Chapter 5 from “After The Clockwork
The Mind of God, Many and
The Universe is built on a plan, the profound symmetry
of which is somehow present in the inner structure of our intellect.
Evolution did not stop with life per se. At the very least it built
brains from which sprang minds from which sprang consciousness, the greatest of
the world’s many mysteries. This chapter takes up the question of brains, minds
and consciousness. The not-so-surprising implication here, is that these
greatest of creation’s wonders are also part of the story. No longer in long,
slow, cycles of blind self-organization, somehow the Great Ordering Oneness
found a way to build a system which consciously shapes the world and itself as
if by plan. More self-aware and more potentially powerful than anything that has
ever existed, thinking beings are a world-transforming force in their own
There is, of course, a reason I haven’t mentioned much about mind.
Mind is even more incomprehensible to clockwork thinkers than life. Early
clockwork thinkers thought that we were merely separated, mind from body. Later
ones described mind as an epiphenomenon, an illusion of a few lifeless
chemicals. After all, when you break brains down, there is no mind to be found.
Traditional evolutionary theory has essentially ignored mind, preferring genes
instead. All of this is likely to end in the relatively foreseeable future.
Currents of change can already be seen. Once a taboo topic,
consciousness is becoming an increasingly common subject in the popular press.
Books such as The Celestine Prophecy, for instance, paint a picture of
humanity reaching a new level of consciousness. People trapped in the cloying
maze of modern reality, suddenly discover an invisible web of awareness growing
within themselves and others. Individually and collectively, human beings are
struggling precariously toward a new, more integral perception. The potential is
high. So is the need. The birth of a new level of consciousness seems to be part
and parcel of the project to save the world.
Now, I am not going to tell
a romantic tale of New Age seers in the Andes. I think it is important to stay
more grounded than this, lest the realists in the audience run for the hills.
Yet, I also believe there is a valid intuition behind such works. Books like
The Celestine Prophecy are part of the same instinctive reaction to
clockwork omissions seen elsewhere. Clockwork bleakness strikes again. Millions
of highly educated people the world over now read such books and harbor secret
hopes that they are true.
Understanding the science behind this
intuition, gives human hope a better foundation. Thus, brain researchers too are
hoping that new understandings of consciousness will help bring about a global
civilization which is less apt to destroy itself and the world. Their hope seems
particularly reasonable since mind and consciousness are so central to the human
condition. Indeed, I would make a stronger statement — one cannot
understand our condition or our times without understanding the phenomenon of
mind, including ways of looking at the world and patterns of collective knowing.
Today, powerful new views are building which will have a profound affect
on our sense of ourselves. They quite literally redefine what the human project
is about. Not a lumbering automaton or a ruthless beast, here human beings (one
and many) become the ultimate learning system, the finest and foremost spark of
a learning world. That is the story that will unfold here, it will simply be
much more integrated into the larger story of evolution than most people
The theory of mind presented here is new in its fine points
largely because I include the energy connection and other rarely-popularized
points. Yet, the core image is again remarkably old. Mind is a natural,
interwoven outcome of a much larger flow. What is interesting is its
implications for our times.
The Enigma of Mind
I doubt whether there is a more decisive moment for a thinking
being than when the scales fall from his eyes and he discovers that he is not
an isolated unit lost in the cosmic solitudes, and realises that a universal
will to live converges and is hominised in him.
Sir Julian Huxley
Any pursuit of mind and
consciousness should start with a necessary admission: there is no universal
agreement as to what these are, much less how they came to be, or how they work.
Most people try to understand mind by focusing on brains. Still, no matter how
much we know about brains, there remains an explanatory gap between brain
operation and the enigma of mind. This explanatory gap is what led reductionists
to describe mind as an illusion of brain chemistry. As emergence becomes more
scientifically acceptable, however, so does mind.
The new brain science,
thus, brings with it a new interest in the age-old mystery of mind. In most new
views ‘mind’ is more than the sum of brain parts, but it is nevertheless a
phenomenon of this real world. The more daring even wonder how consciousness
came into being.
How does the new science approach the enigma of mind?
Our three old friends — energy, organization and the Great Ordering Oneness —
provide some new paths by which to tread deftly through the minefield. Hence,
here ‘mind’ is mostly a matter of dynamic organization, the ways bits of
matter work together to produce the mind-like behaviors (described below). Minds
arose from older self-organizing drives which came together in radically new
ways. To properly understand mind, therefore, we must begin long before there
Mind, From the Bottom Up
...if we expect to get anywhere with the mind-body problem at the
brain level, then our concepts must at least be adequate...to explain the
symbol-matter relation in single cells where it all started.
How can we understand mind as a
type of organization? A dictionary provides the first clues. One of its
definitions of mind is a “system which exhibits purpose, intention, or will.”
What Pattee suggests in the opening quote (1982), is that the best way to build
an understanding of mind, is to look for the earliest possible stirrings of
these three. When you do this, you find that mind-like behaviors started long
before brains. If you start at the first stirrings, you can then follow
mind-like behaviors throughout evolution. Here, human consciousness appears as
the cutting edge of a long-standing drive. What follows is an energy story of
mind from the bottom-up.
Actually, we’ve already started the journey. In
the last chapter, I described how early cells began to search for food. This is
a very mind-like thing to do. What few people mention is that finding food
involves a new kind of energy activity, one in which small amounts of energy
provide information about something else. Thus, whether there is a chemical
trail or a pattern of light bouncing off food, cells must find food by following
energy trails which lead to a bigger energy concentration in the vicinity. These
small bits of energy are information in its physical form. Life had to learn to
follow energy information in order to eat (see Fig. 1).
