Evolution Of The Self And Personal Individuality
All animals with what this book has termed social consciousness, that's to say, mammals and perhaps some birds, have 'selves' in the sense that they have internal cognitive maps or representations of themselves which integrate to different degrees their internal and external sensory states with affective (hedonic) agendas and permit moment-to-moment behaviour to take place faster and with respect to more complete sets of information, and thus more accurately. More intelligently, one might say. As we have seen, a large part of the behaviour of such animals is driven by the need for social interaction in activities such as hunting or food-gathering, courting, mating, nurture, grooming and territorial defence. The more advanced the animal, the fewer non-social behaviours remain.
However, in most birds and mammals this 'self' and its experiences is not something the animal is aware of in the sense of self-awareness, or could report about, as famously questioned by Nagel in What It Is Like To be A Bat? The normal answer to that question has become that there is nothing it is like to be a bat (eg Blackmore, 2004; Edelman, 1989). James (1890) was aware of the problem, and wondered whether a gnat was aware of one beat of its wings; but he gave no definitive answer except to note that the consciousness of an ant, a cuttle-fish or a crab must be very different from that of a human, if they have such.
There is a certain stage of cognitive development, however, at which it becomes useful for the animal to be aware of its own self in relation to other selves, and it may be reasonable to associate this stage with ability to form coherent social goals and scenarios, to make social plans, in other words.
Before such a step can become possible, it is evident that the animal must understand that other animals exist, comparable to itself, and that they have autonomous behaviour. This stage in cognitive development is usually called intentionality, or 'Theory of Mind'; and it has been mentioned numerous times already in this book. An animal with intentionality is able to form a representation of the beliefs, desires and capabilities of other animals, having established the presence of such attributes in itself, and so comes to be able to predict the behaviour of conspecifics and the probable consequences of their actions in an internal model.
But things are not so simple: there is no one moment at which an animal switches from blind response to external stimuli (Oh, look, a stone is moving towards my head and I must duck) to a fully-fledged understanding of the identity of the psyche of a conspecific with its own. Naturally, there are umpteen intervening stages, and it is even unhelpful to start using the word 'intentionality' in respect of a particular stage without very closely defining exactly what stage that is. In addition, there is no a priori basis for assuming any particular extent for the 'self' of which an animal becomes aware. There is an enormous range of different possible 'selves'. In the literature on consciousness there has been very little analysis of these two aspects of the problem of consciousness, which will be addressed in the following sections.
Conventionally, the mirror test is used to determine whether an animal has intentionality or not. In the mirror test (Gallup, Anderson and Shillito, 2002) an animal is marked without its knowledge and then shown an image of itself in a mirror. If the animal's behaviour shows that it identifies the mirror image with itself by exploring its own body for the mark, then it is thought to have self-recognition, and by extension to have intentionality.
Donald then asks: 'Is it possible that the cognitive adaptations that were needed to allow large groups to cohere were the same that enabled self-awareness?'
Monkeys, as shown by the 'mirror' test, do not have self-recognition to the same degree as chimpanzees, although they are still socially aware, and are adept at solving social problems. Cheney and Seyfarth (1988) considered that the monkey mind possessed a type of social intelligence to which, as in the chimpanzee, general intelligence did not have access.
Animals which pass the mirror test include several corvid species in addition to magpies, pigeons, elephants (Plotnik, de Waal and Reiss, 2006), dolphins, some whale species, gorillas (Patterson and Gordon, 1993) and the great apes. Dogs, cats and human children before the age of about 18 months normally fail the mirror test, reacting to what they see with fear, curiosity, or aggression. Birds often attack their own reflections.
It would be ridiculous though to suggest that a dog is not aware of the identity and at least some of the characteristics of its owner and the other members of the family in which it lives. Dogs behave completely differently with children than with grown-ups, and completely differently with strangers than with family or other people that they know. Where is intentionality in this? Or, rather, what has the mirror test got to do with intentionality, because it's obvious that dogs have it. Cats likewise, in their own inscrutably peculiar way. And pet mice, pet snakes and pet owls.
None of this is to say that dogs, cats or owls are self-aware. Like monkeys, they respond accurately at an unconscious level based upon very extensive categorized memories of the other individuals, canine or otherwise, with whom they have come into contact. But they already have 'selves', unformed as those may be, used to conduct their relationships with other animals.
Consider for instance the behaviour of a dog or a cat which will be as nice as pie to your face – but the moment you are gone it will return to the kitchen table where you had forgetfully left a juicy pork chop. Here is a clear demonstration that the animal is projecting what it believes – at some level – is the self it is required to be by the social circumstances it finds itself in. And a key component of this 'selfish' behaviour, needless to say, is deception.
If an animal could invariably be open about its goals, it is difficult to see why it would need to have an external 'front', or that it would derive any benefit from the extra cognitive load required to maintain a set of apparently consistent behaviours that are in fact different from its actual intentions.
