Archetypes & Evolutionary Psychology

The brain you’re reading this with has existed (in its current form) for about 200,000 years.

For most of that time, we were hunter gatherers.

The two hundred years that we’ve lived in cities, and the ten thousand years we’ve been farmers, are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of years we were hunter gatherers.

If you represented the entire history of the human race on a 24 hour time period, we were hunter gatherers for 23 hours and 53 minutes, and became farmers with 6 minutes left in the day – at 11:54pm.

In some sense then, being born into this world is like walking into a movie that’s already half way through.

If you want to enjoy the film from that point on, it’s critical to understand what’s happened before, the main characters involved and have a rough idea of the plot.

In the same way, if you want to understand your self better and get more enjoyment from life, it can help to learn about the evolved and archetypal nature of the human mind. 

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution‘ Theodosius Dobzhansky

We, as human beings, exist as we do today because of hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary pressures.

Over time, these pressures have led to the evolution of certain social motives, roles and patterns of relating in the human mind.

Jung called these the ‘archetypes’.

According to Jung, archetypes are universal motivational systems and patterns of behaviour that come ‘pre-wired’ in the human psyche. He argued that these motivational systems influence the unfolding of human development, are the sources of our dreams, and are enacted in the myths and rituals of almost every culture that has ever existed in human history.

The fields of evolutionary biology, psychology and ethology were ahead of Jung’s time – so he had no way of naming the structures of the archetypal forms other than how they seemed to appear in the his own mind, the minds of his patients, and his reading of history.

Due to this lack of knowledge, many dismiss Jung’s ideas on the inheritance of archetypal forms via repeated experience over generations as somewhat misguided.

So is Jung’s concept still relevant in the 21st Century?

In his new book: Living Like Crazy’, evolutionary psychologist and Founder of Compassion Focused Therapy – Professor Paul Gilbert, argues that the ‘archetype’ concept remains valid from a Darwinian, evolutionary perspective.

Paul Gilbert - The Weekend University

Furthermore, that we can now combine it with our current understanding of evolutionary psychology, and use it to organise, name, and study the archetypes in a more scientific light.

In the book, Gilbert identifies five particular types of archetypes, which include:

  • Care providing
  • Care seeking and receiving
  • Cooperation and alliances
  • Competing for resources and social place
  • Mate selection and sexual behaviour

In this post, we’ll explore the evolutionary origins of each archetype, why they evolved and how, by understanding them, it can improve your emotional intelligence in the modern world.

Evolutionary  Origins – Why did the archetypes evolve?

From an evolutionary perspective, archetypes evolved because they helped human beings thrive together in groups.

As a hunter gatherer, being good at getting support from allies, caring for offspring, and competing for resources and social place, carried reproductive advantages.

You were more likely to survive and pass on your genes if you could successfully carry out these tasks.

Our recently evolved abilities for fantasies, thoughts and feelings are very much focused on archetypal content. We feel good when we; care for others, feel loved by others, gain status and prestige, and find a partner.

Conversely, it doesn’t feel so good when we are rejected, disrespected, marginalised and lose prestige.

Therefore, it seems that these archetypal motivational systems and our feelings and emotional reward systems evolved to guide us towards carrying out the life tasks that would be most beneficial to our development and increase our chance of passing on our genes to the next generation.

So, from an evolutionary point of view, what are the key archetypes we should be aware of?

Care Providing

The care providing archetype is the motivation to care for others.

It evolved by natural selection as a strategy for the survival of offspring. It requires abilities for stimulus awareness between the caregiver and the care recipient – knowing when to care, and how to care.

For example, in birds, the chirping of chicks or the flashing of a throat will trigger the parent to go find food.

Evolutionary Psychology & The Archetypes

As humans, caring motivations enable us to be aware when others are in need or distressed. When we are aware that another person (particularly someone close to us) is experiencing  either of the two, it activates a range of emotions and desires in us, and triggers caregiving motivations and behaviour.

For example, when you hear someone crying, particularly someone close to you, what is your usual response?

Caregiving is an important part of psychological health, and many studies are now showing that people who volunteer their time to help others feel more socially connected, are less lonely, and less likely to experience depression. The healthy expression of this archetype can benefit our physical health too.

Care Seeking and Receiving

The care seeking archetype is the motivation to seek and receive care from someone wiser and stronger than ourselves.

Caregiving and care-receiving evolved together as dynamic and reciprocal relating systems. There wouldn’t be much point in evolving care-giving abilities, if the recipients of the care were not affected or influenced in some way from the incoming signals.

Evolutionary Psychology & The Archetypes

As humans, we have evolved biological systems that are very sensitive to caring signals from others, and our minds are biologically affected by these signals.

For example, distressed infants can be calmed by a caring touch or voice from their parent, because the signals cause very real physiological effects in the child’s brain. If children do not receive certain types of signals – particularly affectionate ones, it can negatively affect emotional regulation systems and the maturation of the child’s brain.

We now know that many mental health problems are linked with not feeling cared for – particularly in early life.

Motivations for caregiving and receiving may change with age, but the regular expression of both are equally important for the healthy development of the human psyche.

Unfortunately, some cultures and environments – particularly overtly ‘tough-guy’ ones, devalue this basic human need and view seeking care as a weakness.

For example, despite being three to four times more likely to commit suicide than women, men are much less likely to seek psychological help.

