Archetypal Memory and the Genetic/Darwinian Paradigm

John R. Haule
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
New England Society of Jungian Analysts

[This is a brief sketch of a much more detailed argument, available at]

Where is Analytical Psychology going in the twenty-first century? On the one hand, prospects look bleak. Psychoanalysis is no longer the cultural force it was in the first half of the twentieth century. Its standing as a “science” – once loudly proclaimed but always somewhat questionable – has become precarious with recent advances in brain research. Meanwhile, our Jungian “school” has become identified in most people’s minds with mysticism, superstition, and the New Age. Simultaneously, however, there is reason for hope. Recent developments in evolutionary biology, neurobiology, animal behavior, genetics and anthropology show that the doctrine of the archetypes is amazingly “consilient” with the most recent advances in science. By consilience, I mean that facts and theories from different disciplines are all pointing in the same direction, and “create a common groundwork of explanation.” (Wilson, 1998, 8)

In other words, Jung dreamed the dream of the biological and human sciences at a time before a synthesis of those disciplines was possible. And he did so with amazing prescience. By the hundredth anniversary of his birth, evidence was finally coming in that the human body-andmind is organized by inherited structures essentially indistinguishable from the archetypes. In the last thirty years, the evidence has become overwhelming. Therefore, the time has come to tell the story of this remarkable consilience between our Jungian psychology and a biology founded on Darwinian principles and augmented by genetics – what biologists today call the “modern synthesis.”

More than twenty years ago, Anthony Stevens recognized the problem, saying: “Concepts introduced by Jung more than a half century ago anticipate with uncanny accuracy those now gaining currency in the behavioral sciences generally.” No theory can today “command more than esoteric interest if it fails to take account of biology, physics, and neurophysiology.” But we Jungians have been reluctant to investigate the biological and behavioral foundations of the archetypes. We have never searched for their “phylogenetic roots.” Instead, we have been “mesmerized by archetypal symbols.” (Stevens, 1983, 27-29)

But Stevens has been too much focused on the needs of his patients to have spelled out the broad consilience that is growing between Jung and the modern biological synthesis. That job requires a shameless dilettante, hard-working and curious, someone who has a yen for facts and the patience to sift through mountains of them. Jung viewed himself as a dilettante of this type, “constantly borrow[ing] knowledge from others.” (Shamdasani, 2003, 22)

Jung’s project to build psychology on a Darwinian foundation began with his famous dream of the house with floors from different centuries. Concerning those skulls in the pit below the basement floor, he said:

I was fascinated by the bones of fossil man, particularly by the much discussed Neanderthalensis and the still more controversial skull of Dubois’ Pithecanthropus. As a matter of fact, these were my real associations to the dream. But I did not dare mention the subject of skulls, skeletons, or corpses to Freud, because I had learned that this theme was not popular with him. (CW 18, §485f)

Jung never gave up on this Darwinian intuition. Sonu Shamdasani’s recent book (2003) has made this case as it has never been made before. Here are just six indications of Jung’s Darwinian aspirations:

  1. In 1913, he wrote to the founders of the new American journal, Psychoanalytic Review: “We need not only the work of medical psychologists, but also that of philologists, historians, archaeologists, mythologists, folklore students, ethnologists, philosophers, theologians, pedagogues, and biologists.” (Letters 1, 29f)
  2. In 1932, he tried to start a journal, to be called Weltanschauung, which would “fish out from the ocean of specialist science all the facts and knowledge that are of general interest and make them available to the educated public. … It should be … an antidote against the atomizing tendency of specialism which is one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual development.” (Letters 1, 106f)
  3. In 1933, the annual Eranos Conference began, and brought together scholars from a variety of disciplines for some half century.
  4. About the same time, he endowed a lectureship at the ETH in Zurich, stipulating that, “No special theory … should be propounded, but psychology should be taught in its biological, ethnological, medical, philosophical, culture-historical, and religious aspects.” (Shamdasani, 2003: 15)
  5. In the 1930’s he stopped calling his school “Analytical Psychology” and began to call it “Complex Psychology.” It was to be a general psychology and not just a school of psychotherapy. He wrote, “Complex psychology means the psychology of ‘complexities’ i.e., of complex psychical systems in contradistinction from relatively elementary factors.” (Ibid., 14)
  6. Finally, in 1948, in his inaugural address at the opening the Zurich Institute, Jung listed the important projects that he felt he had left unfinished. They include comparative symbolism, the nature of emotional stressors, the psychic structure of the family and its relation to heredity, the history of literature, the psychology of religion, ethnopsychology and epistemology. (Ibid., 346f)