The term 'autobiographical self' is used by Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens) to describe the felt experience of an animal which has the capacity:
For Damasio, the self originates from the brain's internal representations of the body based on interoceptive sensory input – afferent/proprioceptive nerves and endocrine functions. Like other writers with an eye to the neural realities underlying consciousness, he sees the autobiographical self as emerging from the constant reiteration in the brain of the nexus of sensory and cognitive representations in which the animal 'swims' while acting in the world around it, or even in its imagined dream or remembrance or prediction of that world. Damasio allows an autobiographical self to apes, by all means, but also to 'some dogs of my acquaintance'. There are no doubt a large number of dog owners who would be furious to be told that their pets do not have autobiographical selves!
Evidently, for Damasio, the psychological self is vastly more extensive than the self of which we are aware through consciousness, and most of the writers who have come to grips with the NCC (Neural Correlates of Consciousness) share this view. Libet's (1996) famous experiment, in which he demonstrated that the cognitive activity preceding a motor action takes place unconsciously, and that the conscious self becomes aware of the process only some 150 milliseconds after activity has already begun, raises all kinds of questions about free will, but specifically in regard to the self it requires either that the definition of the self has to be extended to include whatever parts of the brain were involved in preparing the action, or that the conscious self is merely an observer, which in an unattractive hypothesis for most people. Passingham and Lau (2006), Jeannerod (2003), James (1890), and Wegner and Wheatley (1999) are among the many writers who have demonstrated the difficulty, no, the impossibility of believing that the conscious self is a necessary and sufficient controller of our actions.
The contrary and incorrect view, that the self is an expression or a creature of consciousness, and is wholly contained within it, has a number of adherents, usually of a 'dualist' persuasion. Armstrong (1997), for instance, says: 'If introspective consciousness involves . . . consciousness of self, and if without introspective consciousness there would be little or no memory of the past history of the self, the apparent special illumination and power of introspective consciousness is explained'.
Such writers are on the metaphysical or philosophical end of the debate, and almost without exception they fail to deal with or explore the neural underpinnings of consciousness and the self. Their theories are quite contradicted by the physiological realities of the evolution of consciousness and internal self-representations that have been explained in previous chapters.
The existence of the self was a necessary component of the ability of an animal to project itself (literally, its self) into situations other than the here and now. This projection requires the idea of the self, because you can't imagine yourself into a future situation without a self to play the part of you, let alone the other selves you are going to interact with. The ability to project oneself – and indeed others – into circumstances other than the present is key to the ability to plan, one of the attributes of higher mammals, and one that requires much greater cognitive skills and cortical capacity than just existing in the present, however intelligently. Here then is the evolutionary purpose of self-awareness – it allows the animal to plan its actions in advance, or to review its past actions. While there would be some value in being able to imagine yourself face to face with a tiger, and to rehearse in your mind the actions you might take in that situation, allowing them to happen more quickly when the event comes, surely the ability to plan for 'not now' is even more valuable in terms of social interaction? 'Why did Jane prefer Joe to me? Was it because I didn't smile at her?' Although much inter-personal behaviour is genetically scripted, much of it, perhaps most of it, has to be learned through painful trial and error; internal rehearsal and self-examination (introspection) is a valuable, nay, essential tool in that process. Self-awareness has then become meta-cognition – thinking about thinking.
The use of the self of which we are aware in inter-personal relationships is explored very extensively by a number of writers, of whom Dennett (Consciousness Explained), Damasio (ibid), Edelman (The Remembered Present) and Humphrey (Consciousness Regained) have some of most useful and insightful descriptions.
The activity of imagining oneself into situations other than the here and now, one of the key cognitive advances that enabled the human psyche as we know it today, is also related to dreaming, in which past scenarios are 'replayed' or mixed with imagined situations, probably for the purpose of rehearsing and strengthening the synaptic connections which make up memory, and harmonizing or interconnecting the 'episodic' memories stored in the hippocampus and the 'semantic' memories stored in the cortex (Payne and Nadel, 2004). In fact, imagining yourself into a future situation does not seem to be that different from dreaming – it simply requires that you bring that mental manipulation into attention, or awareness.
If it be once accepted that planning requires a self, in order to place the emergence of the self-aware animal a bit more precisely in evolution, it is worth asking, in what animals do we see behaviour that might be called planning? Before doing so, however, it is necessary to point out that language (as distinct from the ability to form, store and manipulate concepts) is not necessary for planning, which can be conducted entirely in non-linguistic form. That doesn't of course prove that planning came before language, and there are commentators who believe that it didn't; but it leaves open the possibility that planning came first.
Interestingly, many types of planning also don't seem to require the idea of time as such – the imagining can take place in a place or at a time which is just 'not now'. This may be significant in trying to establish the extent to which mammals other than humans are capable of planning their future actions, because it may be that humans didn't acquire a sense of time until surprisingly recently: Malinowski in Argonauts of the Western Pacific describes the (conscious) mind of the Melanesian natives as having no concept of historical time:
Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) also describes pre-conscious humans (for him, pre-2000 BC) as having little or no sense of historical time, and he points out that hypnotic subjects and amnesiacs (individuals in whom consciousness has been 'switched off') have a diminished or absent sense of time.
The mediaeval Christian mind (Anderson, Imagined Communities) 'had no conception of history as an endless chain of cause and effect or of radical separation between past and present'. In this, the mediaeval conciousness is similar to that of modern tribal 'native' consciousnesses. The 12th century Bishop Otto of Freising (Bloch, Feudal Society) referred repeatedly to 'we who have been placed at the end of time'. Anderson sees the development of the modern sense of 'simultaneity-across-time', opposed to the mediaeval sense of 'simultaneity-along-time' as being intimately linked to the development of the modern nation-state and the emergence of the 'print-languages' which made them possible.
