Chapter Eight

The Con Of Consciousness; The Illusion of Individuality


The Purpose Of Consciousness

Previous chapters have explained, stage by stage, the adaptive utility of the successive levels of 'consciousness' (the words responsiveness and awareness are preferred, as having more precise meanings), which may be summarized as follows:

  • Somatic responsiveness: in flatworms, ragworms and hagfish – a neural system with a largely undifferentiated ganglion (proto-brain) which partially aggregates sensory information and provides appropriate motor responses;
  • Categorizing responsiveness: in sharks and amphibians – internal representations (sensory maps) of the animal's internal state and the external world, some fairly primitive long-term categorizing memory, and the ability to combine these with affective (hedonic) agendas in formulating behaviour, which includes some social behaviours;
  • Social responsiveness: in Sauropsids (reptiles, lizards and birds) – considerable cortical development in a brain which recognizably has all the features of a mammalian brain, although less developed; reptiles and especially birds display emotional states and have complex social behaviours which involve the memory of past interactions with both conspecifics and heterospecifics; deception is frequently employed and behaviour often appears to have been planned;
  • Social consciousness: in some birds, particularly Corvids, and mammals; great expansion of the cortex and the quantity of re-entrant loops; mammals can typically remember and relate to many conspecifics and heterospecifics, plan and execute complex social strategies; they probably have 'autobiographic memory', that is, awareness of events and cognitive states in the recent past which can be referred to while formulating behaviour; in higher mammals social consciousness is verging on self-awareness (what is typically referred to as 'consciousness' by humans);
  • Self-awareness: in early humans, primates and possibly some other advanced mammals; the even larger cortex and ramifying re-entrant loops allow the development of 'groupish' behaviour based on elementary versions of the social calculus, reciprocity and intentionality; the need for enhanced communication in connection with social behaviours begins a process of sophistication of vocal, facial and gestural communication techniques; the individual is aware of herself as a social agent, albeit at a primitive level.
  • Meta-cognition: in humans; much larger groups (up to a limit of about 150) can function based on far greater transactional storage capacity; awareness of time, the development of language and the use of mind-reading or introspection (it is disputed) allow the individual to construct, implement or take part in multi-agent group-level social strategies. Beginning with the division of labour, individuals grow awareness of the differentiated bundles of traits and skills that make up 'personality' in themselves and others, and eventually, but very recently, begin to emerge from psychic domination by the group.

Note that, at every stage, the cognitive machinery that evolution has provided is just exactly what is required for the level of social behaviours displayed by the animal. The social behaviour required for survival and species success determines the level of cognitive capacity (expensive for an animal to maintain) that is needful.

Note also that beginning with primates, social behaviour has a gradually increasing cultural component. Many of the more advanced human skills depend to a large extent on cultural transmission, even if, like language, there is a genetic predisposition to acquire them.

In approaching the question of the relationship of our 'felt' self-ness, our consciousness, if you must, to the vastly more extensive entirety of our cognitive and pre-cognitive mental apparatus, the first thing is to notice that the whole process of development of consciousness, as described above, is perfectly inevitable. There were always going to be animals, they were always going to have senses and nerves, there were always going to be internal representations of the organism's state, sociality and groups were always going to evolve, and there was always going to be a level at which self-knowledge was going to be required on the part of the organism. So there is nothing remarkable about our self-awareness; it is a biological inevitability, unlike the fact that we have hair, breathe air and copulate. In other circumstances, on planet X, for example, we might have looked very different – but we would still have self-awareness. More interesting, in most ways, is what comes next? This question is addressed in Chapter Ten.

Unsurprisingly, the nature of consciousness has been a popular subject for speculation, which has generated shelves upon shelves of metaphysical and philosophical works. Most of them are useless, unfortunately, because they were written before neuro-anatomy and cognitive science demonstrated that responsiveness and awareness have neural mechanisms which are perfectly understandable on a mechanical level. We may not yet be able to give a fully explicit account of the 'neural correlates of consciousness', but no-one any longer doubts that such a thing is possible. It is just a matter of time.

More useful is to consider the adaptive purpose of consciousness.

Most writers on consciousness would probably disagree with this book's proposed inevitability of self-awareness in evolution. For instance, Ruse (The Darwinian Paradigm) explores the question of whether consciousness (read, self-awareness) would exist in an intelligent extra-terrestrial, and how far it exists in non-human species on this planet. More or less, he concludes that it doesn't matter anyway – observable behaviours in most of the species we study don't require consciousness in order to exist.

There are a number of exceptions, though. Mithen (The Pre-History of the Mind) seems to go along with Humphrey (A History of the Mind) in agreeing that self-awareness exists so as to allow us to explore our own minds in order to be able to model the minds of others, and that consciousness evolved as a cognitive trick to allow an individual to predict the social behaviour of other members of the group:

'At some stage in our evolutionary past we became able to interrogate our own thoughts and feelings, asking ourselves how we would behave in some imagined situation.'

Thus, for Mithen, chimpanzees have consciousness, but only in respect of social interaction, while modern human consciousness covers a much broader array of mental activities. Humphrey distinguishes between 'sensation', which is conscious awareness of sensual input (touch, sounds etc), and a higher order of 'reflexive consciousness' which relates to reasoning and one's own mental states, and is presumed to have evolved in the social phase of humanity's evolution.

Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) reaches a similar conclusion:

'Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain's simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself'.

Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens) and Prinz (2006) deliver more or less the same message.

For Hogg and Abrams (Social Identifications) self-awareness (consciousness in their terminology) is coincident with the role being inhabited at a given moment, thus its purpose would apparently be to allow performance of that role.

A completely contrary view, that consciousness is epiphenomenal and without biological purpose, has been espoused both by reductionists such as Huxley (1874), who said: 'We are conscious automata'; and from a different perspective by dualists who proclaim consciousness to be a quality of the soul. Neither position is tenable in the light of modern cognitive science.

James himself, so clear and so correct on most aspects of psychology, had an ambivalent view of consciousness. He called it (The Principles of Psychology, Volume I): 'an organ added for the sake of steering a nervous system grown too complex to regulate itself', for once losing his trust in the infallibility of evolution, and seeming to give in to the Victorian passion for control. But perhaps this remark was just a sign of frustration: he also said that the greatest task facing psychological science was to understand the origins and operation of consciousness. Baars's proposal (In the Theater of Consciousness) that a main role of consciousness is to publish its own contents to the various regions of the brain seems to be similar to James's view, giving up on evolution.

The second thing to notice about the self-awareness that we experience is that it has been bolted on to the complex infrastructure of sensory/cognitive awareness that has been evolving for the past 700 million years, and suffers from many disadvantages and imperfections as a result. These are explored in more detail in a later section of this Chapter, but for now we may take multi-tasking as one example: it is impossible to use a mobile phone while driving a car without severely downgrading your driving performance to a dangerous degree. This is not adaptive, evidently. It may be argued that evolution was unaccountably uninformed about mobile phones; but so was it uninformed about the Cretaceous bolide. It will respond, given time: those individuals with better neural connectivity and the ability to phase-split attention between talking and driving on a sufficiently rapid basis (twice a second?) will survive, while others won't. It's unfair on the passengers, of course, who have no choice in the matter. If you argue with a taxi-driver who is conducting an extra-marital affair and a market gardening business in three languages while driving you from Larnaca Airport into town, you are simply increasing the chances that he will kill you both, and increasing the fare to boot, apart from upsetting yourself.

