Make your own free website on

An Evolutionary Approach to Early Development

Dr Juan Carlos Garelli
Attachment Reserach Center - Department of Early Development - Universidad de Buenos Aires

In 1987, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, John Bowlby was paid an homage at the Tavistock Clinic in London with a massive attendance of about six hundred people from all over the world. Such was his fame and popularity. While we were there, one of us said: "Bowlby is to psychology what Watson and Crick are to molecular biology". By that time, most mental health workers, theoreticians, philosophers, an so on, thought that Bowlby had produced the most outstanding revolution in the field of psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis of the XX century, to the point that his work is one of those cornerstones that prove a hinge in the history of psychology and psychoanalysis. To our minds there are two kinds of psychoanalysis: Pre-Bowlbyian psychoanalysis and Bowlbyian psychoanalysis. (Note that from now on, whenever you find the word "psychoanalysis", or "psychoanalytic" without modifiers, it will stand for Pre-Bowlbyian psychoanalysis, until further notice).

Reason versus postmodernism (a momentary digression)

But that was almost 10 years ago, during the eighties, a relatively reasonable, thinking, dependable, era. Now we are immersed in a completely different intellectual milieu: the scientific, rational movement that had begun in the sixties was approaching its end, only to be replaced by postmodernism and its disregard of logic and its revolt against reason and against any discipline that had gained either scientific, artistic, educational or cultural status.

I would say that the pomo movement repels anything that has to do with rigour.

To their minds, rigour stands as an enemy of creativity. An astonishing contention. Famous counterexamples of both extreme rigour and startling creativity immediately burst into mind: Leonardo da Vinci, Aristotle, Sir Isaac Newton, Leibnitz, Beethoven, Einstein, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Faraday, Medelejeff, JS Bach, and so on, and so forth. To delve into the depths of an inkling that might shed light on this strange phenomenon at the end of the second millennium exceeds the purposes set out for this dissertation. However, I might turn back to it later on.

To make matters worse, the pomo movement views anything remotely resembling any of those qualities that we, the representatives of the sixties enhanced as a valuable badge, as attacks to their basic doctrine: that of boundless creativity. The word "creativity" is in fact rather ambiguous: for to be creative may mean merely using one's imagination, devoid of any positive connotations. The way now is used and abused, arbitrarily stands for "imaginative cleverness in making or designing".

As we shall see later, this apparently desultory digression, will prove crucial for the so-called development of Attachment Theory after Bowlby's death (1990).

Breaking away from psychoanalysis

Getting back to our Attachment story, despite Bowlby's training had been strictly psychoanalytic: he had been analysed by Joan Riviere and supervised by Melanie Klein while attending seminars at the Institute of Psychoanalysis of the British Psychoanalytic Association, his adamant attachment to common sense made him believe more in what he saw than in what he was told -or commanded- to see. The old aphorism: "We see only what we know", stung and challenged Bowlby's scientific mind , as has been the case with the great protagonists of scientific revolutions throughout history, (Thomas Kuhn, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", 1962).

As early as in 1944 (he was only 37 by that time) he published "Forty-four Juvenile thieves", a paper in which he already shows his departure from some psychoanalytic basic tenets:

1. Phantasy operating over reality,

2. The notion that mental derangement was inherent in human nature and part and parcel of his individual development,

3. The belief that the individual's psychic apparatus took pride of place over real relationships. I would like to stress here the fact that we humans could not be conceived as making and keeping personal relationships. According to psychoanalysis we never relate to persons, to people, to other human beings, but representations of other, which they chose to call the theory of object relations. When you thought you were thinking of, dreaming of, loving somebody, what you were really doing was to get in touch with a mental, intrapsychic, representation of that somebody.

4. It is impossible to overemphasize the fact that Bowlby showed that psychologists, but especially psychoanalysts, claiming that reality appraisal was a late, arduous, and incomplete task of human psyche, were simply standing the issue on its head.

Reality checking was not attained during the first stages of life. An infant had to deny reality, as reality was far more he could cope with. Infants, in the face of this early incompetence resort to phantasizing. So much so, that when a baby feels hungry he first resorts to sucking his thumb, a doubtless sign that the baby-in-arms prefers auto-erotic satisfaction to actually sucking his mother's nipple. In view of this rather fruitless, or should we say, milkless, activity, burst into tears to call mother.

According to the Freudians's views, we humans are so innately inane that we start off by phantasizing and accommodating reality to suit our needs, not the other way round. The other way round was begotten by the work of "The Reality Principle", a modification of the "Pleasure Principle".

Bowlby started off from the opposite stance, human babies are able to perceive and understand reality as is.

His paper on the young crooks was even preceded by an earlier paper of 1940, also published by The International Journal of Psychoanalysis (21: 154-78), "The influence of early environment in the development of neurosis and neurotic character", where Oedipal phantasies, and intrapsychic mechanisms give way to real interactions between the child and its environment.
As we see, the Environment starts playing a crucial role in his work from the very beginning.