For modern, self-aware humans a sense of time is of course a vital part of our functioning, but time has come into such prominence in our affairs very recently indeed, perhaps along with the expansion of consciousness driven by wider modern cultural horizons. There is in fact no particular reason to suppose that an evolved consciousness, to the extent that its contents might result from genetic endowment, would have a sense of historical time. For what purpose? The awareness of time in human consciousness is therefore perhaps a cultural product. It is a concept which has been injected into consciousness as part of a group-driven need for the acceptance of society as a complex organism, the idea of progress, the idea of civic responsibility, and other adjuncts of the nation state. This is just one of the ways in which consciousness is used both by external agencies and by the unconscious as a means of delivering desired behaviour by the individual. Others will appear below.
The sense of time, in humans at least, is located in the basal ganglia and the parietal lobe of the cortex (Rao, Mayer and Harrington, 2001), rather than in the cerebellum or the hippocampus, both of which are involved in the timing of motor sequences, timing being not at all the same thing as measured time. This is consistent with a late evolutionary arrival of the awareness of time, but doesn't of itself imply that it is limited to humans. Suddendorf and Corballis (2008) argue convincingly that there is no evidence for what they term 'mental time travel' in animals other than humans; but they conflate the ability to imagine oneself 'not now' with a sense of time; again, this supports the idea that a sense of time may be a uniquely human attribute, but leaves open the possibility that other animals can imagine themselves in situations other than the present, and plan accordingly. As Suddendorf and Corballis note, the cacheing behaviour of some birds, including the use of deception, suggests fairly strongly that they have an understanding of how other birds are going to behave. Emery and Clayton (2001) showed that scrub-jays re-cache food if they have been observed cacheing it – but only if they themselves had previously stolen food. Roberts et al (2008) have also shown that rats remember the fact of having stored food, but cannot place that knowledge in relation to a time-scale.
Wagener (1987) accepted that apes can imagine themselves in future ('not now') situations, but suggested that humans' ability to measure the flow of time evolved among hunter-gatherer bands and was linked with the emerging language facility.
And that's perhaps the truth of it. Some higher mammals and possibly some birds do have the ability to project themselves into imagined situations involving conspecifics – and thus they have selves of which they are to a degree aware and can be said to plan. But only humans have a sense of measured time, which probably came about after language provided a means of describing and measuring the passage of time. The advantages of being able to communicate using describable periods of time, distinguishing between past and future, in a highly co-operative group hardly need describing. In fact, complex social interactions among a group of thirty or so people would rapidly become impossible without the concept of measurable time.
Without particularly planning for it, the argument has brought us face to face with language. The development of language, so inextricably bound up with the elaboration of the human social group, was described in the last chapter. Here it remains to point out the role played by language in sharpening the idea of self and in allowing interplay between selves. Just as language provided a means to describe the passage of time, so also it provided a means of differentiating one 'self' from another 'self'. Pre-linguistic semantic concepts such as 'greedy', 'generous', 'brave' or 'cowardly' surely existed, but could only be communicated using very cumbersome body language. It was the development of a set of communicable characteristics, expressed through language, which allowed individuality to flower as the public, or social, face of the human psyche.
Individuality sits at the very core of people's understanding of themselves. If a person is asked to 'unbundle' their own individuality, the result will be a combination of inherited characteristics, behaviours and mind-sets learned voluntarily or otherwise during the experience of life, and some social describers covering such matters as ethnicity, status and occupation. Most people would also lay claim to having free will, and a series of moral positions which they believe they have freely adopted. Most people would also say that they recognize comparable individuality in others, and they assume that those others recognize it in them.
The nature of individuality as it exists in people has come under study from a number of directions in recent times. Many writers have ascribed the origin of some aspects of individuality to the demands of social group membership, specifically with reference to the period during which early humans were learning how to function in complex social groups. For many of these writers, individuality developed for good evolutionary reasons, as did our awareness of our own individuality and of the individuality of others. Individuality, in other words, has a social function. See, for instance, Ramachandran and Blakeslee (Phantoms in the Brain), Ridley (Nature Via Nurture), and Donald (Origins of the Modern Mind).
Perhaps the most extreme version of this approach to explaining individuality is the academic discipline known as 'Social Identity Theory', which has as its main goal the study of inter-group social behaviour. One of its leading figures, John C Turner (1982) states the fundamental hypothesis of Social Identity Theory as being that:
Hogg and Abrams, writing within the field of 'social identity' theory, don't make much use of the concepts of the conscious and the unconscious: "We shall merely assume that the 'I' is cognitive process (largely automatic but occasionally deliberate)". The self is seen as being as assemblage of social and personal self-identifications; the social identifications have a lot in common with group identities as described in the present work. Social behaviour is seen as drawing on available identifications, and in social settings group identities are often to the fore:
Turner says that a person's 'self-concept' consists of the totality of self-descriptions and self-evaluations subjectively available to the individual, and separates these into 'social' identifications and 'personal' identifications. He notes that identifications can overlap and contradict each other. It's not quite clear, though, what 'subjectively available' might mean: most group identifications are held unconsciously and are frequently not available to the individual's conscious self – as will be explained in Chapter Eight, there are many ways in which a person's self-awareness is misled by the unconscious for evolutionarily valid reasons. Also, many qualities which Turner might call 'personal' could equally well come about through 'social' group membership. He gives the example of a soldier who is brave. But is that bravery a social or a personal attribute? To what extent is that bravery something genetically encoded and to what extent is it a characteristic of the groups that person belongs to? The British militaristic tradition, like many others, just about requires bravery as a group attribute.
