Evolutionary Theory in Freud">

Evolutionary Theory in Freud, Piaget and Skinner

Pat Duffy Hutcheon, World Futures (1995) Vol.44, pp. 203-11. Reprinted with permission of Gordon and Breach Publishers.


This essay traces the roots of evolutionary concepts in modern psychology, as found in the theories of the shapers of three of its major schools of thought: Freudianism, Genetic Developmentalism, and Behaviorism. All three theorists differed from most of their colleagues in acknowledging the fact of organic evolution, as well as the universal applicability and priority of the scientific process. All three sought to continue the Darwinian conceptual revolution by building a unified general theory capable of explaining not only organic change, but individual development and cultural evolution as well. They differed, however, as to the nature of the mechanism driving the process. For Freud it was the sex drive; for Piaget, the internal sensation of disequilibrium; and for Skinner it was environmental reinforcement functioning according to the principle of natural selection. Any future paradigm for the social sciences will no doubt be generated from some combination of these models.

KEYWORDS: evolution, unity of science, psychological development, sex selection, equilibrium, reinforcement, organic causation, paradigm

What goes around comes around! After decades in which the findings of biology were considered to have little or no relevance for the social sciences, we are witnessing a change in direction. There is now an encouraging attempt within psychology, sociology and economics to make their models consistent with modern evolutionary theory. This would seem to be an appropriate time to look at the history of that particular way of thinking within psychology: the discipline which must inevitably inform the conceptualizing process within all the other social sciences.

There is indeed a solid ground on which to begin. During the century following Darwin's breakthrough, a number of thinkers recognized that the new understanding of evolution was likely to have significance far beyond the study of biology. Among the earliest of these were Ernst Haeckel of Germany and Austria, and Herbert Spencer of England. Haeckel was convinced that the implications of evolutionary theory for the development of human mental processes would someday determine the subject matter for the first thoroughly scientific study of psychology. Spencer believed that biological evolution must surely have established the pattern not only for individual intellectual growth, but for the evolution of society and culture as well. He committed his life to structuring an entire theory of human development on this premise.

Although their names are now seldom mentioned, these two scholars have had a profound impact on the subsequent evolution of social-scientific thought. This is chiefly because their ideas lived on in the work of three giants who have done much to chart the course of twentieth century psychology: Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget and B.F. Skinner. The common evolutionary ground underlying Freudianism, Genetic Developmentalism and Radical Behaviorism is seldom recognized. A preliminary discussion of this shared foundation might prove useful in pointing the way toward possible future agreement on a conceptual framework capable of encompassing and organizing the social sciences as a general field of study.

All three of these influential psychologists saw themselves as evolutionary theorists. All three accepted the premise that the human species has evolved from upright primates in the manner described and documented by Darwin. That is, they accepted the idea of a commonality underlying all forms of organic life. As a result, all three were committed to the unity of science. This means they believed that there can be no limits placed upon scientific inquiry; that the disciplined, publicly tested and self-correcting approach of science is equally applicable to the inorganic, organic, behavioral, social and cultural systems of relations. All three believed that, therefore, any reliable human science must be based on, and in accordance with, the tested knowledge made available to biology as a result of the continuation of the Darwinian revolution. Finally, the three theorists realized that their constructs and propositions, like those of all science, were tentative in that they must ever remain open to the test of new evidence.

Contrary to what many of his followers have suggested, this was true of Freud as well as of Piaget and Skinner. For example, Freud maintained that "the deficiencies in our description would probably vanish if we were already in a position to replace the psychological terms with physiological or chemical ones ... Biology is truly a realm of limitless possibilities; we have the most surprising revelations to expect from it and cannot conjecture what answers it will offer ... [its findings may] overthrow our whole artificial structure of hypotheses." 1 Elsewhere we find him saying,"If experience should show ... that we have been mistaken, then we will renounce our expectations."2

