People get very busy with their theories. Examples of this are all around us. Free Market true believers say any restraint of trade is bad economics. Social Darwinist conservatives suggest disadvantaged groups like poor people simply have trouble competing in the human jungle. Many addiction specialists firmly believe that once someone has used drugs, alcohol, sex, or gambling in out-of-control ways, they can never safely use them again.
This is not to say that free markets are bad, social Darwinism doesn’t have any validity, or that the vast majority of addicts need recovery and abstinence to lead healthy lives. The point is that credible new information—information we can sense and replicate—should trump theory and guide further inquiry. For instance:
We know effective financial and trade regulation slows down corruption and stabilizes markets, curtailing disastrous fluctuations and corporate rip-offs. Let’s expand the idea of a free market to include judicious oversight and regulation.
We know that each dollar invested in children under three saves many dollars later in reduced welfare and justice system costs. Let’s find the most effective interventions for young families and invest in the future by informed and wise spending in the present.
Some addiction studies show thirty percent of alcoholics who try to stop drinking find sobriety and life renewal through AA. Let’s study AA to find out why a twelve-step, spiritually oriented recovery program is so popular and effective.
Seventy percent of recovering alcoholics get sober in ways other than joining AA. How do they do it? Let’s expand our understanding of human addiction and recovery.
When you can’t alter theoretical perspectives in the face of new knowledge, you risk missing major scientific discoveries and advances. One of my favorite examples of this is how Sigmund Freud missed discovering epigenetics by dissing Finnish anthropologist Edward Westermarck.
The ballad of Sigmund and Edward.
Freud based much of psychoanalytic theory on the Oedipus Complex. If you are not a fan of psychoanalytic theory (I have a love/hate relationship myself), the Oedipus Complex says sons desire mothers’ exclusive libidinous attention, leading to competition and hostility with fathers. Contrary to some popular, lubricious assumptions, “Libidinous attention” means primary affection/touching/intimate-relationship connections more than actual sexual contact.
Freud used only around twenty-five case histories to generate almost all of of his theories—a ridiculously small number of mostly women drawn from a very specific Viennese upper middle class post-Victorian repressive society. In this ultra-repressed group with little or no language for emotion and sexuality, all kinds of conflicted sexual energies roiled within family systems, and lots of warped childhood memories ensued (remember, memories are constructed from details from the past—constructions that are sometimes only loosely connected to what actually happened).
Freud’s treatment—psychoanalysis, the “talking cure”—allowed these conflicted women and men to share their most shameful secrets in an accepting intimate relationship with analysts trained to listen and not critically judge. Not surprisingly, these patients’ life stories tended to change for the better as they were listened to and loved, and they seemed to become more healthy, engaged people. Modern research shows that the helping alliance with a therapist is twice as important to positive growth as method of treatment, and Freud pioneered the helping relationship as central to treatment for emotional distress.
Sigmund Freud concluded from his up-tight Viennese clients that culture constricts us to hate ourselves for angry and lustful yearnings, but also protects us from primitive sexual and aggressive impulses. Central to psychoanalytic theory is the assumption that culture imposes order on unruly drives and impulses—especially sex and aggression.
A contemporary of Freud, Finnish anthropologist Edward Westermarck, was interested in how children really related with family members around sexuality. Rather than theorize from adult memories and associations as Freud did, he studied developing infants, toddlers, children, and their families. Westermarck observed that children raised in close proximity starting before the age of thirty-one months were rarely if ever interested in being sexual with each other, and that incestuous contact between parents and children was generally repugnant to humans. Westermarck reported this in The History of Human Marriage published in 1891. His results were subsequently cross-validated in all primates and in several human cultures (like boat people in China and Kibutzim in Israel) where children raised together before thirty-one months avoided sexual contact. The obvious conclusion from his data was that humans are genetically primed to react to specific experiences to create long-lasting preferences. The science of Epigenetics studies how we are genetically primed to be certain ways, but only if we have specific experiences that evoke the genetic expression of certain genes. Thus genes are the trigger for certain behavioral tendencies, but experience is the finger that has to pull that trigger for a trait to manifest.
