Freud and Darwin II
|October 16, 2009||Posted by Steve Fuller under Biology, Darwinism, Science, Psychology, Human evolution|
I was originally going to post this as a response to David Coppedge’s post, but it got too long.
The relationship between Freud and Darwin – both intellectually and institutionally – is more complicated than has been suggested here.
Although Freud had top-notch academic credentials, his career was always that of an outsider, whose main constituency was in the larger public intellectual culture and well-educated middle class people who were his client base. (Freud’s books won literary prizes, not scientific ones.) One way you can see Freud’s outsider status is that he was never granted a professorship even though he tried several times. While his theories were somewhat embraced by medical schools (peaking in the US in the 1950s), experimental psychologists, while of course familiar with his claims, generally kept their distance. In fact, Freud’s fall from grace has been really from psychiatry, which is the only field within striking distance of natural science in which he was ever held in grace.
However, it’s only been since the 1970s that Freud has been shunned specifically because his theories and treatments don’t work. Before that time, he was shunned because of what we would now regard as the interdisciplinary character of his work: He borrowed things from a lot of disciplines, and so it was always hard to test anything he said. For example, already in the 1920s Karl Popper was talking about psychoanalysis as ‘unfalsifiable’ rather than simply false. Nowadays people are more comfortable saying Freud is false.
As for Darwin, he certainly influenced Freud. But more to the point, until 1920s or possibly even 1930s, Darwin’s and Freud’s theories were subject to roughly the same degree of (dis)approval – in both cases, questions were asked whether their rather ‘big picture’ explanations could ever be tested properly, or whether they were even necessary for the conduct of empirical work in, respectively, biology and psychology. However, by the 1940s, Darwin’s theory had come to be embraced by leading biologists (outside the USSR and possibly France) as providing a valid explanatory framework. Why Darwin managed to achieve that status, while Freud never did is the interesting comparative question to ask.
Let me suggest the following: The people originally behind the Neo-Darwinian synthesis in the 1930s, whatever their (typically pro-) views about eugenics, downplayed, if not outright denied, Darwinism’s significance for explaining human behaviour. In fact, this strategy worked well for about 40 years – until E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology and Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene. Not surprisingly, Darwinism has come to attract an increasing amount suspicion and scepticism, once its implications for the human condition have become clearer. In contrast, Freud could never hide that his theory was about the human condition, and so accordingly it has always been under a cloud.
In short, if you want to turn Darwin into the next Freud, evolutionary psychologists should keep on coming up with the back-of-the-envelope ‘my reptilian brain made me do it’ explanations that Denyse O’Leary regularly skewers on this blog. Freudians were skewered by similar means in their day.