn new skills and forms of behaviour in order to survive the impact of these conditions on their modes of life. In learning and developing new skills and modes of behaviour, the ancestral primate, in its turn, actually alters its mode of life because it changes its active relationship with these natural conditions. Survival, therefore, involves the development of behaviours and skills in the animal which are not only adaptive responses to its conditions but are, at the same time, an increasing and augmenting of the capacity of the animal to more readily and effectively respond to and counteract further changes in its conditions of life.

Adaptation is therefore a two-way process in which the animal becomes better equipped to deal with the prevailing conditions of its life whilst, at the same time, it is an assimilation and refinement of new modes of behaviour and skills that prime the animal to actively overcome problems confronting it in novel situations and changing conditions. Adaptation is not a mechanistic ‘passive’ process but an ‘active’ one involving the increasing diversification and intensifying richness and quality of the animal’s repertoire of skills and behaviour which raise the possibility of survival to continually higher stages of development. Hence, to a certain extent, the ability to survive or win through later struggles is prepared beforehand in the course of the life activity of the animal or the species. In overcoming previous and present problems, it becomes better prepared to take on and overcome those yet to come.

For example, consider the origin of the higher nervous system of mammals out of the earliest neural structures in primitive organisms and the development of these nervous systems into the higher complexities of the brain and nervous systems of primates. A correlation exists between the size and complexity of nervous systems on the one hand and the capacity of the animal to learn and develop new forms of behaviour and skills on the other hand. Generally, the larger and more complex the nervous system, the greater the ability of the animal to learn novel forms of behaviour and acquire new skills [7]. However, development in neurological organisation and the increase in the complexity of nervous systems stems from the necessity to meet and surmount the ever-changing demands placed on the animal in its life activity under definite conditions in Nature.

Nervous systems become more complex and tend towards a higher level of organisation because, in the struggle of the animal to survive, the animal is subjected to a selection pressure to meet such demands. Those with the necessary neurological organisation which enables them to learn new skills and modes of behaviour, and which enables the animal to effectively meet and surmount the specific demands placed on them by changing conditions, will tend to survive. Those animals which are deficient in this respect will tend to lose out and be at a disadvantage in the struggle for survival. Any increase in the complexity of the animal’s nervous system will augment its capacity to learn new skills and modes of behaviour that serve it in that struggle in the future.

Accordingly, it is the continuously changing conditions of existence on the one hand, and the advantage or disadvantage that specific modes of behaviour give the animal in relation to these changing conditions on the other hand, which determine whether or not any corresponding and associated relations in its nervous system are transgenerationally transmitted. If behaviour is advantageous, then associated structures in the biology and neurology of the animal will also be transmitted to the next generation. In this way, the next generation possesses the appropriate biological and neurological structures that enable it to mimic established modes of behaviour and learn new ones. Established modes of behaviour can be both passed on and modified according to the changing needs of the animal as the relationship between itself and its conditions of life changes.

The relationship between biology and behaviour develops under specific conditions of life of the animal and cannot be understood in isolation from these conditions. For example, consider the ability of chimpanzees to use a stick in order to obtain food of one sort or another. This ability has been learnt and elaborated in the struggle to survive and is biologically conditioned only in so far as (1) it is hunger that motivates the need to feed and (2) the primate needs to possess the pre-requisite anatomy of forearm and the neurological mechanisms, etc, which enable it to co-ordinate its movements in the manipulation and use of the stick. Therefore, in these respects, its biology must come into play.

The manipulation of the stick implies a necessary anatomy and dexterity of hand which is intrinsically associated with the biological inheritance and characteristics of the individual animal as being part of a definite species. However, whilst taking such biological mechanisms as a pre-condition for the development of new skills, it is the actual skill and capacity to use the stick to obtain food which has been learned and which confers an advantage in the struggle to survive. In situations where food is scarce such a skill would give an invaluable advantage over those which had not developed this skill and therefore it would be a critical aid to survival. Such behaviour could be passed on to the offspring of the species group through imitation, thereby facilitating the survival of the group as a whole. The transgenerational transmission of a ‘meme’*.

*[Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 2006]

The ability of primates to learn new skills and modes of behaviour is an essential and necessary condition in their struggle to survive in changing conditions. Where this ability fails the primate, it inevitably loses out in its struggle to survive. This development of new skills increases and widens the animal’s adaptational capacities in relation to its changing conditions of existence. The acquisition of new skills raises the animal’s sensuous awareness of its environment to a higher level, giving it a richer, more complex, directly conditioned knowledge of its surroundings. This augmentation in the animal’s sensuous awareness of its interaction with its environment serves to develop the neurological relationship between its brain and sense organs (neuroplasticity and the sensori-motor system). [8]

The behaviour of primates is a synthesis of the instinctive and the learnt. Therefore, their behavioural responses necessarily involves both simultaneously in which each mediates the other in their behavioural expression. Instinct originates in the course of the biological relationship of the animal to its changing conditions of life. They are selected at the biological level of the organism because, in operating automatically and without the need to learn them, such responses are biologically indispensable for the survival of the species. Instinctively-driven behaviour is an inherent part of the behaviour of animals.