Hogg and Abrams quote Simmel (Conflict and the Web of Group-Affiliations):
Says Hogg: 'We have no need for the concept of an a priori, innate or unconscious unique self which is so often invoked by more individualistic treatments of the self.'
It's a problem – at least from a groupish perspective – that anti-individualists have hitched their Marxist or collectivist ideas to the Social Identity waggon. But there is nothing in social identity theory as such which is anti-individual or pro-collective. We are all conscious individuals, and we can't go back to being unconscious. The agenda is not to diminish or explain away individuality, but to understand how our individuality is constituted, and to use that knowledge to function more effectively in a social setting (as if we could have any other).
Social Identity theory is no doubt too reductionist; and its adherents are likely to be badly received by normal people. Even to propose as this book does that a high proportion of social interaction can be described in 'groupish' terms is to invite obloquy. Hopper (The Social Unconscious) who is primarily a psycho-therapist, and cannot be labelled with a Social Identity sticker, puts it very well:
But that's just what has to happen if there's to be any hope of saving humanity from the rampant individualism which is blighting our society!
Without taking a clear position on the central, emotive issue of free will, this chapter will review some of the work that has been done to understand individuality. It's not part of the book's agenda to debunk God, morality or religion; far from it. But if it's true – as the evidence suggests – that people's individuality is to a very large extent part of an adaptive solution to the problems of living socially with each other, then we ought to know about it, in order to organize our behaviour appropriately.
Although this chapter has so far used the word 'individuality' quite freely, the moment has come to point out that it is not to be confused with individualism. Two marmosets are individuals, and can be distinguished because one can run faster than the other one. Most animals are individuals, indeed; but all of those we term 'social' animals function in a collective way, including, until very recently, ourselves. 'Individualism', as a human belief system, arose in the last few hundred years as a result of widening human consciousness among people who came to believe that they could function satisfactorily without the dead weight of historical collective structures such as religion to tell them how to live and behave.
There was a major debate in the late 19th century between 'individualists', inheritors of 18th century rationalism, and 'collectivists', often socialists. Individualists believed that humans had taken on board the moral structures necessary for society to function, and that the State could therefore be minimalist. Herbert Spencer was one of the most prominent champions of the Individualists; see for instance Herbert Spencer and The Limits of the State (ed. Taylor), 1996.
Collectivists addressed a different agenda, believing that only the State could be relied upon to ensure the provision of moral and material goods to the majority of the population. This was only indirectly a 'groupish' belief, since the essence of the collectivist position was that the State needed to intervene. Collectivism was sometimes called 'recollectivization', by way of a return to some sort of pre-individualist collective paradise, missing the point that the State had had little power over individual well-being in earlier societies, which instead had a 'groupish' nature through mutual assistance and the effectiveness of long-established cooperative structures.
Neither party was right. Kropotkin (Mutual Aid) correctly associates the growth of 19th century individualism with the gradual takeover of social functions by the State and the consequent hollowing-out of ancient collectivist (groupish) moral structures:
In terms of the academic argument, by the end of the 20th century, individualism had won out over collectivism, but individualists had thrown the groupish baby out with the collectivist bathwater, helped along by the discrediting of group selection as a primary evolutionary mechanism.
While out-and-out group selection remains out of favour, most people would now agree that the existence of the group can sharpen and guide genetic evolution; and of course, cultural evolution very much takes place at the group level. David Sloan Wilson (Re-Introducing Group Selection to the Human Behavioural Sciences) puts the case for group-level influence on genetic change, and incidentally rehabilitates the group as a respectable concept.
Wilson quotes Campbell's critique of the individualist 'heresy':
In other words, the human social group evolved as a means of taming or corralling the murderous barbarians called human beings to a point at which social progress (needed to compete with other groups) became possible. Ridley (ibid) describes inter-group violence as more or less the normal condition of early human groups: 'All human pre-literate societies, and all modern ones as well, tend to have an 'enemy', a concept of them and us.' It's important to understand that the enemy is not a personal enemy, it's a group enemy. Ridley observes that the types of group that fight tend to be the male-dominated ones; female-dominated groups (as in the original, matrilineal kin-group) are much more peaceable.
As has already been noted, there is wide agreement among anthropologists, evolutionists and cognitive specialists that early humans had little or no awareness of themselves as independent personalities, but instead felt themselves to be parts of the group (collective) to which they belonged. This is a startling piece of news for the average, even highly educated modern person, who is so imbued with the idea that their whole existence revolves around their own unique inviduality that they have the greatest difficulty in understanding that this is entirely a cultural overlay on their basic groupish nature. This subject was addressed briefly in Chapter Three in the context of the early human group, but its challenging nature demands a more extensive treatment to establish the validity of the assertion of a collective origin for the human psyche.