No doubt, Donald Winnicott's influence had crept successfully into Bowlby's mind, but Winnicott's concepts of "a not good enough mother" and "transitional object" were merely very shy concepts issued by a paediatrician, whereas Bowlby realized early in his intellectual life that the theory then in vogue, namely psychoanalysis, supporting the aetiology of neuroses, psychoses, psychopathy and sociopathy was to be put into question and eventually be replaced altogether by a theory more in keeping with human beings's everyday life. (As we shall see later, he sought his theory also was more in keeping with modern biology, ethology, empirical research in psychology and scientific methodology).

Bowlby was a fervent adherent to propositions that could be contrasted and monitored by empirical observation. Let's not forget he had summoned the best specialists of the time to work together on a special task: that of picking out the inbred fundamental motivators or movers of early social mother-infant interactions. His study-group was attended by people of the calibre of Konrad Lorenz and Robert Hinde (both ethologists), psychoanalysts, cognitive theorists and behaviour students.

This led Bowlby to adopt a mutidisciplinary stance to focus on early infant-mother interactions.

Some colleagues find it surprising that Bowlby chose early child-mother or child-parent separations as his field of study, instead of, for instance, look into the family lives of children. He adopted this stance because he wanted no debate as to whether what had happened had really happened or not. A separation either occurs or does not occur. Symptoms displayed by children during and after separations had to be seen as caused by the separation.
Instead, the way a mother raises her child always gives rise to endless speculations and is extremely difficult to present evidence open to refutation.
Hence, the name of his seminal trilogy: Attachment and Loss.

Bowlby's methodology differs from psychoanalytic methodology

Such an approach widely departed from psychoanalytic principles which asserted -and they still do- that psychoanalysis is:

1. a therapy;

2. a theory of human psyche, and

3. the therapy itself is the natural field of research.

Bowlby teased them apart: where you do research, you do not intervene or interfere with what you are observing. Conclusions from empirical studies could eventually be used therapeutically. (See Psychoanalysis as Art and Science, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1979, 6, 3).

Pioneering principles for the contrivance of a new psychoanalysis

Bowlby realized that in order to advance a multidisciplinary stance, in keeping with modern science, in which psychoanalysis could be integrated with ethology and sociobiology, psychobiology, the cybernetic theory of control systems and modern structural approach to cognitive development he had to acquire a lot of training in all those disciplines; and as the time went by he found that in spite of the fact that the integration of these disciplines was first undertaken in order to understand the origin, function and development of the child's early socio-emotional relations, his emerging Theory of Attachment turned out to be in actual fact deeply embedded in a general theory of behaviour which was born out of those manifold origins.

Independently, Emanuel Peterfreund, the great American psychoanalyst, had concocted similar criticisms of Freud's theory and advanced the principles whereby a reasonable theory of human behaviour could be founded on. (See Peterfreund, Emanuel, 1971, "Information, Systems and Psychoanalysis". New York: Harvard University Press).

Refutation of Freud's theory of secondary drive

One of the principal tasks Bowlby addressed himself to was to refute Freud's theory of the secondary drive. To Freud's mind, to attain object relations implies a long, hard way, which has to do with the libido's developmental stages. Freud's first theory of instincts asserts that sexual instincts lean on the ego's instincts of self preservation. According to Freud's conception of object choice by anaclisis, self-preservation drives lead sexuality towards the object.

Subsequently, the former are to be found supporting the reality principle, whereas the latter are to side with the pleasure principle, since it must be born in mind that in this first instinctual theory Freud opposes self-preservation drives to sexual drives. At any rate, Freud always found it puzzling unambiguously to award the self-preservation instincts a proper function, that is why he repeatedly rephrased his theory of self-preservation instincts.

In any case, we would like to quote the following from the Standard Edition, vol. 7, p. 222: "There are thus good reasons why a child sucking at his mother's breast has become the prototype of every love relationship. The finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it". This, as you may be aware, is the point at stake.

We feel confident, therefore, -drawing on Freud's writings- in stating that a child becomes attached to his mother because she feeds him, which according to Freud, brings about pleasure -as a matter of fact, Freud informs us, it is the very first chance the baby has to experience pleasure- and discharges the energy that built up in the urge for food. Let's bear in mind that Freud thought of the human mind as an intermediary between the instincts and their release. Release of instincts brought about pleasure. Repression of instincts brought about displeasure.

The Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness

After having become familiar with Harlow's work on rhesus monkeys, Bowlby thought that something of the kind might happen in the infant. That is to say, infants first looked for safety and only when they felt safe they could be fed.
A fundamental, seminal, concept in attachment theory states that security of the child has pride of place over feeding. If the baby does not feel safe, it cannot be fed: it can only be fed if, and only if, it is safe.

