Malcolm Owen Slavin and Daniel Kriegman (1992).
The Adaptive Design of the Human Psyche:
Psychoanalysis, Evolutionary Biology, and the Therapeutic Process.
New York: Guilford Press, 1992.

Many have dreamed of building a bridge between Darwin and Freud (including Freud himself) ... Slavin and Kriegman have now stepped forward with a brilliantly argued book linking [these] two Worlds ... Their treatment of the biology is expert; indeed they render the biological work in a new psychological form.  This book is sophisticated in its evolutionary thinking and rich in therapeutic detail ... [The authors] have shown in depth and in detail how to critique and transform psychoanalytic thinking using evolutionary logic.

From the Foreword by Robert Trivers, Ph.D., Professor of Biology, University of California, Santa Cruz

[A] landmark in the field of psychoanalysis. ...  [T]he fear of simplistic reductionism, of "biologizing" psychodynamic phenomena, and the formidably different languages of biology and psychoanalysis have conspired to keep these fields apart.  Slavin and Kriegman eloquently argue that even the most hermaneutic tradition incorporates implicit assumptions about human nature.  Thoroughly scholarly and professional, yet lucidly accessible, this is essential reading for anyone interested in the psychodynamics of the mind.

Irven DeVore, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University

Reviewed by Don Greif, Ph.D.
Newsletter of the Massachussetts Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology

The Adaptive Design of the Human Psyche: Psychoanalysis, Evolutionary Biology and the Therapeutic Process, by Malcolm Slavin and Daniel Kriegman, is a profound and creative work and an awesome accomplishment. The fact that it is brilliant is almost beside the point. For what Slavin and Kriegman have accomplished in this book is that they have come as close as anyone writing from a psychoanalytic point of view has ever come to capturing the essential nature of the human condition. They have provided a highly compelling and lucid description of human nature, in all of its complexity and paradoxicalness, that is inspiring and moving. It is also hard to read. But, and this is an understatement, it is well worth the effort. I can almost guarantee that you will be richly rewarded if you invest the time and energy necessary to understand what Slavin and Kriegman are saying. They use an adaptive theoretical framework, one which is largely based on contemporary evolutionary biology, as a vantage point from which to critically examine the basic premises about human nature which are contained within each of the two major psychoanalytic paradigms -- the classical and relational narrative traditions. Using an evolutionary framework, they elucidate the two narratives -- respective assumptions about the nature of the human psyche and of the relational world, and they reveal the important truths about human nature and the psyche contained within each tradition.

Through a process of examining and deconstructing important metaphors from both classical and relational traditions (repression, endogenous drives, and the true self) into their basic meanings, and then reconstructing those meanings into an evolutionary narrative, Slavin and Kriegman provide a new paradigm for psychoanalysis, one that synthesizes the essential truths contained in each narrative into a comprehensive framework or whole. The new evolutionary narrative which results appears to embrace, in a way that has not been achieved before, the inherently valid pieces of each narrative tradition. The evolutionary narrative which results from this synthesis depicts human beings, according to Slavin and Kriegman, "as innately individualistic and innately social; as endowed with inherently selfish, aggressively self-promoting aims, as well as an equally primary altruistic disposition toward those whose interests we share. We are, in short, never destined to attain the kind of highly autonomous individuality enshrined in the classical tradition, nor are we the "social animal" of the relational vision. We are essentially "semisocial" beings whose nature, or self-structure and motivational system, is inherently divided between eternally conflicting aims." (p. 281)

Since Slavin and Kriegman use an evolutionary framework to evaluate the validity of the basic premises of the classical and relational models, one must wonder about the validity of evolutionary theory itself. It seems that evolutionary theory has widespread acceptance and credibility within the scientific world. It is perhaps close to having attained the same status as more familiar and broadly accepted scientific theories. In the November issue of Natural History the evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond stated the following: "As for the claim that evolution is an unproved theory, that's nonsense. Evolution is a fact, established with the same degree of confidence as our 'theory' of the round earth, our 'germ theory' of disease, and the 'atomic theory' of matter. Yes, there is lively debate about the particular evolutionary mechanisms that caused particular changes, but the existence of evolutionary change is not in doubt" (p. 19).

For the purpose of evaluating Slavin and Kriegman's ideas, it is significant to note that evolutionary biological theory has a far different scientific status than psychoanalytic theory. As a scientific theory psychoanalysis has achieved little credibility in its first hundred years. It has achieved far more credibility as a method of treating psychological problems, and there its adherents consist mainly of its beneficiaries, that is, those who have gained personally from it, or from its offspring, psychoanalytic psychotherapy. It is contemporary evolutionary biological theory, largely through the work of Robert Trivers, that has vastly increased our understanding of the social environment. It is this theory that is most relevant to Slavin and Kriegman's work and to psychoanalysis, for it is understanding those forces that shape social evolution that has made it possible for Slavin and Kriegman to fulfill an aim that Freud sought but failed to achieve; mainly, to link the universal, underlying features of internal psychic structure to ancestral interpersonal experience.

Slavin and Kriegman demonstrate that those psychodynamic features that comprise our "deep structure," such as the capacities for repression, regression, and transference, have evolved over the course of millions of years as adaptations to our environment, in particular to the unique and complex realities in our social or relational environment. The complex inner design of the human psyche has been shaped by the same forces that operate within the natural world to shape living organisms, mainly those that constitute natural selection. The basic universal features of the human psyche are a result of their having conferred an adaptive advantage on our ancestors; those humans who had these features were more successful at negotiating the complex relations dilemmas and paradoxes that faced them and were more successful, ultimately, at reproducing and surviving in that social environment.

Robert Langs, in an article in the October 1993 issue of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, ("Psychoanalysis: Narrative Myth. or Narrative Science") criticizes Slavin and Kriegman for adopting a teleological position in their use of certain concepts. Referring to their conceptualization of repression as serving to safeguard aspects of an individual's "true self" so that they can be retrieved when relational conditions change, Langs states, "The ideas of a true self (all moments of selfhood are interactional in nature) and of the goal of self-actualization are teleological no matter how they are stated" (p. 580). It seems clear that Langs has not understood several central ideas in Slavin and Kriegman's book nor, it seems, has he understood evolutionary theory. Slavin and Kriegman see the existence of something like the "true self," some core, "endogenous" or independent source of motivation, not as an end in itself, but rather as a basic feature of the human psyche, part of its deep structural, adaptive design that has evolved over millions of years as a functional solution to a highly challenging and complex dilemma that has faced (and continues to face) the human child since the time of our prehuman ancestors, namely how to construct a self in a world where it is highly dependent for its identity on others whose interests not only overlap and converge but also necessarily diverge and, at times, conflict with its own. Slavin and Kriegman state, "Evolutionary theory suggests that even responsive, attuned, facilitative familial environments will inevitably be characterized by a highly ambiguous mixture of overlapping mutual interests, intrinsic conflict, and ongoing deception" (p. 121). Slavin and Kriegman believe that the "true self...may signify a dimension of our overall adaptive design...that seems to provide us with an absolutely critical source of information about our individual interests" (p. 176). In their view "a design element such as [the true self] became a critical, functional necessity."

See also Kriegman, Daniel and Charles Knight (1988). Social Evolution, Psychoanalysis, and Human Nature. Social Policy (Fall 1988): 49-55. Full text (external).



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