Conscious Control

on October 27, 2010

I keep thinking about the difference between pre-human and fully human — between Neanderthal, say, and us — and it’s occurred to me that the most significant distinction may be in terms of conscious control.

This idea grows out of a notion I’ve been toying with for years — that much of evolution has been a process of incremental internalization.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, for example, the hot new trend among primitive life-forms involved the development of bodily organs to take over functions that had previously been left up to the environment. Instead of passively allowing the sea to wash through them, they developed a digestive system that could pull in nutrients and eject the waste and a circulatory system to carry oxygen and nutrients to every cell. As time passed, they added shells or skeletons for stability, limbs for propulsion, and various appendages for grasping.

For higher-order creatures, biological evolution was eventually supplemented by behavioral evolution — but the goal was still to replace chance with control. Instead of depositing their eggs in the sand like a turtle and leaving the hatchlings to fend for themselves, they might feed and protect their babies like a dinosaur or mammal. Or they might create a specialized mini-environment to provide greater safety and comfort: a nest, a burrow, or an ant hill.

Among our own human lineage, however, there has been a further step — where taking control becomes a matter not of more advanced instincts but of conscious thought.

This can clearly be seen in the successive stages of tool use over the last several million years. The first stage might have consisted merely of picking up a sharp-edged stone to cut some meat off a bone. But the second stage, in which chips were knocked off an unbroken stone to form a cutting edge, began to involve thought, planning, and deliberate modification of the environment.

With the third stage, however, something extraordinary happened — as though the evolutionary process was folding back on itself and entering a higher dimension. The handaxes made by Homo erectus starting some 1.8 million years ago could never have been produced merely by bashing stones together. They display a characteristic form and are clearly the product of a conscious algorithm — a series of well-defined steps carried out in the same way every time to produce a consistent result.

At that point, consciousness has taken a quantum leap. Not only is the recipe held in the mind, but so is an image of the desired result. And the algorithms themselves evolve over time, like computer programs being upgraded. The elegant handaxes of 700,000 years ago are clearly the product of a far more sophisticated algorithm than those of a million years earlier, and they suggest that learning was playing a greatly increased role in human life in general.

An article earlier this month reported on the discovery in Spain of a 500,000 year old specimen of Homo heidelbergensis — the precursors of the Neanderthals — who was not only elderly but suffered from a painful spinal deformity which would have left him unable to provide his own food or share in everyday tasks. According to the article, the fact that his fellows were willing to do these things for him suggests that he had something of great value to offer in return — the ability to pass on his many years of accumulated wisdom. And that, in turn, suggests at least a rudimentary use of language.

A further elaboration of tool-making algorithms can be seen in the Middle Paleolithic technology that became prevalent among both Neanderthals and early modern humans about 200,000 years ago. In the so-called Levallois technique, a large stone is carefully shaped to provide a “core,” from which scrapers and projectile points can be struck off in a manner that indicates a very high degree of conscious control.

But there was something additional going on with our own ancestors at that time.

Once you’ve started making stone tools, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to keep making better ones — just an ability to upgrade what already exists by adding a few more boxes to the flow chart. But as soon as modern humans appeared on the scene, they were already experimenting wildly to create things that had never before existed.

They were, for example, concocting glue in a process which required combining a plant gum with powdered rock and heating it at a controlled temperature. That kind of sophisticated technology couldn’t have been derived from observation of nature. It could only have resulted from a lengthy period of fooling around with all sorts of unlikely stuff and keeping track of the results — what might be called the primordial version of the Hacker Ethic.

But it wasn’t just glue that was the subject of experimentation. String figures, which are found among the most ancient human cultures, may go back just as far — and the wide diversity of these figures implies that a lot of people were spending their free afternoons trying out every imaginable thing you could do with a piece of string.

And at some point the people who were playing with string also invented clothing. A recent genetic study of the human clothing louse concluded that it had diverged from the human head louse no later than 83,000 years ago and perhaps as early as 170,000 years ago.

It’s apparent that among the earliest modern humans, the process of discovery itself was coming under conscious control rather than being left to chance. But beyond that, I’m tempted to conclude that what really happened 200,000 years ago was the evolution of the geek.

As author Steven Levy says in describing one of the original MIT computer hackers, “Peter Samson and his friends had grown up with a specific relationship to the world, wherein things had meaning only if you found out how they worked. And how would you go about that if not by getting your hands on them?”


But if getting your hands on stuff to find out how it works is half of the geek approach to the world, the other half involves the construction of elaborate theories and systems of rules to codify your understanding. And that suggests to me that the entire progression of visions I’ve been discussing at this blog might have begun with ancient geeks building theories around the extensive but unexamined knowledge systems of their more archaic ancestors.

It wasn’t just science, however, that was the subject of this kind of theoretical development. A similar elaboration of formal, rule-based structures can be seen in the first social vision, which I’ve been calling the kinship vision. As one description of Australian Aborigine kinship systems, written in the 1950’s, explains:

“The rituals of the Australian Aborigines are so involved and obscure that scientists who have studied them for many years are confronted with complicated mathematical conundrums; yet when these are at last solved, they turn out to be unexpectedly logical. … Their communities are not made up in our sense of families related by blood, but by groups and sub-groups formally distinguished by the different ways in which they pronounce the names of the individuals within their groups. The child’s name is given according to the group or subgroup to which its mother and father belong. Its given name, moreover, subsequently determines which members of the group or sub-group are possible marriage partners for the children. The syllables of these basic names are capable of numerous arrangements as elaborate as a complicated game of [solitaire].”

This degree of complexity is unlikely to have appeared quite as early as the ancient technology of glue and strings. But it may well have been in effect by around 80,000 years ago, when the presence of very similar beads at far-flung locations in Africa and the Middle East (red dots) indicates regular communication among distant communities.

As another online source says of the Aborigines:

“Marriage-regulating conventions can be highly complex, as they are, for example, among desert Australian aboriginal societies. They make it difficult for a man to find a suitable marriage partner in his immediate vicinity. Men therefore, are frequently compelled to search for a partner in distant groups. This phenomenon led to the development of a complex network of relations between widely separated groups resulting in a wide variety of mutual rights and obligations. Since the desert aborigines are hunter/gatherers in an arid region, it is vital for them to have access to other districts during severe periods of extreme drought.”

This description sounds as though it might have been equally true of the world of 80,000 years ago, when the onset of an ice age was bringing colder and drier conditions to northern Africa and the Middle East. It seems possible, in fact, that a kinship system similar to the Australian one might have been devised precisely in response to the stress placed on human communities as conditions deteriorated.

And if that is so, then the practice of sending young men on lengthy journeys in search of suitable brides could also explain why every man alive today appears to be descended from a single “genetic Adam” who lived at just about that time.

But if the location of those beads suggests the flowering of the kinship vision, their artistic and symbolic nature hints at something else — the emergence of the first inner experience-based vision. That, however, is a story for another day.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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