Piaget, in expressing his philosophy of science, maintained that, "since the organism is itself a physiochemical object, its actions and reactions are from the outset transparently dependent on the physical universe because, through its very inner structure, the organism participates in and obeys the laws of this universe."4 He deplored the fact that, whereas the great philosophers of the past all contributed to, or at least learned from, the science of their times, "today we are training specialists in transcendentalism who are then able to leap straight into the world of essences with an ease enormously increased by the fact that they are innocent of any forms of scientific specialization ."5

Skinner explained that his version of behaviorism " is a philosophy of science concerned with the subject matter and methods of psychology ... [which, in turn, is viewed as] a science of the behavior of organisms, human and otherwise ... a part of biology, a natural science for which successful methods are available." 6 Like Freud and Piaget before him, Skinner was chiefly concerned with developing an evolutionary theory of knowledge informed by, and consistent with, that of biology.

All three psychologists postulated that individual development is the result of an interaction between organism and environment. They differed, however, in terms of what they selected as basic units of analysis, and in the degree to which they saw change as being initiated from within or without the organism. Skinner's analytical units of "knowing" and "thinking" were defined as forms of behavior, elicited in response to the demands of the environment; whereas Piaget defined these same mental activities as fundamental structures of rules built up within the nervous system as a result of the organism's action upon the environment. Freud, on the other hand, thought in terms of discrete mental entities (such as the "id", "ego" and "superego") and flows of energy within the "libido": all having their source in inherited instincts, but being influenced as well by interaction with the environment.

All three, like Haeckel and Spencer before them, sought to build a unified theory encompassing individual development and the gradual accumulation of various aspects of culture -- all this based on sound premises about the nature of organic evolution. Freud believed that he was destined to complete the alteration in world view initiated by Copernicus and continued by Darwin. According to him, the Copernican revolution had destroyed geocentrism. Darwin had done the same for the illusion that humanity was different in kind from, and sovereign over, all the rest of creation. Freud saw his theory as similarly undermining the illusion of "free will", or belief in the sovereignty of the human ego. In addition, his dialectical model of "Eros" and "Thanatos" -- representing the conflict between the aggressive or death instinct and that of life and reproduction -- was an attempt to provide an explanation for cultural evolution based on his sexual theory of human development.

Piaget likewise hoped that his contribution to epistemology would turn out to be revolutionary. His goal had been to establish, once and for all, the connection between the individual's internal process of constructing instruments of "knowing" and the public or group process of constructing reliable knowledge. He also spoke of the Copernican revolution, but saw it as isomorphic to a critical stage in the child's intellectual development. He hypothesized that, if we could but comprehend the development of human reasoning from infancy onward, we would be in a position to understand the nature and genesis of science. Because he believed that scientific knowledge provides the initial impetus for social change, Piaget considered his theory would thus be capable of explaining the relationship between individual intellectual development and cultural evolution.

Skinner, too, saw his theory as revolutionary. He felt that it was the first to explain adequately the evolution of complex verbal behaviors such as speaking, listening, thinking and knowing. As a result, he maintained, it was the first to clarify the relationship between the evolution of the species and both psychological development in the individual and evolutionary change within human culture. He echoed George Herbert Mead in claiming that the evolution of a verbal community was the source of human consciousness. He considered this seminal for both cultural evolution and psychological development, for it provided the means for group coordination and thereby effective control of the surrounding environment. And it made thinking possible. Skinner went further than Mead, however, when he identified the establishment of a formal, self-policing verbal community devoted to defining testable hypotheses as the prerequisite of scientific development in any problem area. Cumulative knowledge is impossible without such a reinforcing community, he maintained. For him, this insight explained the evolution of scientific knowledge: that critical leading edge of culture.

Skinner thought that the basic mechanism driving evolution at both the biological and psycho-cultural levels of organization would eventually be shown to be the same. He suggested that behaviors in the person (covert as well as overt), and group practices in the culture, correspond to genes in the organism. Behaviors and cultural practices are positively or negatively reinforced by environmental contingencies. If the effects are sufficiently negative, the individual actors or carriers might lose their lives, as happens in biological evolution. More commonly, in the case of psychological development and cultural evolution, he explained, the result is that only the behaviors are selected out, and the person or culture lives on, to substitute more successful responses another day.