Some of the perceived disadvantages of self-awareness are, however, deliberate on evolution's part. This applies for instance to deception: the ease which which people tell social lies leads to many tragic consequences, apart from many major works of literature. With the luxury of reflection and hindsight, how many people regret that they told that lie? But it would have been adaptive for them to tell it in the circumstances of the hunter-gatherer group – there were no CCTV cameras, there were no mobiles left around carelessly for other halves to check (in a recent poll, 60% of interviewees admitted that they checked their consorts' mobiles for illicit messages on a regular basis). Indeed, when they told the lie, they may even have believed it – it is a commonplace of research into deception that you act better if you believe what you are saying. Evolution has kindly arranged that when you traduce the partner you are fed up with, you genuinely believe that you are in the right. 'Genuinely'? That's to say, your conscious persona, your 'I', believes itself to be in the right. The unconscious is under no such illusions. This aspect of consciousness is also examined in detail below.

It is not fair or correct, however, to vilify consciousness by comparing its performance today, in 2009, with its specification 100,000 years ago by when its neural infrastructure had taken on its current form in all essential respects. We have come on since then, as has consciousness, on a number of levels. The most significant of the changes that have taken place may have been the transition from self-awareness to meta-cognition. There was a moment at which we became able to reflect on our desires, passions and ambitions, somehow linked to the emergence of our identity as individuals out of the fog of groupedness, of collective consciousness or unconsciousness. This is eloquently and persuasively described by Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind).

Important threads of Jaynes's argument rest on the functional bi-lateralisation of the brain, something that probably happened between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago (it is disputed) and was associated with the development of more sophisticated forms of language. This is not disputed, and anatomically it is a fact that the areas of the brain that deal with the production of speech both internally and externally, and the underlying areas that deal with the formation of concepts and symbolic representation (essential to language) are differentially distributed over the two hemispheres. It is also a matter of fact that (in a normally right-handed person) the right side of the brain deals in the realities of the nervous system whereas the left side of the brain accommodates the social agent and the self of which we are aware (some of the evidence for this results from study of pathological conditions of the brain, and is recounted in Appendix Four; and see Damasioibid, Baarsibid, and WegnerThe Illusion of Conscious Will).

Jaynes's account of pre-historic moral structures in the human brain, in what he refers to as 'bi-cameral' man, places the origin of moral imperatives and guidance in the right side of the brain, whence the subjective, felt self of the left side of the brain hears voices which guide and instruct it. He presents a panoply of evidence drawn from literature, history and brain studies in support of his thesis.

It's interesting that talking to oneself, whether silently or out loud, plays such a prominent part in the minute-to-minute process of making plans and the functioning of the social agent. Repeating something out loud – or to a lesser extent silently – makes it rememberable for a longer period than just reading it. While playing a game involving other people, one doesn't hesitate to give oneself instructions, advice and reproof and it doesn't seem to matter that others can clearly hear everything you say. Many people, when they are on their own, admit to keeping up a running commentary to themselves on their mental and physical activities. This all seems to fit somehow with the idea that the left brain is used to receiving voice input, and it's tempting to suppose that when a person talks to herself, it's the right brain talking to the left brain. 'Oh you idiot – look what you've done!'

It was the sudden emergence of the awareness of personal individuality in the first millennia BC that spelled the end for the bi-cameral man. Jaynes's dating of the transition to this relatively recent period BC is controversial, as is the 'bi-cameral' man himself, but not Jaynes's general proposition that a change took place from unconscious dominance of the self to the reflective, self-aware condition of the psyche which we now all inhabit.

But Jaynes's transition is not even then the whole story. Consciousness in a 21st century human is not necessarily the same as consciousness in a 13th century human or a 3rd century human. Again, however, that may be merely to say that the behavioural decision process in a 21st century human is subject to a different (wider?) set of influences than the process in a 13th century human. Still, there is broad agreement that consciousness in the sense of the self-awareness of the individual of himself as an independent actor in human affairs is something that has enormously expanded in very modern times. In a sense this is a negation of the group; if self-awareness (consciousness) in individuals originally came about through the injection of 'collective consciousness' into the individual psyche, then the later process of individuation equates to separation from the group.

Durkheim's (1893) description of the individual consciousness as being the receptacle of content held in the 'collective consciousness', meaning somehow the cultural burden of society, is therefore not that useful in discussing consciousness in the modern sense as distinct from the overall cognitive apparatus (see for instance Kuper, Anthropology, Anthropologists: The Modern British School). However, Durkheim is clearly in agreement with many other writers both that the individual takes her moral content from the collective, and that the individual psyche plays an increasingly prominent role in society.

Although only a small fraction of writers on consciousness have been mentioned or quoted above, their prevailing view that consciousness (self-awareness) has a necessary role in the functioning of the human social group fairly reflects the general balance of opinion among contemporary researchers, and especially among those who accept a role for neural events in the 'production' of self-awareness.

Perhaps this is the moment to deal with the perennially difficult question of free will, which has exercised so many minds over so many centuries. The evidence, it is clear, is right against any idea that the social agent has free will. However, there is no denying it to the unconscious. Paradoxically, and ironically, the conclusion has to be that the part of us that thinks it has free will, doesn't, while the part of us that has it, doesn't know it's got it. Even Bishop Berkeley would have laughed, as we laugh at him, stuck in his all-too-real coach.

The Moral Agenda – Making Groups Work

What makes the human group different from its predecessors among other types of animal is its social dimension. Of course the advantages of less socially developed groups, such as greater security, also apply to human groups, but they are dwarfed by the truly amazing proliferation of social forms and achievements among humans. The evolved chacteristics of the group that made these advances possible have been mentioned in places in previous chapters; but can be briefly summarized as follows:

  • The division of labour;
  • Cultural transmission of social knowledge, culminating in written language;
  • The existence of a moral or ethical code of conduct;
  • The emergence of self-awareness and individuality, allowing human agents to take part in ever-more complex and effective social strategies.

In this section the focus will be on the mechanisms by which groups developed and administered moral and ethical agendas, whose imperatives often directly contradict the instinctive behaviours of the pre-existing human animal.

No-one will deny that a code of morality is a necessary component of a functioning society, even of the simplest kind, and in the absence of language it seems inevitable that morality should have to be delivered internally (through unconscious drives, instincts or predispositions) rather than externally, a process which would presumably involve self-awareness. Darwin certainly believed that morality was capable of being created by evolution (ie, could be selected for), as he makes clear in The Descent of Man. In the mid-20th century, conventional thought went more in the direction of a cultural, non-genetic basis for morality (part of the great tabula rasa heresy) but by the end of the century neo-Darwinists had brought about a return to an evolutionary explanation of morality.

The starting-point for evolution of a human code of ethics must be 'strong' reciprocity, including reciprocal altruism and the propensity to exchange; previous chapters have established the (by now) undoubted genetic basis of this initial ethical package in the human mind. But a far more complex and extensive set of rules is required to govern even fairly basic social relationships in an ever-expanding group, and there are differing theories as to how this package of rules might have come into being. The standpoint of this book is of course that they evolved (before people were self-aware) as a series of collective unconscious predispositions through a combination of genetic change and early, non-linguistic cultural transmission via the institution of 'The Fathers'.

There was a strong archetypal component to this evolutionary process. Archetypes were mentioned briefly in Chapter Three and are examined in greater depth in Appendix Three; here it is enough to recall briefly that heritable archetypes become established in the collective unconscious as a result of constant repetition of a particular sensory/cognitive pattern whose ready availability in the brain will have adaptive fitness (Jung, 1958; Lumsden and Wilson, 1981).

The set of moral precepts that developed along with the basic groupishness of humans are housed and delivered unconsciously, as has been seen. The feelings that demand fairness in relationships, that drive gossiping, that make physical and verbal grooming important both to the giver and the receiver, just to pick a few of the many dozens or probably hundreds of component rules that drive group behaviour, are not habitually experienced consciously. Ruse (The Darwinian Paradigm) says:

'You might object, with Immanuel Kant, that true morality occurs only when one is a totally disinterested participant. . . Evolutionists . . . argue that the evolved sense of morality in humans indeed does not necessarily involve conscious manipulation or calculation of possible return. In fact, evolutionists argue that one will probably function most efficiently when one has no hope of return at all.'