Pattee points out,
therefore, that early life represents the first type of mind. Cells don’t think
and they aren’t self-aware, but they do begin responding to information in a
Figure 1. Cells Follow Energy-Trails (Information) to
Note too that the entire cellular system is tied up
with this pursuit of information. For life to reach food, little energy blips
from outside must trigger some form of locomotion that moves the cell toward its
food. In turn, locomotion (whether by flagellum or pseudopod) requires energy
from the cell’s metabolic cycles. Hence, metabolism has to speed up in order to
answer the demand. In short, an entire, interlocked system must kick into action
in response to little energy nudges from the outside. Furthermore, the system
must respond differently to different kinds of nudges!
If you look
closely, you’ll see that this means mind activities (such as following
information) and bodily activities (metabolism and locomotion) are inseparable.
Getting food requires that the ability to perceive information and
to act appropriately be linked in one very well-connected loop.
Survival depends on this. If any part of the loop doesn’t work, the cell does
not get food and dies. This means that a whole lot of systems inside the cell
had to co-evolve in tight conjunction from very early on. Furthermore, internal
cycles had to be intertwined in a functional way from the
If you put these kinds of ideas together, a fascinating picture
begins to emerge. First, mind-like behaviors started long before brains. These
mind-like behaviors appear to be based in energy, now in the guise of
information. Secondly, mind elements and body elements are One. Break the chain
anywhere and the system doesn’t work and the cell doesn’t survive. Life,
therefore, had to be a kind of well-wired, little proto-mind from the beginning.
Finally, if you look at mind from the bottom-up, you find that what is most
special about life is exactly its mind nature. Life is an integrated
perceiving-acting system. It also manages to preserve information in its
genes. It is much more than self-organizing. Biologists Humberto Maturana and
Francisco Varela sum up the image nicely, “To live is to cognize.”
Obviously, nature did not stop
with the mind of a cell. Hence, looking at mind from the bottom up, also opens
the door to an aspect of evolution I haven’t mentioned yet. Not only does nature
make things more physically complicated, she also makes them smarter. As living
forms evolved, they learned to handle more and more information in more and more
complex ways. Handling more information in more complex ways also led to more
intelligent action. Thus, the path from cell minds to human minds is notable for
increasing intelligence, as well as increasing
Increasing intelligence is still tied to energy, but in a very
different way. Hence, what we call information starts out as small energy blips.
The energy in these blips is minuscule compared to the big build-ups which push
shapes (like whirlpools) into being. In life, however, small nudges actually
move more material than the big build-ups. For instance, it takes less energy to
get you to move your finger away from a hot stove, than it does to make a
Rod Swenson at the University of Connecticut, thus, points
out that life involves two distinct types of energy interactions. First, there
are what he calls “mass-driving gradients.” These big energy flows are the kind
that maintain a whirlpool’s shape. Inside living organisms, these flows form
metabolism, the energy cycles which allow life to move and hold itself together.
Thus, mass-driving gradients are behind an organism’s overall structure and
An organism’s activity, however, is also governed by microscopic
energy blips (information). Hence, bacteria find desirable resources by
perceiving and acting on a trail of observables — that is, a fine-grained energy
trail related to molecules they consume. Information is based in energy,
it is just very fine-grained energy with a level of indirection. Hence, Swenson
says living systems respond to “patterns” in energy flow.
organisms, therefore, are made of energy flow and they follow energy
patterns. Both sides are essential. Furthermore, life’s two energy interactions
are integrated, which is why mind is never separate from body.
integration also creates a great irony. In living organisms, subtle patterns are
more powerful than big build-ups. Hence, as organisms began to respond to
information in more complex ways, larger and larger amounts of matter moved in
response to smaller and smaller bits of energy. As a result, increasing
intelligence is accompanied by increasing responsiveness to ever more
rarefied patterns. By the time one gets to reading words on a page, entire
populations move in response to incredibly microscopic bits of energy. This is
strange way to put it, but it is true.
Now, we certainly don’t know how
all this came to pass, but it is not so hard to imagine why it might. Natural
selection favors every addition which helps life follow information
better because following information is the main way life survives. The
connection to physical energy became fainter and fainter as life (especially
with brains) began to respond to very complex patterns. Yet, underneath, the
phenomenon of information is still based in energy.
History of Better and Better Minds
Why did evolution move from the
cellular mind to the wonder which is our brain? Oddly enough, the need to
maintain collaboration played a major role. We know that mind and body are
integrated and that life is a committed collaboration. In such a world, growing
apart is deadly because responses dis-integrate. Let us see, therefore,
how the pressure to stay collaboratively connected has contributed to increasing
intelligence from nerves to brains.
The Birth of
Life brought the miracle of responding to information to find
food. Still, though early cells represented a great leap in information
processing, from our perspective they are crude. Their responses are knee-jerk
and their horizons are limited. How did life get from there to here? The path is
actually quite understandable.
As evolution proceeded, single cells gave
rise to multi-cellular organisms. As we saw in Chapter 4, many-celled organisms
are actually collectives of specialist cells bound in committed collaboration.
Once upon a time specialist cells were capable of independent lives, but
millions of years of evolution forged them into a whole whose members need each
other to survive. Herein lies a rub of great importance to the evolution of
mind. A living organism has to stay integrated to survive. Cells coordinate
their activities by circulating chemical and electrical signals. Information
must circulate thoroughly so that each cell can do its job intelligently. Lung
cells, for instance, have to know what is happening with the legs because moving
a leg requires more energy which requires faster metabolism which requires more
oxygen. (This is why we breath faster when we run.)
communicate well inside, therefore, leads to death just as fast as failure to
perceive information from outside. Limbs, eyes, guts, and so on, can only do
their job if signals are timely and correct. If your lung cells don’t get
signals from your legs, for instance, they won’t increase oxygen which means
your legs won’t get enough energy to catch the rabbit.
