Studies in the Origination and Evolution of the Human Psyche : [1] Introduction

Studies in the Origination and Evolution of the Human Psyche 

[1] Introduction

The point proceeds towards a place which is its future, and leaves one which is its past; but what it has left behind is at the same time what it has still to reach: it has been already at the place which it is reaching. Its goal is the point which is its past

Hegel   Philosophy of Nature

It comes about that each step in the progress of further determination in advancing from the indeterminate beginning is also a rearward approach to it, so that two processes which at first may appear to be different (the regressive confirmation of the beginning and its progressive further determination) coincide and are the same.

Hegel   Science of Logic (Vol. 2)


The transition from the mode of life of ancestral animal primates to that of hominids, and later, human modes of life takes place on the basis of definite natural pre-conditions foremost amongst which is the associative behaviour of ancestral primates in their natural environment and their advanced ability – relative to the rest of the animal kingdom – to learn from their experience in the course of their interaction and relationship with each other and to their surroundings and to acquire and develop new skills for dealing with these surroundings. This learning in our primate ancestors involved the refinement of those skills that enabled ancestral primates to gain an edge in the struggle to survive (fm1) (fm2) (fm3) (fm4). In relation to contemporary primates, their social behaviour…

is keenly important for understanding primate adaptations and evolution. Because of the highly social nature of nonhuman primates, we must view natural groups, as well as individuals, as the adaptive units of the species. Primate young are born relatively immature; they need the protection and care afforded not only by their mother but also by the social group. The pattern of prolonged immaturity, coupled with a relatively large brain size, means that life in a primate social group provides many opportunities for learning. Social living places a premium on learning. Most of the primate behavioural repertoire is learned, resulting in substantial individual behavioural plasticity that allows flexibility in response to environmental challenges and gives the primate an evolutionary advantage, especially in changeable environments. Primates can, for example, respond to changing environmental conditions almost instantaneously by modifying their behaviour. This behavioural flexibility has relevance for understanding human evolution. To understand the habitat shift that occurred among our ancestors, we must be cognizant of the behavioural background of monkeys and apes. This successful habitat shift obviously involves behavioural plasticity, that is, the ability to adapt to new surroundings, and a constant curiosity leading to the acquisition of new traits to meet new environmental challenges, such as new foods and new predators. [1]

This learning capacity of the ancestral primate must be considered in order to form a starting point for understanding the origination of human society and therefore of the human psyche as a totality (fm5). Accordingly, the human psyche is not exclusively a product of social development but is the outcome of its entire prehistory of natural and social development. To put forward a ‘starting point’ would be to deny that this ‘entire development’ It is a complex synthesis of natural and socio-historical elements. It is a social product of the brain containing both its natural and social history superseded within itself. But this also applies to human sense perception of the world which is never a purely neurophysiological process but involves the thinking, active, cognising, feeling human subject consciously ‘experiencing’ the world (fm6). Mental life is an active, essential and intrinsic ingredient in this conscious human ‘experience’ of the world. In human sensation, an interaction of the neurophysiological and the psychological is always taking place. These inner relations of the human psyche express the unity of the social conditions of life of people (as manifest in the psychological) and the neurological substratum of the psyche itself.

The psyche is a product of the brain because without the living, functioning physiology of this organ, thinking is inconceivable. Different forms of damage to the brain and forms of poisoning invariably result in psychomotor, perceptual and cognitive disturbances and thought disturbances (fm7). This demonstrates that the human psyche has neurophysiological and neurochemical presuppositions which are not simply determined by the social conditions of existence. However, thought is also a social product of the brain because the conceptual content of human thought arises out of the history of humanity’s social being which is social activity (fm8). However…

Natural science, like philosophy, has hitherto entirely neglected the influence of men’s activity on their thought; both know only nature on the one hand and thought on the other. But it is precisely the alteration of nature by men not solely nature as such, which is the most essential and immediate basis of human thought, and it is in the measure that man has learned to change nature that his intelligence has increased. The naturalistic conception of history…… as if nature exclusively reacts on man, and natural conditions everywhere exclusively determined his historical development is therefore one-sided and forgets that man also reacts on nature, changing it and creating new conditions of existence for himself. [2]