There are limitations of course on the extent to which morality can be delivered unconsciously (genetically, collectively), which led to the need for external reinforcement or application of moral standards. During the long evolution of human society, and prior to the arrival of written language, which came far too late to affect evolutionary development, the only convincing mechanism available for the external delivery of moral rules was spoken language, and what emerged was the institution of 'the Fathers', a projection onto suitable members of the group of the educating and guiding role already occupied in a child's psyche by its own father figure(s). The 'Father' is clearly an archetype, useful both in the developing psyche of the child (especially when the actual father is inadequate or absent – Asper, The Inner Child In Dreams) and in the grown-up member of society.

Says Trivers (2002):

'Multi-party altruistic systems increase by several-fold the cognitive difficulties in detecting imbalances and deciding whether they are due to cheating or to random factors. One simplifying possibility that language facilitates is the formulation of rules of conduct, cheating being detected as infraction of such a rule. In short, selection may favor the elaboration of norms of reciprocal conduct.'

It's not the case, though, that only evolved, genetic moral predispositions can be delivered through the collective unconscious, that is to say, as part of the moral baggage that travels with group membership. The rules pertaining to a particular group may on occasion be delivered by 'The Fathers' through the conscious, or at the minimum through observation of how group members behave, but they can be housed in and applied by the individual unconscious in most situations. Patriotism is an example of this; it's not a basic groupish requirement that you should die for your group at its request. But the group called a nation does by example and by explicit requirement demand that a member should be prepared to die in the interest of the group, in certain circumstances. This is so drilled into people by history books and by movies (unconscious delivery of the rules) and military training (external delivery of the rules) that when the awful moment comes they don't (except in rare cases) need to go through any conscious decision process. In fact, the group relies on the fact that they won't.

As society became more complex, and alongside the development of language, the delivery of moral rules itself became a more complex matter. You can drill it into a child for 10 years at school, at home, and in church, that he shouldn't steal, and some of that may get fixed in the unconscious; but in the real world, society relies on the ever-presence of external prohibitions and sanctions to control behaviour. Children are not naturally honest; it doesn't seem that evolution saw any need for honesty in the individual; indeed, deception is an integral part of the human's social armoury. When the child, as a teenager, is in the off-licence and about to put the half-bottle of brandy into his coat pocket, he may be stopped by a learned, ingrained sentiment, but it is much more likely that he will remember vividly the words he heard at sunday school, or the movie he saw the night before in which a villain was caught stealing and shot by the sheriff.

The arrival of writing enabled the external delivery of moral precepts (eg the 10 Commandments) operating primarily through consciousness, so that eventually there came to be three levels or channels through which rules can be delivered:

  • Unconscious imperatives (eg reciprocal altruism as developed by evolution);
  • Conscious, belief-based imperatives (eg 'I believe in the 10 Commandments' and therefore I will not steal);
  • Externally imposed rules (eg by the State or a group to which one belongs).

Much of the responsibility for the delivery of moral rules continued to rest on the shoulders of 'The Fathers'. By the time of the Roman Empire, the fathers (the heads of the major patrician families) had taken on all manner of extraneous powers, but they are clearly the lineal descendants of the original law-giving, morality-providing fathers of the group (De Jouvenel, On Power; Maine, Ancient Law). The Incas, prior to the advent of written language, had trained, official 'historians' who memorized vast swathes of information and were used as reference sources (Reader, Man On Earth). The positions were often hereditary.

'The Fathers' have of course always been men, even in matrilineal socieities (Fortes, 1953). The occurrence of shamanism is another modern, and not so modern, example of 'The Fathers' in action. Always men, and often hereditary, shamans represent an elite, knowledgeable faction of a group which exercises moral control over the majority. Here is Whitley (1994) describing a North American foraging society:

'It was only through the acquisition of shamanistic power that men could truly become political actors and gain prestige and status in Numic society . . . shamanistic power was partly inherited, but in any case limited to a small segment of the population (estimated at about 2%).'

Jaynes's 'bi-cameral man', the one who heard the Gods from his right hemisphere, may perhaps have been one of the Fathers. It is a question which Jaynes unhappily cannot now answer, whether he intended his bi-hemispherical paradigm to apply to all people, or just to men (it is a known biological fact that there is less hemispherical variation in women than in men), or just to educated men. It is arguable for instance that there was a culturally transmitted element to self-awareness from very early on, and that it was 'The Fathers' who alone kept the torch alight through the generations. After all, if 100% of the population had access to an adequate set of moral rules in the collective consciousness, then there would have been no need for leaders. Later on, though, as Jaynes points out, when oracles were required, they were often young, initially uneducated women – perhaps so chosen exactly because they had not learnt meta-cognition.

At a certain point during the mutation of the hunter-gatherer group into modern society the job of ethical guidance was taken over by organized religion and The Fathers turned into high priests. The role of myth in early human consciousness (and maintained in contemporary primitive cultures) was noted in Chapter Three. Myths have some ethical utility; some of them appear to encapsulate moral lessons, and have archetypal foundations.

Religions were built largely on mythical foundations, but apart from that and 'The Fathers' they do not owe much else to genetic factors – they are cultural phenomena.

No-one knows exactly when organized religion appeared, although archeological evidence of totemistic and animistic practices can be dated to 150,000 years ago through burial sites, and python worship in Botswana is dated to 70,000 years ago (Coulson, 2006). Fascinatingly, Coulson speculates that a chamber behind a carved python representation may have been used by a shaman to speak as if through the python. It may be however that religion as we understand it had to await written language, which would date its appearance to a surprisingly late third millennium BC.

The 'Python' Stone Is Pockmarked By Man

Copyright Sheila Coulson
Department of Archaeology
University of Oslo, Norway
Reproduced with permission

Humans As Social Agents: The Rules Of The Game

Although individuals in modern human groups pride themselves on their personal uniqueness, expressed through elaborate personality structures, variegated opinions and carefully crafted behavioural patterns, these displays (part of social competition) go only so far: the pressures of conformity and the requirement to occupy pre-defined roles in society act as a rigid skeleton on which individuality can be fleshed out.

One of the key groupish predispositions is to conform; many researchers have confirmed and measured the pressures on human individuals to conform in a wide range of social situations. See Sherif (1936) and Deutsch and Gerard (1955). Very significantly, Sherif reported that subjects who had 'adjusted' their judgements to conform with the group's norms continued to use the group norm even when taken out of the group, and genuinely believed that their changed behaviour was correct. Not always, though: in a set of follow-up experiments Asch (1951) found that some subjects refused to conform, while others just pretended to do so, something he called 'conscious conforming'.

One of the main ways in which social conformity is achieved is through the existence of roles which people can slip into without needing to think about it (Hopper, The Social Unconscious). Hogg and Abrams (ibid) describe how interactions between people in a variety of social situations tend to be governed by the roles that people inhabit (ie the groups that they belong to) during the encounter:

'When we deal with others we often do so as representatives of some social category, group or role. The impact of the presence of others is rarely 'merely' neutral. It embodies both meaning and purpose.'

They use the behaviour of football supporters to illustrate their point, but anyone who has attempted to mediate in a row between sales and production workers in a manufacturing company will know just what they mean.

Many associations (groups, clubs, call them what you will) play an ethical role in addition to their 'groupish' contribution. Lots of them exist for charitable purposes, or have such purposes in addition to their basic role ('Friends' organisations at schools, for instance). Many more have sets of internal rules which control the behaviour of members during group activities, or even in some cases beyond. A London gentlemens' club will be quick to censure or expel a member whose public conduct is thought unacceptable. The member of a tennis club who persistently cheats will find that this reputation dogs him both inside and outside the gates of the club.

