Though we have more power than ever to change our environment, we seem as confused as ever about who we are, what makes us tick, where we came from, how we fit into our world, exactly, all questions which have immense importance for how we choose to wield our power. More worryingly, we seem to have adopted a mode of thought (science) which disregards these exact questions as “unfalsifiable,” outside the scope of scientific inquiry, and hence, of no consequence. Science as we currently practice it carries the implicit assumption that we need not worry ourselves with such questions: science is always there, working on our behalf; everything scientists discover will be used for good; and if somehow something causes a problem, science will automatically remedy the situation. Clearly, this is wishful thinking, not to mention deluded, dangerous, and terrifying, and we need to address the old questions now more than ever.
The extent of our ignorance about ourselves is staggering. The way scientific inquiry works has given us the false impression that we are much more knowledgeable and much more in control than we actually are. In reality, tradition and convention mean that scientists tend to work in established fields, and build on existing ideas. Yes, the framework is in place to replace a faulty theory with one which better describes reality, but many factors work against this in practice, not least of which is the fact that we are disinclined to consider theories which seem to go against our current understanding of how things work. Or a lack of imagination. What this means in practice is that a vast amount of work in the sciences goes on in support of theories which are wrong. This gives the impression that the totality of scientific knowledge is rapidly increasing, while in reality we are often merely adding to a faulty foundation which will one day be discarded wholesale.
Where do we come from? The main reason we get it wrong when trying to imagine what early humans were like, how they lived, how they settled the world, etc., is because of our fallacious belief that we are an infinite distance removed from any other critter, a different level altogether. We maintain a condescending attitude towards them, and waste time fashioning scenarios which fit our notions of development from inept apes to Mount Olympian homo sapiens. We are primed to resist thinking of human and animal consciousness as being made of the same stuff, so to speak, in part by centuries of religious thought. Christians believe that only humans have souls, and that only souls get to go to heaven. To the extent that Christianity influences the debate, we will have a hard time understanding the nature of our consciousness and that of other animals.
We’ve always believed that we’re different from and superior to apes in specific ways, but it’s not completely clear what those ways are. Humans seem to be better at learning socially than other great apes– maybe, and better at abstract reasoning– perhaps… The only thing that’s undeniable is that we have a bug up our ass that’s gotten us to do all this stuff above and beyond the needs of bare survival, and that, having done stuff and made stuff, we’re convinced that an unbridgeable gulf separates us from “lower” animals. It seems to me that the “bug up our asses” is consciousness, and more specifically, what’s referred to as meta-consciousness, the consciousness of being conscious. This is the factor which pushed us, alone out of the animals, toward ever more abstract and complicated activities. But this isn’t as simple as having a quality that another being lacks. This kind of consciousness is rare, even among humans, and then, only at work some small portion of the time, while the rest of the time we react more or less automatically to the things life throws at us. Rather, it is more accurately conceived of as a motivator, the restless and unfulfilled state of mind which, in combination with superb analytical capabilities, could push one towards interesting new things. But this isn’t the only way in which we differ from other animals.
For a thought experiment, imagine stripping a human of not only clothes, tools and weapons, etc., but also of the 10,000 years of civilization and 3,000,000 years of chipping at stones, and leave them in the rainforest with empty hands. How much better than apes would we do? How effective is our cognitive apparatus without the knowledge our culture has gathered over the millenia? Has a human child ever been raised by apes, but grew up into a human? And if we did eventually figure out how to thrive without any culturally transmitted knowledge, what would that look like? Similar to other great apes or not? Would we have language? What kind of language?
Conversely, scientists are finding that many animals, and great apes in particular, do most everything we once thought of as unique to man. They have emotions, hold grudges for months, solve complex problems, learn language and abstract thought, and are capable of deceit, meaning they have the ability to think from the point of view of another being. The criteria for what are considered uniquely human qualities are getting increasingly complicated.
A July 2012 conference at Cambridge titled “Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals” concluded: “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” It’s great that scientists in the field of animal cognition are recognizing that many animals have the makings of human-style consciousness, but this doesn’t mean that the work of scientists in other disciplines is going to take this into account, or that laboratory animals will cease being tortured in their colleagues’ labs. Nor that our laws will be changed to reflect this.
So, if apes are capable of accomplishing most everything we can, but usually don’t care (or need) to, we are forced to view early hominins as people, if somewhat scatterbrained and unambitious ones, and their activities, motivations, and ways of life become intelligible.
Did homo sapiens breed with neanderthals? Has a frat boy ever refused sex? No amount of cultural prohibitions have ever thwarted our sex drives. Our closest relatives, the bonobos, fuck to relieve tension, boredom, hunger, and just to say hello. As do we. It is a safe bet that early humans also bred with anything that walked, and that at least some of the time, some of the matings produced fertile offspring.