Indeed the physiology of the primate brain itself undergoes changes with the transition from ancestral primate to hominid. It not only becomes larger. It is changed qualitatively, becoming more complex (fm9). It has been found, from a study of brain endocasts, that…

the increase in brain size between australopithecines and early Homo increased the number of folds in all parts of the cerebral cortex. These new folds may simply be an effect of this overall size increase rather than a specific change. These hominids may have been the first to use Broca’s area for language but endocasts alone are not enough to prove it [3]

Broca’s area is that part of the human brain that is necessary for the development of language. It is a scientific (perhaps we might say empirical) reservation in the extreme to postulate that such quantitative changes might take place without any corresponding (if only minor yet significant) qualitative changes in the degree of complexity of the brain resulting from these developments. Even if these changes involved a mere increase in the quantity of neural interconnections and networking, only the most untheoretical and scientistic of palaeoanthropologists might deny the possibility of qualitative changes as the the brain of early Homo developed out of its australopithecine predecessors.

Hominids begin to develop the ability to think through the use of concepts i.e. humans in the making develop consciousness which emerges in the transition to, and further onward social development of, hominid modes of life. Attempts to explain the origins of the human psyche on biological grounds alone are always deficient. Although it sometimes denies an exclusively biologistic approach to human psychological evolution, the much vaunted, fashionable and recently mushroomed area of ‘Evolutionary Psychology’ does emphasise the biological over the social and, in so doing, tends to neglect the centrality of social relations in the evolution of the psyche (fm10). According to Mithen, two of the ‘leading lights’ of Evolutionary Psychology (Cosmides & Tooby)…

argue that we can only understand the nature of the modern mind by viewing it as a product of biological evolution. The starting point for this argument is that the mind is a complex, functional structure that could not have arisen by chance. If we are willing to ignore the possibility of divine intervention, the only process by which such complexity could have arisen is evolution by natural selection. In this regard, C & T treat the mind as one treats any other organ of the body – it is an evolved mechanism which has been constructed and adjusted in response to the selective pressures faced by our species during its evolutionary history  […]  C & T argue that the mind consists of a Swiss army knife with a great many, highly specialised blades; in other words it is composed of multiple mental modules. Each of these blades/modules has been designed by natural selection to cope with one specific adaptive problem faced by hunter-gatherers during our past [4]

Firstly, let us acknowledge the elements of truth in this description. Only those completely ignorant of evolutionary theory might deny the importance of the struggle for existence, genetic mutation, phenotypic variation and natural selection in the origination and development of human neurology out of those neurological structures of its many ancestral progenitors. After all, the human psyche is inconceivable without that material organ known as the brain and the brain as a biological organ has an evolutionary prehistory of many millions of years. And, of course, by implication, chance alone cannot account for the origination of this psyche. However, to view the “modern mind” itself within this biologistic framework is to deny its intrinsic social nature i.e. that the biological is superseded (but not annihilated) within its social character. Human beings learn to think only by ‘being in society’ and what is ‘mind’ without thinking? The ‘Swiss army knife’ model with ‘multiple mental modules’ is a mechanistic conception in the extreme. It is most fitting to the most formalistic and positivistic modes of thinking of some scientists who do, indeed, conceptualise the human psyche as just ‘any other organ’ for empirical study.  Contrast this with Hegel’s conception (writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century) of ‘mind’ in which he develops the thesis that..

our own sense of the mind’s living unity naturally protests against any attempt to break it up into different faculties, forces or, what comes to the same thing, activities conceived as independent of each other [5]