As Skinner put it, "The practices of a culture, like the characteristics of a species, are carried by its members ... A culture, like a species, is selected by its adaptation to its environment; to the extent that it helps its members to get what they need and to avoid what is dangerous, it helps them to survive and transmit the culture."7 The processes of biological and cultural evolution are intertwined. "The capacity to undergo the changes in behavior which make a culture possible was acquired in the evolution of the species, and, reciprocally, the culture determines many of the biological characteristics transmitted." 8 Cultural innovations correspond to genetic mutations. Skinner noted, however, that, at the point of transmission, the analogy breaks down. Cultural transmission is Lamarckian. All cultural practices are acquired and must be transmitted to each generation. This means that unfavorable ones can be removed from the group's "behavioral pool" without the sacrifice of the carrier -- unlike the situation with genes.

On this crucial point we witness a parting of the ways among the three theorists. Unlike Freud and Piaget, Skinner based his evolutionary model on the principle of natural selection, and sought to discover how various forms of the process might operate at other, more complex levels of organization. In Freud's time there was little consensus among biologists on the precise nature of the mechanism driving evolution. Darwin himself had left a door slightly open for the possibility of Lamarckism: the idea that the experience of the current generation can somehow be fed back into the inheritance of the next one. Herbert Spencer's textbooks on biology, psychology, sociology and ethics were all based on his own sophisticated version of the Lamarckian premise rather than on Darwin's concept of natural selection. Given the confusion within biology in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it is not surprising that Freud labored under certain misapprehensions concerning the nature of evolution. His search for a workable evolutionary theory for individual and cultural development took the form of an attempt to account for a process the possibility of which now seems to be denied by modern genetics. That is, he set out to explain how the experience of the individual organism becomes embedded in race memory and ultimately transmitted to succeeding generations.

Freud was also intrigued by the notion that there might be such a thing as sexual selection. Darwin had surmised that, because reproduction is crucial to the evolution of the species, the process (as well as the appendages and behaviors) by which individuals attract potential mates must be of great significance. Freud erroneously transferred this idea from the level of the species to that of the organism. He postulated that, if sex drives species-formation, it must be the innate force energizing individual development as well! Only sexually relevant bits of species information would be sufficiently useful to be passed into succeeding psyches by means of evolution. Therefore, he thought, critical race experience would have to be stored in some sort of sexual form. He concluded that the biologically based sexual instinct had to be the repository of all the past experience of the human race. In Freud's reasoning, it followed that the entire process of child development must be sexually driven, and amenable to analysis only in sexual terms.

From this it was but a small step to the concept of the "unconscious": an idea already familiar in the literature available to Freud. He pictured the unconscious as a vast storehouse of the earlier defining sexual experience of the human race. He thought that aspects of it might possibly be revealed to our consciousness through dreams and inadvertent comments and behaviors, along with either repressed or sublimated aspects of the individual's lifetime experience. It is upon this assumption that psychoanalytic therapy is based.

There is no doubt that Piaget was more familiar than was Freud with the concept of natural selection. But he made a conscious and informed decision to follow the path blazed by Spencer rather than that of Darwin and Haeckel. He believed that his position represented not only an advance over Lamarckism and Darwinism, but an improvement on Spencer's "equilibrium model" as well. Piaget postulated not simply a direct transmission of characteristics acquired by each generation, but a complex feedback mechanism consisting of retroactive repercussions from generational losses of equilibrium. He suggested that this feedback sensitizes the regulating genes themselves, making some mutations more likely than others, so that specific variations favoring a return to equilibrium will tend to result for descendants.