In the early group, the concept of individuality did not yet exist, and the individual group member had only the haziest idea of himself as a separate entity; mostly he thought of himself as identical with the tribe. 'The primitive man,' says Kropotkin (ibid) 'identifies his own existence with that of his tribe; and without that quality mankind never would have attained the level it has attained now.' Mead, writing in Sex and Temperament about the marital arrangements in the Arapesh tribe, says: 'The small girls . . . do not regard the shift of their betrothal as a very serious matter. On the whole, they are wedded in feeling to a group of people, not merely to one man.' De Jouvenel (On Power) emphasizes the pre-eminence of the group in human affairs:
Durkheim (The Division of Labour In Society) criticized Spencer and his followers for imputing a modern kind of inviduality to early humans which was then crushed by the developing power of leaders and (eventually) the State. For Durkheim, the chief of the group, by taking onto himself the collective consciousness, was the first one who displayed individuality. It is doubtful if early human groups had leadership as such; but be that as it may, Durkheim's view has become orthodox – the early human had little if any conscious idea of himself as a separate actor.
In The Origins and History of Consciousness, Neumann puts it very clearly: 'History teaches that in the beginning the individual did not exist as an individual entity, but that the group dominated and did not allow the emancipation of a separate ego. . . . This late birth of the ego, consciousness and the individual is an incontestable fact.'
Neumann says in Depth Psychology:
Neumann paints the consciousness as being at the centre of the process by which the collective (the group in its most general sense) applies an ethical (moral) structure to its members. 'The consciousness of the individual originally develops with the aid of the collective and its institutions, and receives the 'current values' from it'. He explains (after Freud) how two psychic systems develop in the personality, one of which (Freud's and Jung's 'shadow') remains completely unconscious, while the other develops into 'an essential organ of the psyche, with the active support of the ego and the conscious mind (the 'persona').
Certainly, Neumann sees consciousness as a late stage in the development of the human psyche (Origins and History of Consciousness): 'All the social, religious and historical evidence points to the late birth of the individual from the collective and from the unconscious.'
These examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely; and even more tellingly, there are no counter examples in the literature. No-one has described an individualistic, primitive society. They are all groupish.
Based on most of the written opinions, of which the above is just a small selection, it certainly seems that the emergence of a consciously self-regulating individual happened very late on, just in the last few centuries. But then how do you explain Roman authors such as Cicero or Tacitus, who can hardly be called slaves of their unconscious? Well, the fact that at certain times one or two humans managed to liberate themselves doesn't carry much weight, at least not until the development of printing and mass literacy allowed larger numbers of people to follow their directions.
Presumably, by the way, the superego, like language, would not develop in a human child born away from society? It's not genetic? But the predisposition to develop it may be, as with language. There has been time for that to evolve. Perhaps the evolutionary purpose of the superego is the same as as of individuality, of which indeed it forms a part. People take their ethical belief-set to be a key part of themselves. But this still begs the question of why consciousness is necessary; the human unconscious is well able to function according to a series of conflicting menus, and sort out a course of action without recourse to the slow and inaccurate consciousness. From this perspective it seems perfectly feasible that the superego, representing an internalization of the moralistic burden of the group, and other aspects of what we now think of as conscious individuality existed long prior to the higher development of self-awareness, which took place only quite recently.
The group was thus clearly the forum in which humans eventually became aware of themselves as actors in a long-running play (soap!) involving others, and in which humans acquired the battery of social skills (personality attributes, many of them) needed for an adequate performance, and there is a neat logic in the idea that the concept of 'role-playing' should apply both to groups and the individuals who compose them.
Role-playing seems to require self-awareness, and it is certainly not a recent idea that awareness of self is a by-product, although a necessary one, of the process of social development in humans. Many 19th century writers, of whom Durkheim is just the most prominent, believed that to be the case. In The Division of Labour in Society, Durkheim writes:
It's important to recognize that the early individual, emerging from the undifferentiated group, did not have the unbridled individualism that we nowadays enjoy. The necessity for individual selves to exist in order to implement the group's social agenda has been explained above and will be further elaborated below; but at first that emerging individual was groupish to an alarming degree: individuality at the beginning presumably meant no more than basic characteristics which could be described and understood in conceptual but non-linguistic terms. Thus, Joe might be stronger, taller, kinder, and more honest than Bob, but that was enough for early social interactions to develop. In all moral respects, in terms of cognitive or personality attributes, Joe, Jane and Bob (who did not have names anyway) were identical clones of the group.
Durkheim was followed by a string of other writers who have seen the human individual as being to a greater or lesser extent made up from socially-derived elements, some of whom have been previously mentioned.
In 1934 Mead (Mind, Self and Society) wrote: 'the self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience . . . . it is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside of social experience'. Mead's formulation has often been criticized, along with other 'social performance' theorizing; but it holds true as an example of the importance attached by successive waves of theorists to the role of social development in enlarging or creating aspects of consciousness.