Barth (Ethnic Groups and Boundaries) remarks that ethnic identity (membership of an ethnic group) carries with it limitations on the behaviour of individual members:

'Ethnic identity implies a series of constraints on the kinds of roles and individual is allowed to play, and the partners he may choose for different kinds of transactions. In other words, regarded as a status, ethnic identity is superordinate to most other statuses, and defines the permissible constellations of statuses, or social personalities, which an individual with that identity may assume.'

Barth also points out that humans are good at slipping from one identity into another when it suits them, and this even applies to ethnic identity, which at first sight would have appeared to be more fixed than some other group identities. He takes examples from primitive societies and comments:

'Examples of stable and persisting ethnic boundaries that are crossed by a flow of personnel are clearly far more common then the ethnographic literature would lead us to believe.'

Anyone who has visited the USA as a foreigner, and talked to a representative selection of Americans will know that most of them are very quick to tell you that they are in fact German, Polish, Ukrainian, Scottish, Jewish or whatever. Immigrants from time immemorial have crossed ethnic boundaries, not to mention the Sabine women, who perhaps had less choice in the matter. Presumably a Roman matron with Sabine origins had both ethnicities in her own mind?

Although non-Sabine individuals have a certain degree of ethnic choice, once within particular ethnic surroundings, they have very little legitimate ethical choice, since the State has an stranglehold in that department and is not noted for offering its consumers (citizens) much in the way of ethical freedom. Not that most people give themselves much choice in terms of their life roles. It is a commonplace of social psychology that people live their lives according to 'narratives' which are acquired during early socialization or during training. Thus Seabright (The Company of Strangers):

'Most kinds of professional training, whether apprenticeship as a mechanic or studying for the Bar or attending an off-site course as a chef, involve learning not just how to accomplish particular tasks but how to project yourself as a particular kind of person'.

But it's not just a question of choosing the particular group behaviours that apply in particular circumstances; there is also a ranking process, as poor (OK, not so poor!) Kate Moss found out when she tried to combine a 'party-animal' role with 'young woman's role model' status. Her (ex-) paramour Pete Doherty on the other hand can mix 'party-animal' with 'young rock star' with impunity.This may seem a statement of the obvious, and so it is – but the underlying group memberships are the drivers of this 'obvious' result.

Party Animals

This pictures are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License

Public condemnation of Moss's behaviour stemmed from a perceived mismatch of roles on her part, rather than any sense of moral disapprobation as such.

The tendency to conform manifests itself in the mechanism by which reputation (all important in a social group setting) is established and maintained, by gossip (as a successor to grooming) and other linguistic social exchanges. Surely the tendency to conform must have evolved at least partly in order to sustain reputation as a major aspect of human groups.

The importance of gossip to the maintenance of reputation in the group was first noted by Gluckman (1963): if you are not in the swim, you are not in the group. Gossip is liable to abuse, of course. Says Power (2000): '. . . it is the speaker's status . . . that determines the likely influence and credibility of gossip, not necessarily objective truth or falsity.' She points to 'the extreme pressure for Machiavellian manipulation of information about adultery and paternity' in kin-group disputes. 'A view of such gossip as disinterested is patently absurd'. Winnowing out the truth from the insincere and misleading chaff is another common-sensical social skill that most people seem to have. Individuals who get caught out in this way suffer permanent damage to their own reputations.

De Backer and Gurven (2006) modeled 'vicarious information transfer', as they termed gossip, showing that 'by communicating about the strategies of others, individuals can vicariously learn at faster rates and lower cost'. Thus, gossip assists the development of co-operation, and, obviously, the establishment of reputation.

Dunbar (ibid) notes that about two thirds of inter-personal conversation is devoted to social topics:

'these observations provide strong support for the suggestion that language evolved to facilitate the bonding of social groups, and that it mainly achieves this aim by permitting the exchange of socially relevant information'.

And the purpose of this exchange is largely to influence your own or another person's reputation. Reputation is perhaps the most important attribute that a person can have in a modern human social group. The obsessive attention paid by the media to the rises and falls from grace of public personalities is evidence enough of this.

Deception – A Necessary Evil

Deception is described among a very wide range of animal species (eg Dawkins, 1982 and Trivers, 1985) and certainly existed as an adaptive technique long before the emergence of social groupings of animals, but individual behaviour intended to deceive one or more particular conspecifics emerges only as part of 'groupish' behaviour (eg among some primates), and seems to require at least a primitive ability to think of the other as different from oneself. Dawkins and Trivers both suggest that the 'arms race' between the ability to deceive and the ability to perceive deception is responsible for some of the complexity of the evolving brain.

During the emergence of the human social group, deception started to acquire a moral dimension. As reputation gains ground as an indicator of group position, external deception ceases to be an acceptable technique in all circumstances and can be seen as deviant behaviour. Once the group starts to have internal organisation, and individuals have knowledge of each other's characteristics (roughly coeval with the use of language and the increase in brain size that led to the emergence of Homo sapiens) then some types of deception, if practised in the group, are rapidly noticed and punished by expulsion or withdrawal of group benefits (grooming, access to females, inclusion in trade).

This is not to say that deception disappears from the range of human behaviours because of groups; of course not. What changes is that reputation acquires a positive value, and it can be lost by aberrant behaviour (aberrant from group norms). Deception becomes a crime of sorts, and sanctions are applied to those who practice it. As the group becomes larger, deception becomes easier to practice again, because you can't know everybody in a settled community of 3,000 individuals, with the difference that it has become established as wrong – because it is hurtful to the group. The groupish instinct or nature of the individual has many dimensions, and the wrongness of deception is one of them.

Collective (group) deception does of course exist (think for instance of religion or politics) and is clearly limited to humans, requiring some sort of symbolic understanding and a high level of common purpose. Knight (1991) put foward the idea that female co-operation through the use of the menstrual cycle to force men into provisioning them was an early or the first example of collective deception, and a key stage in the development of symbolic awareness in humans, associated also with the use of ritual as a significant component of social life. Power and Watts (1996) followed this up, noting the prevalent use of red ochre as a cosmetic (as they would argue, to simulate menstruation) between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, and proposing that: 'Symbolism emerged as a set of deceptive sexual signals aimed by kin-coalitions of females at their mates for the purpose of exploiting male muscle-power'.

Something else peculiar to the human species is the existence of self-deception, and prominent in its exploration of human self-deception has been Trivers (The Elements of a Scientific Theory of Self-Deception) who describes multiple forms of self-deception which surface in the consciousness, including:

  • the enhancement of deception of others;
  • input from the internal voices of significant others, notably including parents;
  • the results of internal genetic conflict, particularly between maternal and paternal genes; and
  • creating a favourable future orientation.

What could be the purpose of self-deception? The answer surely has to do with social interactions, and more specifically those in groups. Says Trivers:

'Because deception is easily selected between individuals, it may also generate self-deception, the better to hide ongoing deception from detection by others. In this view, the conscious mind is, in part, maintained to deceive others'.

Most humans are not that good at deliberate deception – there is a wide range of involuntary facial, vocal and body-language clues that are used by onlookers to detect deception in a speaker (Frank, Passions Within Reason). Hence the need for self-deception, which allows someone to pretend convincingly. It is a delicate social balance that evolution has arrived at – to provide at one and the same time for open and trustworthy communication while also allowing deception in some circumstances. Frank lists universally accepted emotional facial expressions and explains that the highly expressive human face needs to reflect both unconscious (sincere?) emotions and conscious (insincere?) ones:

'. . . there will often be advantage in pretending to feel an emotion one does not. (But) if all the facial muscles were perfectly subject to conscious control, facial expressions would be robbed of their capacity to convey emotional information.'

