Freud and Darwin: The Evolution of Speculative Science

It is fitting that Sigmund Freud was born a generation later than Charles Darwin, because Freud does not just build on Darwin’s work in regards to the theories of natural selection, but also in regards to the spirit behind the work.

Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution relied heavily on the assertion of a hypothesis that was not the simplest answer to the question of where do species come from. Where his peers concluded that there was no more logical answer than the spontaneous emergence of individual species, Darwin considered the observations, records, and data collected from his trip around the world and chose to suggest the existence of a state of nature that he could not actually see, but that would more completely describe natural history. For his work, his peers lauded his mind, but often rejected his results, citing the ease of believing their own pre-existing theories that did not rely on filling in the blanks of natural history. Darwin’s contemporaries did not see how anyone could speculate so broadly, and still conduct fruitful science. For them, science required drawing logical conclusions from precise observations; if you could not specifically see the behavior or phenomena you were discussing, you could not assume its existence.  It was only after being given sufficient time to review Darwin’s work and the robustness of his proposed theories, that some other scientists in the nineteenth century began to voice their agreement with Darwin, accepting that his speculative approach did not violate the tenants of good science.

However, Darwin’s influence on the physical and even the social sciences became more and more apparent as time progressed into the 20th Century. During the period from 1900-1930, science, as a whole, began to advance rapidly, with more and more figures taking up Darwin’s mantle of theorizing on what could not be directly observed. This acceptance of the theoretical was crucial for the acceptance of Freud’s own work. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud acknowledges as much when he writes:

But have we any right to assume that the original type of feeling survives alongside the later one which has developed from it?

Undoubtedly we have: there is nothing unusual in such a phenomenon, whether in the. psychological or in other spheres. Where animals are concerned, we hold the view that the most highly developed have arisen from the lowest. Yet we still find all the simple forms alive today. The great saurians are extinct and have made way for the mammals, but a typical representative of them, the crocodile, is still living among -4- us. The analogy may be too remote, and it is also weakened by the fact that the surviving lower species are not as a rule the true ancestors of the present-day more highly developed types. The intermediate members have mostly died out and are known to us only through reconstruction. (3-4).

As Freud acknowledges in his reference to reconstruction, he needs his readers to accept the premise that they can intellectually rebuild the structures and instances that he is describing. He needs them follow him in speculation. Without a willingness to speculate on the unobservable, Freud’s theories of the mind, from which he extrapolates his theories on the evolution of culture and society are cannot seem even the least bit reasonable, as we have no way to actually see what is occurring in the mind; we have no way to make precise measurements or draw definitive conclusions. The leaps of faith that Freud is asking us to make may not be as large as Darwin’s, but they are there none-the-less, demonstrating an increase in the acceptance of speculation in science, but also the ways in which scholars and scientists like Freud continued to challenge conventions in their fields. In accepting Darwin and his methodologies, which is to say accepting and pushing the limits of speculation, Freud was able to push psychology towards the more scientific and biology driven field it is today. To some degree, it would be fair to call Freud the Darwin of Psychology because of the ways in which he challenged the assumptions of his peers.

The ironic twist here, though, is that in the evolution of Darwin’s acceptance in the scientific community, culminating in Freud’s use of Darwin as a justification for speculating on the mind, his work is used more and more frequently to support off-base science. As we know, many of Freud’s theories were debunked as Psychology developed into a more precise and accurate science. So, even while Freud is very much the spiritual successor of Darwin, we can see the potential problems for science that arose out of the reasonable use of speculation to develop theories that were proven to be untrue later. Today, science still grapples with this problem in the public sphere, where unproven theories make it hard for some individuals to accept what the scientific community did over a century ago: natural selection.