Fortes (The Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups) explores the idea that a 'person' – in the context of a society based on kin groups – can be seen as an 'assemblage of statuses'. In such a primitive society the ideal replacement for a particular individual is often one who has the same balance of kin statuses. There is a good evolutionary reason for this, says Fortes, since the complex network of antagonisms, jealousies and rights characteristic of a kin-group society can be most easily held in a stable condition if certain patterns of roles are maintained. 'Ideally, therefore, the network of statuses remains stable and perpetual though their holders come and go.'
This pattern of hierarchical or relationship statuses which characterizes primitive societies involves role-playing; if you are a person's uncle, you are expected to behave like her uncle. That is still true today, of course, and we remark upon it, not when someone plays their role satisfactorily, but only when they depart from it and play 'out of character'. Hopper (The Social Unconscious) notes:
It would have been easier to believe in a developed, organic personal individuality if belief had been sustained in the 'tabula rasa', or the possibility of imposing a culturally-determined moral agenda on children. But that theory has lost out in recent times to an acceptance that many aspects of human ethics are hard-wired into the human genome, or at the very minimum that there is a strong genetic predisposition to develop a uniform set of human characteristics including reciprocity, the ability to empathize, a tendency to exchange, the ability to learn languages, and a wide range of other aspects of human characteristics which are shared in common in other than pathological circumstances. People do not learn to be human during childhood in these respects, pace all those parents who believe that their children would have become (remained!) wild animals in the absence of firm parental control.
Durkheim's emphasis on the division of labour as one of the main dimensions on which social differentiation occurrred is echoed by many other writers. Tiger (1969) points out that division of labour becomes a necessity in groups of more than about 30 individuals.
From differentiation between individuals in terms of societal roles, which was adaptive because it allowed the group (the kin-group, originally) to function in an integrated way for defensive and housekeeping purposes, it is a short step to differentiation in terms of function and eventually in terms of personality.
Adams (An Enquiry Into The Nature Of The Family), writing in support of the general structural fluidity of early societies and against the idea that the nuclear family was a dominant structural form, describes primitive societies in which roles such as education, economic support and reproduction are allocated dynamically to individuals or even groups of individuals according to circumstances, by-passing the individual statuses which might have determined role in an alternative and perhaps anterior model.
Ridley (Nature Via Nurture) proposes that in the human child, unlike other species, there is a predisposition towards specialization (division of labour) in personality terms as much as in 'operational' terms. Clearly such an instinct would tend to play with a consciousness of individuality, and result in an evolutionarily useful differentiation of people. Maybe here is where we look for an understanding of why people put such a premium on their individuality. Writing about skills, Ridley says:
He applies similar reasoning to the development of personality traits.
Human children certainly show an understanding of the principle of division of labour at an astonishingly early age: Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne and Moll (2004) describe structured experiments with children at the age of 12-18 months which had the children sharing and dividing roles with the grown-up experimenters. Tomasello speculates that the children:
Without denying the existence of differences between people – once there is a set of varying roles or functions within a group, it is to be expected that evolution will provide varying sets of attributes so that individuals can be better fitted to roles, males and females being the most obvious example – it is clear that the particular role or roles adopted by a given individual will be determined at least as much by circumstances as by genetic characteristics. But whereas it was once fashionable to believe that upbringing played a dominant role in determining personality, it is now clear that about 50% of the features of an individual's personality are determined by heredity, with much of the rest coming from peer-group interactions in childhood; parenting contributes little (see Ridley, ibid). It's interesting though that in cases of multiple personality (see Appendix Four) the different personalities are just that – different.
Although many key elements of intrinsic personal individuality were probably laid down a long time ago, self-awareness and self-definition have certainly expanded greatly just during the very recent period of recorded history. There are many more dimensions on which people classify themselves and extend their individualities than was the case five hundred years ago, including for instance ethnicity, race and nationality, politics, sport and the arts, religion and hobbies. Yes, it's true that Henry VIII as a young Renaissance prince had a range of interests and achievements that would put any of Queen Elizabeth's modern subjects to shame; but he was a person in a very privileged and unusual position. Nowadays there are millions of people in Britain alone who would be happy to line up variously as linguists, historians, collectors and serial adulterers, just to quote a few of Henry's more exotic fields of endeavour.
And there are now countless identifiers and types of activity that were never dreamt of in Henry's time. Feelings of national identity, for instance, can be traced to the invention of printing, and the consequent spread of demotic national 'print languages', encouraged by Martin Luther's Reformation, and replacing Latin, which had previously been used almost exclusively for written communication.
Prior to the 16th century, the consciousness of all individuals other than very well educated ones was unaffected by direct delivery of printed ideas. After Luther, printing in the vernacular spread rapidly, becoming the source of nationalism and driving forward the concomitant emergence of national group feelings in the individual psyche (Anderson, Imagined Communities).
It's not unreasonable to date the decay of group-driven society from the fact of the emergence of the nation state. Benedict points out that: 'all profound changes in consciousness, by their very nature, bring with them characteristic amnesias'. In this way the group consciousness that was so strong in humans up to the late Middle Ages was overwhelmed by the power of 'national' consciousness. The profound impact of the nation state on human consciousness and individuality will be examined in more detail in Chapter Seven.
