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The Evolution of Psychology

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            Throughout my work in the Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories class this semester, I have applied much information from the many psychology classes I have taken as a psychology major. I believe the history of this field and its change through the years relates to the main focus of evolution of the current course. Not only is the field of psychology of particular interest to me, but this research helps to answer the question of whether or not evolution is a useful story beyond biology. The history of psychology not only portrays evolution of the field itself, but it illustrates how the concepts developed in this domain can help people with their own personal evolution.

            Philosophical theories from Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes operate as the beginnings of psychological thought. Plato’s (428-348 BC) philosophy of the body and mind involved the body as material, while the soul was immortal and ideal. Just like psychologists in later years, Plato developed a hierarchy for different aspects in life. One such feature was pleasure. The different levels were first physical pleasure, then esthetic pleasure, followed lastly by ideal pleasure or pleasure of the mind (Boeree). This philosophical hierarchy by Plato shows that evolution can be applied to psychology because it illustrates how as one develops he or she is able to appreciate events in a more advanced manner. This concept mirrors the idea of ego development, the progression of cognitive processes from simple to complex, that appears later in personality psychology (Lilgendahl, 11/11/10). Time and life experience is required for an individual to truly appreciate different aspects of their environment. As described in class, change and evolution happen over time; therefore, it is likely that personal change must happen over a period of time as well.

            Another philosopher that helped develop psychology was Aristotle (384-322 BC). He wrote the first book on psychology called Para Psyche, which is Greek for “about the mind or soul.” In this work he stated his belief that “the mind was the…primary reason for existence and functioning of the body” (Shuttleworth, 2010). This idea helps to convey that the importance of the mind in affecting human behavior was relevant even before neuroscience came into existence. Aristotle also developed theories regarding “the importance of time on the actions driving a person” (Shuttleworth, 2010). Even before the study of time was relevant in psychology, Aristotle theorized about the importance of controlling one’s behavior in the present to prevent desire or impulsive actions from leading to an “unhealthy imbalance” (Shuttleworth, 2010).

          The id, controlling for desire, and the ego, maintaining reason, were two ideas conceptualized by Aristotle (Shuttleworth, 2010). He believed these features created agreement in the mind for one’s behaviors. A person should not be completely controlled by the id, otherwise they would give into all their impulses, which was be maladaptive and inhibit evolution. However, if one only followed the ego, this would lead to a negative life because he would fail to give into his desires, which could lead to regrets. Aristotle was truly a philosopher because he performed no experimentation to support his beliefs. Despite this lack of experimentation, he helped to create the framework of psychology that led to further development. The interest in human behavior sparked by these philosophers, likely led more people to study human behavior as well, allowing for evolution of philosophy and eventually psychology.

          Many years later, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) appeared as another philosopher, questioning the interaction between the soul and body. He developed the theory of dualism, which states that there is a separation between the body and soul or mind. The mind and soul were thought to be nonmaterial, while the body is material. According to Descartes, communication between these two features of the body was through the pineal gland. His perception was that because only humans were thought two have a mind or soul, and because only humans have pineal glands, this part of the endocrine system must be the link between the body and mind (Medina, 1/20/11). Lack of experimentation and excessive theorizing led dualism to be disproven. If the theory of dualism had been true, and the mind was nonphysical, then there would have been a limited amount of ways to further explore the mind through experimentation.

            Following the concept of the Library of Babel, Descartes created the deist hypothesis, which stated that “outside the human soul and free will, all of creation works mechanically and that God designed and set it all in motion” (Boeree). This concept relates to the idea that, while people have control over their own actions through free will, they may not have power over their environment. This hypothesis could be viewed as both positive and negative in terms of agency. According to this theory, people still have their free will, allowing them to control their behavior. However, because they cannot control their environment, they lack agency in this area. This lack of control could be beneficial in terms of personal evolution because it could allow people the opportunity to learn from new, random situations, thus expanding their capabilities. If a person were to go her entire life without feeling challenged, then she would not gain critical life experience. This lack of knowledge and understanding about life would likely prevent her from evolving successfully.

            Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) emerged with new theories of the mind and body during this time period. He believed that all actions and motivations are selfish, connecting only to survival. The greatest negative emotion one could feel was fear, and the most positive emotion was a desire for power, while good and bad were merely subjective matters (Boeree). The desire for power could be interpreted in various ways. It could be considered desired power over other people or a situation, allowing a person to have agency and choose their future. These descriptions of human behavior seem to reflect natural selection in evolution. Those people who are consumed with the negative emotion of fear will never develop, while having the desire for power could drive people to survival and evolution.

            Due to Hobbes’ theory that individuals only have selfish motivations, plus the fact that good and bad are only subjective in our minds, punishments and rewards must be put into action to control human behavior. This philosophy may have been the basis for behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner’s concept of operant conditioning in 1938. Skinner believed that attitudes that are reinforced persist. Therefore, when a person received a reward they will continue with that behavior, whereas if a punishment were given the behavior would likely not be repeated (Le, 10/29/09).  

