Thomas T. Lawson: Jung and evolutionary science

The Evolution of Consciousness


I would like to think of my book, Carl Jung: Darwin of the Mind, as offering a useful primer for the non-specialist who wishes to gain a general understanding of Jung. I also have, however, another objective: that of placing Jungian thought within the context of contemporary evolutionary science.

Much can be learned about a thing from its history. As Jung pointed out, “we have no reason to suppose that the specific structure of the psyche is the only thing in the world that has no history” (Jung,  Conscious, unconscious, and individuation). As to the collective unconscious, Jung supplied such a history. Jung believed that the collective unconscious evolved in humans, just as instincts evolved. Instincts have no palpable constituents like a leg or a tail. Yet, as Jung made the point, where a species has developed sharp claws and shearing teeth, we might expect to find a natural ferocity to go with them (Evans).

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Jung found in the collective unconscious a disposition to throw off images in response to certain conditions. Long before the onset of what we would recognize as consciousness, these images evoked a psychic response in evolving humans in reaction to internal or external stimuli. Dispositions to produce images calculated to trigger successful responses were preserved in the human genome through natural selection. It is to be observed that it is not the images themselves that are genetically preserved, but a disposition to produce images that relate to situations that naturally recur in the course of human experience. Jung labelled as ‘archetypes’ inherited dispositions to produce images of a particular character. He saw them as the “structural” elements of the collective unconscious.

The postulate of a collective unconscious as the product of natural selection offers much in the way of an explanation of the underlying operations of the psyche. But what of consciousness? Jung grasped the close relation between conscious processes and the image-forming capacity of the collective unconscious. He had found that to a large extent consciousness is driven by images whose source lies in the unconscious, and this relationship suggested to him that consciousness evolved out of the collective unconscious.

Prefigurations of consciousness must have been around for many thousands of years, but it is clear that in the last five or six thousand years consciousness has expanded in remarkable ways. After the last Ice Age, humans all over the world were much the same. They were, without exception, hunter-gatherers. However intricately elaborated the social structures of various groups might have been, they were worked out within the limitations of that mode of economy. Human consciousness is reflected in culture, and the scope available to culture was quite restricted by the demands of survival within environments over which humans exercised but little control.

Human-EvolutionBy contrast, since the inception of agriculture and stockbreeding around 9500 to 9000 BCE, humans have developed widely varied civilizations all around the globe. We have attained to a great deal of practical understanding of the world around us, and that has borne as its fruit a stupendous technological accomplishment, and perhaps some refinement in manners. It cannot be denied that people today generally represent a substantial advance in holding an objective grasp of the world around them – a thing that can be readily associated with a fuller consciousness – over people of earlier societies. As Jung put it, “The man whose sun still moves round the earth is essentially different from the man whose earth is a satellite of the sun.” (Jung, Analytical psychology and ‘Weltanschaung’).

It is logical that consciousness evolved – that it did not spring forth fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus – at some point in human evolution. And it is at least plausible that advances in sophistication in human cultures, producing an increasingly realistic apprehension of the objective world, would mark in some fashion the progress of that evolution. But, it is at the same time clear that such progress could not have occurred on an evolutionary time-scale. Genetic change through natural selection is the work of millennia, whereas the human genome has been essentially in place since the end of the last Ice Age.

Inasmuch as there is no wherewithal for consciousness to have significantly altered through hereditable changes in the collective unconscious from that time to this, we are forced to conclude either that consciousness has remained essentially static since that time or that consciousness has evolved in some non-genetic way. Many would, no doubt, happily embrace the former view. Yet one must acknowledge that undeniable advances in the way humans relate to external reality have occurred since the time when all humans were hunter-gatherers. One need merely contrast the impressive objectivity of the contemporary scientific apprehension of the natural world with the pervading superstition that shaped the world even of Newton. If one’s life is conducted in large measure according to superstition, without one’s being so much as aware of that fact, then one can lay at best a dubious claim to a developed over-all consciousness. We are compelled to confront, therefore, the likelihood that consciousness, while it could not have done so through genetic change, has evolved in some way since the Pleistocene.

Tool/spacecraft evolution from Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'

Tool/spacecraft evolution from Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

The collective unconscious, we have suggested, evolved genetically over millions of years and arrived at more or less its present state before civilizations began to flourish. But Jung further postulated that the archetypes of the collective unconscious continue to present themselves in new ways to consciousness. Therefore, consciousness potentially has the wherewithal to leap forward from time to time, spurred by new ways of responding to the archetypes. Such leaps would have their inception, entirely in the minds of individuals. When the extraordinary individual, blessed (or cursed) with a radical new insight, dies, the insight itself – the new way of looking at the world – would likewise perish, except for one thing: the breakthrough might have been effectively communicated to the group. The group might in turn preserve it, and the means of preservation would be, in broad terms, education. In early times the new psychic acquisition was incorporated into the myths and rituals of the tribe and passed through them to posterity. Now, of course, we have many additional ways of preserving the ideas that stamp our culture.

Though the preservation in culture of certain felicitous encounters between the extraordinary individual and the archetypes, we have a mechanism whereby consciousness might evolve. The mechanism is directly analogous to genetic evolution and operates according to the basic formula of natural selection: replication (through education), subject to variation (the new idea of the extraordinary individual), selected according to environmental fitness (of cultural orientation). Such a mechanism would enable humans to experiment with a wide array of social forms, fast-forwarding, as it were, the evolutionary process. Typically it is a rare and difficult thing for a fundamental change in the social organization of a species to transpire; what is involved, in species other than Homo sapiens, is essentially the progression to a new species. I posit that, with the advent of consciousness, there developed in humans a new sort of evolution, an evolution, not through genetic selection, but through selection among archetypically grounded ideas as expressed in culture.

Thomas T. Lawson is author of Carl Jung: Darwin of the Mind (Karnac Books)



Evans, R. I. (1964). Conversations with Carl Jung. Princeton: Van Nostrand.

Jung, C. G. (1960)[1931]. Analytical psychology and ‘Weltanschaung’.  C. W. 8: 358-381, R. F. C. Hull (Trans.). London: Routlege & Kegan Paul.

Jung, C. G. (1959)[1939]. Conscious, unconscious, and individuation.  C. W. 9(i): 273-289, R. F. C. Hull (Trans.). London: Routlege & Kegan Paul.

Structure of Dante's Inferno, by Sandro Botticelli (1480-90). According to Jung, hell represents, within every culture, the disturbing aspect of the collective unconscious.

Structure of Dante’s Inferno, by Sandro Botticelli (1480-90). According to Jung, hell represents, within every culture, the disturbing aspect of the collective unconscious.

One thought on “Thomas T. Lawson: Jung and evolutionary science

  1. Pingback: Collective Unconsciousness: Exploring the Deepest Layer of our Psyche (Jungian Philosophy) – Fractal Enlightenment

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