Cooperation and Alliances

Evolutionary Psychology & The Archetypes

‘People must belong to a tribe. Just like a bee goes haywire if it loses its hive, a human will go haywire if she loses her connection to the group.’ E. O. Wilson

The cooperation archetype manifests itself in human beings’ motivation to build reciprocal relationships, and to belong to groups with like-minded others.

This motivational system evolved because our ancestors who existed in groups that were mutually supportive and cooperative were more likely to survive than those groups who weren’t.

If your tribe could function well as a team, share resources and communicate effectively, you would have stronger hunting and gathering capabilities and would be more likely to survive than other, less co-operative tribes.

We now know that feeling that we belong and having friends that we can rely on, is critical for mental health and wellbeing. We thrive in mutually supportive networks, and research strongly indicates that positive social relationships are critical for happiness and mental health. Conversely, a growing body of research is now highlighting the health risks (mental and physical) of perceived social isolation.

Unfortunately, many of us have been fed a story of rugged individualism since birth and view ourselves as an isolated entity separate from the world around us.

This worldview benefits capitalism and consumer culture, but is detrimental to our emotional wellbeing.

Competing for Resources and Social Place: The Rank Archetype

Evolutionary Psychology & The Archetypes

‘Competitive behaviour that results in some kind of hierarchy is, in many ways, a fulcrum around which much craziness turns.’ Paul Gilbert

The rank archetype manifests itself in our tendency to compare ourselves to other people and makes us acutely aware of our rank, relational status and social position within a group.

It evolved as a way for our ancestors (and other mammals) to conserve energy.  

In our evolutionary past, we had to compete for access to limited resources and mating opportunities. So instead of fighting each time they met, which would require too much energy, our ancestors evolved a trait for ranking ourselves and others’ positions within a group to shortcut costly physical conflict.

Over time, a social order, or dominance hierarchy’ emerged within groups, so that each individual member knew their ‘place’ and what resources and mates they were entitled to pursuing.

Therefore, it was vital for our ancestors’ survival to develop a keen sense for what rank/social position they occupied in the tribe. Those who failed to develop this sense would have been killed off by more dominant members of the group, and gradually removed from the gene pool.

In other words, we are descended from people who had a very strong incentive to know ‘their place’; because not knowing it, could mean almost certain death.

Dominance hierarchies are most common among social animals, such as wolves and baboons, but also in birds, where the term ‘pecking order’ is rightly applied. In cowbirds, for example, only the most dominant males are allowed to sing the most effective mating songs. If subordinates do so, they are attacked, often brutally, by more dominant members of the group.   

This archetypal motivational system gets us into difficulty in the modern world because our brains evolved to live in groups of approximately 150 people. We can live with comparing ourselves with those around us in a group of 150, and still find our ‘niche’.

Things get a lot trickier, however, when we live in a globalised society with 7.6 billion people and a culture that glorifies the celebrity. It doesn’t help when you sign in to Facebook every day and are greeted with a highlight reel of the ‘best bits’ from everyone else’s lives.

With such conditions in place, it is extremely easy to develop feelings of inferiority and feel ourselves to continuously be at the bottom of the ‘pecking order’.

Mate Selection and Sexual Behaviour

Evolutionary Psychology & The Archetypes

‘Sexual selection is among the most powerful of all evolutionary forces.’ Stephen Shuster

This archetype manifests itself in our motivation to attract mates and it evolved to help us pass on our genes to the next generation.

Sexual selection theory suggests that individuals within one sex of a species (usually females) choose their mates based on certain characteristics exhibited by the males. These characteristics usually indicate some kind of reproductive or survival advantage that will be beneficial for the female and her offspring.

In the same way that peahens are attracted to peacocks with large bright feathers, and female deer choose males with large antlers, females in our species have an evolved archetypal tendency to find certain traits in males more attractive than others.

These traits are usually related to resources, such as good earning capacity, social status, intelligence, ambition and industriousness. However, indicators of kindness, sociability, emotional stability, dependability and an exciting personality also play an important role.

Evolutionary Psychology & The Archetypes

If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘he’s punching above his weight’, usually this archetypal tendency is at work. 

Therefore, not only have females evolved motivations to find these traits attractive, males have also evolved motivations to exhibit these traits, and it may help explain why males have such a strong motivation, particularly in early life, to accumulate resources.

For females, it’s important to be aware of this archetypal tendency, so that you can be aware of males who may attempt to manipulate your evolutionary wiring for their own benefit. E.g. By making shows of status, flaunting resources, etc.

Men should be aware of this archetype because it’s very easy, particularly in early life, for it to become inflated – meaning that all of your focus and energy is devoted to accumulating resources, at the expense of other equally important areas of life.

We now know that our brains and bodies evolved to meet the challenges of a completely different environment and way of life than the one we currently experience.

In some sense, placing homo sapiens in a large urban metropolis surrounded by millions of anonymous others, skyscrapers, and an unlimited supply of calories, is like placing polar bears in the Sahara desert.

Polar bears evolved to meet the challenges of freezing Arctic winters, and will struggle to survive in a hot desert climate. In the same way, human beings evolved to meet the challenges of a hunter gatherer existence, and research is now indicating that the growing mismatch between the environment we evolved for, and the one we currently experience, may be at the root of many of the mental health problems we are facing today.

Therefore, if you want to understand your brain better and improve your emotional intelligence, a great place to start is by learning about the evolved and archetypal nature of the human mind. 

Paul Gilbert’s ‘Living Like Crazy’ is an excellent resource for doing just that.

Paul Gilbert - The Weekend University


2018-11-03T10:35:57+02:00 November 2nd, 2018|Blog|

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