         These resultant behaviors from the punishments and rewards would help people gain social approval and avoid social reprimand. Having taken a social psychology course, I believe this concept helps to create a framework for this area of psychology. Social psychology is the study of social behavior, human perceptions, and cognition within the context of social interaction (Le, 9/09). A better understanding of expectancies, the appropriate or inappropriate behavior in a society (Boltz, 4/11), may be gained by studying social behaviors and human interaction in social psychology. Learning these expectancies and social norms may help a person to avoid ostracism. This exclusion from a group would likely inhibit one’s personal evolution because it “threatens belongingness, control, self-esteem, and meaningful existence” (Le, 12/09). Therefore, by moderating or controlling behavior, one is able to ensure they are not extremely outside of the norms of society, helping to prevent ostracism and negative opinions from others. This acceptance will likely cause a person to gain help from others in the environment, thus leading to their positive development and evolution.

            Hobbes also believed that if these structures of rewards and punishments were not in place then humans would live “a purely primitive life” (Boeree), indulging themselves and their ids, while not listening to the reason of their egos. Despite the fact that the evolution of psychology is non-foundational story that is always changing and adapting, theorists are still able to return to previous concepts of other people, just as Hobbes did when reflecting on the concepts related to Aristotle’s id and ego. I think that in evolution it is important to remember the history and progress of something and reflect on those past features that were positive and effective, as illustrated by Hobbes’ theory for controlling impulses and urges. He knew that creating rewards and punishments would cause people to learn to control themselves, which would lead to cooperation and both societal and personal evolution.

            A step towards natural science in the history of psychology was the discovery of the Edwin Smith Papyrus in 1700. This was the first medical document of a text on trauma surgery consisting of 48 different cases of brain surgery and treatment. This is the first instance in the history of psychology in which the field dealt with the actual treatment of human behavior. The different case studies help to show that observing human behavior may lead to specific treatment for the abnormal behavior. Additionally, this text included the first description of the brain, meninges (brain membranes), and cerebrospinal fluid, illustrating natural science in its most primitive form. This text helps to show that even centuries ago psychology was not a fixed, foundational story, rather this field was open to possibilities beyond philosophy as an ever-changing, non-foundational story.

Phrenology MapPhrenology Map        

Another example towards a more scientific approach to the mind involved Franz Gall in 1808. He developed the concept of phrenology, which was the belief that mental organs of the brain affect the shape of the skull due to their varying sizes. Therefore, by studying the skull shape of an individual, it was possible to study cognitive and character differences. His evidence was drawn from those people with exceptional abilities or offensive actions, such as poets, politicians or criminals (Medina, 1/11; Ward, 2010). While this theory was refuted in later years once studies of the brain became more precise, I think Gall helped psychology evolve beyond philosophy and theorizing. He used his theories and observations and applied them to a more scientific approach to the mind.

             truth, belief, knowledgeEpistemology: truth, belief, knowledge

The concept of epistemology was the turning point from philosophy to gaining a better understanding of human behavior, as introduced by James Frederick Ferrier (1808-1864) (IEP, 2001). Epistemology is the part of philosophy that asks, “how do we get beyond mere opinion to real knowledge?” (Boeree). Two components of epistemology helped to turn psychology from a humanities domain into more of a natural science through the understanding of truth (rationalism) and belief (empiricism). Rationalism was the idea of using reasoning to gain knowledge. Once initial knowledge was obtained, deduction could be utilized by using previous knowledge “to gain insight into new ideas to help obtain more complex knowledge” (Boeree). This idea is important because using prior beliefs helps in developing views of the future.

            The second feature of epistemology was empiricism or using sensory experience to gain knowledge. Generalization is the idea of taking information learned from direct observation and applying this knowledge to other aspects of life (Boeree). A young child unknowingly uses empiricism when she cries and her parents come to her aid each time. She internalizes this knowledge gained from sensory experience and will cry whenever she wants her parents. Because of generalization, this observation can be applied beyond this one case, for example to other children, animals, and in different situations. This theory of generalization has influenced my reading and conducting of psychology studies. Because psychology is the study of human behavior, its implications can be seen in everyday life. Therefore, the ability to generalize results found from a random sample of the population allows theories to be applicable to the entire population. Without empiricism and generalization, psychology would have likely failed to develop and evolve because the knowledge gained through experimentation would not have reached the general population.

           Developing a Theory (Boeree)Developing a Theory (Boeree) Through epistemology, the framework for developing a theory was created. First an induction or generalization was found, leading to a hypothesis. Observation and experimentation followed, hopefully yielding significant results and allowing for the development of a theory (Boeree). This process of experimentation helps to show how psychology progressed and evolved throughout the years, indicating it was not a foundational story. I believe that this evolution may have arisen because individuals began to question whether or not the philosophies about human behavior were true or merely ideas. Epistemology allowed psychology to expand into a more scientific realm by studying the difference between opinion and real knowledge.

