Have you ever known someone who had an unwavering commitment to finding truth and enlightenment? Someone who, on their best days, embodied objective honesty and seemed to have a tight grasp of what was true and untrue? A type of person who, on their darker days, might have also come off as an cold and judgmental — perhaps even overly critical and pompous?
Having spent my fair share of time in the academic world, this description certainly seems to peg a “type” of person. And I’m sure other people could also name off at least a few folks who fit this description.
The type of person noted above is an example of an “archetype”. This one specifically is sometimes referred to as the “Sage” archetype. An archetype is, simply put, “a very typical example of a certain person”. Or in more complicated Jungian terminology, an archetype is an “inherited pattern of thought derived from the past collective experience and present in the individual unconscious”. (Don’t worry if that doesn’t make sense to you).
There are other archetypal figures too; not just the Sage. For example, there’s the Warrior; the Caregiver; the Seeker; the Creator. There are 12 archetypes in total, and a very well articulated list of them, and their attributes, can be found here.
What I find interesting about these archetypal descriptions is that they account for the personalities of an extraordinarily large percentage of the people I’ve known (and know). That’s exactly what we should expect since archetypes are meant to describe the very basic, natural categories of people.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the nature of archetypes and whether they have any basis in reality. It’s a deep and murky debate, and I’m not going to wade in. I will say this though: archetypal figures are consistent with our intuitions about “types” of people that exist. Assuming you have a normal sized social network, you can always think of 2-3 people who embody each archetypal category. Open the link above and try it out for yourself. Then of course there’s also the fact that archetypal figures have been a durable feature of recorded storytelling from the beginning (think Epic of Gilgamesh).
So there’s definitely SOMETHING there worth explaining. But what is it? Just what are archetypes and where did they come from? Are they something that storytellers just made up, or do they actually describe deep, fundamental sets of human personalities? And why do these same 12 types keep appearing across time, space, and cultures?
Let’s try to tell an evolutionary story about the origins of archetypes and see what turns up.
Whence Came the Archetypal Figure?
The durability and consistency of archetypal figures across time, space and cultures hints at a genetic component. In the same way that a person can be genetically predisposed toward neuroticism, honesty-humility, or sociopathy (which are found universally), someone could also be genetically predisposed to Seeker or Warrior traits. If that’s true, then an evolutionary explanation is definitely in order.
But thinking back on conditions on the African savannah 80,000 years ago, it’s hard to imagine how the possession of proto Seeker, Magician or Trickster traits could have possibly been a benefit. These traits were certainly not helping anyone take their hunting or gathering game to the next level.
One possible way these traits could have been evolutionarily adaptive lies in the idea of ‘social niches’. Social niches are basically social roles that certain people fit into and which help large societies function efficiently. Each society has a number of available social roles that people can fit in to. There’s not quite enough social niches to go around, so generally those best suited for a given role end up in that role. In this way, social niches can, over many generations, sort human populations by their talents. For example, modern societies have a need for people who can act rationally (judges), and people who are great at taking care of the sick (nurses), etc. The same would have been true of ancient hunter-gatherer cultures. At a very basic level, these proto-societies would have also contained social niches (e.g., for a Warrior type); as the culture grew more complex (e.g., due to population growth), different possible social roles would have started opened up (e.g., ones that rewarded Seeker traits). These newly formed social roles would have attracted tribe members who had configurations of personality traits that caused them to be good at filling that role.
In other words, as germinal human cultures started to develop around 100,000 years ago, these cultures uncovered, and then sorted our ancestors, by their latent abilities. Role specialization had begun to take hold.
Fast forward 100,000 years to the present day, and you have highly sophisticated primates like Carl Jung wielding language to describe the resultant archetypal roles.
Let’s put some flesh on this idea by imagining a scene deep within our paleolithic past:
A lush valley, somewhere in what is now Kenya, 80,000 years ago. After a few thousand years of running around, cooperating, and fighting out on the savannah, a certain hunter-gatherer band has FINALLY been able to reach a group size of 80 people, consisting of a dozen unrelated family groups. This is the first time in the history of the world that such a large group of humans has existed — never had the animal kingdom witnessed so much neurological horsepower in one place.
Culture is what made this unprecedented group size possible. In addition to facilitating larger group size, culture also elicited a very subtle pressure on members of that tribe to specialize – it slowly made less and less sense for EVERYONE in the tribe to be either a hunter or a gatherer. Some tribe members were really good at hunting and raiding, so they gravitated toward those activities. Some were much better at answering questions and predicting future events, so they drifted toward doing that. As the culture of the group became more complex, different niches appeared that pulled people with the right skills toward them. “Nature abhors a vacuum” as they saying goes. As the group grew, it became increasingly sensible for tribe members to focus on tasks that they were better at rather than being a jack-of-all-trades.
Individuals most successful at filling the limited number of social niches reaped rewards: more food and more children. Those who weren’t able to conform to the available niches would have had less children, and eventually those genetic lines would have become less prominent. The children of the winners would have themselves have gravitated toward the same niche as their parents. The offspring of those children would in turn produce more children who were also suited to filling that social niche. Through the magic of evolution, every subsequent generation become increasingly better suited to filling that social niche. In this way, the culture/society began shaping our biology in a process called ‘role specialization’.
For example, tribe members who had higher levels of oxytocin coupled with stronger emotionality + conscientiousness could have gravitated toward a caregiving niche. Hence the caregiver archetype. Individuals with higher levels of testosterone mixed with novelty seeking and very low agreeableness maybe gravitated toward the role of defending, raiding, and leading hunts. Hence the warrior archetype. Those with the most mental horsepower coupled with little emotionality gravitated toward knowledge repository and adjudicator roles. Hence the Sage archetype. Etc.
As Mark Pagel notes in his important 2013 book ‘Wired for Culture’: ‘as a result of tens of thousands or years of being able to specialize or “do different things”, people have come to differ from each other in innate abilities and dispositions that make them suited to alternative ways of prospering in society’.
Let’s call this whole process a “deep-time bio-cultural positive feedback loop”. Over tens of thousands of years human cultures have basically domesticated us (biologically) to fit into certain social roles — in a way not dissimilar to the way that we transformed wolf stock into the range of dog breeds we see today. As Mark Pagel points out, there is now striking evidence that, coinciding with the advent of culture, our genes appear to have undergone an exceptionally rapid rate of adaptive evolution.
If you find this story plausible, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to the development of the full-blown archetypes Carl Jung and others have explicated.
Will Different Archetypes Evolve in the Future?
We can think of modern societies as scaled up versions of those basic bands and tribes; archetypes can be thought of as “scale free mechanisms” in the social realm. (That’s why there’s so often fractal imagery associated with Jungian notions of the archetype).
Not enough time has elapsed since the agricultural revolution for new, durable archetypes to develop, which is why we see those same archetypes repeated over and over again in the modern context.
Given enough time, additional archetypes will surely develop — our complex modern cultures have certainly created new social niches that are sorting us by our latent abilities. The difference though is that not enough time has elapsed since the advent of civilization for these social niches to have had much impact on genetic evolution (the Indian caste system might be interesting to look at as a counter-example though).
Given current trends, archetypes that might develop in the deep future may call for “a more domesticated set of abilities, among them mental agility, concentration, and communication skill. Culture has not yet finished sorting us by our talents” (Pagel).
By: Mark Pagel