Printing was the first of a number of technologies which have had the effect of broadening the amount and depth of informational choices available to individuals. Books, radio, television, computers and the Internet (what Donald, in Origins of the Modern Mind calls the ESS – the External Symbolic System) have together transformed the size of the cognitive universe in which educated humans live. This has supported the process of individuation, even though it has done little to mitigate the consequences of loss of collectivity.
That is all very well, but Donald is hopefully not suggesting that society will function better if humans are less group-oriented. There's everything right with increasing human individuation, but only if it's balanced by an equivalent amount of attention paid to our natural groupishness.
For most of human history that groupishness, the way of life that evolution constructed as the route towards species supremacy, has dictated the forms of our culture. Culture has been a product – even to some extent perhaps a by-product – of our 'groupish' natures. But just as the emergence of the nation state – a pathological manifestation of groupishness – has overcome our historical group-based systems of governance, so it has led to the destruction of the folkways, the group-based principles upon which people had based their cultures ever since they stood up and started to talk to each other.
As will be explained in later chapters, there is now hope that technology, in the form of globalization and the Internet, will allow humanity to reclaim many of the contributing facets of culture, allowing a return to more 'groupish' ways of living as the nation state fades from its pole position in the consciousness of the individual.
Chapter Ten will be devoted to an exploration of how human consciousness, society and culture may evolve over the next hundred years in the light of changes already underway.
The inextricable connection of the self, personal awareness of one's self as an individual, and the growing ability of humans to act as agents in social dealings in the expanded group has already been well demonstrated in this chapter, but what is not quite so clear is the extent to which this is accompanied by knowledge of one's own psychological workings, described either as introspective consciousness or meta-cognition. That's to say, it is one thing to have personality traits, to observe them in others, to fulfil roles in society and to interact accordingly with others; but it is another thing, which may have required language, to speculate on one's own personality and individuality, let alone in the context of human nature in general, something that is normal for a contemporary human being.
It's necessary once again to qualify the use of the word 'consciousness' in connection with the cognitive state of animals who fall short of having meta-cognitive abilities. This may be easier to see by way of an example.
Joe may say to his ex-girl friend Jane: "Yes, I was wrong to lie to you about my date with Jemima."
This is a meta-cognitive statement, because it involves second-order consideration of the behaviour of the two individuals concerned, and is certainly evidence of their possession of consciousness, in the full sense of the word. But it goes beyond the self-awareness that is required for performance as a social agent as defined above.
Grasping this is hard in itself – it is very difficult for fully conscious humans to put themselves into the skulls of animals which are merely 'self-aware' or 'socially conscious', using this book's terminology. Perhaps it's not quite as hard as imagining what it is like to be a bat, but it is not far off!
If Jane had only self-awareness, rather than introspective consciousness, Joe's statement would be meaningless, if for no other reason that Jane would not have the linguistic tools to understand it. Nested, recursive multi-level intentional statements are pretty hard to get across in sign-language, as anyone who has played charades will confirm.
Jane would be aware that Joe had cheated on her with Jemima, and would feel jealousy, anger and sorrow in appropriate proportions, but would not be able to check with her unconscious emotions (they are all unconscious) to discover how to respond to Joe's confession, even if she could understand it. And if she was able to feel regret about what had happened, or remorse for her subsequent horrid treatment of Joe (neither is likely in the absence of meta-cognition), she would not, in the absence of appropriate language, be able to frame a response either for herself or for Joe.
Jane's condition clearly falls short of what it is to be a modern human; it seems as if it might be roughly equivalent to what it was like to be a pre-linguistic human, driven by a complex of social emotions and able to plan and executive strategies based on those emotions; yet not able to reach up to the meta-cognitive level occupied by our fictional Joe, if only because of the lack of linguistic tools to express and understand more complex meta-cognitive concepts.
The study of pathological conditions of the human brain sheds plenty of insight on the characteristics and even the NCC of the differing degrees of consciousness that are involved in inter-personal relationships, by and large confirming the positions set out above – they are discussed in Appendix Four.
(Note: there is much discussion in the literature as to whether 'introspective consciousness' is a valid term, or whether introspection is possible at all other than in a trivial sense. Carruthers insists that internal meta-cognition is based on the use of 'mind-reading' skills upon oneself, ie the set of skills that allows a human to know what is going on in another person's mind. When the term 'introspective consciousness' is used here, it encompasses that possibility. The difference is highly significant for consideration of the role of consciousness as an illusory state, discussed in some detail in the next Chapter, but does not affect the main thrust of the present Chapter.)
The process by which humans progressed from non-linguistic self-awareness (the condition of the ape) to linguistic, introspective consciousness (meta-cognition) was no small step, inevitable as it may seem in retrospect.
If introspective consciousness is dependent on language, then bounds for its emergence are set by the timescale of the development of language itself. Written language was of course preceded by spoken language, which evolved from its mimetic antecedents at some (highly disputed) point between 200,000 and two million years ago. It is unclear though whether language as it was spoken prior to the development of writing would have had the vocabulary or the concepts to allow meta-cognition.
