The rise of consciousness

Here’s a “lost post” from last fall, when i was reading about evolution: Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, interviewed by Amy Otchet, UNESCO Courier journalist:

Ian: One thing truly sets us apart from every other species: consciousness. Human consciousness has been described as a kind of inner eye, which allows the brain to observe itself at work and therefore permits us to have the complex interpersonal relationships that far exceed those of any other animal. Modern human anatomy goes back over 100,000 years but it wasn’t until maybe 40,000 years ago that modern cognition suddenly burst on the scene, as evidenced by the cave art of the Cro-Magnon, for example, in Europe. What triggered this cognitive explosion?

It is impossible to be sure what this innovation might have been, but the best current bet is that it was the invention of language. For language is not simply the medium by which we express our ideas and experiences to each other. Rather it is fundamental to the thought process itself. It involves categorizing and naming objects and sensations in the outer and inner worlds and making associations between resulting mental symbols. It is impossible for us to conceive of thought (as we know it) in the absence of language, and it is the ability to form mental symbols that is the fount of our creativity, for only once we create such symbols can we recombine them and ask questions like “What if…?”

Amy: Human evolution has come to a standstill, you say. We haven’t really changed since acquiring cognition and we cannot expect any major innovations in the future. What is holding us back?

Ian: You’ve got to have small populations in order to get meaningful genetic innovations. The [human] population is getting larger all the time, individuals are infinitely more mobile now and the prospect of isolation of populations is lower than it ever has been. We can imagine some sci-fi scenarios of isolated space colonies but they would inevitably be sustained by a lifeline from Earth. Or we can imagine genetic engineering. However, artificially produced genotypes could only be sustained by sequestering “engineered” individuals which I doubt and hope would never be deemed permissible. But if it was, these genetic innovations would remain only among these small “laboratory” populations.

So to hope that a bit more evolutionary fine-tuning will solve our problems is foolish optimism. We have to cope with ourselves as we currently cope with the world and the problems that we cause in it. We have reached a pinnacle in the sense that Homo sapiens is truly something unique. Whether you think it is superior or not is up to you. I suspect that if other species were capable of contemplating this question, they would not conclude that we represent a pinnacle.

The whole interview is very good, if you’re at all interested in this sort of thing. Methinks that evolution may have a few more tricks up its sleeve than Tattersall allows in this interview. Things like maybe killing off enormous numbers of any species that can’t or won’t control its own population. That could well result in small, isolated populations.

Emails on purpose

Correspondence with an old friend, triggered by a post i came across on Tony Tjan’s Harvard Business blog:

Dear R–

When i read this i thought of you and me. It’s off some website for venture capitalists, of all things, but the five questions made a lot of sense to me:

These five questions, when asked in the order presented, form an effective diagnostic tool that can provide better guidance to mentees, employees, or generally anyone with whom you are playing the role of a counsellor. Additionally, they can serve as a self-diagnosis of one’s own capabilities and opportunities.

Here are the questions:

1. What is it that you really want to be and do?
2. What are you doing really well that is helping you get there?
3. What are you not doing well that is preventing you from getting there?
4. What will you do differently tomorrow to meet those challenges?
5. How can I help / where do you need the most help?

I hope this morning’s cafe is suitably stocked with beans and babes.

Dear Groggy,
Lots to think about there. Symptom: I’m avoiding thinking about [it]. Hmm, no, not entirely true. That’s what I come to the cafe for. Enlightenment.

I think things are exactly the way they should be. You and I and the world are just as they should be according to everything that’s happened up to this minute. The issue (for me) is change. How to change?

Case in point: I read the five questions first trying to figure what I want to do, be, etc. Struggling. “Gee is that what I really want? Is that going to work? A painter? Do I still, deep down, want to be a drummer in a rock band…?” I can probably do fine without being a drummer at all. But then, what to get passionate about? …

A few minutes later I reread [the questions]. This time I plugged in my life as it is. All my “problems,” difficulties, and weaknesses…. Substitute the first question with “Who is it that you really are?” Then the rest of the questions answer themselves. The first thing that came to mind after that was something that a self-help guru said. I paraphrase: It’s no more difficult to do it the right way than it is to do it the wrong way.

Okay — change the answer to the first question. My impulse, no, need, is to answer with that magical something that will be passionate and wonderful and drive me for the rest of my long and wonderful life. (Which is kind of a cop-out, when you think about it. If something drives me [then] I don’t have to drive myself.) But hey, didn’t we just [make a mutual bet] based on the premise that working hard drives your ass (once you get going), and the inspiration follows. When asked if he only wrote when in the mood or if he really had to work at it, Somerset Maugham responded that he only wrote when inspired. “Fortunately,” he added, “inspiration strikes me at exactly nine a.m. every morning.”)

So the thing is, then, to choose. Chocolate or vanilla? Vanilla or chocolate? It doesn’t really matter. Choose one and go with it. I think choosing = changing. Kinda like my grandma telling me to put a smile on my face. Some work to get it on, but once there it’s awfully hard to ignore. Passion.