Scientific theories which deal with the nature of living matter can only be applied, without qualification, to formations which are exclusively biological in character. Likewise, the application of chemical theory and technique in order to understand living matter can only be made on the basis of the premise that living systems are not simply a ‘complex mixture of chemicals’ but represent a qualitatively different, more complex form of organisation of matter.  Therefore, speaking generally, the application of the body of knowledge and methods of a ‘lower’ sphere of matter (e.g. physics or chemistry) to the material and relational complexities of a ‘higher’ (e.g. biology or social relations) sphere, in order to gain knowledge of it, can only be made under specific conditions and with qualifications which take into account the distinct organisation and characteristics of the ‘higher’ formation which is being investigated (fm11). Without these qualifications, scientific thinking invariably falls into reductionism and thereby steps into a highly circumscribed, limited mode of ‘scientific’ investigation. It is a mode which is more abstract, emptier in its content, more divorced from the truth of its subject. If this is so much so in the relation between the chemical and the biological, in the study of human culture the effects are even more marked and profound. Richard Jones, in his study on reductionism, writes that…

When a reductionist says “A is really only B” the movement is always towards smaller parts or more general realities. Reductionists “reduce the more valuable to the less valuable, the more meaningful to the less meaningful”, and never the other way around. The more individual and special is devalued and absorbed into something broader. Simply put: things are less than they seem. If things are reducible to a reality below the surface, then much of human life loses its value. The effect on our lives is to undercut the reality of what is specific to being human – consciousness, free will, personhood, our cultural relations. What seemed special about humans is dissolved into nothing but lifeless and soulless matter. [6]

Therefore to understand the human psyche as a totality it is insufficient to focus exclusively on its biological side. Its origins and development as both product and producer of social conditions and relations that have themselves come into being historically need to be considered.

Psyche – an intrinsic and essential part of human social development – is not merely ‘its own result’ as Hegel maintained (fm12). However, this latter assertion contains an element of truth. Thinking human beings are simultaneously both producers and products of history. In the course of the development of human society…

Not only do the objective conditions change in the act of reproduction, e.g. the village becomes a town, the wilderness a cleared field, etc, but the producers change too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language. [7]

Consciously-acting humans create the conditions that form the ground for the development of consciousness (fm13). Human activity and the social relations corresponding to these forms of activity become mediated by definite, historically-determined forms of consciousness. This implies that ‘human nature’ is mutable and subject to transformation in the course of people’s activities over the ages.

This contrasts with the conception in Evolutionary Psychology of an eternal basis of ‘human nature’ (fm14) which has been (since the dawn of humanity) and will be for all time and places. Moreover, we see in the general approach of Evolutionary Psychology an ingrained scientism displayed in reductionist and functionalist forms [8]. The ‘modular’ conception of ‘mind’, which characterises Evolutionary Psychology, contrasts with relatively recent developments in the neurosciences in which…

..the insight is growing that the brain does not consist of a collection of circumscribed areas, responsible for highly specific cognitive functions. Rather we should think in terms of “interlocked neuronal (functional) networks” in which for the execution of particular functions certain circumscribed areas may be necessary, but not sufficient. To quote a statement by Lopez da Silva (2000, p29) “Even today, a general tendency is to think that because a certain area has a given anatomical name, it should correspond to one function, i.e. one anatomical name = one cognitive function!”. In Lopez da Silva’s opinion a strict correspondence might be true for a very few simple functions, but this certainly does not hold in general [9]

Evolutionary Psychology ‘explains’ social relations and behaviour on the basis of the principles of Darwinian evolution (fm15) and, more specifically on the basis of so-called “adaptation” [10]. However, such notions of “adaptation” – which are more appropriate to the evolution of animals alone and not the more complex history of humanity  –  do not grasp the human personality as something that has come into being and has been formed under the direct influence of, and shaped by, the forces of the history of human society through time and place; something that is, and must be, subject to further alteration and transformations as human society evolves. In other words, such notions which we find in Evolutionary Psychology convey the idea that fundamental change in social relations can never fndamentally alter “human nature”. In other words, all the major features, behaviour and characteristics of the social relations and mental life of contemporary human life – which are explained by Evolutionary Psychology through the conception of “adaptation” – are essentially insurmountable. Humanity can revolutionise its social conditions of life, but must, insists Evolutionary Psychology, continue to live with social relations which are manifestations of evolution’s ‘hardwired’ ‘computer programming’ of the human brain. Revolutionise as much as you like but humanity’s fate is sealed. In other words, such notions which we find in Evolutionary Psychology convey the idea that fundamental change in social relations can never alter ‘fundamental human nature’ (fm16). The religious undertones and undercurrents are palpable. Man is competitive, selfish, greedy, possessive, brutish, homicidal, evil and nasty. He is ‘hardwired’ to be so. Live with it. Or turn to God for consolation.