During a discussion of anosognosia (see Appendix Four), Ramachandran and Blakeslee (Phantoms in the Brain) link self-deception to the existence of two hemispheres in the brain, without going so far as to suggest any causative mechanism. Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby (The Adapted Mind), describe deception and self-deception as two sides of the same coin (one deceives another better if one deceives oneself at the same time), linking this in some respects to the evolutionary need for a divide between the conscious and the unconscious. Crow (2002) showed that functional bi-lateralisation of the brain followed the evolution of hominids, and can be attributed to a mutated protein involved in early development of the embryo. He argues that the key genetic change took place only 90,000 years ago, and that this may indicate a similar date for the origin of language, although he admits the possibility that it happened consequent on a previous, lesser change on the more conventional time-scale for language development. At any rate we can assert that self-deception arrived with language and functional bilateralisation of the brain.

Jaynes (ibid) of course is the one who has taken self-deception by 'the internal voices of significant others' to an extreme conclusion, as was described above, with an other-hemispherical voice delivering guidance representing the moral will of the group but taken to be divine in origin.

Incidentally, the theory of self-deception easily explains why anthropologists fell into the error (now widely admitted) of group selectionism. This may have been first pointed out by Alexander (Darwinism and Human Affairs). Says Trivers: 'It is just the kind of social theory you would expect to be promulgated in a group-living species whose members are concerned to increase each other's group orientation.'

For all their adaptive utility, deception and self-deception can be damaging for the group as much as for the individual. It is all too easy for the members of a group to reinforce each other's self-deceiving, often inflated, attitudes. This has its most destructive consequences in war. That doesn't seem likely to have been an 'intentional' evolutionary result, since it can't improve fitness to have groups destroying each other. Or can it, in an over-populated region? The groups that survived would be those in which group self-deception was closest to reality, being those groups which not only believed themselves to be strong, but actually were so. This effect could be achieved by having institutionalised dissent within a group.

National Self-Deception At Work

Public domain

Consciousness V. The Unconscious – Who's In Charge?

The feeling we call volition is not the cause of the voluntary act, but simply the symbol in consciousness of that stage of the brain which is the immediate cause of the act.

T H Huxley, On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata (1874)

Although we have become conscious of our moral nature, and have a greatly expanded awareness of our own individuality, that does not of itself have anything much to say about the role of consciousness in moderating behaviour ('the conscious exercise of our individuality' is how many people might term it).

Recent work on self-deception (supra) shows how strongly the human consciousness is used by various parts of the psyche and the external group for their own purposes, and is strongly at odds with any view that consciousness has a directing role in individual human behaviour.

A highly significant physiological fact is that while it takes about 20 ms for a nervous signal to reach the brain from for example a finger, and the finger can respond in 50 ms, the signal does not register in consciousness (if at all) for 500 ms. A nervous 'round-trip' involving cognitive processing may take between 100 and 200 ms. In addition, the registering of a conscious 'intention' to act takes 350 ms from its neuronal origins, and there is a further 200 ms between the registering of the intention and the carrying out of the action. Says Trivers (2002): 'It seems as if our conscious mind is more of an on-looker than a decision-maker'.

The research work in which these figures were originally established (Libet 1996) has been questioned, but is broadly accepted as correct. There is simply no argument that consciousness, in the general sense of the term, originates or directs motor behaviour. Of course this book has been careful to distinguish between different levels of 'consciousness': the sense in which Libet meant the term has here been called self-awareness – the experiments that were done were dependent on the subject pressing a button when she became aware of a particular external event. The levels of consciousness which have here been termed 'categorizing responsiveness' and 'social awareness' were no doubt involved in the process long before the 'I' of the subjects became aware of events. The particular experiment carried out could probably have been dealt with at the 'categorizing responsiveness' level once the requirement to respond had been set up by the conscious mind of the subject. But before someone jumps up and says, aha! that proves that the conscious mind is really in charge of everything after all, bear in mind that with a small amount of rehearsal, the motor response in question could easily become a habit, which definitely would not involve self-awareness in performance, as witness, for instance, 'automatic driving', which is what you do when you are talking on the phone to your partner for twenty minutes and suddenly wake up to find that you have driven home without the least conscious awareness of what you were doing.

There is also the matter of the emotions. Discussion of free will and the role of consciousness in behaviour often takes place on a fairly mechanistic basis, as if the decision process is just a matter of cognitive processing – ratiocination. But affective agendas (emotions and other drives such as hunger or sex) are deeply implicated in the decision process. At every moment of every day, an individual is functioning within a nimbus of emotional 'tone'. The backdrop of tone that you experience at each moment is set by a combination of emotions and drives: you may have woken in the morning in the grip of a happy dream which will exercise an influence over you for hours to come; you may be very hungry because you are trying to slim; you may be still trying to shake off the unpleasant feelings that remained with you following a particularly bad row with a spouse or friend the previous day. This tapestry of affective (hedonic) states is sensed by consciousness in a remote kind of way, indeed a particularly strong emotion may thrust itself in and occupy the foreground of your attention, even preventing you from feeling able to make rational decisions; but these feelings and drives have their main impact at an unconscious level, inhibiting or encouraging or even initiating behaviours. This is one more set of reasons for believing that the main action is taking place well away from the conscious 'I' and its autobiographical or narrative self.

It's not even true that the conscious mind (self-awareness) is required in order to plan a sequence of inter-personal interactions based on some new piece of information, which is one way of attempting to bypass the 'habit' evidence. How many times have you had the experience of intuitively feeling in a particular social situation that you should behave thus, rather than so, ignoring your intuition, and realizing not a minute later that you should have listened to yourself? This is such a common experience that there is no need to wait for the answer. Consciousness (self-awareness) has a function – everything ever evolved has a function – but it is definitively not to help in minute by minute conduct of inter-personal relationships, or even of external behaviour as such. The tiger is going to get his lunch very quickly and easily if the poor human victim is forced to rely on the slow operation of consciousness.

It's worse than that, even. There is no a priori reason why most of the cognitive activities that take place within consciousness should have to take place within 'awareness' rather than outside it. Thinking to oneself: 'Ah, that is Jones and look, today he is growing a beard', is an activity that could perfectly well take place in an unconscious part of the brain, and almost certainly does, alongside the fact that one is aware of it. 'What shall I do next?' is a slightly more difficult case; but this is a question that the brain is answering on all sorts of levels all the time. What is the biological or evolutionary benefit of having awareness of the posing and/or answering of this question?

It's quite a problem, to decide whether to ask Jones (jokingly) if he has not got enough money to buy a razor, when you know that the leader of the group (Mrs Thatcher) has a prejudice against bearded men, and yet on the other hand you are competing with Jones for a ministerial post. How often have you felt a subconscious warning when about to make such a joke; and how often has it turned out that your subsconscious was right? The conscious is not a good decision forum, especially when multiple levels of intentionality are involved; the subconscious (meaning, the whole brain except for the tiny bit of it that deals in awareness) is just far better at synthesizing complex sets of information and developing appropriate behaviours. This seems to be a fairly strong argument against the bespoke development of self-awareness as a mediator of social activity – nature would have done a better job – and suggests that self-awareness exists purely to enable the social agent, to allow the puppets to act out their play in front of the audience while the vast, intricate mechanism of your cognitive self works away under the surface, unseen and unfelt, enabling, guiding, persuading, preventing and pretending.

Before jumping to conclusions, though, let's listen to some expert opinions (in alphabetical order!) about the role of consciousness:

Boyer (Religion Explained) describes the mental processes involved in decision-making in a wide range of situations, independently of consciousness:

'Various plans for action are considered and most of them are rejected by higher planning functions without our being aware of this selection'.

Such processes may well take account of 'moral' precepts and may well not take account of beliefs (or moral attitudes) available to the consciousness if they are momentarily inappropriate, leading to self-deception, although this was not (necessarily) the intended outcome of the process.

Dennett (Consciousness Explained) examines the complex and mostly unconscious processes by which we form speech:

'Although we are occasionally conscious of performing elaborate, practical reasoning, leading to a conclusion about what, all things considered, to do, followed by a conscious decision to do that very thing, and culminating finally in actually doing it, these are relatively rare experiences. Most of our intentional actions are performed without any such preamble, and a good thing too, since there wouldn't be time.'