These are the words and actions of a dilettante with an enormous curiosity and capacity for work who knew his project would never be done, that it would require an army of assistants to carry out his dream of an architectonic science of the mind. Apparently he had hoped the students and faculty of the Jung Institute would take up the work; but they-and we-have done little in the past sixty years. What is encouraging now, however, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, is that there is already a vast army out there working on the evolutionary biology underlying the human sciences. It is just that most of them have no idea they are working on the fulfillment of Jung’s dream.

Let us consider for a moment, now, where psychology and the social sciences were a century ago, when Jung began. Neurology had made a few important discoveries but did not yet understand the nature and function of the neuron. Evolution, as a theory, was established only in the most general sense; the rules that govern it were not yet guessed; and the crucial role of genetics in the process still awaited the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work with pea plants. The scientific study of animal behavior had gone little beyond the phenomenon of Clever Hans, the calculating Austrian horse. Ethology had to wait till the 1930’s when Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen established its foundations. French hypnotists like Pierre Janet had learned that the psyche is constituted by a conscious portion and an unconscious portion and that splits between them are variable and somehow related to pathological factors, possibly traumatic events. Upon this poorly defined foundation, Freud intuited a way forward, inventing a theory of psychotherapy that was compelling, controversial, and vaguely scientific-looking, but rather isolated from the scientific main stream. Jung clearly thought that Freud was on to something, but he believed such pre-scientific speculations ought to be made upon the basis of solid biological and evolutionary facts. Harvard psychologist, J. Allan Hobson, says:

It was owing to the initially slow growth of neurobiology that psychoanalysis diverged from the experimental tradition. And it is owing to the currently explosive growth of the brain sciences that a reunification of psychoanalysis and experimental psychology may now be contemplated. … (J. A. Hobson, 1988, 24)

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, itself, required almost a century of debate before rough agreement was reached. Darwin had had the kernel of the theory for a good two decades without publishing a word of it, until Alfred Russell Wallace hit upon the same theory and forced him to “rush” his ideas into print. The Origin of Species was finally published in 1859 without a mechanism to explain how natural selection works. And, although Jean Baptiste de Lamarck and his theory of “acquired characteristics” has always been seen as Darwin’s opponent, Darwin himself did not clearly reject Lamarckism, even arguing that “information flows from the organism to its reproductive cells and from them to the next generation.” (Badcock, 2000: 38-40) The “modern synthesis” of genetics and natural selection was not forged until the 1920s and 30s. The final piece of the puzzle was supplied in 1953 – nearly 100 years after Darwin’s initial publication – when James Watson and Francis Crick established the structure of DNA, and the science of “molecular biology” began.

Thus the foundation that Jung was looking for and that psychology needed was not established until Jung was seventy-eight years old. Complaints that some of his statements about the inheritance of the archetypes have a Lamarckian flavor, therefore, appear to be unfair in view of the fact that no one was clear on the meaning of natural selection until long after the theory of the archetypes had been promulgated.

The scientific hopes of psychologists, however, did not await these developments; and they certainly did not follow Jung. Lacking a dependable biological foundation, social scientists developed what has come to be known as the “Standard Social Science Model,” which assumed that biology had little effect upon human behavior. Animals were moved biologically, by their instincts, while human behavior was determined by culture. We were born knowing nothing, our mind a “blank slate.” Behaviorism aspired to be a science as clean and hard as physics, and to be free of the stickiness of biology.

The Darwinian social science of recent decades, however, agrees with Jung. It is not a question of nature or nurture (genes alone or experience alone). Rather, everything is both. We inherit the structures that make our experience what it is. But the structure itself is “empty,” and each human culture “fills” it with its own specific adaptations.

