The Freudian Unconscious? A subversion of evolution as adaptation

Smith (2002), in “The evolution of the unconscious”, states that the Freudian unconscious consists of evolved psychological or biological propensities. In this paper, the author analyses Smith’s statement through a critical discussion of the neo-Darwinian conception of evolution as adaptation. Varela, Thompson and Rosh’s (1993) critique is outlined, and their alternative view on evolution as a sort of “natural drift” is introduced. The central idea is that living beings and their environments relate to each other through a mutual specification or codetermination, a history of structural coupling. The second part of this paper addresses the specific way in which a subject is structurally coupled with its environment through a reading of a passage in the “Project” (1950a). Here Freud discusses the helplessness that characterizes the existence of the human infant. We conclude that the psychic system emerges between the organic and the social level by interpreting the own body in function of the other. Finally the way in which Lacan’s (1977) graph of desire conceptualised the structural coupling of a subject with its environment is addressed. A reading of the graph leads to the conclusion that the unconscious consists, not of evolved but rather, of subverted biological propensities.

The evolution of the unconscious

Psychoanalysis is reconceptualized as the scientific study of conflicting biological propensities. According to neo-Darwinian theory self-deception arose as a result of an evolutionary arms race between intraspecific deception and detection amongst hominids. The evolution of self-deception modified an earlier split between conscious and unconscious mental activities. Unconscious social cognition emerged to avoid conscious overload when dealing with highly complex Machiavellian social relations. Evolutionary theory suggests that countertransference, in the classical Freudian sense of the word, is inevitable. Psychoanalytic clinical literature provides support for the hypothesis of unconscious social cognition, as does cognitive science. Evolutionary theory suggests that unconscious responses to the psychoanalytic situation should be particularly responses to modifications of the frame. A clinical example is presented.

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