Piaget was also influenced by the ideas of well-known early twentieth century biologists such as Richard Goldschmidt and C.H. Waddington. He interpreted their work as supportive of his own conclusion that "in animals, evolutionary transformations of adaptive significance (not, therefore, just any mutation) are closely bound up with new patterns of behavior."9 He believed that adaptation for the organism and its behaviors is, in effect, a kind of trial and error process, and that it is the total pattern of adaptive behaviors that is selected or discarded by evolutionary trial and error. That is; some mutations -- if they happen to be readily accommodated to an existing system of adaptive responses -- are, by definition, more workable than others.

Skinner offered his principle of reinforcement (or "operant conditioning") as a more simple, comprehensive and fruitful explanation of individual development and cultural evolution. According to his theory, natural selection and reinforcement work by the same rules: the former occurring through the operation of phylogenic contingencies, and the latter by means of ontogenic ones. As with biological evolution, he said, "[behavioral] variations, quite possibly random, are selected by their effects."10 Skinner explained that contingencies of reinforcement in the sociocultural surroundings of the behaving organism result in the selecting out of those behaviors that have not been positively reinforced, just as contingencies in the physical environment operate so as to select out unsuccessful members of the species before they can reproduce. He concluded that the mechanism is the same in both cases.

Skinner suggested that a fatal error in all varieties of Spencerian "Social Darwinism" was that culture was identified with the people carrying it rather than with their practices. Piaget also abhorred that idea, as it led to the conclusion that certain cultures, and their members, are inherently superior, and become increasingly so. However, to some degree even he may have fallen into the Social Darwinist trap with his idea of the "phenocopy": a unique configuration of successfully adapted phenotypic variation which somehow prepares the way for others of its kind. He suggested that the adaptive behavior of the uniquely successful individual "occasions an opposition ... between the requirements of an unaccustomed or altered environment and those of the processes of epigenetic development directed by a hereditary program. The resulting disequilibriums, which will in some cases end up in sensitizing the genes regulating epigenesis, will then trigger off a process of re-equilibration which will take the form of mutations directed at the zone of disequilibrium. These mutations, in turn, will ultimately take on forms analogous to those of the ... [phenocopy]."11 Piaget did not see intellectual and moral development in these terms, however.

Possibly because neither Freud nor Piaget fully appreciated the complexity of natural selection, they seem to have overlooked the really revolutionary aspect of Darwin's breakthrough. It was his discovery of an entirely new form of causation which had shifted into gear when life emerged. This was the idea that, at the onset of organic evolution, the consequences of the organism's activity began to shape contingent conditions which then functioned as causes of subsequent behavior. Like George Herbert Mead and Julian Huxley, Skinner understood that natural selection thus represents a causal process very different from the push-pull, or linear, mechanism operating at the inorganic level of relations in nature. It operates, instead, according to a feedback process, with the effects of current actions contributing to the shaping of future ones. He considered that many of the fruitless attempts made by psychology to imitate physics are due to a failure to comprehend this "organic" causal principle.

Obviously Freud was crippled by this failure. He spoke of the physics of the libido; and of the "psyche" as an entity comprising a host of discrete, unobservable structures. His work abounds with indications that he was attempting to apply the rules of Newtonian physics to the psyche's presumed contents. This is not too surprising. During the nineteenth century most theorists thought that this was the only way to be scientific, or to think in terms of cause and effect. And Freud must at least be credited with being one of the earliest psychologists to insist on the universality of cause and effect.

Piaget's position on causation is not so clear cut. He seemed to be agreeing with Spencer's view that the individual's self-directed trial and error forays into the environment (in conjunction with environmental changes wrought thereby) are the causal factors for both inorganic and sociocultural evolution; and that it is the internal sensation of disequilibrium which initiates these forays. Although he emphasized that interaction between organism and environment is fundamental, he always insisted that the impetus for evolutionary change is in the individual as the source of action. In spite of his sophisticated equilibrium theory, it is possible that he was still viewing causation in evolution as mechanistic.

