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It is a debate as old as philosophy: what is the part of nature and culture in determining our actions? More recent: what is the part of the innate or acquired in our behavior? The controversy often concluded with:  » A bit of both, with a constant interaction between the two…  » (1). Today, under the pressure of fighting feminisms, it is around the question of gender — which would be everything and sex nothing — that the polemic has been re-launched. On this subject, Kairos published a few articles denouncing the excesses that are useful to the promethean illusions of certain productivists. This has earned us some strong enmities… Trying to rely on facts, we continue the exploration of the psycho-physiological bases of human behavior, this time starting from the book Under the sign of the link(2) of the well-known neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik .

One of the favorite slogans of the growth objectors is  » Fewer goods, more connections « . It is certain that spending less time chasing material wealth, leaves the opportunity(kairos) to re-establish richer human ties. But what kinds of bonds do humans develop — or not? 

Boris Cyrulnik is the one who gave its letters of nobility to the word « resilience ». He introduced the term(3) in psychology to designate the capacity of an individual to « recover » from a psychological trauma. Under the sign of the bond is a book based on very precise scientific observations that allow us to paint a natural history of attachment, starting from intra-uterine life. But Cyrulnik begins with a self-criticism of an approach that would be too scientistic because many  » believe they are observing the world, whereas they are only observing the impression that the world makes on them « . And it is true that there are many examples where individuals, supposedly rational, believe what they want to believe rather than submit to facts that disturb them. 

We must admit that the observations made by Cyrulnik and other ethico-psychoanalysts are disturbing. By observing what happens in the animal world, not to advocate an imitation (rejection of sociobiology(4)), but to discover what is common to the species that have opted for sexual reproduction (much more generating of diversity than parthenogenesis). They thus highlight the biological constants that also determine humans. In commenting on his own book, Cyrulnik will say  » I think that before reading this book, you were thinking clearly. I hope now that they are confused, because you have to doubt, believe me! « .


In the first part, entitled « The Mother », Cyrulnik studies the child’s gradual « entry into the world »; quite naturally, this takes place via the mother, first for nine months in her womb and then in her arms and in an environment where she is very present. Observations show that the fetus (a word that is inappropriate because it is too « biologizing ») is, from the very last months, in intense communication with its mother and with the outside world with its senses of touch, smell and hearing. This pre-birth socialization leads the neuro-psychoanalyst to ironize on the concept of surrogate mother («  I thought all mothers were surrogate mothers … ») which reduces gestation to a mechanical process whereas it is already relational. Next to the renting of arms or brains (wage labor), the renting of vaginas (prostitution), with GPA, we imagine today renting wombs, denying the intense psychological entanglement between a mother and the future human being she nourishes in her womb. Under the sign of the link shows that we wrongly overvalue the biological aspect of gestation: from the beginning of life, psychological links are already very present. 


Since it is the mother who « shapes » the child before and just after birth, it is she who introduces the child to the one who will become its father. Cyrulnik would prefer the term « husband » or, better still, « man of attachment » because, in this case, the biological aspect is absent: it is by making her baby understand that he is the male she has chosen, that the mother  » gives birth to a father « (5).

At the various stages of the child’s development, the respective weights of the biological, the psychological, the symbolic and the social evolve and this balance depends on the societies in which the child evolves. Sociology shows that  » the more protective the social environment, the more secondary the paternal role becomes. « The qualities required of a father are also changing (« …intelligence, which was only a secondary value, a woman’s value in the 13thcentury, became a male value in the 19thcentury becauseit gave access to social power  »).

Sometimes these modernity-induced developments have adverse behavioral consequences: ’ When there is no ′′psychic father′′The child cannot escape the omnipotence of the devouring mother. To find a semblance of liberation, he seeks an extra-familial father, a paternal substitute. He then finds a gang leader, a political member, a charismatic father, a sect founder. The lack of a father made him able to submit… to escape his mother! « .

Cyrulnik considers that  » there is no culture without gendered social roles. (…) Not knowing what sex you are is not knowing who you are. (…) But any identification is an amputation, a renunciation of becoming someone else, of realizing another possibility of oneself. Children who are misidentified do not know these fulfilling amputations: being a man or a woman is all the same, they say, rich or poor, here or elsewhere, dead or alive… « As early as 2010, the neuro-psychoanalyst was thus developing ideas that devilishly resemble those developed by the journal La Décroissance in the July 2019 issue #161, « Against the Great Confusion »(6).


Since the majority of children are conceived within couples, the study of the links that are established within couples is part of the research of ethico-psychoanalysts. They find that the nature of these bonds depends largely on what happened in the partners’ early childhood. A certain Gordon said that  » everything happens before 6 years old « . With the etho-psychological observation, it appears that even the relations within a couple depend on a phenomenon that takes place in the first months of life. This phenomenon is that of « imprinting »: humans share with vertebrates the existence of a period, sometimes very short, sometimes longer, during which the being in formation attaches itself to the person who is close to it, who maintains it, who protects it. We know this nice story (from 1935) of the goslings that followed Konrad Lorenz rather than their mother goose because the ethologist had been present at the moment when the imprinting (or impregnation) is fixed during a maturation phase of the goose brain. This purely neurological process, with numerous variants, exists in the kingdom of sexed animals and therefore in humans. 