This brings me to
the point of mentioning all this. As organisms got bigger, internal
communication became harder. Information exchange happens easily when cells are
in close proximity. But signals dissipate over distance. As bodies got bigger,
member cells began to lose touch with each other (literally). The whole began to
fall out of sync. Unfortunately, when cells depend on one another for basics
such as oxygen (lungs) and nutrients (gut), growing apart can be deadly.
Because losing sync is deadly, the evolutionary pressure to find a way
to stay connected grew. No doubt many organisms died as collaboration began to
fail. Others stopped growing and settled into a safe niche. Yet, eventually
(through some quirk of diversity), some organisms developed a new means of
staying cooperatively connected. A new type of specialist cell emerged whose job
was to carry signals between distant groups. We call them nerves. (see Fig.
Committed collaboration (specialize and integrate)
Growing apart (collaboration fails)
Nerve cells (restores coherence by circulating
Figure 2. Growth Crises, From Clone Clusters to Nerve
Nerves are particularly important because they allowed the organism’s
mind-nature to grow more sophisticated. The quality of an organism’s response to
the outside world depends almost entirely on internal collaboration which in
turn depends heavily on information flow. Mind-body integration is crucial!
Nerves improved intelligence by increasing information flow which in turn
improved collaboration. More cellular specialties could develop and life became
vastly more complex and sophisticated too.
Brains - The Pattern
Evolution was not through, however. In simple forms of life, such
as the giant sea slug today, a single nerve cell often serves a whole organism.
But as life became more complex, the same pattern of growth and crisis played
out again. As bodies grew bigger, collaboration began to fail again. Pressure to
stay connected grew.
At first, nerve cells multiplied forming multi-lane
information highways as it were. Nerve highways brought signals from all over
and spread information throughout. Where nerves overlapped, signals from many
directions intermingled. At dense cross-roads, a new kind of cell began to
emerge. We call this one a brain cell.
Brain cells had a unique view.
Positioned atop a cross-roads with information pouring in from all over, the
information they got was rich and multi-dimensional. As a result, brain cells
began to respond to extremely subtle patterns in complex streams of energy
(information). The horizons this opened up were truly vast.
responding to rarefied patterns in massive amounts of information were actually
beginning to respond to conglomerate pictures. Complex pictures helped organisms
see contexts and make choices. The brain’s owner began to see how any bit of
information fit in a larger whole. For example, an organism with a brain is able
to see that food and a predator means something different than food
alone. Unlike a planaria which responds to information in a knee-jerk way, life
with a brain began to learn to decipher and choose. As brains learned to
synthesize ever more complex pictures, questions of how bits fit got complex
Brains also allowed life to develop complex responses based on
subtle nuances in the outside world. Sitting astride mixing centers allowed
brains to coordinate incredibly complex response patterns involving all parts of
the body. Like a keystone on top, brains solidified life’s ability to perceive
and act as a truly coordinated whole. Thus, brains are what brought life out of
the ooze and allowed multi-cellular organisms to locomote with legs and fins.
The irony of brains is that ‘staying connected’ produced a whole new
stage of evolution. Brains and other mixing centers (like ganglia) helped an
increasingly vast collective act like a truly coordinate whole. Mind-like
behaviors also began to take the forms we associate with minds today — choices,
contexts, significance, meaning. We are still deciphering like mad. Underneath,
however, the same evolutionary principles applied. United they stood!
Multicellular organisms became a multi-level society of mind because selection
favored cells that 1) worked together for the common well-being and 2) stayed
The Fractal Nature of Mind and Body
that the brain did not become the sole arbiter of intelligence nor the
controller of everything underneath. This is a machine image. Local cells don’t
just send information to the brain and wait to be told what to do. Instead, most
bodily responses are handled locally and a lot of processing is done at various
stages from bottom to top. Processing information at lower levels increases the
speed and often the appropriateness of the response. It is also one of the
reasons one’s body can operate on auto-pilot while one’s thoughts spin off into
Nature thus built new levels of intelligence while keeping the
old. Furthermore, everywhere you look, cells work in groups. A brain is a mind
system which is still integrated into a larger mind system called the body which
is organized into smaller working groups, like lungs and liver. The whole thing
appears to work on a subsidiary principle reminiscent of one used by the
medieval Catholic Church — decisions should be made at the lowest level
This, of course, does not fit our usual picture of how a
hierarchy works. It means instead that intelligence is distributed
fractally, down to lower levels. This kind of organization is crucial.
Without it, life would be too slow and stupid to live.
in Higher Organisms
Nature also did not stop with brains. Organisms with
brains became great sorters of information who chose paths based on subtle
patterns. Freed from knee-jerk responses, animals with brains began to explore
the world and to learn lots of new lessons. Most of these lessons were stored in
the brain of the beholder, in circuits etched by experience. (They were not
stored in genes.) Storing lessons in the brain allowed organisms to learn faster
and to learn without having to die.
