How did human consciousness evolve?
Sociologists, scientists, spiritual leaders, philosophers and artists have many fascinating theories about this subject.
Let’s take a look at the most fascinating theories about the evolution of human consciousness.
1) Neural competition
The first of the fascinating theories about the evolution of human consciousness is that our brain became conscious in order to survive.
This theory claims that our neural processes competed for attention and those that led to our survival won out, bringing us consciousness or the ability to pick out what’s important and what’s not.
This theory, known as the Attention Schema Theory (AST) has become increasingly popular over the past years in the field of evolutionary biology.
As Michael Graziano writes for the Atlantic:
“The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence.”
Essentially, our neurons competed for attention and our brain developed a mechanism of “selective signal enhancement” to pay more attention to some signals than others.
Over 520 million years from its earliest beginnings in vertebrates, this process eventually led to consciousness as we know it.
2) Internal and external conflict creates consciousness
The next of the fascinating theories about the evolution of human consciousness comes from Swiss psychologist Carl Jung.
Jung believed that human beings are spiritual creatures who are connected to a deeper underlying and supersensible reality.
This supersensible reality contains what he called “the collective unconscious” as well as powerful and meaningful symbols called “archetypes.”
Our process of becoming unique individuals, or individuation, is a process of becoming conscious.
According to Jung, this first developed out of inner and outer conflict.
When our ancestors experienced pain and struggle in their lives, and within themselves, they gained more self-awareness and consciousness.
This then developed and passed down through the generations.
As the Society of Analytical Psychology (SAP) writes:
“In order to become more conscious, one must be able to bear conflict. There are many internal opposites, as well as those experienced in the outside world.
“If the tension between the opposites can be borne, then out of this clash something new and creative can grow.”
3) We became conscious through our perception and experience of time
The next of the fascinating theories about the evolution of human consciousness is the idea that our evolving experience of time is what made us conscious.
Our unique individual consciousness developed as we experience objects in space that are one after the other and just sitting. For example, we experience a train passing buy or a skyscraper that sits in one place.
These exist within time and we experience them as existing in time.
But we do not experience temporal events within space or spatial reality, for example a sentence somebody is speaking or a piece of music doesn’t exist within a physical space. It just exists in time.
This perception of the passage of time as relating to events and experiences, made us conscious.
As Austrian-German philosopher Edmund Husserl posited:
“All forms of perception … presuppose an intentional structure of consciousness, and it is in this intentional structure that the primordial link between consciousness and the world is to be sought.”
4) God made us conscious
Next up in theories of consciousness we get the theistic view.
In this view, an all powerful Creator made human beings with the capacity to be conscious in order to give them free will and come to know him.
The purpose of making human beings conscious was, essentially, to make them co-creators or at least allies of the Creator in his creation.
This view continues to dominate the world from Hinduism to Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
“The most reasonable conclusion to draw is that human beings have rational minds which exist apart from the brain (called souls in Christian theology) given to them by a Creator who designed the universe for humanity’s study and comprehension,” argues Jimmy Wallace.
Other religions such as Buddhism, however, do not posit one Creator behind existence and there’s no doubt that agnosticism and atheism are growing in the developed world, particularly in the developed West and East Asia.
5) Our consciousness is a divine signal interceptor
The next of the fascinating theories about the evolution of human consciousness is that our consciousness is basically part of a divine evolution.
By this tangent from theism, our souls are designed to act as interceptors of God’s will and help him create reality.
Essentially, our consciousness are conduits for divine power which may grow along with divine power to manifest into something greater.
As the late theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson put it:
“God may be considered to be either a world-soul or a collection of world souls. We are the chief inlets of God on this planet at the present stage in his development.
“We may later grow with him as he grows, or we may be left.”
6) Consciousness started at specific points in history
According to these various theories of the development of human consciousness, it coincided with specific points in societal development.
For example, some believe it started with the advances of homo sapien society around 300,000 years in the past when early humans became hunter gatherers and tried to survive in harsh environments.
This required more intelligence and increased perceptiveness and alertness, eventually leading to consciousness.
Others point to the development of language around 100,000 years ago as a point at which consciousness began coming up.
We developed the words to express our ideas and perceptions and as a result became conscious.
Some such as American psychologist Julian Jaynes place the start of consciousness much more recently around 3,000 years ago when humans began developing more advanced agriculture-based civilizations.
Their bicameral mind split into decision making and following was previously satisfied by divine edicts and revelations, but this began to break apart as the need for more advanced social mechanisms made more and more people begin to make their own decisions and, as a consequence, become conscious.
“For Jaynes, it was the appearance of self-volition that signaled the emergence of consciousness following the breakdown of the bicameral mind.”
7) Everything is conscious (panpsychism)
The next of the fascinating theories about the evolution of human consciousness is that human consciousness isn’t unique and everything is actually conscious.
By this theory, consciousness started 13.7 billion years in the past when the universe began.
This theory is known as panpsychism, or the idea that everything has some form of consciousness and that human consciousness is just a slice of this meta-conciousness.
This belief is still held in many indigenous cultures who believe every created thing has an innate being and soul that communicates.
First popularized in the Western world by the writer Margaret Cavendish, this theory went on to be upheld by prominent individuals such as Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza who said that everything had “its own mind” and that they were all “at one with God’s mind.”
“If the panpsychists are right, it could cast doubt on the foundations of a worldview that has been deeply embedded in our psyche for hundreds of years: that humans are superior to everything around them.”
8) Consciousness doesn’t exist at all
Lastly in terms of the fascinating theories about the evolution of human consciousness is that it doesn’t even exist and is just an illusion.
We believe we’re conscious, but we’re mostly wrong.
This theory was made popular by folks such as American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, who argued that consciousness is a “user illusion” that seems real but actually mostly isn’t.
Primarily, what we think is consciousness is just default conclusions and observations that occur mostly by their own accord and have very little to do with us in particular or our own experience in life.
As Dennett put it in an influential TED talk:
“Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.”
Which theory is true?
Theories about how humans developed consciousness come from many areas including philosophy, evolutionary biology, religion and cognitive sciences.
But which one is true? Which has the most evidence on its side as the defining story of how we got here?
The theories above all have evidence on their side, but to say definitively which is true is a matter of personal choice and faith.
The greatest questions facing humanity are often less about the answer than the question itself.
As the great psychologist Viktor Frankl memorably said about the search for meaning and truth:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who asked.”
Modern humans have an undeniably different consciousness than modern Chimpanzees. Human consciousness is unique and uniquely capable. Six or seven million years ago our ancestral species was the same as the ancestral species of the Chimpanzees.
We were the same.
So our modern human consciousness must have arisen sometime during the past six to seven million years. But what evidence is most indicative of this: the first stone tools – 3m years ago?, control of fire – 750,000 years ago, intentional human burial – 100,000 years ago, cave paintings – 40,000 years ago? the shift to agriculture and living in towns – 11,000 years ago? the emergence of writing – 3-4,000 years ago.
Julian Jaynes famously claimed it was just 3-4,000 years ago, in 1976. Others believe it has been with us as long as our species.
What do you think and which evidence best supports it?