Not Jung, but Robin Fox, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, said: “We are equipped with innate propensities that require environmental input for their realization.” (Fox, 1989: 45) Fox insists that no account of the human condition can be taken seriously if it ignores the five million years of natural selection that have made us what we are, and he lists more than twenty patterns human society would be sure to manifest if some new Adam and Eve, were to propagate new generations of humans in a universe parallel to ours. These would be archetypal realities, passed on through DNA, and expressed in distinctive neuronal tracts in the brain. They would include customs and laws regarding property, incest, marriage, kinship, and social status; myths and legends; beliefs about the supernatural; gambling, adultery, homicide, schizophrenia, and the therapies to deal with them. (Ibid., 22) Jung said pretty much the same things eighty years ago. He did not do the research, and he did not know many who agreed with him. He just had a damn good hunch.

Ultimately, it is not enough that Jung dreamed the dream science was dreaming and did so with prescience. For science does more than dream; it tests and refines the hypotheses it conjures up. Hunches always lead the way; but testing keeps them viable. A theory of archetypes risks becoming nothing more than a “folk theory of psychology” if its consilience with other fields in the grand Darwinian synthesis is not tended to.

Consilience is the key. When theories are consilient with an era’s reigning paradigms, they may be taken seriously by other specialists and by the intelligent public. “Exotic” theories, those that appear untestable – even if they speak the truth – have to be held in mental brackets. We say they have “their own sort of truth,” the kind that lives in the world of hunches and mystical transports. A “folk psychology” lives outside the mainstream of cultural and intellectual discussion and devotes itself to private, “interior” experience. Often it prides itself on speaking an almost secret language. Eugene Taylor, has made a strong argument that folk psychology is exactly what our Jungian project is. In America, it belongs to a long “shadow” tradition going back as far as the revivalism of early eighteenth century, and including Quakers, Swedenborgians, Christian Science, and Esalen. By “folk psychology,” Taylor means “a mythic and visionary language of immediate experience … usually some form of depth psychology” whose “function is the evolution and transformation of personality,” encompassing themes “of deepest, highest, and ultimate concern. …” (Taylor, 1999: 15)

Although it can hardly be denied that Taylor has accurately described much of what Analytical Psychology has become – and even what Jung deliberately crafted – Jung’s aspirations for Complex Psychology are rather different. A psychology that reshapes the cultural dialogue rather than shunning it – the sort of psychology that both Freud and Jung dreamed of creating – has only two options open to it: seducing the world or joining the conversation. The seduction ploy works when a new cultural force manages to lure culture down new pathways with new language, new metaphors and new rituals. Psychoanalysis tried this course first, and succeeded marvelously. But it never completely shed the suspicion that it was just a damn good set of hunches rather than a self-evident truth, a transparent description of reality. Today, the seduction is faltering, the affair is cooling off. Cultural forces that persist for centuries generally do so by joining the conversation – if not right from the beginning, then eventually.

Analytical Psychology runs the risk not only of becoming a “folk theory” of psychology but of becoming a “mystery religion.” Two millennia ago, underground religions kept alive a vast reservoir of wisdom – about morality, consciousness changing and the spiritual life. Many of us believe we are doing the same thing today, and very likely we are not deluding ourselves. But adherents of a mystery religion cut themselves off from the mainstream cultural dialogue and agree to speak a different language. They may even delight in the numinosity of that language, and they may right to do so; for such words and such metaphors may harbor a great wisdom.

It seems that Jung foresaw this dilemma seventy years ago, when he was making all those efforts to “fish out from the ocean of specialist science all the facts and knowledge that are of general interest and make them available to the educated public.” He must have seen that Analytical Psychology was in danger of becoming an alternative worldview, something destined to live underground like the mystery religions of late antiquity. He tried repeatedly to contribute to the cultural conversation, to found a Complex Psychology that belonged under the evolutionary tent, talking the language and using the metaphors that the wider world uses.

Archetypal hypotheses may someday become testable; but if so, the tests will likely be performed in the laboratories or digs or observation centers of other academic specialties working under the cultural umbrella of evolutionary science. Complex Psychology will go right on “borrowing knowledge from others.” In the few minutes remaining to me, I would like to sketch in a very general way some of the things such a borrowing program might hope to accomplish.

