What If We’d Never Imagined Our Selves?

Midjourney’s representation of an infant bonobo

“Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.”       — Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight – brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”  — Rust Cohle – character in the TV series True Detective

No, the title of this post isn’t a typo. My question is as follows: It would appear that we are the only species on the planet that perceives, or conceives, or imagines, ourselves as separate individuals, things apart from everything else. We are the only species that apparently conceives of subjects and objects in ‘real’ space in time, because we’re the only species whose brains are capable of that level of abstraction. So what if our brains hadn’t evolved to be able to abstract ourselves (our selves) as separate from everything else? How would we live then?

What piqued my interest in this question was stumbling upon a 2011 Elizabeth Kolbert article describing what was then a shocking new discovery: Newly-sequenced DNA showed that we ‘modern’ humans mated with, and hence shared DNA with, Neanderthal and Denisovan ‘early’ humans, long after we genetically branched from them some 400,000 years ago, and before we apparently killed them all off. Between 1-4% of ‘modern’ Europeans’ and Asians’ DNA is definitively Neanderthal, and up to 6% of some modern Asians’ DNA is definitively Denisovan. We actually know very little about how these early humans looked — there is no evidence, for example, to suggest that they were any hairier than we are.

Elizabeth, and the scientists she interviewed, speculated on how we might have evolved to be so different from these early humans that we were able to survive, and create art, music, language, and other technologies, while they did not. As the scientists were geneticists, their search of course focused on finding some magic genetic difference between our species (and between us and the bonobos and chimps that we genetically branched from about six million years ago) to account for our ‘uniqueness’.

I have of late been imagining, wherever I go and whatever I do, myself and other humans as “eight billion mildly deranged monkeys”, and being amazed at how improbable it seems that any animal could possibly be conditioned to live, and get used to living, the astonishing and often terrible way that we do — a high-stress, busy, fiercely competitive, difficult life in which we are both physically and culturally constrained to behave in what seem to be utterly unnatural ways.

Needless to say, the magic ‘sapiens’ DNA key has not been found. And I have no idea why they would even presume that our evolution stems from some genetic difference at all. Our behaviour is overwhelmingly the result of cultural rather than biological conditioning — differences in our ‘software’ rather than our ‘hardware’. Research suggests, for example, that the neural structures in a child’s brain develop in sync with what the child’s brain is culturally exposed to, and that, for example, if a child is not exposed to abstract language until puberty, its neural circuits develop very differently and it then becomes incapable of ever learning abstract languages.

There’s also the bicameral brain theory of Julian Jaynes. His hypothesis is basically that thousands of years ago, the human mind evolved from a “bicameral” sense-making device, to an integrated, synthesizing one. He argued that both language and the evolution of the capacity for synthesis of the brain’s bicameral processing were necessary preconditions for what he calls consciousness — essentially the awareness of one’s self as a separate thing with agency, and commensurate awareness of others with the same attributes.

There seems to me no reason why that integration of the once-bicameral brain of our ancestors couldn’t have come about through cultural conditioning rather than some genetic mutation. Until we moved from the trees to areas with a sufficiently protein-rich (mostly seafood) diet to enable our brains to grow dramatically in capacity, and then were compelled to socially organize to enable agriculture and other complex interdependent activities just to survive in these new environments, we had no need for ‘integrated’ brains — brains which allowed us to imagine things and actions we had never seen and could never see, and ‘real-ize’ them.

Art followed (about 100,000 years ago, but not apparently in Neanderthal or Denisovan humans) and then abstract language. And for perhaps the first time, we were able to model the ‘outside’ world inside our brains using various abstract categorizations to imagine what our senses perceived as separate ‘things’ in space and time, to imagine causality rather than just perceiving correlation, and, most astonishingly and terrifyingly, to imagine our selves in the centre of this model of everything-else. Our ‘plastic’ brains accommodated it all. And thanks to our now-integrated brain functions, we were able to conceive that what we imagined was real. Especially when other humans confirmed and reinforced these imaginings. We’re pretty good at conditioning each other to believe just about anything.