Still, there was a problem. Lessons
stored in a brain were lost when the individual who owned the brain died. The
next great evolutionary development was the ability to preserve lessons by
passing them between different individuals and across generations. The two big
agents here were modeling and signaling. They too started for understandable
Since cooperation enhances survival, animals began to
congregate in families or herds. Communication between animals in a herd has the
same benefit as communication between cells in your body. Whether a honey-bee
dancing directions to a cache of nectar or a deer signaling the approach of a
predator, communication between members is an old and honored way for
individuals to survive better by working together.
no doubt, began in the usual haphazard way, with twitches that eventually became
associated with a meaning. These eventually developed into clear signals. Active
signaling also brought modeling. Young and old alike learned common signals and
worthwhile patterns of behavior. These began to trickle down the generations.
The herd was now working on patterns of perceiving and acting. Learning
accumulated from many members was preserved over increasing periods of time. All
of it enhanced survival.
The Social Nature of Mind and
Brains consist of neurons, which in turn are composed of
organelles, molecules and atoms. They are designed by biological evolution to
work in pairs, families, tribes and, by cultural evolution, to work in cities,
nations and empires...biologists have largely neglected those biological
properties by which brains join together in social cooperation.
Walter Freeman, Neurophysiologist
Notice the parallels in the patterns discussed so far. In the web view,
cooperation is the central path of evolution. Cooperative groups depend on
communication between members to survive. Growth, however, pulls groups apart
and makes collaboration break down. Hence, developmental leaps often come from
an invention which helps keep the group integrated.
Perhaps the most
unusual observation in the new science, therefore, is that each mind is a
many-bodied society of mind. New levels of intelligent action always
arise from the cooperative, intricately-ordered activity of smaller parts. The
farther up the line one goes, the more clearly those smaller parts are seen to
be individuals which once lived independent lives. A complex eucaryotic cell,
for instance, is a society built out of previously-independent life forms. Its
mind-like behaviors depend on collaboration among individuals. The idea holds
all the way up to brains. As Margulis says:
Our nerve cells are the
outcome of an ancient, nearly immortal marriage of two arch enemies who have
managed to coexist: the former spirochetes and former archaebacteria that now
comprise our brains...These former free-living bacteria are inextricably united.
They probably have been united for more than one thousand million years. (Cited
in Combs, 1995, p.40)
The idea that all minds are built of lower
societies and into higher ones, fits nicely in a self-organizing world which
builds macrocosms out of microcosms. It helps us come to grips with the fact
that intelligence is distributed throughout our body and is not just limited to
our brain. It is startling because it puts community at the center of mind as
well as body. It is also important because it helps us rethink human
The Cutting Edge of Collaborative Learning
human beings, signaling evolved into language which made passing information
extremely precise. Speaking allowed highly-structured information tapestries to
be shot from one brain to another. When writing emerged, these tapestries could
be stored outside human bodies and compared and contrasted over huge periods of
time. People living today, for instance, can benefit from learning accrued by
people who lived five thousand years ago.
Language and writing add
tremendous survival value because they allow lessons from many individuals to be
synthesized into extremely precise patterns of knowing and doing. Eventually,
these highly synthesized systems of knowing and doing became what human beings
call culture. Myths, paradigms, worldviews and scientific theories are all made
In human beings, cooperative learning became unbelievably
refined. Language allowed learning to accumulate at tremendous rates.
Information tapestries became knowledge webs which grew over the ages. Where
nature had once searched the realm of possibility by casting about blindly,
human beings now search the realm of possibility with brains which process huge
amounts of information from personal, group and historical experience in order
to maximize the foresight, planning and prediction. These big brains eventually
gave rise to self-awareness, which we call consciousness.
second side, increasing intelligence, was leading to more and more mass being
moved by ever more subtle blips. As Swenson says:
In this way, the
explosion in mass communication and globalization going on at present is but a
new phase of...the same evolutionary order-building behavior started some 4
billion years ago.
That which created us, designed us to create back. - J.S.
Mind too evolved as part of the larger process. It went from
crude information-following behaviors to truly astounding activities like
language, writing and culture. It appears to be involved with energy, especially
of the information variety. It is a very social process.
Energy’s role in
this process became invisible with the advent of brains. No one can follow how
physical energy gets transformed from blips to meaning through the biochemistry
of brains. We are responding to patterns in masses of information, to flows
about flows about flows. Nevertheless, energy parallels still play out.
Increasing intelligence is accompanied by greater intricacy and energy flow. The
human brain is the most intricate and fastest energy cycling (per unity density)
system on the planet. Furthermore, brains also help increase energy flow in the
world at large. This is particularly true of big-brained humans who began
restructuring the outside world as part of their drive to survive. As a result,
human organizations such as cities also increase energy flow.
mind just as increasing energy flow is not very satisfying. So, let us look at a
more appealing explanation which also fits the facts. In this story, human
beings try to understand the world because the universe itself is trying to
learn. We are the leading edge of a learning universe, the product of an
evolutionary push that endlessly strives to find new ways. This story, from
evolutionary theorist Rod Swenson, is easy to understand. Yet, in it, our view
of ourselves and the world is utterly transformed.
The Stages of the
Swenson starts by pointing out that evolution is a
learning process, the primordial one. Learning is induced by problems. In energy
terms, the universe is faced with the problem of how to distribute energy as
fast as possible given inertia and the disorder that abound. It learns in that
it configures and reconfigures itself toward greater and greater intricacy and
efficiency. Learning is not intentional. Like a baby growing, the goal is not in
mind. But it is directed toward future states which are more intricate, and more
Furthermore, the pressure to flow faster also involves a
pressure to learn better ways. Each stage is a current-best solution that works
until the things it cannot do, the efficiency it cannot achieve, creates a
shortfall and a crisis which begs for something more. At each stage the field
uses diversity to cast about in search of new ways to flow. The field also
searches by cobbling existing pieces into new forms which produce astounding new
behaviors. (Physicists call this coupling.)