First, we need a paradigmatic archetype to let the world know what we are talking about; and we would be well-advised to choose one that is familiar, easily defined, easy to observe, and broadly studied. I propose the language archetype; for it unleashes an amazing cascade of effects quite suddenly around the age of three years. Archetypes give us the capacity to learn some things rather than others, to learn some things more quickly and easily than others, and to learn some things at some times and other things at other times. The language archetype guides the infant’s attention to its parents’ loquacity and enables it to learn vocabulary, grammar, and syntax with amazing speed and without special effort. By this means, each of us learns a mother tongue. And it makes no difference whether it is English or Mandarin. Language is the archetype; while English and Arabic are cultural variants. The learning of language itself is “a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains … [much as] spiders spin webs because they have spider brains, which give them the urge to spin and the competence to succeed.” (Pinker, 1994, 18) No chimpanzee or dolphin that has been taught a kind of sign language ever grasps the most elementary notion of grammar or syntax. After years of training, they are no match for a three-year-old human infant. Lacking a language archetype, other mammals have to learn these things with their “general intelligence.”

Furthermore, the language archetype does not simply enable us to imitate what we hear spoken around us. “Children actually reinvent it, generation after generation – not because they are taught … but because they cannot help it.” (Ibid., 32) The evidence for invention lies in the difference between a pidgin language and a creole. A pidgin has almost no grammar and a very small vocabulary. A small child who hears only pidgin in infancy will spontaneously invent a grammar for it. The child will invent a full-fledged language, what is called a creole. And this is true whether the child is learning spoken language or sign language.

Language, therefore, perfectly coincides with how we Jungians would expect an archetypal behavior pattern to develop. We would expect, also, to find brain circuits that are devoted to language; and they have been identified: the Sylvian fissure, that divides the frontal and temporal lobes on the left side of the cortex and connects Broca’s area with Wernicke’s area. DNA studies have not yet identified the patterns in our genes that can account for these regularities in our brains; but in one form or another, they must be there. There can be no doubt that language emerges from millions of simple biological processes that, at bottom, are controlled by the genes.

Clearly language is rooted in the biology of the body. We also need to know how rooted it is in our history: how it evolved, and what our ancestors did before they could talk. Probably the most widely accepted theory is Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (1996). Dunbar argues that the primary evolutionary strategy of primates is sociality. Primates can survive in a world prowled by carnivorous predators only by living in large groups. But life inside large groups of primates is also dangerous. Members steal from and harass one another. Therefore, each member must keep track of everybody else’s relationships, jockey for position in the hierarchy, and cultivate friendships as a protection against bullies and cliques.

Friendships and alliances are made and maintained through grooming. And as brain size increased over the course of evolution, group size did the same. Individuals became progressively safer from predators but required larger and larger grooming circles, and brains large enough to keep track of more and more troop members. Indeed, if at some point our hominid ancestors had not learned language, we humans would be required to spend upwards of 40% of each of our days grooming one another. Thus Dunbar calculates that somewhere around 500,000 years ago, we learned to gossip and thus to groom one another more efficiently. Gossip is still, today, the main use we make of language.

From a Darwinian perspective, then, an archetype is a species- universal response pattern that automatically directs our attention to certain things and thereby structures our world of experience and enables us to learn some very complicated things quickly and easily. It always involves circuits of neurons in the brain that, in principle, can be identified using functional imagining techniques, and ideally traced to stretches of DNA. Furthermore, precursors of any human archetype, like language, should be demonstrable in our primate relatives.

In the longer version of this paper, I have pursued this project by outlining three more archetypal structures of the human psyche: one by which we immediately grasp the general principles behind physics; another that adapts us to the world of living beings, a sort of innate grasp of biology; and finally sociality in a broader sense than just discussed, namely our innate propensity for politics and morality. Precursors of all three of these archetypal patterns can be pursued – not only into our hominid and primate relatives, but into mammals more generally, and birds – sometimes even to such invertebrate species as insects.

But when we pursue these lines of thought, we discover how difficult it is to define an archetype and set boundaries that distinguish it from others. What we find are patterns within patterns within patterns. Some overlap with others, and some are nested inside others. We encounter in the various fields of evolutionary biology the same principles that Jung uncovered in his study of symbols. They are “complexities” that spill over into one another, and are contained in larger complexities.

Consider for a moment dam-building among beavers: surely it is as “guided” a pattern of behavior as hive-building among honey bees, but far more flexible. For although beaver dams are all pretty much alike, each is designed to solve a particular set of riverine problems with available resources. In a highly detailed story, Donald R. Griffin (1992: 87-100) describes the frantic but well-organized work one colony of beavers did to salvage part of a dam that had been severely damaged by human vandals. As their pond was draining fast, the beavers attempted three or four repair schemes that failed, and ended by assisting humans who were erecting a wall of rocks upstream from the dam. The beavers plugged gaps between the rocks with mud, using the same technique they would have used on their own dam of branches, had it been salvageable. They managed to save about half of their pond.