That being the case, the mystery of what happened to all the early hominins seems a lot less mysterious. Just like in America’s fabled melting pot, human groups disappear to interbreeding all the time. If a group is similar enough to mate with, it’s a good bet it could eventually be absorbed through interbreeding, and if it was too different to mate with, it was probably killed off. It’s worth remembering that times of crisis are the most likely times for interbreeding and absorption to happen, just as the survivors of decimated groups of Native Americans came together to form new tribes after contact with Europeans and their diseases.
Did humans migrate out of Africa once 55,000 years ago, to colonize most of the known world in one wave? Or did we leave Africa a number of times? This is, to me, a strange question. Once humans settled Europe and Asia, any additional immigrants would simply join the colonists already there. Furthermore, there is no reason for the emigrants not to visit the relatives they left back home in Africa, or even to immigrate back. That’s what people do. I’m not sure what kind of signs this would leave on our genomes for scientists to decipher. Both apes and humans can be far-ranging, and the homo sapiens who ventured out of Africa around 125,000 years ago may already have had watercraft, expediting travel. Certainly the later “waves” of migrants had boats, since they colonized Australia by 40,000 ybp at the latest. It seems to me that the only way this debate can exist is if we assume that these were animals less than capable of making decisions and executing them. Otherwise, the question seems a little academic: people just fill open niches and seek opportunities where they exist, and there were probably very few times when a group of people entered a large expanse of new land and found it yet uninhabited by hominoids.
If neanderthals disappeared as a distinct race by 24,000 bp at the latest, while humans from Africa with fewer neanderthal genes kept migrating into Europe and Asia after that, we would expect to find the proportion of neanderthal genes carried by Europeans and Asians to be ever smaller as we get closer to the present day. This seems to be the case, as Europeans carry 2% neanderthal genes today on average, but apparently had a greater proportion in the past, as archaeological finds such as the Lapedo Child in Portugal, buried 24,500 years, seem to show. Neanderthals, too, seemed to carry some proportion of sapiens genes.
Anatomically modern humans existed by 150,000 bp, but most scientist carry around a checklist of “modern” behaviors, and deny our ancestors the status of behavioral modernity until about 50,000 bp, when enough behaviors on that list appear together. Yet, at least 80,000 bp, sapiens used ochre for decoration and fished at Blombos Cave in South Africa, while neanderthals apparently did everything sapiens did, but weren’t even of our species. “Some researchers describe how anatomically modern humans could have been cognitively the same (as modern humans) and what we define as behavioral modernity is just the result of thousands of years of cultural adaptation and learning.” That makes sense. We are beneficiaries of the knowledge of our ancestors, and wouldn’t be so smart or successful if we had to figure it all out from scratch. Early sapiens brains, too, were larger than modern humans, just as wild animals’ brains are larger than their domesticated kin. Neanderthals had brains on average 20% larger than ours.
Bicameralism is a theory which says, among other things, that the development of meta-consciousness (consciousness of consciousness) as we understand it today may have happened as recently as 3000 ago. Julian Jaynes, the author of this theory, believes that prior to the rise of meta-consciousness, volition (the minds’ commands) were perceived as coming from outside of oneself, and perhaps attributed to gods. Texts composed prior to this time give no indication of self-awareness, introspection, or other cognitive meta-processes, whereas after this time, the full range of meta-cognition is present. The change falls in the middle of the old testament; unfortunately, there aren’t all that many texts written before this.
This seems on the right track: a great range exists among people today in self-awareness, as well as, probably, between different groups of people. It makes sense that consciousness wouldn’t be an absolute, possessed by humans but no other being. We all have varying amounts of it. Some people seem to entirely lack the capacity for self-awareness, self-doubt, etc., and even those of us who do have it go through life largely without using it, being stricken by it only on certain occasions. Yet other people seem to be absolutely paralyzed by a constant over-abundance of it. (Too much self-awareness can make daily life impossible. The only way I can get through work is by shutting off my conscious mind as much as possible, just dealing with what’s happening on an automatic level.)
Wikipedia page on behavioral modernity says:
…bicameral mind theory argues for an additional, and cultural rather than genetic, shift from selfless to self-perceiving forms of human cognition and behavior very late in human history, in the Bronze Age. This is based on a literary analysis of Bronze Age texts which claims to show the first appearances of the concept of self around this time, replacing the voices of gods as the primary form of recorded human cognition.
But, this is not “very late in human history,” human history is, by definition, recorded history, which first arose shortly prior to this time. Anyway, it doesn’t seem important when, exactly, people added meta-consciousness into their arsenal for dealing with the world. The main thing is that it is something we in the West today have a lot of, relatively speaking, and that in the recent past it was scarce to non-existent. One could say that meta-consciousness is significantly correlated with civilization, and may be either the cause or the effect of it, if not both. The other main thing is that meta-consciousness is something which arises culturally, rather than biologically or genetically, as everyone has always assumed it did.