Where Did Consciousness Come From?

After hundreds and millions of years of darkness, the sun began to emerge on the horizon. Although it had happened countless times before, it was only three thousand years ago that anybody was conscious to witness it. Until then, humans had roamed the earth in tight-knit social groups, so tight that they permitted of no self-reflections. All the earth and its creatures operated as if by clockwork: in utter darkness. This, at least, is the account of psychologist and literary analyst Julian Jaynes.

Jaynes derives this conclusion by analyzing ancient literary texts such as Homer’s Iliad, noting that it contains little to no evidence of consciousness. It’s characters rarely introspect or make decisions, instead obediently following the dictations of the gods. Paris, prince of Troy, kidnaps Helen not because of his own desire, but because Aphrodite tells him to. Helen later shows little awareness of her role in a thing called bringing about the downfall of Rome. Achilles returns the body of Hector only on the instruction of the gods. It is as if the characters are operating at the level of the “reptilian brain” impulses and emotions but not cognitive reflection.

There’s something intriguing about Jaynes’ hypothesis of consciousness as a relatively recent, socially-induced phenomenon. I think this partly has to do with the inexplicable mystery of being itself, and how remarkable the progress human society has been able to achieve in such a short time. Everything around us is embedded in rich historical context, and yet from the perspective of evolutionary time it is as if society has suddenly sprung from the void and here we are. And now we are surrounded by captivating symbols and images that make relatively recent history seem an infinity away. It is for this reason, I think, that a story which correlates the appearance of consciousness with a discontinuous advance in human society and technology has intuitive appeal.

Perhaps also the parallel with our myths is relevant, such as the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, life persisted with apparently little self-awareness: that is, until the insidious snake tempted Eve with the fruit of knowledge. After taking a bite of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve realize for the first time that they are naked, and proceed to cover themselves up with fig leaves. They are very ashamed, and when they hear God walking through the Garden they hide behind the trees, demonstrating “theory of mind.” So there is a discontinuous leap, where consciousness after eating the fruit of knowledge is suddenly very different from how it was before. A more recent parallel is found among Marxists. They claim an essential step towards the proletariat revolution and advancement of human society is raising class-consciousness: waking up to the chains of capitalist oppression.

However, Jaynes’ theory lacks support in other respects. For instance, it requires that all the evolutionary supports for consciousness existed for millions of years without ever giving rise to consciousness itself. The sudden social bootstrapping hypothesis, then, seems unlikely for the very reasons that give it intuitive appeal: the evolution of its neurological supports happens on much longer timescales than social developments. Along these lines, we would also have to conclude that only humans are conscious: a kind of anthropocentric hubris that could only ultimately bite us in the butt (which a dog who knew we doubted his consciousness might be liable to do).

It could be that complex societal supports are necessary for the emergence of consciousness: being raised in an environment of conscious teachers, interacting with others towards the development of theory of mind, etc. But that is a feature shared to an extent with other species, and is certainly not new for us humans. A bonobo named Kanzi has been able to learn a complex symbolic language — not spoken languages, since chimps lack the proper anatomical flexibility required for our range of vocalizations — but by typing visual symbols on a keyboard. Another bonobo can start fires, cut vegetables, and prepare a meal all by himself. He can even teach others steps in the process. Of course it is always a leap from behavior to inferring what’s going on inside the head, but given the similarity in brain structure between other apes and ours, it is doubtful that behaviors such as these would be unaccompanied by consciousness. And if they can arise in other animals, how likely does it seem that consciousness only arrived a few thousand years ago in humans?

It may be that the type of consciousness we now possess is exalted over that of our ancient ancestors, given the complex interdependent and reflective social structure that now surrounds us. But I think we shouldn’t be too quick to discount what types of consciousness can exist in the absence of language and modern social structures. And maybe, as the Marxists would argue, many of us are only at an intermediate step in the process of self-awareness, with the true fig leaf realization still to come.