Sigmund Freud is the father and founder of the "soft" science of psychology. Like most fathers, his offspring did not turn out quite as he would have preferred. As new facts and practitioners took up psychiatry (MD required) and psychology (PhD required), Freud's many theories no longer fit as well as he would have liked. New schools of thought soon arose. Nevertheless, he left a primary mark. It turns out that his mark bears on peace.
His most prominent and enduring discovery was that of the of human psyche--in its three facets. Most of us are well familiar with our animal nature--Freud labeled it the id. Moreover, normal humans are able to think in logical ways, even abstractly. To Freud, this feature became the ego, our logical selves. And most of us have a conscience--Freud named it super ego. In retrospect, these features were all well-known before Freud. What he did was show how they relate to individual identity and behavior. And that opened the door for further research.
The significance of Freud's idea of how the psyche is put together is still lost on most people, even as they are well aware of its existence. What is that significance? The answer, as for so many fields of endeavor, lies in nature. Here is how his triad of traits in the human psyche likely came about.
Born of the jungles and savannas, species best at Mothering, Altruism, Cooperation, Obedience in a Hierarchy, and Aggression were the species that survived. The acronym, MACOA, captures the essence: Think of these five traits as forming a "V". Each leg comprises two traits connected by the fifth, pragmatic cooperation--our egs in other words. The left leg constitutes Mothering and Altruism while Aggression and excessive Obedience reside on the right. It is the legs that are at war. This war is internal and eternal (so far). And it exists in most of us. War might not be the right word, conflict, preference, you name it. There is, simply put, a dissonance in our psyche that we all inherit.
As for the species, it is only the extreme wings of each "V" that are most troublesome. These folks are the true psychopaths who use and abuse the rest of us, caring only about themselves. How to mute their effects on society and our very future is the singular issue confronting humanity today.
Freud's ID was all about our animal selves--instinctive aggression commanding obedience of followers led to the survival of genes for dominance and obedience. Richard Dawkins devoted a whole book to this concept in The Selfish Gene. The other side of the "V" is well covered by the works of De Waal, in his monumental book Peacemaking Among the Primates. Wilson ties it all together with his book Consilience.
Freud's ego reflects our cooperative, logical selves. Animals with memories and logical ability won the battles in the jungle and savanna; so did the genes giving rise to those traits. Being cooperative, logical animals could hunt in packs, capture territory and defend it in like manner. War was born so to speak.
On the other wing of the "V", Freud's Superego was all about conscience--mothering and altruism in other words. Genes for mothering were required to enable the species in the first place. Mothering was also the principle conduit for passing on survival knowledge to the next generation. Mothering is the most important job among all the genes. In terms of survival. Helping neighbors--in whatever ways possible--led to increased ability for the genes for altruism to survive. Finally, could not the genetic and practical awareness that parenting and altruism be survival issues and labeled conscience?
To recap Freud's monumental work: Without knowing its ultimate significance, he captured the essence of the trials and tribulations of the animal world--of which humanity is merely the latest expression.
Elsewhere, other authors, as well as ourselves, have identified these five traits embedded in Freud's theory as the essence of human behavior. Mothering (or parenting), Altruism, Cooperation, Obedience, and Aggression have combined and conspired to create the most successful species yet--in terms of ability to change the world. (Our ultimate period of survival may not match those of many dinosaurs, however.)
As for humanity, it is those who combine aggression with a lack of conscience who are the troublemakers. They are the psycho-sociopaths who use and abuse the rest of us. When they are charismatic enough to rise to power, they usually do so to the detriment of all. Hitler and Stalin were prime examples. They can even take over democracies. Psycho-sociopaths are too numerous to mention and they exist in all levels of modern societies as they have in all chapters of history.
It most is remarkable that an arcane theory such as Freud's could be so consilient with the other threads that lead to violence or peace in our times.
This is certainly not the last word, but it does make sense of human and world history.
Posted by RoadToPeace on Wednesday, December 08, 2010.