Works of Lev Vygotsky

Primitive Man and his Behavior

Written: c. 1930;
Source: Ape, Primitive Man, and Child: Essays in the History of Behaviour. A. R. Luria and L. S. Vygotsky. Chapters 1 & 2, reproduced here, are by Vygotsky; Chapter 3 is by Luria;
Published: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992. Translated by Evelyn Rossiter;
Transcribed: Andy Blunden.

Three Planes of Psychological Development

In scientific psychology, the notion that all the psychological functions of man should be viewed as the product of development has become deeply rooted. According to Blonsky, “The behavior of man can be understood only as the history of behavior.”

At present, two planes of psychological development are being studied most thoroughly. Psychology considers human behavior as the result of lengthy biological evolution. It probes rudimentary manifestations of the most complex, human behavior patterns in the simplest single-cell organisms, seeing in their primitive reactions – in their movements “from something and toward something” – the starting points for the understanding of the highest forms of thought and will of modern man.

In the instincts of animals it finds the prototype of human emotions, and in human fear and anger it detects signs of flight and the attacks of predators. In the primary conditioned reflexes studied in laboratories, it sees the foundations from which all of man’s complex activity developed, as the product of the cerebral cortex. In the words of Academician Pavlov, it tries to encompass in a single law both the motion of plants drawn toward the sunlight, and the calculations whereby Newton discovered the laws of universal gravity, as “separate links in a single chain of the biological adaptation of organisms."[1]

Lastly, in Köhler’s recent experiments, which we have discussed earlier, psychology acquired the missing link, connecting human behavior to the behavior of his closest relative in biological evolution – the anthropoid ape. The complete triumph of Darwinism in psychology became possible only through a discovery which showed that the development of a significant part of human intellect – the invention and use of tools – can be traced back to the behavior of apes, which are also capable, in certain circumstances, of inventing and using the simplest tools.

In this way, it even proved possible to discover in the animal world the roots of that specific form of active human adaptation to the environment which singled out mankind from the whole of the rest of the animal kingdom, and sent it along the paths of historical development. The role of work in the process of transforming the ape into man, which was mentioned by Engels, was here confirmed by scientific experiment.

All of this combined to link human psychology firmly and inseparably with biological evolutionary psychology and taught researchers to see that, in the words of Blonsky, much of human behavior, even today, is that of an animal standing on its hind limbs and talking.

Another plane of development has also been studied with exceptional thoroughness. As psychologists long ago established, the behavior of a human adult is not created instantaneously, but emerges gradually and develops from the behavior of the child. Admittedly, there was a time when psychologists and philosophers saw nothing wrong with the notion that man’s ideas and thinking comprise the innate basis of the human soul, and are not subject to development while the child’s body is developing.

They were inclined to believe that the highest human ideas were inherent in the child at the moment of birth, or even earlier. On this subject Descartes wrote, “I do not claim that the spirit of an infant in its mother’s womb ponders metaphysical issues, but it does already have ideas about God, about itself and about all the self-evident truths, just as adults do while they are not actually thinking about those truths."[2]

The conclusions to be drawn from such an assertion were formulated by Malbranche, who claimed that children have the easiest command of abstract, logical, metaphysical and mathematical knowledge. As children possess ideas innately, it follows that the eternal truths should be conveyed to them as early as possible: the closer to the innate source, the purer and truer the idea. The child’s later sensory experience, based on random facts, will cloud the pristine purity of the innate idea.

Such notions were abandoned long ago by scientific psychology, in favor of the rule whereby the thinking and behavior of adult man should be viewed as the result of a very lengthy and complex process of child development. Psychology has sought to analyze with the utmost thoroughness all the qualitative transformations of one form of behavior into another, and all the quantitative changes which, when taken together, comprise the basis of child development.

Psychology has scrutinized the way individual flashes of human speech gradually emerge from a baby’s squeals and from the babble of very young children, and the way the process of the mastery of speech becomes essentially complete only at the time of sexual maturity, as it is only from then on that speech becomes a tool enabling the child to form abstract concepts and a means of abstract thinking. It has also scrutinized the way in which a child’s future propensities, abilities and talents show through in play, and how in the child’s make-believe world elements of creative imagination – the future basis of artistic and scientific activity – are exercised and mature.

As we have seen, both of these planes of development have become quite deeply rooted in psychology. Yet there is a third plane of development, of which psychologists are in general much less aware, and which is fundamentally quite different from these two other types of development: it is historical development.

The behavior of contemporary civilized man is the product not only of biological evolution or childhood development; it is also the product of historical development. In the process of man’s historical development, external relations between people, and relations between mankind and nature are not all that has changed and developed. Man himself has changed and developed; human nature has changed.

The psychological type of the contemporary civilized American or European has been formed as a result of these lengthy changes. We can understand the peculiarities of this type only by seeking to account for their genesis, only by inquiring where they have come from.

The historical development of human psychology has been studied less thoroughly than the two other planes of development, because science has available to it far less material on the historical changes in human nature than on child and biological development. The enormous and varied world of animals, frozen at various stage of the “origin of species”, provides a sort of living panorama of biological evolution, and makes it possible to add the data of comparative psychology to those of comparative anatomy and physiology.

Child development is a process which we have repeatedly seen completed before our very eyes. It may be studied in a host of different ways. The process of historical change in human psychology, on the other hand, has to be studied under far worse conditions. Vanished periods of history have left documents and remains pertaining to their past, which are helpful, primarily, in reconstructing the external history of the human race, while failing to give a remotely objective or complete account of the psychological mechanisms of behavior. Accordingly, historical psychology can draw on a very much smaller body of material.

For that reason, one of the richest sources for this type of psychology is the study of the so-called “primitive peoples.” This term is commonly used, admittedly as a conventional label, to designate certain peoples of the uncivilized world, situated at the lower levels of cultural development. It is not entirely right to call these peoples primitive, as a greater or lesser degree of civilization can unquestionably be observed in all of them. All of them have already emerged from the prehistoric phase of human existence. Some of them have very ancient traditions. Some of them have been influenced by remote and powerful cultures, while the cultural development of others has become degraded.

Primitive man, in the true sense of the term, does not exist anywhere at the present time, and the human type, as represented among these primeval peoples, can only be called “relatively primitive.” Primitiveness in this sense is a lower level, and the starting point for the historical development of human behavior. Material for the psychology of primitive man is provided by data concerning prehistoric man, the peoples situated at the lower levels of cultural development and the comparative psychology of peoples of different cultures.

A psychology of primitive man has not yet been created. At present psychological material in this sphere is being accumulated, methods are being elaborated, and, in the words of Thurnwald, ethnographic material is being ‘imbued with a psychological focus.