            With the process for experimenting with theories in place, all that was needed was a change of how psychology was perceived by expanding this domain into a science field. Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) established the first lab dedicated to experimental psychology, testing those theories developed by philosophers in a concrete fashion. These actions led him to be considered the father of experimental psychology. Through his concrete experimentation, he developed a technique used for comparing mental events to knowable and measureable stimuli (Plucker, 2007). This method enabled him to demonstrate that the mind is an active part of the body, supporting past philosophies.

            Even though some of his theories and techniques became outdated and unused after his death, there really was no end for Wundt based on the impact he had on psychology. As discussed in class and in one of my postings, an end does not come simply because of death. Because he helped in the evolution of psychology, there is no physical end to Wundt. Promoting psychology as a science rather than a philosophy, Wundt allowed psychology to evolve further through the development of new areas of this field. These new domains of psychology included psychoanalysis, behaviorism, structuralism, Gestalt psychology, cognitive development, neuroscience, and much more.

            The psychology classes I have taken are a direct result of the evolution of psychology growing from philosophy to social and natural science. All of these courses exemplify the way in which evolution could be a useful story outside of biology, even for those rooted in social science. The study of close relationships and the evolutionary approaches to personal relationships within social psychology relate to the story of evolution. While natural selection focuses on an individual’s survival based on feeding, fighting, or fleeing, sexual selection is equally important. The components of sexual selection, successful conception, and mate retention are necessary for the species to evolve. The close relationships section of the course taught me about the adaptive problems faced by males and females. Females faced problems such as conserving and securing resources for themselves and their children, while males had to find a fertile partner and make sure the child was his. In order for evolution of the species to continue, people had to overcome these obstacles. Those individuals with the ability to solve these adaptive problems would obtain reproductive success, thus allowing for the development of the species and the individual (Le, 12/09).

            As mentioned in a previous post and web paper, the concept of ego development was an important theory that made an impact on me after learning about it in my personality psychology class. As described by Aristotle, the ego provides for reasoning; therefore, cognitive complexity increases through different stages as the ego develops from simple processing to more complex variations. There is normative change as a person grows older due to simple life experience. At a certain point in life, ego level seems to level off and form equilibrium, creating a constant view of how one would view situations or experiences. When a disequilibrating life event occurs that is not consistent with one’s ego level, a person has to move up a level in ego development that leads to increased cognitive complexity (Lilgendahl, 11/10). The more maladaptive approach would be to simply assimilate the negative situation into their sense of self. However, by experiencing negative, disequilibrating events, a person is able to evolve and grow as a person. This concept has had such a strong impact on me because there have been a number of disequilibrating events in my life, and I feel as though I have grown and evolved when faced with those negative situations. My personal growth may be considered a primary example that evolution applies to stories outside of just biology.

            While the majority of my psychology classes would be considered social science, in fact they are according to the registrar, both cognitive and behavioral neuroscience are considered to be natural science courses. Through the use of both experimentation and technology, researchers have been able to develop devices that allow for a greater understanding of the neural mechanisms behind human behavior. My cognitive neuroscience class has helped me to see that psychology is both evolving as a field and has application to the development of an individual, especially when it comes to internal models. “Sensorimotor transformations that use knowledge of the world to predict necessary forces” (Medina, 4/28/11) are internal models that are stored in the cerebellum.

            Using both empiricism and rationalism, as described by epistemology, people are able to generate predictions of a predicted sensory experience and adapt to changes in expectancies based on these internal models. For example, people generate internal models for the amount of force required to open a door. However, if a door were particularly heavy, that internal amount of force would be too little to open the door. Luckily, the cerebellum is able to adapt and learn new internal models, allowing one to readjust for the proper amount of force. Without this ability to change, people would likely to be able to perform all the tasks required in daily life. In depth studies of the brain have helped to progress psychology further into the realm of natural science.

            I was initially drawn to the psychology major because it was scientific, yet the theories and concepts were applicable to the everyday world. This everyday application is likely what intrigued the early psychology philosophers. Despite the fact that my friends think I am a psychology nerd, I take pride in being able to apply what I have learned in class to my personal behavior and human behavior in my environment, which is not as easily done for chemistry and biology majors. While chemistry and biology may be more directly applicable to natural science, it frustrates me that people fail to consider a natural science as well. This semester I did independent research in a biopsychology lab in which I was testing the effects of enrichment on pain and stress behavior. This experience helped reaffirm to myself that psychology is most definitely a natural science, as well as a social science. The history of psychology shows its progression a humanities field to a science domain, and hopefully people will come to perceive psychology this way as well. Studying psychology allows for many opportunities for future discussions and theory developments on evolution.  



Benjamin Le. Social Psychology. Haverford College. Fall 2009. 

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Epistemology Image: Retrieved from

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Jared Medina. Cognitive Neuroscience. Haverford College. Spring 2011.

Jennifer Lilgendahl. Personality Psychology. Haverford College. Fall 2010.

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