Epigenetics is based on the mind-blowing discovery that many genes need specific experiences to be activated—even to express complex behaviors like incest taboos (which we share with all mammals). Each one of us possesses approximately thirty-five thousand genes surrounded by one-to-two million epigenetic markers. These epigenetic markers determine which genes turn on and turn off depending on experience. Many epigenetic markers need specific experiences to cue them to activate genes—like little kids raised together don’t want to be lovers later in life. Understanding epigenesis is one of the top advances in genetics in the last hundred years.
How Freud blew it.
Freud and his contemporary psychoanalysts dismissed Westermarck’s work out of hand. They were contemptuous of his beliefs that behaviors as complex as incest taboos could have genetic involvement, and clearly didn’t want to expand their theories to account for such apparently contradictory data. The Oedipus complex depended on incestuous impulses in families. If there were natural forces discouraging incest, then the libidinal theory of ego and superego wrestling constantly with id demands was suspect. Rather than have the courage to expand into the new data, Freud and his posse dissed Westermarck.
Big mistake, Sigmund.
And this mistake was partially driven by Western culture. In the nineteenth century the natural sciences like biology, botany, and chemistry rigorously put observations over theory in most cases. If you observed exceptions to your rules, you had to change your rules. The social sciences like economics, sociology, and now psychology—unable to rigorously (and persuasively) apply scientific methods because of the ridiculous number of variables in peoples’ behavior—put theories over observation. A great example is the economic theory of Marx, which sounded fair and wonderful and made great sense to social idealists, but created catastrophic economies that destroyed wealth and horribly oppressed workers.
Until the last part of the twentieth century, social science conferences were more often characterized by arguments about theory that examinations of facts. Freud—who studied the brains of crayfish and lampreys for twenty years before he shifted his attention—got into the metaphoric theoretical realms of psychoanalytic theory because the technology of his day failed miserably in exploring the neurobiology of human feelings and behaviors. He had no fMRI scans, CAT scans, PET scans, or even EEG scans, to look into how the brain really worked. Thus he created psychoanalytic theory—a construction of metaphors—as a social science, and unconsciously felt entitled to the luxury of blowing off facts if they messed with his theory—apparently forgetting his neurophysiology, natural science roots.
If Freud had embraced Westermarck’s findings and attempted to reconcile them with his own observations (asking the generous, relevant—and, according to Ken Wilber, the ultimate Integral—question, “under what conditions can both of us be right?”), it would have led him toward the idea that multiple forces influence development. What forces? We’ve found a bunch of them, but I’m sure there are more—all beautiful and complex, no doubt. Some examples are:
Instinctual drives like sexuality and aggression influence relationships, are the foundations of cultural prohibitions like incest taboos, and are profoundly influenced by genetic predispositions.
Genetic predispositions can take different forms depending on the experiences of infants and children, not exclusively through learning, but through the actual activation of genes.
Over time, these different forms cumulatively become cultures, which in turn significantly influence development of people in those cultures.
If Freud had turned his considerable synthesizing powers on reconciling his Oedipal theory and Westermarck’s data, he might have discovered the whole field of epigenetics, where different genes can have different expressions depending upon the experiences of developing children, and especially their interpersonal experiences in families. Even more, he would have hastened the reintegration of social and natural sciences that has been finally occurring these last thirty or forty years.
Discovering epigenesis would have been huge for Freud. He spent the first twenty years of his professional life more or less futilely studying crayfish and lamprey nervous systems, desperate to make the kind of earthshaking breakthroughs in neurobiology that Darwin had made in evolution, and Pasteur in microbiology. It never happened, and Freud never made it big in the natural sciences. Maybe he became so frustrated with natural science that he passive-aggressively blew it off and went to the dark side where data doesn’t count if it contradicts your theory. He had the knowledge, the data, and the historical moment, and let his attachment to his system—his egoic investment in not changing anything about his beautiful theories—blind him to the facts.
Strangely for the father of ego, superego, and id, it was apparently ego that stopped him from expanding his system into genetics—and possibly epigenetics—to reconcile Westermarck’s findings with his clinical experiences and theoretical biases.
To me this is a cautionary tale. I’ve found apparent contradictions to be the most likely to lead to new breakthroughs, if I’m open to changing my beliefs.
That’s why theory should always adjust to valid data, and how ego made Freud miss the boat.