With each cycle, the universe
also learns how to perform some activity better. Table 1 shows first four stages
of the Learning Universe.
- Shaping change. In the beginning the universe found ways to
organize shapes and networks which made energy flow faster.
- Life-forms pursuing information. In the second stage, the
universe learned how to build systems that began to learn on their own.
Life-forms followed information and moved about in hitherto unknown ways.
The universe learned faster because living organisms learned faster and
- Brains organizing information into tapestries. In the third
stage, brains accelerated learning even more, and even amazing behaviors
emerged. Individual learning was now preserved in brain circuits etched by
experience. Modeling allowed individual learning to be passed to others and
preserved in habit patterns passed from generation to generation. The
universe began to learn as never before because brains began to learn more
intentionally and to preserve exquisite details of experience.
- Communal learning via culture. The fourth great stage of learning
came with the human brain and society. In fourth-order organizations, such
as science and human culture, learning moves beyond the individualÕs
lifetime and is turned back on the environment. What is learned is how to
restructure the environment itself, now with tools. The ability to learn
intentionally and cooperatively makes learning rates explode.
Table 1. Four Stages of the Learning Universe.
We are the epitome of the fourth stage. With humankind, the Great
Ordering Oneness has produced an organism which can restructure the world more
powerfully than anything that has ever existed. Yet, since our brains were
created by the Oneness (as well as earned by us), chauvinism is not appropriate.
We too are servants of a higher process. Our project is to endlessly strive to
This brings me to the final and most intriguing assertion of
the Learning Universe story: a fifth stage is now waiting in the wings.
Conscious beings should eventually evolve to the place where they begin to
actively shape the world, not for selfish personal ends, but wisely,
responsibly, and for the good of the whole. Books like the Celestine
Prophecies are not so far off. Fully conscious beings become stewards of the
world because they ‘know’ that they are part of something larger. They serve
themselves, their fellows, the biosphere and the larger process because
everything is intertwined. Fully conscious beings become the ultimate agents of
the evolutionary process because four billion years of learning has taught them
to see how pieces fit. The fifth great stage is Integral Consciousness and
global learning aimed at the greater good of the planet.
We are the
leading edge of a learning universe. We have the capacity and the need to help
the world as ourselves. Still, apparently we aren’t there yet. Rather, at the
moment, we seem to be more of a threat to the world, than a caretaker. Hence,
right now, the Learning Universe view seems a bit hard to swallow. The
pragmatist looks around at the current violent, dysfunctional state of the world
and doubts that a vision this gentle could have much basis in fact. But to
understand why we are such a strange blend of killer and angel requires we
understand the specifics of our brain and its evolution. That is the story I
take up next.
The Evolution of Humanity’s Society of
The concept of societies of mind is extremely important because it allows
us to rethink human societies as a collective struggling to act as an
intelligent whole. There is already ample reason to believe the analogy holds.
Hence, as Gaia’s James Lovelock says:
What is remarkable about man is not the size of his brain, no
greater than that of a dolphin, nor his loose incomplete development as a
social animal, nor even the faculty of speech or his ability to use tools. Man
is remarkable because by the combination of all these things he has created an
entirely new entity. When socially organized and equipped with a technology
even as rudimentary as that of a Stone Age tribal group, man has the novel
capacity to collect, store, and process information, and then use it to
manipulate the environment in a purposeful and anticipatory fashion. (1979, p.
Lovelock’s point is simple. What is unique about humankind
is that, as a collective, we gather, digest and apply information to help
us survive and prosper like no other species. This is our evolutionary strategy.
We are not swift of feet, strong of body, sharp of tooth or clever in niche
finding. We can change our behavior dramatically and we are very, very,
good at discerning patterns.
We bet our survival on behavioral
flexibility and the pursuit of better ways of knowing. In the process, we gained
dominance of the earth. And the one most overlooked fact is that now, as in the
primordial beginning, creating better ways of knowing is a profoundly social
We’ve also seen this image before. I started this book with the
image of a hive mind, a great web of humanity reaching a turning point in an
on-going evolution of ideas. We are part of an invisible dynamic network that is
struggling to learn, in ways often unknown to itself. The glimmering possibility
is that this is the normal state of affairs. We belong to a vast human society
of mind which digests billions of bits of information coming from billions of
individual minds. Every once in a while, our hive mind begins to come to new
conclusions. That is what is happening today.
There are concrete reasons
for believing that human civilization is a powerful (if struggling) society of
mind. This idea also provides an image of humankind which is both strikingly
different and strikingly reasonable. It is not selfishness and killing which
define us. We are an information pooling, picture-making cooperative which is
centered on a quest to understand the world.