James (ibid) uses the word 'consciousness' to include the whole ideational process, of which we are aware of only a small part – if we have a thought, for James we are conscious of it, whether we are aware of it or not. For James, consciousness (now meaning self-awareness) is a window into the process of thought, and a very imperfect one at that:

'Let anyone try to cut a thought across in the middle and get a look at its section, and he will see how difficult the observation of the transitive tracts is'.

And he observes that we don't even know in advance what we are going to say, quoting Egger (1881):

'before speaking, one barely knows what one intends to say, but afterwards one is filled with admiration and surprise at having said and thought it so well'.

One may add, though, that sometimes one is filled with horror at some insensitive or gauche remark one has involuntarily made: 'I could have bitten my tongue off.' So the unconscious is not always cleverer than the conscious, or rather, it sometimes slips past the social agent when the latter isn't attending! James also makes much of the use of habit in reducing the load on consciousness (the cognitive process). James's (Volume II) extensive discussion (and denial) of will in cognitive decision-making processes and the causation of motor sequences shows that he had no need of Libet's figures to reach the conclusion that consciousness plays little or no part in what is taking place.

Jeannerod (2003) considers Libet's results and some later experiments which expanded on them, agreeing that consciousness (self-awareness) is not a party to the unconscious processing which initiates and results in motor action (it is just too slow), and distinguishing between two levels of the self, an 'embodied', unconscious self which is in direct touch with the processing, and a 'narrative' self:

'The role of consciousness should rather be to ensure the continuity of subjective experience across actions which are – by necessity – executed automatically. Because it reads behaviour rather than starting it, consciousness represents a background mechanism for the cognitive rearrangement after the action is completed, eg for justifying its results, or modifying the factors that have been at the origin of the movement if the latter turned out to be unsuccessful.'

Piaget (The Child and Reality) says that in the case of both affective and cognitive structures, the great bulk of processing takes place unconsciously: 'some (but rather limited) consciousness of the result and almost entire (or initially entire) unconsciousness of the intimate mechanism leading to the result'. He insists that the conscious contains only a selective set of the results of extensive cognitive activity being carried out in the brain at large, and that those results can sometimes be misleading. Although he is dealing with the child, he explicitly states that this principle applies to all humans.

Schacter (1989) argues that consciousness should be viewed as 'a global database that integrates the output of modular processes'. Schacter says that such a mechanism is unavoidable in any modular system in which processing and representations of different types of information are handled in parallel by separate modules. If that's true, it may be another example of the re-use by evolution of a pre-existing facility created for quite another purpose. But while Schacter's premise is unassailable, it's hard to see why the integration should need to be carried out consciously, especially when consciousness has been shown in so many respects to be far from a reliable witness. This view can perhaps be taken as an example of a school of consciousness studies which seeks to explain the workings of the human brain on the analogy of a computer, and sees consciousness as an immanent quality of the apparatus – but like dualist accounts of consciousness, such theories fall to pieces in the face of modern neurological research.

Enough already, perhaps. More would be wearying. There is no doubting the severe limitations on the role played by self-awareness in the conduct of our cognitive processes. Other writers who have reached the same conclusion include Damasio (ibid), Prescott (2007), and Wegner (ibid).

The distancing of consciousness (self-awareness) from the action does not make consciousness into a spandrel or epigenetic; as has been explained in previous sections of the book, it has a social purpose, that of supporting the behaviour of a human individual as a social agent in the group. The concept of the self evidently had to pre-date the existence of self-awareness; again, previous sections have explained how the brain mechanisms supporting earlier stages of awareness – categorizing responsiveness, social responsiveness and social consciousness (the autobiographical or narrative self) – create a platform of neural capacity on which the pre-conscious self can emerge. It is then a relatively small, if highly important step for the individual to become aware of that self as an independent agent. But it is an error to identify awareness of self, consciousness that is, with the self, which is enormously more extensive than the parts of it which appear in consciousness (self-awareness). A list of those writers who have made this erroneous identification would be very long, and it would be invidious to pick out just a few of them. Instead, we will focus on those who have described the self, correctly, as a backdrop against which the social agent plays out her role, with the mechanism of attention spotlighting, as it were, particular aspects of self from moment to moment.

Prinz (ibid) proposes that the self was enabled by the development of 'dual representation' in the brain, the ability of the cortex to process representations of future (or past) events at the same time as processing current information. The ability to represent 'not-now' circumstances and events was advantageous to survival 'when animals started living in groups that relied on symbolic communication', and the animal's depiction of itself in 'not now' circumstances creates a self of which the animal, as a final step, can become aware. Note that the availability of symbolic communication, specifically language, is essential for this process to achieve optimal results in terms of group fitness. Without language, communication of 'not now' scenarios with other group members is impossible. The newly-invented self may have existed in the mind of the human individual before language evolved, but would have had a much more limited role to play. The non-communicating human may still have been able to attach characteristics (personality traits etc) to her internal self in modeling 'not now' behaviours or situations; but how much more useful it would become when that self could enter conceptual dialogue with others.

For Damasio (ibid) the stability of the self through time is one of its key characteristics, and he sees the self as being underpinned by a 'proto-self': 'a coherent collection of neural patterns which map, moment by moment, the state of the physical structure of the organism in its many dimensions'. He is quite precise about those brain structures which are required to implement the proto-self, and those which are not. But we are not conscious (aware) of the proto-self. Damasio's core self (of which we can still not become aware) is more or less contiguous with what he terms 'core consciousness', being the continuity through time of second-order representations of the animal (well, it's a human) in its current state, generated by the proto-self. Then comes 'autobiographical self', resulting from the cognitive ability to assemble past, current and future instances of core self into a narrative. Finally, in Damasio's hierarchy of levels of consciousness, comes 'extended consciousness' which is more or less equivalent to self-awareness as it has been described in this book; but Damasio is not too explicit about the inter-relationship between the self and consciousness.

Allowing for differences in terminology, the essential similarity of Damasio's model with Prinz's model will be immediately apparent; and this is shared also with other brain-based accounts of the development of the self based on multiple level neural representations of the animal's internal and external environment, including that of Edelman, which was described in Chapter Two. It would be correct also to mention Block (1997), who is on the same wavelength, although his categories of 'P-Consciousness' and 'A-Consciousness' are less securely related to neural events.

Whatever the model, there eventually comes a point at which the human becomes aware of herself as an agent in the social arena, required to believe in volition (free will), self-determination and personal moral responsibility, and asked to take part in the shadow-play of human social life. Of course it wasn't like that at first: the earliest glimmerings of self-awareness were no more than the tiniest hints of a new level of cognitive expertise. And we cannot tell with any certainty what parts of self-awareness are genetic in nature, and what parts culturally determined, although the time-scales involved suggest that major parts of self-awareness are cultural rather than genetic.

However originated, the separateness of this self-awareness from the continuing work of what may be called the empirical work of responsiveness and awareness (lower levels of consciousness, in other terminologies) has hopefully now been sufficiently established. The social agent is working in the artificial environment of inter-personal society, whereas the more basic levels of consciousness are there to deal with the real world of predation, survival and mating. Some of the differences between the perceptions of the social agent and the realities of sensory existence in the real world have already been noticed; it will now be useful to look a little more thoroughly at some of the characteristics of the social agent, including the techniques used by it to deal with its lack of connectedness with the ongoing reality-based processes of the bulk of its cognitive apparatus, and after that, the role and characteristics of individuality.

The expediences used by the conscious self to cover over or explain the lacunae or contradictions in memory which result from the detachment of the felt self from the cognitive machine are comprehensively described by Wegner (ibid). As he says:

'We don't always know what we are doing. Whether our thoughts of action are unconscious because of shifting action identification, because of action instigation through thoughts that are only accessible and not conscious, or because of lapses in memory for intention, these cases provide serious challenges to our conception of ourselves as pretenders to ideal agency. We can't be ideal agents if we didn't consciously intend each and every action we come to understand we have performed. This means that we must respond to the challenge of unconscious action creatively – by finding, inventing or constructing notions of what our intentions must have been whenever we find ourselves falling short as ideal agents.'