Whew — holy tangled web, Batman! I can relate, though; boy, can i relate. For me it all stems from the first question, What is it that you really want to be and do? Once that’s answered, the rest of the questions are just practicalities.

But that first one’s a problematic bastard. First off, it presupposes that there is something you “really want to be and do” — a premise that would not stand up to much historical scrutiny, methinks. It’s a notion that would have arisen along with the Enlightenment and the age of the individual, and individual purpose.

Counter to that, though, is the loose, Zennish notion that we, all of us, already know what we really want to be and do, because it’s built into our bodies. It’s all those things we really get into, where time disappears for us, that we do not because we’re supposed to but for fun, for compulsion, for … just for the doing. (For me, sometimes it’s playing the frame drum; i can go for hours, just lost in it. Sometimes it’s proofreading other people’s writing, which i can get deliciously obsessive about.)

Trouble is, few of those things slot into the professional categories we automatically invoke when thinking of being and doing: We immediately lapse into “job mode,” and then are stymied. The question becomes What job would you like to do?, with the subtext “happily and every day for the rest of your life.” Then suddenly we don’t know anymore. We might be sitting in a puddle making mud pies, perfectly content. Then someone asks the question, and we think, “This is ridiculous. I can’t sit around making mud pies forever. What do i really want to be and do?” Bingo — disconnect! Welcome to the age of bone-deep anxiety and confusion.


Tanker feedback by Apr. 14

From the annoyingly persistent but usually effective Dogwood Initiative:

The approval process for tar sands related tankers and pipelines in B.C. is inadequate and time is running out to get our voice heard. We only have until April 14th.

Write to Stephen Harper and let him know the Enbridge Northern Gateway project needs a comprehensive public inquiry, not a rubber stamp.

The current approval process run by National Energy Board NEB and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency CEAA is set up to assess how a project proceeds, not if a project proceeds. It won’t consider the consequences of eliminating the longstanding tanker ban, the impact of pipelines on the expansion of the tar sands, nor the projects relationship to Canada’s policy on global warming.

Write the Prime Minister and tell him that proposals to ship half the current production of the Alberta tar sands to Asia via pipeline to tankers in the waterways of the Great Bear Rainforest needs real scrutiny.

Click hear to send a letter to the Prime Minister and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

The comment period for the scope of the NEB/CEAA review ends April 14th so don’t delay.

I just sent my letter, for what it’s worth. It’s easy to roll your eyes and say What good will it do?, but c’mon, folks. This is still a democracy we live in, and the politicians still have to be elected by popular vote. Besides, look at the world we are handing off to our children. Do you want to look them in the eye in 20 years and say (or think, because you won’t have the heart to say it), “I didn’t even try”?


‘Scientism’ infects Darwinian debates

There’s a good piece from the level-headed columnist Douglas Todd in the Vancouver Sun this weekend. Subtitled “An unflinching belief that science can explain everything about evolution becomes its own ideology“, it makes for a good read on the newest brand of fundamentalism pitting itself against all those “traditional” fundamentalisms. The first few paragraphs:

There are two major obstacles to a rich public discussion on Charles Darwin s theory of evolution and what it means to all of us.

The most obvious obstacle is religious literalism which leads to Creationism. It s the belief the Bible or other ancient sacred texts offer the first and last word on how humans came into existence.

The second major barrier to a rewarding public conversation about the impact of evolution on the way we understand the world is not named nearly as much.

It is “scientism.”

Scientism is the belief that the sciences have no boundaries and will in the end be able to explain everything in the universe. Scientism can like religious literalism become its own ideology.

Does this sound like an argument you’ve had? Does this sound like six people you know?

Full story on-line here. It also appears on Todd’s blog, The Search, which is well worth a bookmark.

Call to arms

Here’s a slice of something trenchant from the warmed-in-hell pen of Brit journalist/crusader George Monbiot. The whole article is worth a read. Hell, his whole website is worth it.

We are trapped in a spiral of political alienation. Politics isn’t working for us, so we leave it to the politicians. The political vacuum is then filled with heartless, soulless, gutless technocrats: under what other circumstances could political ghosts like Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon, Alistair Darling, Hazel Blears, Peter Mandelson or John Hutton remain in office? Unmolested by the public, corporate lobbyists collaborate with this empty political class to turn parliament into a conspiracy against the public. Revolted by these phantoms, seeing nowhere to turn, we withdraw altogether, granting them even richer opportunities to exploit us.

The government talks of re-igniting public enthusiasm for politics, of bringing out the vote, but balks at any measure which might make this happen. The reform of the House of Lords has again been postponed until after the next election, if at all. The promise, in Labour’s 1997 manifesto, of a referendum on electoral reform is long-forgotten. It now looks as if nothing will be done to stop MPs from moonlighting, as our representatives argue that they cannot possibly get by on £63,000 a year plus lavish expenses. I wonder whether they have any idea how that plays in a town like this.