‘Human nature’, like the precepts that seek to absolutise it, is subject to change and transformation. Changing social relations (changed by thinking-acting human beings) and conditions alter social consciousness so that even ethical ideas become reformed and adapted to the new conditions and relations. Moralities – which are not ‘installed’ by evolution, natural selection and ‘adaptation’ into human beings like ‘computer programmes’ or ‘software’ into a ‘hard drive’ –  become transformed so that what was understood as ‘moral’ in one period appears as ‘immoral’ in the succeeding one and vice versa.

Social development is continuously shifting the ground from underneath prevailing forms and established systems of morality (fm17). In this historical flux, categorical imperatives and absolutes in the realm of ethics are revealed to be relative forms which begin to become transformed or even vanish completely as new social relations eclipse the old, necessitating the emergence of new forms of morality which serve to justify and perpetuate the establishment of the new social relations in opposition to the old.  Likewise, the forms of human social behaviour are not immutable aspects of human relationships. Rather.. 

How real people behave and did behave depends and always did depend on the historical conditions under which they lived. [11]

The way ‘real people behave’ is no more eternal than the social relations and conditions that engender their forms of behaviour.  If, for example, the social and historic conditions which form the mediating ground and give rise to wars between people are superseded, then men will no longer engage in those forms of conflictual behaviour which we see on our TV screens every day in the epoch of capital. The gun will disappear to be melted down into and truly replaced by the ploughshare. The human personality – at different times, periods and places in human history – is an organic part of the unfolding of the historical process and this is reflected in the changing conceptual content of the human psyche (fm18) so that…

socio-historical shifts not only introduce new content into the mental world of human beings; they also create new forms of activity and new structures of cognitive functioning. They advance human consciousness to new levels. [12]

Therefore even…

higher cognitive activities remain socio-historical in nature, and that the structure of mental activity – not just the specific content but also the general forms basic to all cognitive processes – change in the course of historical development. [13]


Next Section : Pre-Conditions in the Modes of Life and Learning Capacities of Ancestral Primates



(given in square brackets thus [  ] )

[1] McKee, J.K. et al. Understanding Human Evolution. (5th Edn). (Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2005) pp.90-91

[2] Engels, F.  Dialectics of Nature.  Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 25. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1987) p.511.

[3] Deacon, T.W. The Human Brain, chapter 3.2 in  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution. Jones, S., Martin, R., and Pilbeam, D. (eds) (Cambridge University Press, 1995)

[4] Mithen, S. The Prehistory of the Mind : A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science (London, Phoenix, Orion Books, 1998) pp. 42-43

[5] Hegel, G.W.F.  Philosophy of Mind. (Clarendon, Oxford, 1971) p.4

[6] Jones, R.H. Reductionism. Analysis and the Fullness of Reality (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 2000) pp.14-15

[7] Marx. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Notebook V. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993) p.494.

[8] See, for example, Evolutionary Psychology’s general conception of ‘human nature’ in Falger, V.S.E. Evolutionary World Politics: The Biological Foundations of International Relations in Evolutionary Interpretations of World Politics. Thompson, W.R. (ed) (Routledge, 2001) p.36

[9] Kalverboer, A.F. and  Gramsbergen, A. Brain-Behaviour Relationships in the Human – Core Issues in Handbook of Brain and Behaviour in Human Development. Kalverboer, A.F. and Gramsberger, A. (eds). (Springer, 2001) p.8

[10] See, as an example of this conception, Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. The Adapted Mind. Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. (Oxford University Press US, Cary, NC, 1992)

[11] Engels.  From the Preparatory Writings for Anti-Duhring.  Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 25. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1987) p.605

[12] Luria, A.R. Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1976) p.163.