The technique we most often use for this purpose is known as confabulation. Confabulation is classically displayed by split-brain patients, who will be described in Appendix Four; but it is frequent enough in the behaviour of normal people, as well. Wegner gives the example of Aesop's fox, who decided that the grapes he wanted so much were sour when he found he couldn't reach them. Who among us has not has re-written his intentional history to make himself feel better or to make himself appear better? The second is more pardonable than the first, perhaps, although other people may easily enough see through our pretences; but what is the social purpose of making oneself feel better? To maintain the confidence of the social agent, perhaps? Surowiecki (The Wisdom of Crowds) points out the adaptive benefit of over-confidence.

The fortuitous claiming of intention when it was not present is another common habit: 'You see, I told you it would be all right!' says the boy to his father after luckily scaling a barbed-wire fence unscathed. One thing to pretend to your father; but to yourself?

The theory of cognitive dissonance was proposed by Festinger (1957) to account for the tendency of humans to rationalize contradictions in their attitudes or behaviour. The theory suggests that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by revising their attitudes or beliefs, so justifing themselves both to an onlooker (if there is one) or purely to themselves. And the more that the social agent feels himself or herself responsible for a particular outcome or piece of behaviour, the more likely he or she is to re-write history to paper over resulting dissonance. The theory has been experimentally verified again and again, for instance by Linder, Cooper and Jones (1967), who set students an essay task for which one group would be paid a fair rate and the other group a derisory rate. The essay was to be in favour of a ludicrous proposition which none of them could possibly agree with. Further, each group was divided into one cohort which was given the choice of writing or not, while the other cohort had no choice. All students in fact completed the task (a good example of conformity – you do something you disagree with and for which you will be badly paid just because everyone else in the group is doing it) and in a post-task survey it turned out that attitudes towards the ludicrous proposition were much more favourable among those students who had a choice, and were most of all favourable among those who were badly paid. This is typical of cognitive dissonance situations: the more a person thinks they chose to adopt a dissonant attitude, the more they will pretend that they had that attitude all along.

A logical extension of the theory would say that humans can only know (or think they know) their own motives by observing their own actions. Wegner quotes Russell (1921): 'I believe that the discovery of our own motives can only be made by the same process by which we discover other people's, namely, the process of observing our actions and inferring the desire which could prompt them'. This is what is termed 'mind-reading' by cognitive scientists, and denies the validity of introspection. We will return to this subject later on in this chapter.

Wegner concludes that our intentions 'are created post hoc as a way of protecting the illusion that we are conscious agents'. This is the 'con' of consciousness at its most blatant: the mind not only deceives the person's self (social agent) in many circumstances, or very frequently just fails to inform it of what is actually going on; but consciousness joins in the game by making up stories to fit the deception or fill in the blanks! How can you trust yourself, then? Indeed you can't, nor can other people, although they are more likely to have an accurate idea of your motives and your likely future behaviour than you are yourself. Hence the need for judges, for juries, for tribunals, for arbitration, for dispute resolution, for the whole panoply of social devices intended to resolve differences of opinion, sincere or otherwise, that arise between individuals or between groups.

To add to the complexity of the social agent there is the matter of individuality. As noted previously, individuality – the existence of differences in personal attributes, opinions, attitudes, traits, whatever you want to call them – has a perfectably respectable evolutionary purpose, being initially to encourage the division of labour in the group, to create the possibility of creative dissent within the group, and finally to assist in differentiating social agents, allowing varied forms of social structure and governance. At some point in that sequence, transmissible culture takes over from genetic inheritance: the proclivity to be different while at the same time conforming is an evolved trait, but the wild exuberance of individuality we can see all around us is mostly a matter of cultural expression.

As noted previously, individuality took on its modern, variegated hues only relatively recently, after self-awareness mutated into meta-cognition, and humans started to have a much broader idea of their selves. But individuality is no more a real part of the human psyche than is the conscious self.

'The individual stated for himself, and invested with an extra-social unity of his own, is a fiction,' said Bentley (The Process Of Government), in an early version of public choice theory, and meaning not to deny individuality but to say that in political terms individuals always represent the interest of the group(s) they belong to.

Mark Twain, a very individual person if there ever was one, sees clear through the facade of individuality, at least as regards a person's opinions:

'We know why Catholics are Catholics; why Presbyterians are Presbyterian; why Baptists are Baptist; why Mormons are Mormons; why monarchists are monarchists; why Republicans are Republics, why Democrats, Democrats. We know that it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion on morals, politics and religion that he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies.'

The chameleon ability of people to change their opinions and attitudes like the weather is a matter of common observation, and it is strongly related to the key feature of individuals that they can inhabit multiple, even conflicting groups, although they usually display only one group membership at a time.

A very individual man

United States Library of Congress's
Prints and Photographs Division

Fortes (ibid) flirted with 'the concept of the "person" as an assemblage of statuses; and Evans-Pritchard (ibid) explained how members of the Nuer tribe can switch from one kin-identity to another depending on the particular circumstances. Indeed it may be the complexities of the roles that a person can have in an extended kin-group that originally gave rise to the human ability to inhabit multiple group identities. And these roles are not lightly laid upon the individual (Radcliffe-Brown, 1930): 'At every moment of the life of a member of an Australian tribe his dealings with other individuals are regulated by the relationship in which he stands to them.'

It must always be remembered that the psychical mechanisms and human cognitive attributes which only very recently flowered into self-awareness evolved during the long period that early humans were completely unconscious, psychically dominated in every way by membership of the group; in understanding the behaviour of a seemingly modern individual it is a grave error to assume that there is a rational, conscious reasoning process behind the behaviour, much though the individual believes that to be the case, and would dearly like us to believe it also. There has been no time for the deeply-seated group-based mechanisms to change in their fundamentals; they have been lightly veneered with a wafer-thin coat of cognitive varnish. Neumann (ibid):

'Although enjoying a higher conscious development, probably, than any previously attained by Man, modern individuals, for all their conscious achievements, are still deeply embedded in the tissue of their group and its unconscious laws.'

Malinowski (Argonauts of the Western Pacific) describing Melanesian natives, makes the point that they do not question the origins of magic – the natives are uncurious and unaware of the origins of magic, it is simply a fact of life. Their consciousness in these two sample respects is quite other than the consciousness of a 'modern' man. In primitive societies, people almost never give the real reasons for their behaviour, simply because they don't know what they are (Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology). And not just in primitive societies, as was seen above.

While the inhabiting of multiple statuses or identities may have been adaptive in early human groups, it creates major problems in modern society. Durkheim (Le Suicide) theorized that the rootlessness of modern life and the incoherence of the multiple identities that a person would be forced to adopt could lead to suicide. Seabright (ibid) gives a graphic account of the problems facing a modern individual:

'An individual no longer had a single public identity as the occupant of a place in a known order but rather had multiple public identities: apprentice, brother, friend, citizen, warrior, competitor. Hamlet is an intellectual, a lover, a prince: but he is also a son, a fatherless son, and he is tormented because he can neither deny this identity nor make its demands compatible with the demands of these other identities.

Consciousness Is A Wonderful Thing, But It Is Not Very Effective

Consciousness, or at any rate self-awareness, seems to be getting a bad press in this book, with both the self and individuality portrayed as little better than puppets, manipulated by the impassive unconscious and at the mercy of group imperatives. Of course that is a very incomplete and one-sided account. In this final section of the chapter, the extraordinary and wonderful achievements and potential of the self-aware psyche will be described, as well as some of its faults, all as a prelude to Chapter Ten, which will sketch out some of the future possibilities for growth and improvement of the human psyche. Before that, though, it will be useful to recapitulate the story of the development of human consciousness as it has been outlined in this and previous chapters. This is done in Table Six, along with a (highly uncertain and controversial) indication of time-scales.