Although symbols are known from as early as 60,000 BC, taken to have ritualistic significance, the beginnings of writing are usually dated to 6,000-9,000 BC, and were probably related to the administrative needs of centralized agrarian societies, using tokens or symbols to denote types and numbers of good, and not at all related to inter-personal communication. Schmand-Besserat (How Writing Came About) describes the use of tokens and impressed marks in the Sumerian city-state in the fourth millennium BC, c. 3,000-3,500 BC. She dates the invention of abstract counting (an essential step in the development of written language) to this period. The third millennium BC saw the gradual development of alphabets based on pictorial representations, and consonontal alphabets were in use by 2,000 BC.
The highly contentious proposition that introspective consciousness was enabled only by the development of writing has been most famously expounded by Jaynes (ibid), who suggests that the author of the Homeric poems of Ancient Greece was not fully conscious in a modern sense, because the text concentrates on narrative and introspection is absent. Jaynes's general point, being that consciousness was part of a sociological adaptation allowing (normally right-handed) human individuals to receive instructions and guidance in their left cortical hemisphere from a numinous but unconscious source in their right cortical hemisphere, and which is crucial to any understanding of the role of consciousness in humans, is dealt with in Chapter Eight.
Heraclitus (late 6th century BC), and even more so Augustine, more than 1,000 years later, were clearly conscious of their consciousnesses (a step forwards from mere self-awareness), but Jaynes points to the absence of 'subjective consciousness' in the original versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, c 8th or 9th centuries BC. He mentions the later insertion of references to deception and other passages suggesting introspection, perhaps dating to the 7th century BC. The dating of the Iliad and the Odyssey itself is highly controversial (Leaf, 1892), and anyway they were merely later writings-down of much earlier orally transmitted narratives; but it is hard to contest Jaynes's general point that those three or four centuries saw the emergence of introspective consciousness, or meta-cognition, to use this book's terminology, at least insofar as such a judgement can be based on contemporaneous written materials.
Jaynes compares the formulaic and completely 'heartless' letters of Hammurabi, c 1,300 BC with documents from the successor Assyrian regime in the 8th century BC which are full of subjective emotion. One particular comparison is telling, between two versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, dated to c. 1,200 BC and c. 650 BC, particularly Tablet X, again showing a dramatic contrast between the factual and non-subjective content of the earlier material with the highly subjective and introspective content of the later Assyrian tablet, with its constant poetic references to the heart (Heidel, 1949):
Jaynes does not offer any explanation as to why introspective consciousness should have had to depend on writing for its appearance. The comparative 'heartlessness' of second millennium writings could simply reflect their official provenance and is not inconsistent with the existence of introspective consciousness in the spoken language.
The hemispherical or neurological aspects of Jaynes's position, while anatomically indisputable, and borne out by pathological evidence (see Appendix Four), are far from universally accepted. But that doesn't directly affect the historical process of trying to determine the moment at which meta-cognition became part of humans' standard equipment. Jaynes has been much criticized for suggesting that consciousness only emerged 3-4,000 years ago, give or take, and as a result of the 'departure of the Gods'; but if for 'consciousness' one substitutes 'introspective consciousness' or 'meta-cognition' then Jaynes's theory is at least plausible, and cannot be falsified by recourse to earlier evidence of meta-cognition in humans, which simply doesn't exist, and will never exist.
What might resolve the issue is an appeal to genetics. Although the genetic basis of language is much fought over, there is no argument that the human brain and thoracic morphology evolved in a way that facilitated vocal communication. The propensity to speak languages is present in every human child, although cultural transmission is required before any actual language is learnt. Does introspective consciousness though require any genetic adaptation that wasn't already present in Homo sapiens, say 250,000 years ago? It is not feasible to propose that human ontogeny evolved in the intervening period in such a way as to permit introspective consciousness, so if it can be shown that cultural transmission is required for the development of introspective consciousness, then that is consistent with Jaynes's position, while not proving it. Experiments to decide the matter would be unethical, obviously, but Carruthers (ibid) would line up with those who believe that introspective consciousness, like learning an actual language, requires cultural transmission, and is not innate in human ontogeny.
There the matter has to rest, as far as this book is concerned. Going along with Jaynes, absent evidence to the contrary, it is a working hypothesis, as regards the rest of the book, that introspective consciousness (meta-cognition) developed in humans only in the second millennium BC. The arguments put forward in subsequent chapters would be only slightly weakened, and in most cases not at all affected, if the truth were otherwise, and it turns out that introspective consciousness did in fact emerge earlier during the hunter-gatherer phase of human development.
Cheney, D L and Seyfarth, R S (1988) Social and Non-Social Knowledge in Vervet Monkeys, in Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes and Humans, ed. Byrne, R W and Whiten, A, pp 255-270, Clarendon Press, Oxford
Gallup, G G, Jr, Anderson, J L and Shillito, D P (2002) The Mirror Test, in The Cognitive Animal: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives on Animal Cognition, ed. Bekoff, M, Allen, C and Burghardt, G M, University of Chicago Press, pp 325-333
Libet, B (1996) Neuronal Time Factors in Conscious and Unconscious Mental Functions, in Towards a Science of Consciousness: The First Tucson Discussion and Debates, ed S R Hameroff A W Kaszniak & A Scott, pp 337-347, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Copyright 2008-2010 M G Bell. The material contained on this site is the intellectual property of M G Bell and may not be reproduced, transmitted or copied by any means including photocopying or electronic transmission, without his express written permission. Contact the author.