This thesis, then, would hold that what we call ‘consciousness’, and the separate self, are fictions, inventions of the brain, but seemingly very useful ones for a species that had both (i) the capacity to imagine them, and (ii) the social need to use such abstractions to connect with others and collectively organize a complex, interdependent society, once we had vacated the trees and migrated to unfamiliar and often-hostile foreign environments we were not biologically suited to live in without developing complex technologies.

(We don’t know enough about the Neanderthals and Denisovans to meaningfully speculate on whether they had art, sophisticated tools, or language. The jury seems to be still out.)

There is some suggestion that the reason our species left the trees of the African rainforest was in response to a massive, protracted storm of cosmic radiation that obliterated most of that rainforest just as our species was emerging. So the evolution of the ‘modern’ human brain and its conceptions may have been the result of a rare accident, without which we’d still be comfortably ensconced in the trees, bit players in our planet’s teeming web of life. We may have had no choice but to leave our homes and evolve this strange new and seemingly unique imaginative capacity.

So back to my question: What if we hadn’t? What if the need for an integrated brain had never arisen? Where would the evolution of humans have stopped?

I think there’s rather compelling evidence that evolutionary change (adaptation) is the result of a combination of accident, opportunity and necessity. We might change because of some relatively sudden world-changing event (a meteorite, cosmic storm, or climate change). We might change because natural selection is always trying out variations and mutations to see if they produce a better ‘fit’ within the ecosystem. And we might change because, in some circumstances, if we didn’t, we’d perish.

But if there was no need to change, to evolve an integrated brain and develop the technologies it enables, my sense is that we wouldn’t have changed. Unlike some scientists, I don’t think we are any more curious (to explore ‘new worlds’) than many other species. Other animals have brains comparable to ours (elephants and whales for example). Prior to our destruction of their habitats, bonobos for example led pretty easy, pleasant lives, and evolved very little.

My hypothesis then, is that if it hadn’t been for some accident forcing us from our natural homes, we would today just be another species of ape, content in our small niche. Just another tiny branch in the astonishing tree of life.

Why do I care about this question? Mainly, I guess, because since I think global ecological and economic (and hence civilizational) collapse is now inevitable, then rather than stressing about what to do, I’ve become more interested in chronicling what’s happening and asking about whether where we’ve come to was inevitable.

But there’s another reason: After collapse (or more likely, after multiple collapses as we try and fail to create new, smaller civilizations in the absence of cheap resources, and without all the technologies that those cheap resources enable, and with little remaining healthy arable land for food), I wonder if we might actually return, voluntarily, opportunistically, or of necessity, to a comfortable subsistence life in the forest. Abandoning agriculture, language, and finally art, in the reverse order that we adopted them. Perhaps that’s just a romantic fantasy, but, in places where they haven’t been devastated by human encroachment, such a life seems to have worked well for the bonobos. For six million years.

(Or, an even more fanciful thought — if the world after collapse doesn’t have a suitable habitat left for humans, we might end up, as the Douglas Adams quote above alludes to, returning to the oceans, from where we came. That’s what the whales and other sea mammals have done, and it seems to have worked well for them. The hippos seem to be moving back to an aquatic life even now. Perhaps a million years from now, our descendants might all be found swimming with the dolphins. There’s probably a sci-fi novel in there somewhere.)

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5 Responses to What If We’d Never Imagined Our Selves?

  1. Paul Reid-Bowen says:

    Hi Dave, I’m not sure what to suggest to you here. I’ve been laboring with a book project for more than a decade that weaves together inevitable collapse with similar questions about consciousness and the FERMI Paradox. What’s consciousness good for? Well, it may have been adaptive for a while, or else it may be an evolutionary spandrel, or it may be maladaptive (e.g. Ernst Mayr’s lethal mutation). But could there be a spacefaring or high-tech species without consciousness? Surprisingly, quite possibly.

