Having only dipped into this material, my first, very strong impression is that deMause’s work is not just ground-breaking but paradigm-busting. There may be flaws in his model (it’s too early for me to say – I certainly have a resistance to parts of it), but overall it strikes me as both self-evident and astonishing – what you might call “radical sense.” Frankly I think everyone who is interested in understanding both psychology and history should read this.
Segments taken from Chapter 7 of The Emotional Life of Nations, “Childhood and Cultural Evolution.”
It is when early childrearing experiences are impaired that children are forced to reduce their behavioral flexibility and are therefore as adults unable to improve their environments and experience cultural stagnation.
Problems of explaining evolution are central to all sciences, including the social sciences. Just as nothing in biology makes complete sense except in the light of [genetic] evolution, nothing in human history makes complete sense except in the light of epigenetic (psychogenic) evolution. Neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution explains all behavioral change in animals as resulting from the accretion of random variations produced by mutation, recombination and genetic drift selected as better adaptations to changing environments. But what is usually overlooked is that genetic evolution only provides the capacity for adult behavioral variations assuming a specific developmental environment.2 The road from genotype to phenotype is a long one. What trait actually appears in the mature individual depends upon the actual course of epigentic development, beginning in the womb and continuing throughout childhood an extraordinarily complex and variable journey for each individual. The most important environments are the mother’s body and behavior, and the most important competition for survival not in the sperm or ovum but at the neural level, in the brain, with the mother acting as the “agent of natural selection.”
THE “HOPEFUL DAUGHTER” AND THE PSYCHOGENIC CUL-DE-SAC
Since for most of history mothers raise boys who then go off and hunt, farm, build things and fight wars rather than directly contributing much new to the psyche of the next generation, the course of evolution of the psyche has overwhelmingly been dependent upon the way mothers have treated their daughters, who become the next generation of mothers. Since early emotional relationships organize the entire range of human behavior, all cultural traits do not equally affect the evolution of the psyche-those that affect the daughter’s psyche represent the main narrow bottleneck through which all other cultural traits must pass. The study of the evolution of the psyche depends more on developing a maternal ecology than on studying variations in the physical environment.
The evolution of the psyche and culture has been crucially dependent upon turning the weak bonds between mother and daughter of apes and early humans into genuine love for daughters (and sons). This means that historical societies that create optimal conditions for improving the crucial mother-daughter relationship by surrounding the mother with support and love soon begin to show psychological innovation and cultural advances in the next generations-so that history begins to move in progressive new directions. In contrast, societies that cripple the mother-daughter emotional relationship experience psychogenic arrest and even psychogenic devolution. Only in modern times have fathers, too, begun to contribute to the evolutionary task of growing the young child’s mind.
Paralleling the term “hopeful monster” that biologists use to indicate speciating biological variations, the idea that the mother-daughter emotional relationship is the focal point of epigentic evolution and the main source of novelty in the psyche can be called the “hopeful daughter” concept. When mothers love and support particularly their daughters, a series of generations can develop new childrearing practices that grow completely new neural networks, hormonal systems and behavioral traits. If hopeful daughters are instead emotionally crippled by a society, a psychogenic cul-de-sac is created, generations of mothers cannot innovate, epigenetic arrest is experienced and meaningful cultural evolution ends.
Because the psychogenic theory makes the individual psyche both the source of variation and the unit of selection, it posits that childhood is the central focal point of social evolution. The amount of time and resources any society devotes to its children’s needs is far more likely to be an accurate index of its level of civilization than any of the anthropological indices of complexity or energy utilization.
PSYCHOGENESIS-THE SOURCE OF EPIGENETIC VARIATION
Psychogenesis is the process of forming historically new brain networks that develop the self and produce innovation. It is a “bootstrapping” evolutionary process that occurs in the interpersonal relationships between generations. Babies begin with the need to form intensely personal relationships with their caretakers, who in turn respond with ambivalent needs to (a) use the baby as a poison container for their projections, and (b) go beyond their own childrearing and give the child what it actually needs rather than what is being projected into it. The ability of successive generations of parents to work through their own childhood anxieties the second time around is a process much like that of psychotherapy, which also involves a return to childhood anxieties and, if successful, a reworking of them with support of the therapist into new ways of looking at others and at one’s self. It is in this sense of the psychogenic process that history can be said to be a “psychotherapy of generations,” producing new epigenetic, developmental variation and-because these early emotions organize the remainder of cognitive content48 cultural evolution.
