Evolution of Consciousness

Given my interest in natural order and patterns (see Defining Li), it may come as no surprise that I am intrigued by the similarities between (1) the development of individual consciousness over a lifetime and (2) the evolution of human consciousness over many thousands of years. As we mature from infants to adults, our brains go through stages of development that parallel the evolution of our species from primitive to more sophisticated. This parallel offers a kind of symmetry between individual and species development, one that connects us intimately with our own history as human beings. Whether we realize it or not, on an individual level, we each experience a highly-compressed version of human history, and we experience it through the development of our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.

Consider the pre-verbal, selfish, and often aggressive nature of babies. Is it possible that infant consciousness mirrors that of early humans? Babies are more adorable than cavemen, but it is only their relative size and helplessness that allow them to be so. If babies had the size, strength, and mobility of adults, they would be absolutely terrifying when upset, much like Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Now, imagine an entire community of these infant-adults, and you get a glimpse of how brutal and chaotic early human existence might have been.

These parallels continue from infancy into childhood and adolescence. Even with the development of language, the underlying narcissism and brutality do not necessarily disappear. Children eventually learn to follow rules and care for others, but as we all know, children can still be cruel, and not only during infancy. Much the same is true for human cultures and civilizations. In either case, despite the maturation or evolution of our brain structures, the development of more sophisticated perspectives and values can come very late or not at all. All we have to do is watch the news to see countless examples of lingering selfishness, aggression, and cruelty… even among adults in “civilized” societies.

As we move through childhood and into adulthood, our brains develop greater complexity, and we are exposed to the lessons of family, culture, human history, and personal experience. Through these lessons, some of us begin to learn and practice more sophisticated behaviors, and we tend to seek out others who share our perspectives. These pockets of sophistication may be rare in grade school or even high school, but they become more common with age. In the adult world, there are all levels of sophistication representing all kinds of perspectives, but narcissism and brutality still exist.

Human evolution has also included pockets of sophistication for thousands of years, and overall, these pockets appear to have grown more prevalent over the centuries, culminating in our modern human world. Unfortunately, whether we are talking about individuals or the species as a whole, sophistication is neither universal nor inevitable, at least not yet, and pockets of cruelty and selfishness remain common. The development of consciousness is a rocky road, and humanity still has a long way to go.

In exploring this idea further, it may be useful to consider the example of high school. Within most communities of teenagers, selfishness and aggression remain common traits, and this creates a hostile environment dominated by various kinds of bullies and their followers. High school is a primitive world, but unlike early childhood, it does include noticeable and ever-expanding pockets of sophistication. Indeed, the brutality of this world may actually provide a catalyst for individual growth, especially among those who are not in power. Unfortunately, high school can also provide reinforcement for those who are able to dominate, potentially trapping these individuals in a violent and narcissistic existence.

One thing that stands in the way of growth is the tendency for people to be drawn toward the norm. This is much like the statistical concept of regression toward the mean. When there is a dominant majority representing a certain set of perspectives and values, others will tend to be drawn toward those values. They “regress” away from the periphery and toward the norm, as if drawn by gravity. It is hard to resist this gravitational pull and stand firm as an outlier, especially during high school, because teens typically lack stable personal identities. In many ways, finding that identity is what being a teen is all about. At a time of life when primitive traits probably represent the majority, sophistication is represented mostly in the smaller pockets, the outliers. In such an environment, it is not surprising that many individuals would be unwilling to venture away from the primitive majority, even if it is a source of suffering. But some do resist the pull and venture out, and over time, these individuals create centers of gravity of their own.

By the time any generation gets to adulthood, these small pockets of sophistication have grown and combined into a larger segment of the population. As the primitive majority loses members, its gravitational pull diminishes, and acceptance for primitive behaviors declines. There is still a tendency for regression toward the mean, but there are now multiple centers of gravity to attract the lost and isolated. Primitive groups still exist, but their dominant status slips away as they lose their majority. Some members of these primitive groups may eventually feel drawn to evolve themselves. Others may cling to their primitive culture, even as it shrinks into obscurity.

Naturally, all of these trends will depend on the larger cultural context, and in some cultures or societies, primitive traits may remain dominant even in adulthood. This is the nature of human evolution, as well as individual development. Some people push forward into new human potentials, creating new centers of gravity (i.e. more sophisticated behavioral norms), while others remain closer to our primitive origins.

At this point, we must be careful not to confuse technological progress with sophistication, lest we be deceived into a false sense of superiority. After all, technological advances do not necessarily lead to a reduction in selfishness or aggression, and many industrialized nations, including the United States, do not necessarily represent the highest state of human evolution. In fact, our tendencies toward individualism, competition, consumerism, and warfare suggest that we are nowhere near the pinnacle of human consciousness. We may have pockets of great sophistication, but as a whole, we still demonstrate strong tendencies toward primitive behaviors.

Despite all of our limitations, I still have faith that humanity is on an upward trajectory toward greater levels of sophistication, even if it sometimes happens slowly and inconsistently. Every time we reveal our darkest potentials, it seems that we also reveal our outrage. Hopefully, this means that lessons are being learned. Hopefully, our primitive behaviors are serving a purpose for our species as a whole. Hopefully, we will continue to embrace a shift away from aggression and narcissism and toward an existence that minimizes suffering for all.