Why? Simply because our species has not changed its genome since its emergence during the Pleistocene, before the Agricultural Revolution. So, whenever a baby is born, he is preprogrammed to deal with a hostile environment, filled with predators which strongly prefer helpless victims. A baby, born more than 10,000 years ago, that at 6-7 months of age strayed and cared nothing about his bond with mother, was doomed to die, that is, was doomed not to reach reproductive age. So. if babies were "independent" from the outset, the species would become extinct in a few generations.

Therefore, evolutionary selection pressures would favour babies who adamantly tried to attain and keep proximity with a figure who protected them from predators, that figure we will call the "Attachment Figure", generally the baby's mother. Ergo, during the Pleistocene, a period we will call "The Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness" safety had pride of place over feeding.

Why Darwin's theory had no influence whatsoever over psychoanalysis

All the above makes a lot of sense now that we have grown to learn that the expression "instinctive behaviour" is a particularly unfortunate expression*, as it harbours a preconception whereby an unlearnt behaviour displayed by any infant or juvenile member of any species, was comprehended as an irresistible drive to do so. Hence, instinctive behaviour and unlearnt drive were taken to be synonymous. This idiosyncratic meaning of instinct has proved so pervasive that even nowadays we still hear that swallows travel thousands of miles across the hemispheres looking for clement weather out of an irresistible need, wish or drive to do so.

*(inbred, innate, inborn propensity, preprogrammed proneness to behave in some sort of specific way, given the specific stimulus at the specific time, are both more explicative and intuitively understandable. We will elaborate at length on this issue later on).

I hasten to explain that we now know that such behaviour is preprogrammed, and has a survival edge. We now know that every individual of any existing species is equipped with a series of behavioural systems that have allowed it to survive up to today. The Synthetic Theory of Natural Selection, concocted during a long time-span (from 1859 to 1931) has taught us the mechanisms whereby the living species as we know them today have evolved.

In Freud's time, the theory of evolution was accepted, but there was a great deal of confusion as to the way organisms evolved. Lamarckism had gained the upper hand; most particularly because Darwin felt at a loss as regards the way traits are inherited: he had no idea about the existence of genes. So, he had to explain Natural Selection by means of abstract principles which ultimately led to circular reasoning.

Darwin developed the theory of natural selection at a time when the concept of gene as the unit of heredity was unknown to him. That is why he had to deal with rather abstract principles.

He actually founded his theory on 3 principles:

1. The Principle of variety: individuals of the same species vary in their ability to leave more reproductive offspring.

2. The Principle of heredity, whereby progeny resemble direct ancestors more than any other member of the population.

3. The Principle of natural selection, whereby individuals that differ in certain traits also differ in their ability to leave reproductive descendants.

Hence, reproductive success consisted in the differential ability to produce fitter individuals. Darwin said that only the fittest survived -the "survival of the fittest". Who are the fittest? Those who have a differential edge to leave more progeny able to reach reproductive age. In a word, the fittest are the fittest, and those who have reproductive success are reproductively successful to leave reproductive successes. A tautology, doubtlessly, which did not Darwin's theory any good among his contemporaries.

That is probably why Freud paid little, if any, attention to Darwin's work. I mean, not only to his theory of natural selection but to other aspects of field biology, particularly those dealing with animal behaviour which, had Freud, or any of his closest followers, grasped, their minds would surely have changed as regards instincts, particularly the transient quality of instictive behaviour.

As we shall see later, the discovery of the gene as the unit of heredity, during the early thirties; the work of Julian Huxley, JBS Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and others, helped make the Synthetic Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, which is today accepted by the whole scientific community.

Apart from the issue of heredity, little was known about animal behaviour and its movers. Freud adopted the theory whereby an instinct is a force that propels the individual to act and so discharge the energy contained in the instinct.

According to Freud, instincts were then ephimerous, transient phenomena which sought catharsis so as to restore homeostatic balance within the individual. An instinct to maintain a certain state of tense affairs was unthinkable to Freud. E.g., a sparrow keeping a territory for months was unexplainable by the cathartic theory of instincts.

Hence, the bond that emerged and was kept stable between child and mother could never have been thought of as instinctive. It was a byproduct of other instinctual needs that were satisfied by the child's mother (for a more complete elaboration of the secondary drive, see above). To be hungry and crave for the breast to suck its milk was authentically instinctual, in order to get rid of the discomfort that hunger replenished the psychic apparatus with. As mother took care of freeing the baby from distress: hunger, pain, discomfort, and so on, her child became fond of her. We have already addressed this issue by calling it the theory of the secondary drive. Attachment to mother was secondary to breastfeeding, cleaning, cuddling, comforting, and so on.

Bowlby started by challenging this fundamental concept of Freudian psychoanalysis by advancing that a child becomes attached to his mother independently of feeding, cleaning or otherwise comforting the baby.
This proved to be a ground-breaking idea that dented the core of all psychoanalysis.

Bowlby asserted that Attachment had to be taken into account in its own right, independently of libido considerations, whereby the infant is born with an inbred propensity to seek and maintain proximity to a distinct, preferred, strong figure he feels as a haven of security.