Evolution and Consciousness

There is no political solution…to our troubled evolution. (Gordon Sumner)

Is our consciousness the result of evolution? Or is our evolution the result of consciousness? To what extent do we as a species consciously participate in our own evolution?

We humans are born not even half-developed as mammals. Humans have the longest period of development outside the womb. Whereas most mammals are fully developed to the point of maturity, having adult form and capacity, within six months to two years, humans are not fully matured for at least 20 years. Almost everything about human behavior and consciousness, language, motor skills and social skills develop outside the womb, in a long period of maturation.

But perhaps as well, we are not fully evolved, perhaps not even half evolved as a species. I’m beginning to realize this after many years of ‘working on myself’ in terms of addiction, mental illness, and a host of neuroses (anxiety and shame) that what I and my fellow humans have been struggling with is not ‘mental illness’ or developmental disorders but an incomplete evolution as a social species.

We are struggling with an evolutionary inheritance of a brain that is motivated by fear and anxiety, that has a bias towards negativity, that reacts with shame and rage at any social threat. We are struggling with a brain that has problems modeling reality and creates cognitive models that are often dysfunctional. We have inherited a brain and physical system that is driven by cyclical addictive patterns of hunger/search/consume/satiate/hunger. Cycles of depression/anxiety are natural responses within conditions that constantly threaten annihilation. Our brains are wired for survival, not happiness. We are struggling with a brain that requires decades of careful nurturing and development, that is easily disordered by nurturing deficits, trauma and hostile environments. In terms of behavior, humans have to be taught empathy, cooperation and to restrain selfishness and aggression. Humans require constant teaching to learn to navigate the complex world around us, and regular intervention to avoid harming others and ourselves.

Why are humans only partially developed at birth? Scientists believe that it is because most of our brain development has to take place socially within a learning environment. We have to learn language and learn to communicate. We have to learn appropriate social behavior and learn how to form healthy bonds with others. We have to learn numerous skills to survive in a technologically complex society.

But why are humans only partly evolved socially and what if anything can we do to advance our evolution? I’m beginning to think that we have come as far as we can by ‘passive’ evolution: mutation, sex selection and population genetics. The rest of our continued evolution as a social species will have to take place consciously, by consciously choosing our social behavior and the kinds of social environments we evolve within.

For example, our behavior is shaped by a social system that selects some (mostly males and upper caste females) to be aggressive, dominant and exploitative, and others (mostly females and lower caste males) to be passive, submissive and accept exploitation. This reflects patterns of hierarchy and dominance in the mammalian kingdom, but we as humans have evolved, partly, away from this social pattern.

In terms of social evolution, we are not much better than chimpanzees. Though we have complex technologies and civilizations, in terms of social behavior we have not evolved much beyond the level of the Great Apes, with their ranked tribal hierarchies of domination and submission, aggression and appeasement. Language has accelerated our social evolution, and our frontal cortex and left-brain dominance shows a capacity for reasoning that exceeds the Great Apes, but socially we still behave like chimpanzees.

Where we exceed the evolution of the Great Apes and other mammals is where we demonstrate capacity for peer equality and dispersed leaderless networks that enable cooperative survival and full individual development.

Historically, the evolution of the human species has shown a general trend towards complex cooperative social behavior. Natural human drives for aggression and dominance have been sublimated into organizational hierarchies and games, while human capacities for care and cooperation have extended from the immediate tribal band to near global networks of cooperation and mutual support.

Will we consciously select for selfishness, aggression, dominance and exploitation? Or will we consciously select for cooperation, empathy, bonding and mutual enhancement? I think that’s what’s at stake in this whole game of civilization.

I have few answers to these questions, but one: I realize now that we are not struggling with ‘sin’, ‘bad karma’, ‘moral turpitude’, and we are most certainly not dealing with ‘mental illness’, but a faulty and incomplete evolution.


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