The Evolution of Human Consciousness

Ever since the publication of The Origin of Species evolutionary scientists have been convinced that Darwin’s great picture of man’s physical descent needed to be completed by a corresponding account of the human mind. The task was seen to be enormous and Darwin’s own contribution, The Expression ofEmotion in Man and Animals, inspired a generation of evolutionary psychologists – Lloyd, Morgan, Romanes, Baldwin, William James – to make a start. But the positivism that set in after the First World War, by insisting on a materialist psychology that modelled itself on the physical sciences, put paid to the enterprise. And it was not taken up again until the 1950s when Julian Huxley, Piaget and others began to insist that, contrary to the prevailing interpretation of Darwinism, evolution was a directed affair: mental ability (perception, awareness, intelligence and ultimately consciousness), must, they argued, be seen as the result of a necessary evolutionary progression. The mind was, in Plaget’s phrase, a cognitive organ, whose function was to increase a creature’s independence from and control over its environment.

However, for all but the simplest creatures, what constitutes “environment” cannot be reduced to a description of physical surroundings. Organisms behave in relation to each other, and the nature of their environments is inseparable from the effects of such interaction. In short, evolution has to explain the emergence of social behavior.

Precisely this was until recently the major stumbling-block for ethologists. How can a Darwinian theory which takes the individual organism selfishly maximizing its own fitness as the unit of natural selection explain the apparently unselfish behavior – cooperation, mutual help, self-sacrifice, and so on – which underpin social life? How does society emerge from biology?

It was around answers to this question that the science of socio-biology crystallized in 1975. The new science’s approach to human nature and society rests on consideration of two mechanisms of population genetics: kin selection and reciprocal altruism. The first explains how nepotism and certain kinds of self-denial make evolutionary sense: once it is observed that an individual’s genes are not unique, but shared in varying degrees with all its relatives, then what appears as altruistic self-sacrifice – the rearing of a relative’s children – can in fact be a contribution to the survival of the individual considered as a set of genes. In appropriate circumstances, safeguarding the genes of three siblings makes for a greater degree of fitness than producing two children. The second explains how certain kinds of mutual assistance and acts of self-negation between genetically unrelated individuals can – provided such patterns of reciprocation are predictable – be of genetic benefit to both parties.

The first half of The Evolution of Human Consciousness is an authoritative and clear outline of how these mechanisms can be appealed to in an account of the genetic basis of human social behavior. Thus we are given an ethological account of the behavioural characteristics of hunting hominids, the growth of language and intelligence through systems of exchange and reciprocation, the effects of protracted infant rearing, the ecology of hunter gatherers, tribes, and chiefdoms and the emergence of civilization. John Crook places particular emphasis on the phenomenon of cheating – the principle danger to the workings of reciprocal altruism. And he claims for it a central role in the evolution of intelligence: reciprocators spotting would-be cheaters and cheaters outwitting their spotters engaged in a dialectic of increasing transactional smartness that gave rise to the human conceptualization of “self” and “other”, and led to “the self-process as a human universal”, which is institutionalized in partnerships and the systems of friendship, sympathy, and moral rules that anthropologists have found in all human cultures.

Having sociobiologized the self in this way Crook feels free in the rest of the book to embrace, with mounting enthusiasm, what he calls the “new dialectical psychology”. By which he means all the “person-based” accounts of the psyche to be found in the practice of encounter groups, de-alienation techniques, counselling, meditation, self-actualization therapy, life-script therapy, open-programme growth, deep play, ego transcendence, Zen ritual, Transcendental Meditation and finally the “Buddhist model of mind” with its four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path through craving and illusion until the cycle of “dependent origination” is broken and true enlightenment is reached. The book ends with a quotation from Krishnamurti celebrating the un-fragmented awareness of the “whole” to be found when the brain is passive and its thoughts completely stilled.

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