Thus, within couples, we know that the beginnings are under the hormonal influence and governed by the passion of love(eros) but the stability of the couple depends obviously on the social and intellectual harmony that unites the partners. There is also a third bond, the attachment(7), which is in a way the repetition of the imprinting, this neurological need for bonding that is born during the favourable period of cervical development in the first months. This attachment, which is quite irrepressible, sometimes leads us to behave in a way that we think is not very sensible, but which is written into our neural circuits. Thus, this attachment can even go into detestation, into hatred, which holds together some surprising couples. Similarly, violent fear and intense stress seem to reopen the possibility of attachment to a particular person. This is what would be at the origin of the Stockholm syndrome which sees hostages « falling in love » with their torturer (provided that this one pretends to be nice, to protect them anyway…). 

Our determinisms, inherited from hundreds of millions of years of evolution, sometimes push us to strange behaviors. This gives reason to Spinoza for whom Man is only an element of nature similar to the others, subjected to the same laws:  » We believe ourselves to be free because we are unaware of the causes which determine us « . But Spinoza also tells us that the knowledge of what determines us allows us to suffer less from these external constraints. Etho-psychoanalysis, which finally marries nature and culture, is definitely a precious help to our partial liberation… 


In the chapter « Death to Sex », Cyrulnik shows how, for biological and psychological reasons, sexual desire is tyrannical and a source of anguish(8). Sexual passion makes you dependent and forces you, unconsciously, to submit to the partner who brings the long-awaited pleasure. So,  » …the extinction of love is desired as a relief … ». In these times when individualism and the search for an illusory total autonomy are exacerbated, this liberation from the demands of sex is great. In the couples, it is easier to live with a spouse whom one hardly loves («  the love sex, the love passion, it is elsewhere in the fever, the suffering, the exaltation … » says a lady analyzed by the shrink). Fortunately for the stability of our hypermodern societies, there is still attachment, this feeling that is born in the long term thanks to proximity. Of course, like all good tranquilizers, attachment numbs the senses, but in the complex and stressful life of the 21st century, the security of a calm couple is sometimes a matter of mental survival. 

Cyrulnik, who specialized in the accompaniment of « family-less » children, abandoned when they were very young, noted that these children, deprived of the stable reference points and external organizer that a family provides, often compensated for this lack by focusing on themselves, developing a « narcissism This is a « mirrorless  » situation that sometimes allows them to have a more fulfilling life than children with families. The latter, protected, but somewhat deprived of the freedom that the absence of a family and its emotional and social constraints allows, tend towards adaptive neuroses, not very favorable to « heroic » lives. 

What is astonishing these days, when there are fewer and fewer abandoned children, is the multiplication of these psychological profiles of teenagers in search of an identity. The explanation would be found in an instability no longer due to the absence of parents but to unstable families, professionally, emotionally, geographically, which leave young people in an increasingly long adolescence, always in search of social, sexual, gender references… Cyrulnik also joins the sociologist Alain Ehrenberg who highlighted this phenomenon in La fatigue d’être soi(9).

Alain Adriaens

Notes et références
  1. Parfois traduit par la jolie formule : « L’homme n’est ni ange ni bête et le malheur veut que qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête. » (Pascal, Pensées).
  2. Boris Cyrulnik, Sous le signe du lien, Hachette Pluriel Editions, Poche, 2010.
  3. Il y a 50 ans, la résilience désignait seulement la capacité d’un matériau à résister aux chocs et aux déformations. Les matériaux qui reviennent à leur forme initiale après qu’on ait exercé une force sur eux sont dit résilients car ils ont une certaine plasticité. Cyrulnik a utilisé le mot dans le domaine psy. Dans un deuxième temps, des écologistes (notamment Rob Hopkins, initiateur du mouvement de la transition) l’ont repris pour définir ce qu’une société ou un groupe humain devait développer pour se préparer à se remettre debout après les chocs (jugés inéluctables) du basculement climatique et de l’épuisement des ressources naturelles, notamment énergétiques. 
  4. Sous l’influence de l’entomologiste Edward Wilson qui a surtout retenu de l’évolution darwinienne les aspects de compétition et pas de solidarité, la sociobiologie fut parfois accusée d’inciter à l’eugénisme, au racisme, à l’élitisme…
  5. « …le père intramaternel devient sensoriel, traduit par la mère. Son odeur, sa voix, ses caresses, sa simple présence et la signification que la mère lui attribue, modifient les communications sensorielles de la mère avec son enfant. »
  6. http://www.ladecroissance.net/?chemin=journal&numero=161.
  7. Le psychologue écossais John Bowlby a montré que les enfants en bas âge s’attachent aux adultes qui se montrent sensibles et attentionnés aux interactions sociales avec eux d’une façon stable au moins plusieurs mois durant la période qui va de l’âge de 6 mois environ jusqu’à 2 ans. Vers la fin de cette période, les enfants commencent à utiliser les figures d’attachement (l’entourage familier) comme base de sécurité à partir de laquelle ils vont explorer le monde, et vers qui ils savent qu’ils peuvent retourner.
  8. On a vu dans le paragraphe La fin de la sexualité de notre article « La reproduction humaine technologisée » du Kairos n°42, que certains transhumanistes surfent sur ces craintes pour vendre leurs fantasmes technocratiques : cfr Henry Greely, The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction.
  9. Alain Ehrenberg, La Fatigue d’être soi. Dépression et société, Odile Jacobs, août 2000, 414pp.

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