The beavers reveal a wonderful understanding of the physical science of dam building. In some way or other, they realized that the crucial element in the emergency was the loss of the water that had been held back to form a pond, and they knew how it was escaping. Very likely the dam-building archetype makes them especially sensitive to small regions of fast-moving water as it pours through holes in the dam, and gives them a sense of urgency in plugging such holes. But to apply their mud-daubing techniques to the rock pile the humans were assembling shows a real leap in understanding the problem: regardless of the state of the dam, the first order of business must be to save the pond; and regardless of past human treachery, these particular humans appear to be on our side.

I have borrowed this story is to illustrate how many different sorts of pattern are involved: the physics of dam building, the sociality of cooperation, and the complexity of relating with another species, to name just three. These are the same sorts of things humans have to master to build an Olympic Village in Athens. The essential difference is that we use our language skills to analyze problems in advance, work out the mathematics of engineering, and draft contracts that specify obligations, rewards, and penalties. At bottom, though, our understanding of physics and sociality is not so different from that of the beaver. It is guided by inherited structures that have been honed by natural selection.

To get ahead of the beavers and chimpanzees, our ancestors had to learn that language could be used for more than gossip. They had, for example, to start talking about the stone tools they had been making for millions of years. Steven Mithen, in The Prehistory of the Mind (1996), has developed a widely respected argument that the modern human mind emerged in the High Paleolithic, some 40,000 years ago, when language allowed our ancestors to integrate the fundamental four archetypes of gossip, sociality, physics, and biology. The evidence for this claim is, among other things, the appearance of specialized weapons to hunt specific animals, and of art objects. The most spectacular evidence of human creativity, however, is surely the abundance of painted caves, like Altamira and Les Trois Freres. (Clottes & Lewis-Williams, 1998) More than three hundred such caves have been found-out of probably thousands. The most convincing theories about their meaning and purpose are based on two impressive facts: (1) each cave complex appears to have been planned as a dramatic whole designed to have a consciousness-changing effect upon its visitors, and (2) the paintings portray the classic stages of trance experience.

As soon as the human mind was able to put together the archetypes of physics, natural science, sociality, and language, our ancestors began doing everything better. More strategy in hunting, a greater variety of weapons, figures carved in stone, and fantastic scenes painted on the walls of caves. When they recorded the moon’s phases in the notches they carved on bones, they had already begun to contemplate the greater cosmos of slowly turning star clusters and saw that it is related to what happens here below. (Marshack, 1972/91) They became aware of what they were doing and curious as to its meaning. Finally, they learned that human consciousness is variable, capable of an assortment of trance states, in each of which the cosmos assumes a different form. No sooner did they learn they had a consciousness, but they found it could be altered. No sooner did they learn that talk did not have to be gossip, than they began to explore scientific and religious ideas.

The four human archetypes I have discussed, here, are not what usually comes to our Jungian minds when the topic of archetypes comes up. Probably they seem too ordinary and not very relevant for analysts working day-in and day-out with analysands. But the groundwork has been laid. Darwinian science has begun to do the research, and the scientific world is beginning to appreciate how the mind that painted those Ice Age caves is the same one that lands data-gathering robots on Mars and raises Kundalini.

I think we should know these things and make use of them. We may find, for instance, that we have been assuming a sound archetypal grounding for claims that are not at all consilient with evolutionary science. Take Jung’s reputation for being a Nazi sympathizer. I think Deirdre Bair (2003) probably has it about right in showing that Jung confirmed everyone’s worst assumptions every time he denied he was a Nazi and then hastened to add that the Jewish psyche is archetypally distinct from the Christian. True enough, two millennia separate these two cultural forms. But 2000 years are nothing for evolution. Evolutionists tell us we have not undergone any evolutionary change since at least the last Ice Age. Four million years have adapted us for hunting and gathering. What separates such newcomers as Christians and Jews is not archetype but culture. Both have the same empty archetypal forms of language and theology, but each is filled with different cultural details. The Darwinian paradigm may force us to rethink a few things, but it will firm up our foundations.


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