Meditations: Breakthroughs in Human Consciousness
Breakthroughs in Human Consciousness
The line between proto-humans, humans, and human beings is a nebulous one, but I see three stages in our random evolutionary path to a mature species. Three very different orders of consciousness characterize these stages. We're somewhere in the messy middle of the last stage, though our successful transition is by no means assured.
About seven million years ago, the hominids diverged from chimpanzees, which led to a branching bush of bipedal primates, one circuitous line of which eventually became Homo sap. If that seems impossibly remote, consider that the chimp genome is closer to the human genome than it is to the gorilla's. That means that we share more genes in common with chimps than chimps share with gorillas. If God created man in his image, then God is a primate.
Even before proto-humans walked onto the stage, there was a long period of walking apes, the robust and gracile australopithecines. The 40% complete skeleton of "Lucy," which is over 3 million years old, belongs to this period. So do the Laetoli footprints, the well preserved tracks of three individuals walking across a recent ashfall in Tanzania nearly 4 million years ago.
With the emergence of Homo habilus, we have the first evidence of conscious tool manufacture, about two and a half million years ago. The first tools were crude and opportunistic, but they demonstrate a mental capacity that apes don't possess. Self-conscious thought was still a long way off. But the deliberate fabrication of tools is the first sign of humankind's prodigious capacity for premeditated learning and manipulation of the environment, with all the destructiveness that has attended it since the Industrial Age.
This first stage of intentional tool manufacture, called Oldowan after Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, was produced by proto-humans with a brain 50% larger than that of the apes. This was the dawn of consciousness. Since "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" (the development of an individual parallels the development of a species), a clue to that consciousness can be found by observing young children. Clearly, like language, self-awareness is a pre-programmed developmental stage, whereas the inculcation of self-image and group identification is learned. (Which is to say that image and identity production are deeply entrenched habits of mind.)
About a million and half years ago, more complex form of tool manufacture, Acheulean, emerged. The all-purpose handaxe Homo erectus used for hundreds of thousands of years required a "mental template" to fashion, thus indicating a new level of intellectual capacity.
During this enormously long time--from about two and a half million years until about 100,000 years ago--human consciousness did not fundamentally change. There is an astonishing stability and sameness to the archeological record during this period, which includes tools, dwellings, and undoubtedly culture. Therefore it's logical to suppose that consciousness did not fundamentally change either. Though Acheulean tools require a few months for a modern person to learn how to make, proto-human consciousness was simple and repetitive in its scope.
The breakthrough came just 100,000 years ago, when a small and endangered proto-human population in Africa developed the capacity for diverse languages and cultures as we know them, as well as for art, science, and sophisticated technology. These were the first true humans, and most paleo-anthropologists agree that they displaced the proto-human species in Africa, Europe, and Asia over thousands of years. ("Hobbits" on a remote Indonesian island notwithstanding!) Every culture, race, and nation that exists on earth today is a direct descendent of that small, pioneering population of Africans who made the transition to a new consciousness.
Human consciousness appears to be guided by the principle of "punctuated equilibrium," in which periods of relative stability and gradual change are interrupted by breakthroughs that produce new adaptations in an evolving species. Taking that view, rather than humankind ascending in an ever-increasing upward arc of knowledge and consciousness, we are actually descending in an accelerating spiral of intensifying crisis, with each turn of history's wheel producing more and more pressure for a breakthrough in consciousness.
The first human consciousness laid the foundation in expanding brain size and generational learning. The second human consciousness led to the explosion of knowledge and technology (as well as population) that we see today. The third human consciousness will be based on awareness. It will include our fullest capacities for expanding scientific knowledge, and honor the indigenous knowledge of the past. But it will be as different from post-modern man's accumulative, self-centered consciousness as the Cro Magnon mind was from the mind of the Neanderthals.
The Rousseauian idea of returning to the "wisdom of ancient traditions" is a pipe dream. A fully conscious transmutation, involving non-invasive, non-coercive, non-technologically induced changes in the brain, is required for our survival and growth as a species. This possibly imminent transmutation will mean that human beings will no longer live in terms of images and identities, but in terms of insight and innocence.
As things are, many 14 year olds are already old, with attitudes and worldviews like jaded 40 year olds. The emergent human species will not grow old, but will continuously renew the brain, mind, and heart with every generation, as individuals do who awaken meditation every day. Then humankind will be in harmony with the universe, and participate in ongoing creation with the cosmic mind.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: email@example.com. The author welcomes comments.