If it were necessary to acquire ‘instinctive’ behaviour by a process of learning then the animal would not be able to deal with the immediate impact of its conditions of life on itself and it would perish before it had time to mature. For example, the mechanisms that biologically regulate drinking and reproduction in animals are instinctive. They do not have to be learnt. Instinctive mechanisms operate in order to maintain or realise the biological needs of an animal. An animal may have to learn to drink or eat in a certain way but it does not have to learn to be thirsty or hungry nor to learn to recognise that its thirst must be quenched or hunger satiated in order for it to survive.

Nest-building (Nidification) is instinctive in birds but they still have to develop and fine-tune skills in order to build their nests. When an animal learns to associate the presence of a predator with threat, this learning process simultaneously involves instinct when it is threatened by that predator. Learning and instinct operate together in co-ordination with each other. The hedgehog learns that an inquisitive fox can be threatening. However it does not have to learn to curl up into a prickly ball in order to defend itself against it. Likewise, it learns to discriminate between edible and inedible morsels but it does not need to learn to be hungry nor to regurgitate unpalatable food. Spurred on by hunger, both learning and instinct are at work together. A child does not have to learn to rapidly withdraw its hand from something that causes pain (like a hot surface or sharp object) since such an action is an automatic reflex i.e. it is an instinctive response which the child does not need to learn. However, a child does learn to associate particular situations or objects with danger (potential or otherwise) to itself and possible injury. In this process of learning, it acquires and develops a conscious knowledge of such situations and can modify its behaviour for its own safety. In the former case, a need to learn would mean certain injury or death whereas in the latter case a deficiency of learning could result in the same. Learning and instinct are not mutually exclusive; they involve each other, operate together and mutually determine each other.

The behaviour of primates, accordingly, involves both instinct and learning. Learning in primates involves the acquisition of new skills and forms of behaviour which serve to facilitate their survival. However, learning does not take place independently of instinct and vice versa. Primates acquire their material needs by means of behaviour and actions which are conditioned and therefore mediated by both at the same time. Learning becomes necessary for the primate in order to survive. The learning capacities and body of conditioned knowledge of the primate become integrated with its instinctive inheritance. The neurological results of learning new modes of behaviour become synthesised with instinct so that the latter can be affected by learning whilst instinct, in its turn, conditions the learning of new skills and behaviour. This coalescence (integration) of instinct and learning is a unity of opposites which functions to provide the primate, in the course of its life activity, with a knowing awareness of its conditions of existence and, in so doing, provides it with a means of orientating its behaviour and actions in the struggle to survive under prevailing conditions. This non-conscious, pre-conscious relationship between instinct and learning in the ancestral animal primate becomes raised to, and superseded into, a higher conscious form in the human psyche.

Human consciousness, and therefore the psyche as a whole in its fundamental relations, is a product of the increasingly social origination of humanity out of its hominid ancestors. The non-conscious, pre-conscious awareness in the animal primate becomes transformed – over a series of phases and transformations – into the higher, conscious form of awareness of the human psyche. The awareness of the pre-homo hominoid ancestral animal primate – in its different forms and aspects – constitutes a totality which mediates the life activity of the animal. The primate ancestors of humanity were characterised by such an awareness.

The pre-conscious awareness of these ancestral primates was a synthesis of instinct on the one hand and learning, on the other, acquired in the course of their interaction with their developing conditions of life. This awareness orientated these animal primates in the course of their life-activity. For example, in order to survive, the animal ancestors of humans developed responses for dealing with the threat of predators. These same responses also served the animal in its struggle to acquire its means of subsistence. Such responses involved the capacity to evade or confront dangers which the animal encountered in its continual struggle to survive. In these situations, the response of the animal was mediated by a knowing awareness of threat i.e. a knowledge of when they were in danger of being attacked by predators. Their behavioural response to such threats involved the co-ordination of both instinct and a directly conditioned knowledge of the immediate conditions of life acquired in the course of their life activities.

In the evolution of the higher orders of animals (mammals in particular), the constant threat of predators must have been a most important selection pressure in the development, or ‘fine-tuning’ at least, of instinct. Indeed, selection would have taken place at the biochemical level where the co-ordination of the activities of the nervous system and hormonal systems is vital in order to maintain the survival of the animal in the face of threat.Those individuals behaving in ways which enabled them to avoid threat or successfully fend it off would have been ‘selected’ and, accordingly, those biochemical mechanisms associated with such behaviour. Natural selection is acting here directly on behaviour and indirectly selecting biochemistry and physiology.

Accordingly, instinct must have evolved in order to facilitate the survival of a species under the prevailing conditions of its existence. The origination and evolution of these instinctual capacities must have taken place over many millions of years, become adapted, developed, and finely tuned and attenuated according to evolving conditions of life of the primates and even their biological precursors. Instinct, in this way, becomes more highly developed in the countless succeeding generations in response to the alterations taking place in the conditions of life.