    Perhaps have a look at this short piece by the philosopher Steven Shaviro who uses some choice examples from SF as a means of reflecting on whether consciousness is good for anything (I particularly like his idea of consciousness as generating/being spam, aesthetic, and a very costly luxury (in evolutionary terms)). (http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1233)

    Shaviro also has a book length treatment of these topics, titled Discognition, which considers, amongst other things, thinking like a slime mould and thinking like an alien. Some of these ideas also converge on the topic of whether adaptationism solves the Fermi Paradox, arguing that intelligence and consciousness could disappear or whither away once the environment sufficiently changes. This is from an article by Milan Cirkovic, reflecting on Karl Schroeder’s SF novel Permanence (https://arxiv.org/ftp/astro-ph/papers/0408/0408521.pdf):

    “Schroeder’s solution to Fermi’s paradox. Intelligence is an adaptive trait, like any other. Adaptive traits are bound to disappear once the environment changes sufficiently for any selective advantage which existed previously to disappear. In the long run, the intelligence is bound to disappear, as its selective advantage is temporally limited by ever-changing physical and ecological conditions.

    [Quote from Permanence] ‘Look at crocodiles. Humans might move into their environment— underwater in swamps. We might devise all kinds of sophisticated devices to help us live there, or artificially keep the swamp drained. But do you really think that, over thousands or millions of years, there won’t be political uprisings? System failures? Religious wars? Mad bombers? The instant something perturbs the social systems that’s needed to support the technology, the crocodiles will take over again, because all they have to do to survive is swim and eat.’

    Schroeder’s protagonist continues:

    [Quote from Permanence continues] ‘It’s the same with consciousness. We know now that it evolves to enable a species to deal with unforeseen situations. By definition, anything we’ve mastered becomes instinctive. Walking is not something we have to consciously think about, right? Well, what about physics, chemistry, social engineering? If we have to think about them, we haven’t mastered them—they are still troublesome to us. A species that succeeds in really mastering something like physics has no more need to be conscious of it. Quantum mechanics becomes an instinct, the way ballistics already is for us. Originally, we must have had to put a lot of thought into throwing things like rocks or spears. We eventually evolved to be able to throw without thinking—and that is a sign of things to come. Some day, we’ll become… able to maintain a technological infrastructure without needing to think about it. Without need to think, at all…’

    The idea that intelligence might one day cease to be useful to its possessors has been present in SF and popular culture for a long time, at least as a sort of black humor joke.”

    What if we’d never imagined our selves? Hmmm. Quite – although we arguably wouldn’t have had the luxury/waste of engaging in such imaginings.

  2. Peter says:

    “I have of late been imagining, wherever I go and whatever I do, myself and other humans as “eight billion mildly deranged monkeys”, and being amazed at how improbable it seems that any animal could possibly be conditioned to live, and get used to living, the astonishing and often terrible way that we do — a high-stress, busy, fiercely competitive, difficult life in which we are both physically and culturally constrained to behave in what seem to be utterly unnatural ways.”
    Once again, Dave, you say SO much with just a few words-love it!

  3. Philip says:

    A dynamic within the ape – monkey relationship might be why we were forced out of our natural habitat. At a similar time to tree cover changing in Africa, Monkeys had a mutation in their digestive systems allowing them to digest unripe fruit. We cannot eat unripe fruit today without issues. Off course the ramifications changed monkey and ape populations/distribution. In a world without free will, one thing leads to another to another. Everything is inevitable or?, chronicle away Dave, we love it, can the purpose of life (human) be seen as seeing? what, who and when can “we” see?

  4. Alex says:

    You may also like “Evolution” by Stephen Baxter. It`s exactly this – a very long story of evolution, a short peak, a long collapse and even longer de-volution of homo sapiens. 800 pages of existential crisis and insults to humanity (Baxter is very good at this).

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone. Paul, yes, the idea that what we call ‘intelligence’ or ‘consciousness’ is merely an adaptation and not one of any enduring value is not new, but there’s a certain logic to it. The fact that the whales were land animals that went back to the ocean because it was a ‘better’ environment for what they had become is fascinating — what if they’d stayed land mammals? Alex, I looked at the long review of Evolution in indymedia and it sounds as if Stephen Baxter’s ‘Mother’ character is the first two have evolved from the separate bicameral to the cross-connected brain as Julian Jaynes speculated on. Perhaps that evolution was a ‘mental breakdown’ in more ways than one. Not sure I’m ready for an 800-page book but we’ll see.

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