So, the idea that
civilization is a struggling society of mind is not lightly based. The goal of
this section is to lay out why it makes sense in concrete terms. I start with
why the human brain has several personalities because of how punctuation has
Our Three Brains
...the brain has followed a now familiar formula. It has been a
cooperative effort between separate and relatively autonomous subsystems...In
this respect the brain follows the basic pattern for the entire human body,
itself a cooperative venture between the living cells that make up its various
Human beings have not one, but three brains, each of which appears to
have been the result of separate bursts of evolutionary activity. This fact is
very important to the story of humanity’s society of mind because each of these
brains comes with a personality. Hence, we are not the result of a unified
brain, but of a society of three brains each with their own
In the 1930’s Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung noted that people
have a committee of personalities inside their head, a cast of differing voices
which often pull in different directions. Brain research now suggests there is a
physical basis for at least some of these voices. Thus, each of our three brains
has a great deal of self-sufficiency. Each appears to have its own type of
intelligence, its own motor, memory and other functions and even its own
peculiar sense of subjective experience. Each new brain emerged on top of an
earlier one, but underneath its predecessors still functioned and affected the
Our three brain-personalities are particularly important because
they affect our social relationships. Hence brains brought more than the ability
to move legs and fins. They also brought complex interaction patterns between
individuals, including nurturing, modeling, mating, self-defense and much
Our three brains are most important, however, because they
represent three distinct survival strategies. Thus, each brain arose from
pressures in particular evolutionary juncture and each personality reflects the
strategy that successfully answered those pressures. We carry all three with us
to this day.
Since these three brains and their personalities profoundly
influence human society, one must understand them to understand it. So let us
look more closely. The most famous description of our three brains comes from
Paul MacLean’s 1969 book The Triune Brain. He calls the three, the
reptilian brain, the paleomammalian brain and the neomammalian brain.[] Their
personalities are as follows:
The reptilian, or
the ‘lizard brain’ as it is sometimes called, is the core brain for all
vertebrates from early reptiles on up to mammals. This brain is famous for
routine, repetitive and instinctual behaviors. Stylized mating rituals,
migratory behavior, imprinting, threat displays, fleeing and patterns of
home-building are its forte. It is heavily involved with the autonomic nervous
system including systems that regulate heart and respiratory rates, digestive
functions, and bodily cycles such as sleep and sex.
What you should
envision with this brain is a scurrying lizard, with flicking tongue, blinking
eyes, and fixed patterns of behavior with little flexibility and no thought.
Still, you should also realize that this brain is largely responsible for early
vertebrates learning to live complex lives in complex environments, particularly
The paleomammalian, affectionately
known as the ‘furry mammal brain,’ comes next. It was literally plopped on top
of the lizard brain during a later burst of evolutionary activity.
difference here is mainly emotion and behavioral flexibility. The lizard brain
has a crude type of emotional system shared by fish and salamanders, but with
the paleomammalian brain, emotion becomes much richer. This richness has two
great benefits: faster learning and richer social relations. As
neuropsychologist Allan Combs puts it:
the unique quality of the mammal is its ability to experience
emotion, and through it to benefit from personal experiences, retained as
emotional reactions to predators, friendly members of the same species, and so
on. It also allows close emotional bonding between mating partners, parents
and infants, members of families and larger extended groups. (1995, p.
Thus, where the lizard brain tends to react rigidly and
acquire new behaviors slowly, the furry mammal brain learns faster and reacts
with more diverse and flexible behaviors. The icing on the cake is that new
forms of emotional bonding support a richer, more coherent social life and with
it better social learning. Mammals nurture their young and cubs play together as
youths. Both activities enhance learning.
third brain, the neomammalian or ‘thinking brain,’ is the most recent of
all. It is found only in higher primates—most notably ourselves. It is famed for
vastly improved pattern recognition and problem solving (including tool making).
It is also notable for increasing flexibility. Thinking beings can invent their
own behavioral patterns to a remarkable degree. In humans, this brain is the
seat of complex cognitive skills such as language, reading, writing, arithmetic
Since the thinking brain is so crucial to humankind’s society
of mind, let us take a closer look at how it came to be.[]
Big-Brain Project: Legs, Language, Tools, and Upheavals
Our first bring,
the lizard one, represented a phenomenal advance in coordination which allowed
life to become more complex. It, however, was inflexible. Our next brain, the
furry mammal one, was a great leap because richer emotion improved individual
and social learning. Yet, at some point it too was not enough.
we develop big, hyper-sensitive, pattern-recognizing brains? Like many questions
in science these days, this one is a topic of hot debate fueled by a flood of
recent findings. I present here, not a final answer, but a budding theory of how
our own big brains emerged in conjunction with legs, language, tools and
environmental upheavals. The astonishing outcome was a society of mind such as
the world has never known.
But, let us begin at the beginning. Four to
six million years ago the apes that would become humankind came down from the
trees and started walking on two legs.[] Eventually they also began making
tools and engaging in sophisticated information exchange (talking). This earned
them the name hominid. Then, as the story goes, millennia of walking, talking,
and tool-making accelerated brain growth, producing the well-known bulge of our
big brains. Why did all this happen? One thing most researchers agree upon is
that two-legged walking came first and led to the rest. But explaining walking
is tough. As Stephen J. Gould once wrote:
Upright posture is the surprise, the difficult event, [it
involves] the rapid and fundamental reconstruction of our anatomy. The
subsequent enlargement of our brain is...secondary...an easy transformation.
(1980, cited in Metzner, 1995)
So why two legs? Early
researchers believed that the first tool-making hominids evolved in South Africa
about two million years ago and that they lived in open grasslands. Hence, the
traditional Savannah theory holds that our ancestors descended from the trees as
their habitat changed from forest to grassland. Adaptations to stable grasslands
then produced bipedalism which allowed free use of the hands for tool making.
The Savannah Theory, however, is undergoing severe attacks as new evidence
suggests that environmental shifts may have been more frequent and jarring than
previously realized. Changes went not only from forest to grassland but from
forests to lakes and back again, perhaps numerous times. For example, research
at Olorgesailie in southern Kenya has uncovered evidence of dramatic
environmental changes from 1.2 million to 500,000 years ago. The most noticeable
changes are found in the structure of large lakes. Most early hominid skeletons
have been found around such lakes.