In the case of threat, animals learn to associate specific situations with danger. Such associations activate those instinctive responses which are inherent and prepare the animal to deal with possible or actual threat. Learning, therefore, even in animals, also involves memory which prepares them for threatening encounters. It is the animal’s immediate knowing awareness of threat which activates those instinctive capacities which prepare it to deal with threat.

Humans have inherited these innate powers for dealing with threat from ancestral primates. These powers predate the history of the human psyche. With the rise of the psyche itself, i.e. of beings possessing the capacity to think consciously, to reflect, these powers – incorporating the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response – become integrated into the operation of this higher conscious psyche. This integrating of instinct with – and its transformation into the unconscious by – emerging consciousness enabled the pre-sapien Homo ancestors of ‘modern man’ to more readily survive and counter the hostile impact of their conditions of existence on their life activities. Those species or branches of Homo which did not learn the necessary, new modes of behaviour and skills, as established and changing conditions demanded, lost out in the struggle to survive and inevitably perished [9]. As conditions changed, the need to acquire the material means of life demanded, at the same time, the modification of established practices and the development of new ones out of the old.

The punctuation of gradual changes in conditions by catastrophes of various kinds would have necessitated very rapid adaptations – involving an accelerated rate in the learning of new skills, etc – to changed circumstances on the part of Homo and pre-Homo ancestral groups. Those groups that were more appropriately adapted to tackling and overcoming the constraints imposed on them by the new conditions resulting from such catastrophic changes would have survived. Therefore, any increase in the learning capacities of a given group of Homo, especially in the development and transmission of novel skills, would have given them an advantage over other groups in the struggle to survive. This innovation in skills is crucial and of fundamental importance in itself. However, it also carries with it ethological presuppositions implying a higher degree of sociality in a given species [10]

In the course of the evolution of Homo, as one generation succeeded the next and so on, the repertoire of skills and behavioural characteristics would have become widened and enriched. Older established skills became refined in the course of their historical usage and assimilation as well as becoming modified and diversified into new forms. This diversification and multiplication of basic skills and modes of behaviour into a wider range – quantitatively more numerous and qualitatively more complex – enabled Homo to survive within a widening spectrum of conditions and circumstances. The accumulation of ‘portable’ skills which were transmittable to succeeding generations enabled Homo groups to spread out into previously unexplored regions of the planet.

For example, a location-specific skill might involve the manipulation and use of a material – which can only be carried out in the presence of a specific material in a specific location – might be referrred to as ‘non-portable’. But the use of a stone or sticks to fend off a predator could be done anywhere where stones and sticks can be found for such use. This is an example of a ‘portable’ skill.

We have tried to show that the relationship between learning and instinct is dialectical. The development of this relationship in the ancestral hominoid primates of Homo provided the basis for the attainment of a wider repertoire of skills in the course of their evolution. The greater the capacity of an ancestral hominoid to learn and assimilate new skills and develop a wider range of behaviours to ‘deal’ with the different and changing conditions of its life, the more capable it becomes in its efforts to secure its material means of life and thus to survive and propagate its kind.

Of particular importance in the prehistory and origination of the human psyche is the development, selection and role of those responses that served to maintain the survival of primates in the face of threat from predators. Learnt behaviour that enabled a primate to effectively counter threat, in one form or another, facilitated its survival and became an intrinsic part of its life activity. The rise of consciousness transforms the relationship between instinct and learning capacities found in the ancestral animal primate. The beginnings of this transformation marks the beginning of the emergence of the human psyche as a whole with historically new features and higher relations.

The simple, direct and unsullied response of such animal primates in the face of threat – a response activated by a knowing awareness of real threat – is superseded, sublated into the higher psyche. The superseding of the mode of life of the animal pre-Homo into that of later Homo constitutes the commencement of the emergence of the qualitatively higher relationships of the human psyche which did not formerly structure and characterise the awareness of the ancestral animal primate.


[1] Social learning and teaching in chimpanzees. Richard Moore.


[3] Breed, M. & Sanchez, L. (2012) Both Environment and Genetic Makeup Influence Behavior. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):68

[4] Cziko, G. The Things We Do Using the Lessons of Bernard and Darwin to Understand the What, How, and Why of Our Behavior. Chapter 7. MIT Press, 2000.

Click to access twd07.pdf

[5] Gould, J.L. and Marler, P. Learning by Instinct

[6] For a comprehensive account of the character of ‘memes’, see Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene

[7] Reader, S.M. and Laland, K.N. Social intelligence, innovation, and enhanced brain size in primates.

[8] Dayan, E and Cohen, L.G. Neuroplasticity Subserving Motor Skill Learning. Neuron – 3 November 2011 (Vol. 72, Issue 3, pp. 443-454)

[9] Softpedia article on extinct species of Homo genus

[10] Kummer, H. and Goodall, J. Conditions of Innovative Behaviour in Primates
Shaun May

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