THE EVOLUTION OF PARENTING
Most parents through most of history relate to their children most of the time as poison containers, receptacles into which they project disowned parts of their psyches. In good parenting, the child uses its caretaker as a poison container-as it earlier used its mother’s placenta to cleanse its poisonous blood-the good mother reacting with calming behavior to the cries of her baby, helping it “detoxify” its anxieties. But when an immature mother’s baby cries, she cannot stand it, and strikes out at the child. As one battering mother put it, “I have never felt loved all my life. When my baby was born, I thought it would love me. When it cried, it meant it didn’t love me. So I hit him.” The child is so full of the parent’s projections that it must be tightly tied up (swaddled in bandages) for its first year to prevent it from “tearing its ears off, scratching its eyes out, breaking its legs, or touching its genitals” i.e., to prevent it from acting out the violent and sexual projections of the parents.
The child historically is usually either experienced as a persecutory parent (“When he screams he sounds just like my mother”) or as a guilty self (“He keeps wanting things all the time”). Either way, the child must either be strictly controlled, hit or rejected, usually in ways that restage the childrearing methods of the grandparent. Since the grandmother is historically so often present in the home, strictly controlling the childrearing, it is doubly difficult to break old patterns.
Psychogenesis takes place when the parent experiences the needs of the child and, instead of restaging their own traumatic childhood, invents new ways of handling their anxieties so the child can grow and individuate in their own way.
When a mother regresses to be able to experience her baby’s discomfort and determine if it is hungry or wet or just wants to crawl, she reexperiences her own infancy and her own mother’s fears of starving (for love) or wanting to explore and grow, and-given some support by her husband-the mother can take the enormous step of making a space for the child to crawl rather than tying it up in its swaddling bands. The process is much like the process of psychotherapy: a regression to early anxieties and a working through of them the second time around in a better manner. Psychogenesis occurs at the interface between caretaker and child. It is a private, joint process, a “psychotherapy of generations” that cures parental anxiety about growth and reduces childhood traumas…when it occurs.
Psychogenesis isn’t inevitable, so the psychogenic theory isn’t teleological. There are in all modern nations many parents who have not evolved very much and who are still extremely abusive. In fact, there are whole cultures that did not evolve in parenting, for reasons which we will examine. But the “generational pressure” of psychogenesis-the ability of human parents to innovate better ways of childrearing and for children to strive for relationship and growth-is everywhere present, and is an independent source of change in historical personality, allowing humans to “bootstrap” new neural networks that are more evolved than those of our ancestors.
Progress in childrearing evolution may be extremely uneven, but the trends are nonetheless unmistakable. The overall direction is from projection to empathy, from discipline to self-regulation, from hitting to explaining, from incest to love, from rejection to overcontrol and then to independence. The result is a series of closer approaches between adult and child, producing a healing of the splitting caused by extreme traumas-historical personalities slowly evolving from schizoid mechanisms54 and separate alters that are the results of earlier childrearing modes. Thus unity of personality and individuation is an achievement only attained at the end of history, after thousands of generations of parents have slowly evolved better ways of helping children grow.
People throughout history defend against their despair by finding poison containers to restage their early traumas. Men do so mainly by going to war and torturing, enslaving and killing sacrificial victims. But women only have their children to torture, enslave and kill. One thing is clear: the cause is not merely economic since the rich tortured and killed their children just as the poor did. Indeed, the most massive genocide in the world-never recognized as such because children are not considered human by historians-has been the parental holocaust, the killing, binding, battering, raping, mutilating and torturing of children throughout history, numbering billions not just millions of innocent, helpless human beings. It is this untold story of the genocide of a whole class of human beings that will be fully told for the first time in this book.
But just as there are few good psychological studies of Nazis during the Jewish Holocaust-because it is so difficult to empathize enough with victimizers to understand their motives-so too there are few good studies of parents in history who murdered, beaten and tortured their children, since it is hard to identify enough with them to analyze their motives. Determining the psychodynamics of parents who have stayed the same for thousands of generations while others around them have been evolving is doubly difficult, since one must deal with both the paucity of the historical record of the parental cruelty and also the denial and anger stemming from one’s own feelings.