[13] Ibid, p.8


Footnotes and Memoranda (fm)

(given in brackets thus (fm   ) )


(fm1) Studies in Paleoanthropology

(fm2) Studies in Primatology

(fm3) Hominid. Any member of the Hominidae including modern man and the extinct hominid ancestors or relatives of mankind e.g. Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, Homo Heidelbergensis, and Homo Neanderthalensis. Modern man (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) is the only extant species of the Hominidae. Recent discoveries have shown that the ‘radiation’ of hominids out of Africa into Asia and Europe also produced other human types such as the ‘Denisovans’ and ‘Floriensis’ besides Neanderthals. Also the existence of a distinct type of human (‘Archaic Africans’) in central Africa, differentiated from modern man, has also been discovered by researches in Genetics and Molecular Biology. It is thought that these different types sometimes came into contact, mixed and interbred as evidenced by the presence of specific DNA markers found in the modern human genome. The remains of more types of humans, resulting from the radiation and evolution of Hominids out of Africa, are possibly waiting to be discovered across the globe.

(fm4) Primates. The order of mammals that includes the prosimians*, monkeys, apes and extinct animal primate ancestors of hominids and of contemporary animal primates. The primates possess flexible hands with opposable digits which are necessary for dexterity. They have stereoscopic vision and developed brains which are structured and differentiated into interrelating parts performing a diversity of complex functions. Most primates are arboreal and anatomically unspecialised. They generally inhabit warm climates. The behavioural organisation and relations of the different species within the order are characterised by a trend of increasing complexity and increasing capacity to learn. (*Prosimians. The lower sub-order of primates (and their extinct primate ancestors) which includes the lemurs, tree shrews, tarsiers and lorises.)

(fm5) Learning. The process of acquiring and developing knowledge, skills, abilities or novel forms of behaviour found in animals and raised to the cognitive level of consciousness and reflexive thinking (self-consciousness) in humanity. A highly developed capacity in primates in general. Conditioned knowledge is knowledge acquired by primates, and animals in general, in the course of their interactions (experience) with their conditions of life throughout their lifetime.

(fm6)  Interaction of the psychological and neurological in sensation; role of psychological factors in sense perception.

(fm7) How brain injury impacts cognition/perception.

(fm8) Marx and Engels on the relationship between Thinking and Being

(fm9) Changes in the size and complexity of the brain in the transition from ancestral animal primates to hominids and humans.

(fm10) The conception of the origins of the human psyche, its evolution and character on the basis of Evolutionary Biological Theory alone gives this conception in ‘Evolutionary Psychology’ its flawed and faux character. Bogus pseudoscience.

(fm11) Biopoiesis : the origins of life. Life is more, a qualitatively higher sphere of nature, than a mere complex mixture of chemicals. The biological is not simply identical and ‘reducible’ to the chemical no matter how complex the latter may be.

(fm12) Hegel – Philosophy of Mind (Encyclopaedia)

(fm13) Marx and Engels – The German Ideology and Theses on Feuerbach.

(fm14) The ‘ Evpsychies’ ‘ conception of an ‘eternal human nature’ based on their scientistic mis-extrapolations of Bioevolutionary Theory.

(fm15) See Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby. Reference [10]

(fm16) Ditto. See Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby. Reference [10]

(fm17) How social transformation changes moral conceptions and is, indeed, motivated by them.

(fm18) Luria and Vygotsky : Conceptions alter with socio-historical ‘shifts’. But this also applies to ‘mental structures’ and relations as well. This opens the path to the real social evolution of the human psyche in the ages beyond the capital relation.

Shaun May

September 2018