What do lakes and frequent jarring
shifts have to do with walking? Well, first the watery element fits with the
aquatic ape theory of human origins first posed by Oxford University zoologist
Sir Alister Hardy in 1960.[] This theory holds that early hominids lived in
partially aquatic environments and that such environments produced walking as
well as numerous other distinctive human features such as hairlessness,
subcutaneous fat, refined finger control, ventro/ventral sex, and the ability to
consciously control breathing (this last being a prerequisite to complex
The aquatic explanation of walking is easy to understand. It is
also supported by the only other example of upright walking. Hence, many animals
stand up on two legs briefly, to reach food or look about, but only one other
primate, the Proboscis monkey of Borneo, walks on two feet — and it
learned to walk on two legs while crossing stretches of water between the
mangrove trees in the swamp in which it lives. As the monkey travels through the
swamp, its head has to be elevated while its back legs push. Water helps support
weight during walking and eventually an upright posture evolves. Presumably,
early hominids experienced similar aids and pressures.
Other human traits
also fit a watery background. Thus, fat babies float; smooth hairless skin moves
easily in water; and fine motor control is common in shallow feeders (for
example, raccoons). Conscious breath control is necessary for swimming under
water. Even the long Omega-3 fatty acids needed to make large brains are best
derived from marine food chains which humankind shares with other big-brained
mammals such as dolphins (who apparently went back to water
So a watery background helps explain walking, better finger
control, and precursors to talking. Frequent jarring changes then hearken to an
even more important cause of our nature — the need to be flexible.
Repeated climate change makes flexibility a crucial survival strategy with clear
advantages over fixed or slowly changing responses. Discerning subtle patterns
makes complete sense in this situation. We change our behavior by changing our
mind. Collaborative learning also makes sense. The richer the perspectives, the
richer (and more accurate) the resulting tapestry. The best way to survive
frequent change is to pool information, synthesize it by communication and then
change one’s behavior based on a new view. This idea is becoming reasonable.
Hence, as Richard Potts, an archeologist at the Smithsonian Institution in
Washington, D.C. says:
The ratio of brain size to body size in early hominids had
remained similar to the ratios for other primates. As a result of repeated
climate and habitat shifts, however, hominid brains began to bulge...This
discovery dovetails with preliminary evidence that stone-age groups responded
to recurring crisis situations by pooling information and making effective
collective decisions. (Science News, Vol. 148 Nov. 25, 1995 p.
Rethinking Human Nature
We can now
reconstruct the origins of human nature from an interwoven perspective. Many
threads came together to make us a talking, tool-making, pattern-recognizing,
information-sharing animal such as the world had never seen.
Two of our
brains, mammalian and thinking, spurred the transformation. The furry mammal
brain produced the social bonding needed for sharing and group learning. The
neocortex began with our ape ancestors, but continual crises plus aquatic
additions now paved the way for a new burst of development. The picture-building
process seen in brains, thus, accelerates in human tribes. Where brains create
rich tapestries by gathering information from many cells, human societies create
tapestries by pooling information from many individuals. Collecting
information and developing pictures became a way of life that defined human
Not only did individual brains become astute at pattern-finding,
but pressure to collaborate pushed talking which, in turn, increased brain
development. Thus, pooling information improved talking and talking led to
better pooling. It was a circular, mutual-effect affair! It also led to more
complex social relationships and group abilities which grew more sophisticated
by the age.
Then too, that wonderful finger dexterity, born of shallow
feeding, began to be applied to tools. Where our lowest brain coordinates our
bodies, the thinking brain extends our bodies and our ability to act on the
world by inventing tools. Humankind began its epic journey as ‘shaper of the
outside world’ that would culminate in today’s ‘master of the universe’
mentality. What is often overlooked is that we have a two-way relationship with
our tools too. We build tools, but tools also shape human societies. They extend
what we can do, but they also tend to shape what we believe — leading to the “if
all you have is a hammer” adage. Human societies actually co-evolve with
Yet, of all the characteristics we possess, flexibility is
the most important. Thus, our thinking brain has a paradoxical personality whose
main characteristic is ability to change itself based on the patterns it
perceives. This brain allow us to redefine our relationships with others and
the world depending on the patterns it perceives. As a result, we build our
societies out of what we think we know. We have come back to James Burke’s
thought, ‘Knowing leads to doing!
Our new view of human nature is now
complete. Human societies represent a major advance in learning, one that
blended individual contribution and community commitment into a totally new
form. Individuality brings richness through diversity of perspective. Emotional
bonding brings sharing, caring and modeling. The combination makes human
societies looser than insect societies such as ants, but closer than many
mammals societies such as cows. (We are neither rigid automatons nor
Our great strategy lies in our ability to
learn and to change ourselves via culture. We survived upheavals by changing
ourselves rapidly. There is already evidence that Cro-Magnon Man, the direct
ancestor of modern human beings, survived where Neanderthals did not because
Cro-Magnon showed greater ability to change behavior in face of changing
environment. It was the ability to change appropriately that counted, not brain
size per se (this last is a materialist assumption).
A complex blend of
upheavals and other conditions, thus, made us the leading edge of the learning
universe. Talking, walking, finger dexterity, big-brains and close bonding
eventually created a society of mind more subtle and powerful than any before or
since. We became a pattern-recognizing, information-sharing animal such as the
world had never seen — one that preserved lessons in highly-structured little
vibrations called words. These vibrations became the most powerful mover of mass
in the history of the world.