Most of the new developments in genetics would seem to imply the operation of some sort of complex feedback action where organic causation is concerned, with neither an inner nor outer source identifiable as the initiator of the process. However, support is now available for at least one of Piaget's major insights. Modern evolutionary theorists maintain that the structural integrity of developmental sequences does indeed cause genetic change to spiral or snowball in certain directions as Piaget had described. Nevertheless, this is not necessarily because the direction is determined from within the organism, or by the effects of a phenocopy -- as an entity -- on its surroundings. It still seems likely that change occurs through the survival of favorable mutations. One could argue that only the definition of favorable is altered as a result of the effect on the total system of the spiral of previous accumulations; that there is no radical change in the nature of the process. We would expect the same to hold in the case of individual development.

A second important element of causation has to do with the nature of "laws" of development. To some extent Freud was still a captive of the older teleological approach which saw laws, not merely as tested regularities in experience, but as directional forces acting upon nature from without. The concept of the Great Chain of Being still dominated most of the thinking on evolution when he was a student, and he seems to have assimilated some of this. At times, his sexual theory of human development resembles an account of an immutable process, moving inexorably toward a predestined goal. However, Freud's metaphorical language is misleading here. He did not really believe in laws external to evolution, nor in the inevitability of human progress. Of the "perfectibility of man" he once commented, "I see no way of preserving this pleasant illusion. The development of man up to now does not seem to me to need any explanation differing from that of animal development ... [Human progress depends on] that repression of instinct upon which what is most valuable in human culture is built."12

There was yet another approach to causation influencing scholarship in Freud's era. It was the dialectical thinking fundamental to Hegelianism and Marxism. There are many indications in Freud's work that he assumed the existence of some sort of dialectical causal process driving individual sexual development and culture from within. Both the concept of "libido" and that of "Eros" seem to represent a synthesis, at progressively higher levels, of contradictory forces at war within the psyche.

Piaget and Skinner had moved far beyond all the older teleological causal premises. Although Piaget explained intellectual development in terms of an invariant sequence of developmental stages (or plateaus of learning), he claimed that progress through these is by no means predetermined. They depend on the nature of the interaction with the physical and social surroundings. And, in the case of moral development, appropriate feedback and challenge from the environment is even more vital.

Skinner saw all development as contingent upon appropriate environmental reinforcement. He explained that, just as a mutation survives because it is selected, rather than vice versa, "Behavior is followed by reinforcement: it does not pursue or overtake it. Both the species and the behavior of the individual develop when they are shaped and maintained by their effects on the world around them. That is the only role of the future."13 In neither case is the process pulled toward a purpose or unfulfilled design; it is, instead, controlled from behind -- by the feedback effect of environmental conditions.

Both Skinner and Piaget viewed the evolution of science as a crucial source of cumulative adaptive change for the culture as a whole. This insight, as well as their findings concerning the evolutionary nature of individual and cultural development, makes a thorough understanding of their work critical at this time. This is because psychology may finally be on the threshold of a new and encompassing paradigm based on some form of evolutionary-systems theory: a paradigm that could, for the first time, make rapid scientific advancement possible for all the social studies.



  1. Max Schur, Freud: Living and Dying (New York, NY: International Universities Press, Inc., 1972), p.165.

  2. Peter Gay, A Godless Jew (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), p.31.

  3. Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, ed., Language and Learning: The Debate Between Jean Piaget and Norm Chomsky (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), p.283.

  4. Jean Piaget, Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child, trans. Derek Coltman (New York, NY: Orion Press, 1970), p.59.

  5. B.F. Skinner, Contingencies of Reinforcement (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969), p.221

  6. --------------, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), p.129.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Jean Piaget, Adaptation and Intelligence: Organic Selection and Phenocopy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p.113.

  9. B.F. Skinner, A Matter of Consequences (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p.154.

  10. Jean Piaget, Adaptation and Intelligence, p.101.

  11. John Rickman and Charles Brenner, A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud (New York, NY: Liveright, 1957), p.162..

  12. B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p.142.