Human Paleopsychology

MensNewsDaily Column 3

  Kent G. Bailey.  Social Chaos But No HELP from Social Science.  MensNewsDaily, May 16, 2004
     The past one hundred years has seen more progress in the physical sciences than in all prior human history.  Not so for the social sciences.  Rather than trading on new discoveries the social sciences specialize in erecting new fads, disposing of them in a few decades, and then going on to even newer fads.  Freudian psychoanalysis has been debunked, behaviorism hangs by a mere thread, and now cognitivists have triumphantly "discovered" that  people have the capacity to think after all!.  Worse still, the social sciences are so handicapped by political correctness that the most urgent issues of the day are either censored or simply denied.
     While the social sciences flounder, DNA research, evolutionary psychology, and the brain sciences are slowly unraveling the "truth" of the human condition.  For example, human beings are so genetically similar (over 99% overlap in DNA) to chimpanzees that we are basically a chimpanzee that stands upright and has a very large brain.  It should, thus, come as no surprise that human beings are very chimpanzee-like in our motives, feelings, preferences, and a good number of our behaviors.  Nor should we be surpised that our chimpanzeeness overcomes and dominates our humanness with regularity.  In my view, this is the most important insight about our species of this or any other century.
     Human paleopsychology was designed to address these issues.  This approach is premised on two basic assumptions: first, human beings have an ancient and rich evolutionary history, and, second, this ancient history is thoroughly involved in everything we feel, think, and do…personally, politically, and morally.  According to neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s venerable Triune Brain Theory, the human brain is composed of a primeval reptilian segment, a later  mammalian segment, and a relatively recent neocortical segment.  These three levels correspond roughly to instincts (reptilian), feelings (mammalian), and thoughts (neocortex). In 1983, I asked professor MacLean if it made sense to speak of “regressing down the triune brain” or “progressing up the triune brain”?  He averred that it made perfect sense.  My 1987 book, Human Paleopsychology: Applications to Aggression and Pathological Processes (Erlbaum) was dedicated to MacLean and his work.   
     Human beings are literally designed to "regress" down the triune brain with ease, but "progressing" up is unnatural, difficult, and requires years of  cultural shaping and formal education in industrialized societies.  Simply speaking, when regressive processes are set against progressive ones, regression tends to win.  Partying tends to win out over studying, impulsivity over self-control, amorality over morality, and disorder over order.  Human Paleopsychogy focuses on individual and social breakdowns of cultural, moral, religious, and economic systems that have taken thousands of years to reach their present form.  Yet, with the slightest provocation in the form of social malaise, insult, drug or alcohol intake, exposure to pornography, or even sudden changes in the stock market, we see that good will, manners and civility, social order, and concern with “higher things” can disappear in an instant. 
     The process whereby this occurs is termed phylogenetic regression and it refers to the sudden stripping away of the thin veneer of culture and the complementary re-activation of ancient evolved programs of selfishness, tribality and xenophobia, aggression, sexuality, and the like.  In other words, when highly stressed and/or provoked, a person easily slips back into earlier evolutionarily adaptive programs that may have served our ancestors well in precultural times but are amoral/immoral, socially chaotic, illegal, and even pathological today.   For example, sexual promiscuity and male gang behavior in hunting contexts may have served young men well 30,000 years ago, but activation of these tendencies today in the absence of moral, religious, legal, or other constraints can easily lead to rape, gang warfare, or even worst case scenarios like the “inexplicable” murderous actions of the two young men in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999.    Human paleopsychology tries to make sense of these “inexplicable” events and others including serial murder involving cannibalism, body mutilation, and storage of body parts, mothers brutally killing their infants and young children, and even phenemona such as rage killing, road rage, and the brutal initiation ritual of the Glenbrook North High School sorority girls who literally outdid their chimpanzee cousins in chaotic violence. 
     Readers, is there any other way to explain these dramatic phenomena?
Kent G. Bailey is professor emeritus of clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. His major focus is on how ancient evolutionary processes affect current human affairs. His major monograph is Human Paleopsychology: Applications to Aggression and Pathological Processes. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1987.
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Study these pages and become a paleopsychologist!
Kent G. Bailey [email protected]