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.

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