The Development Of Human Consciousness
Time-Scale (years ago)
Stage of Evolution and Societal Development
Level of Consciousness
1.4m – 300,000
Homo erectus; hunter-gatherer bands
The group dominates the unconscious; evolution of strong reciprocity and the social calculus
300,000 – 50,000
Homo sapiens; myth-based rituals; first settlements based on cultivation
Development of communication from gestural and vocal origins to rudimentary spoken language; formation of the self as an unconscious social agent
50,000 – 4,000
Homo sapiens sapiens; settlements; religions; culturally transmitted codes of morals; permanent imagery
Language more or less fully developed; individual self-awareness as a social agent; but still entirely groupish
4,000 – 500
Law and trade as expressions of groupish mentality; written codes of practice for governance
Emergence of individual self-awareness and gradual decay of groupish model; meta-cognition develops; introspection becomes commonly used
500 – present
Flowering of individuality; dominance of the Nation State
The human psyche seen as an object of study and improvement; rootlessness of the individual

The moment, 3-4,000 years ago when the first human became capable of looking objectively at his nature is the starting point of individuality as we nowadays understand it. This is the moment at which the group is no longer the Onlie Begetter of human moral behaviour, and at which the individual begins to take on responsibility – to whatever minimal extent, at first – for her behaviour.

Even if introspective self-awareness can be seen as an inevitable result of the cognitive arms race run between groups during the last million years or so, it truly is an amazing phenomenon, which many, perhaps most people find inexplicable, or even not understandable. Hopefully enough has been said in this and previous chapters to establish the origins of consciousness and the self of which we are consciously aware in humans' social environment.

Although evolution has not equipped individual humans with the ability to communicate with their true underlying cognitive processes, in theory, at least, a sufficiently clever person should be able to use her introspective or mind-reading ability to gain a full understanding of her psyche. Mind scientists want to say that introspection is impossible (a few have been quoted above) and that all our knowledge about our own and other people's mental states comes from mind-reading, implying by the way nothing psychic at all but just a high degree of rational inference; but Zen Buddhists and others who meditate would say that this is nonsense. It is possible to get in touch with your emotions, with your 'inner child', with the workings of your subconscious, even if only in a hazy, undefined kind of way. Even the scientists will not disagree that meditation (self-contemplation) can achieve remarkable results for its adepts; and they will have to agree that it is only a matter of time before neuroscience provides techniques and devices that will allow direct communication with sections of the brain that are currently incommunicando as far as consciousness is concerned, or at the minimum a kind of 'eavesdropping' on what is going on in there.

These possibilities are explored in more detail in Chapter Ten, but they clearly offer us the chance to interfere in the equation that pits murderous Homo sapiens against modern ideas of co-operation and harmonious global development. 'Let nation speak peace unto nation.' And that is the most remarkable and wonderful thing about consciousness (self-awareness): that it has made us aware of the possibility that we can be other than we are. Surely by the way that is a spandrel (an accidental result of evolution)? Or is even that an aspect of adaptive competition between groups? It doesn't matter anyway; the possibility is there – it's almost enough to make you believe in God after all (but not quite!).

The difficulties in the way of turning the pig's ear of consciousness into the silk purse of human understanding and harmony are not to be under-rated. Here is a list of the main disabilities of consciousness (self-awareness, 'C.'), all of which have been mentioned and referenced in earlier chapters and sections:

  • C. does not have access to most parts of the brain (it does have limited access to memory, both short-term and long-term, and to the brain's lexicon, although this is erratic – 'it's on the tip of my tongue');
  • C. has very limited bandwidth in terms of access to those parts of the brain it can reach, both as regards the amount of information that can be held in short-term memory, and especially as regards attempted supervision of cognitive processing (eg mobile phone use while driving); C. is nearly unable to multi-task successfully;
  • C. is at the mercy of the main, unconscious cognitive drivers of thought and behaviour, partly because it is very slow by comparison; C. often or even normally knows about behaviour only after it has taken place, and is frequently ill-informed about the real motives lying behind behaviour;
  • C. is constantly engaged in self-justification, using confabulation and imaginative invention to maintain its 'face' both to the world and itself; very little conscious content can be trusted by the self without corroborative evidence.
  • C. is in particular unaware and unaccepting of the main groupish springs of human behaviour, preferring instead to believe in a spurious individuality which has no adequate basis in the real psyche.

That's a fairly harsh assessment of C., and one that will be intuitively rejected by most readers. It is only fair, then, to allow C. to take part in a dialectic with its accuser, H. (an entire human brain).

C. I am not really happy about this conversation, because, you know, a clever philosopher can prove anything with a dialectic. Look at Plato, who proved vast swathes of entirely incorrect propositions in just this way.

H. I will try not to corner you in logical traps. After all you are part of me, or is it that I am part of you? Anyway, we are on the same side in this; we have only one body between us and we both have to live in it. Where shall we start?

C. Well, the thing that makes me angriest is that you say I deliberately mis-represent situations in order to preserve 'face'. That is so unfair; I try to be sincere at all times.

H. I don't say that you set out to misrepresent situations; if it's anybody's fault that you end up by misrepresenting things, it's mine. If I let you know how things really are, you'd really put your foot in it with your friends.

C. That's just so patronising! Why can't I be trusted to do the right thing? We've got the same brain, after all, I'm just as intelligent as you are. Do you think I'm so stupid that I can't understand when to lie and when not to?

H. Oh dear, I wish you wouldn't take it so personally. You are an honest person, I know that, but if you have to lie and you know that you're doing it, don't you think that you're going to stammer, or blush, or look down – there are just so many ways you can give the game away. But they can't see me – I can't let the cat out of the bag, so it doesn't matter what I know. It's as if I was to send you into battle without any armour on just because you're a pacifist and it must be obvious to anyone that you aren't going to hurt them. Do you seriously think that's going to stop them killing you? It wasn't me that invented this game – but it's how things are and I have to play to win.

C. Something else that I really can't swallow: you talk as if I don't know what's going on from moment to moment. But that's not how I feel about it at all. I have an absolutely definite sense of continuity, I have a sure and complete understanding of what is going down, each instant, why it is happening that way, what is going to happen next, what I should do next. And you tell me that I am just groping around in the dark waiting to be told what happened. It's just not like that!

H. This is the hardest thing to explain, but I'll try. You have to promise not to get upset, though.

C. OK, I promise; but it had better be good.

H. It's like the honesty thing: you have to feel confident, sure of yourself, or you won't be taken seriously by the outside world. It's your role to be the attack dog sometimes, Mr Nice Guy sometimes, a baby seal other times. Sometimes you have to be all three of these things in quick succession, even sometimes all of them at once with three different people. And at the same time you have to keep that smile on your face, think about your body language, try to guess where the conversation is going next. Then someone has to turn the decisions into language, that's a complicated job just in itself – and it's all got to be done in a split second. It's just not possible for you to do all that processing at the same time as emoting with a group of other people. Perhaps if our brain had been built differently from the beginning it could be like that, but as things are, it's simply impossible. So it's a kind of partnership between us. Can you see it like that? I have to keep doing all the processing, but I don't have the time to do the glad-handing as well – that's where you come in.

C. You're saying that when I suddenly get irritated with someone in a conversation and start yelling at them, that's actually because your great big processing machine has worked out that's the best thing to do, and you're just telling me to go do it? Or even worse, you're telling me you've already done it? That's what really gets to me.

H. I did ask you not to get upset, it won't take us anywhere. And I wish you wouldn't talk about me as if I'm somebody different; we're the same person, we've just got different roles.

C. Sorry; I just find it so hard to get dumped on all the time. What would you say about us going to see a shrink together?



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