Darwin and Psychotherapy

Elia, I., 2009. Darwin and Psychotherapy. Reformulation, Winter, p.9.


2009 Marks the 150th Anniversary of the Publication ‘On the Origin of Species’

When Darwin boarded the Beagle in December 1831, Bleuler had not yet named schizophrenia nor had Kraepelin coined the term manic depressive psychosis. Freud had not been born, and no one knew that genes existed.

When ‘On the Origin of Species’ was published in 1859, counselling and psychotherapy did not exist as professions. Darwin predicted in anguish* that his theory would undermine the “fragile bark” of faith, love, and trust framed by literal biblical belief. Had he been able to see cosmographies as analogous to species, he might not have languished so long over the publication of his work. While it is true that the cynical application of the theory of natural selection seems to have given genocides, post-1859, ‘scientific approval’ through apparent verification of the ‘law’ of survival of the fittest, it is also true that a whole new science of human behaviour radiated into the blood-stained niche vacated by coercive religion.

This new Family of sciences called Psychology branched vigorously, as species will in open, fertile environments. Psycho-physics led to neurology and the diverse disciplines supporting modern neuroscience. Behaviourism led to an understanding of how behaviour is shaped by reward and punishment, much as physical form is shaped by selective breeding. Just as Darwin could only suspect an invisible basis for the changes wrought by human bird and livestock breeders or by the environment in natural selection, so we suspect and gradually demonstrate the once invisible neurological basis for conditioned behaviour.

The observational science of Infant Development begins to show the interactive basis for learned individual patterns, once vaguely assigned to ‘personality’ and now coming into focus as a small, finite set of roles and procedures formed early in life. Classical Conditioning, as the first branch of Behaviourism, had demonstrated the transference of behaviour from its first or unconditioned trigger to an associated, conditioned one. In a similar way, roles and procedures seem to transfer from their original stimulus settings in childhood into adulthood when associated triggers, often not consciously recognised, call them forth.

The dark region of mind in which early conditioning resides was illuminated in a mysterious light by the study of Hypnosis, which was not only a competitor (in the Darwinian sense) with our common ancestor, Psychoanalysis, but also began to show us that memories, both consciously and unconsciously laid down, may depend on trance states that are part of normal development and everyday functioning.

Over about a century, Psychoanalysis evolved into the myriad, small branches of psychotherapy and counselling. Now these competing, often extremely similar forms, vie for survival (at least here in the UK) under the twin selective pressures of scientific proof and economic constraint. As we consider the ‘hot issue’ of regulation in our field, perhaps we should remember that the behaviours/feelings Darwin agonised about losing--faith (if not in an anthropomorphic god then in a meaningful life), love, and trust—have climbed into the ‘fragile bark’ of our profession. They wouldn’t be coerced out of existence by ‘hellfire and brimstone’ and they won’t be audited out by medico-economics, regardless of which forms of psychotherapy survive.

These seemingly immortal passengers—faith, love, and trust—which have travelled down the centuries into our practice through myth, analysis of sacred texts, theatre, literature, and the arts, may have evolved along with our physical form, may have genetic and neurological roots in each of us, may be learned in reliable, operationally-definable ways. And their definition as roles and procedures, which imbue life and nature with meaning, beauty, and security, may be the greatest contribution that psychotherapy and CAT, especially, can make to the survival of our species.

*in Creation, the recent film about Darwin’s conflict

Full Reference

Elia, I., 2009. Darwin and Psychotherapy. Reformulation, Winter, p.9.

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