Nature was still not through, however. The
next stage brought pressure for individual minds to develop some distance from
the collective in which they lived. Such separation might seem at odds with
community-building, but it actually makes sense. Rich tapestries come from
diverse views. The unexpected implication here is that individuation is good for
the community. It increases accuracy by increasing the richness of input.
The next great evolutionary thrust was the evolution of consciousness.
It involved the long, slow birth of ‘selves’ which see themselves as separate
and distinct from the whole. The up-side of this evolution is that individuals
with distinct egos make richer contributions. The down-side is that big egos
have now become so self-absorbed that they do great harm to larger wholes at all
levels from family to planet.
The Evolution of Human
I do not propose to solve the enigma of the relationship of
consciousness to the brain... My own view... however, places consciousness in
a considerably larger context while at the same time not denying its
involvement at the level of the brain.
Hominids bring us to the beginning of complex minds and also to the
glimmer of historical times. Cro-Magnon emerged 70,000 to 40,000 years ago and
the great cave paintings about 20,000 years ago. Mesopotamian civilization and
recorded history began about 6000 years ago (4000 BC). The gap between then and
now is getting small. It is, therefore, time to leave the biological story and
begin the journey to historical times and the kind of mind that experiences the
world consciously. Consciousness researchers ask the delicate question: what
kind of minds live inside big brains?
How did consciousness —
defined in Webster’s as, “an inward sensibility of something” — come into being?
Once multicellulars grew brains and sense organs like eyes, they could see their
own bodies and the first crude awareness of self could have emerged. From this
point of view even lizards have at least some form of consciousness. Still, most
people skim past lizard-level consciousness in search of the more alluring
question: what about our own?
The story of human consciousness too
involves punctuation and cycles of co-evolution. Researchers base their theories
of early stages on studies of cave paintings, burial practices, etc. and of
later stages on writings, sculpture, philosophy. They also cross-check their
theories by studying primitive peoples today who follow behavior patterns
similar to ones seen long ago. For example, some remote tribes still have
rituals similar to ones practiced by Cro-Magnon. Many insights into how
consciousness changes come from studying peoples who act similarly today. The
point is that, while the theories described here are clearly speculative, the
sense that consciousness has evolved through stages is grounded in a lot of
observation and evidence. It is not just New Age fantasy.
Gebser’s Stages of
What are the stages of consciousness? There are many theories. I use Swiss
philosopher, Jean Gebser’s theory of consciousness as described by complexity
researcher Allan Combs in his book The Radiance of Being. The punctuated
pattern should be familiar.
Gebser believed that consciousness evolved
through stages. New forms emerged on top while underneath earlier forms still
played a role. Each stage of consciousness has a distinctive perspective,
personality and subjective experiences of the world. Each brings a different
perception of time, space and of how individuals fit in the larger world.
Finally, each stage also brings distinctive patterns of how people relate to
each other. Hence, each implies a different kind of culture with a unique
experience of the world.
Gebser described five major types of
consciousness—archaic, magic, mythical, mental, and integral.
Their history is as follows:
||Embedded in nature (little different from animals) |
||First symbols (greater separation from the world) |
||First cities, first myths (also the Agrarian Revolution)|
||Individuation for richer contribution (also the Age of War) |
||Strong selves and strong bonds (not there
1. Archaic Consciousness. Archaic
consciousness belongs to the time when our hominid ancestors were still at one
with the natural world. Gebser often likened it to a state of deep, dreamless
sleep. The self experiences itself as completely embedded in the world and is
not aware of itself as separate. Humankind is said to live in perfect harmony
with Nature and probably in complete identity with it.
Who had this type
of consciousness? Perhaps all three-brained primates have this type of
consciousness, certainly the very early hominids are candidates. Hence, the
archaic state is meant for protohumans who did not exhibit a recognizably
human culture (that is, with tools and language). Australopithecus, a
vegetarian ape that foraged in Africa from five to one million years ago, for
example, and Homo habilis who dates from about 4 to 1.5 million years ago
probably had archaic consciousness. Homo erectus, “the Peking Man” who
lived from 1.5 million to 75,000 years ago, may have represented a transitional
case because hand axes found during their late period indicate that they were
becoming adept tool makers.
2. Magical Consciousness. The
next stage of consciousness, magical consciousness, brought language, adept tool
use and also a new form of imagination seen in the beginnings of ceremony and
Neanderthals, some 500,000 years ago, are thought to have had
magic consciousness. They made a variety of tools and engaged in speech (albeit
a crude speech, judging from throat development). More importantly Neanderthals
were also the first to bury their dead ceremoniously as if to issue them into an
afterlife. Bodies were often placed in sleeping postures, legs curled up and
head cushioned on one arm, or in fetal postures, as if to suggest a sleep from
which one might awaken or a hope of a rebirth. In some cases whole families have
been found with a man and a woman placed heads together and children at the
woman’s feet. Some Neanderthal finds even show evidence of religion in the form
of bear worship.
These kinds of ceremonial practices mark a change from
earlier times. Many scholars believe they signal a budding awareness of self as
separate from nature, a form of individuation. This awareness brought a new
concern with what happened to individuals even in death — hence new care with
The new awareness also brought a new concern about how to
influence an increasingly separate world. Magic consciousness thus also brings
humankind’s first attempts to manipulate the world through symbols. Magical
consciousness gets its name because the first symbols were used for magical
substitution. For example, paintings of animals in the cave sanctuaries such as
Lascaux and Les Trois Frères, have been repeatedly struck by stone projectiles,
presumably spears used to kill the animal magically before the real event. In
short, just as voodoo practitioners hope to kill people by sticking pins in
symbolic substitutes (dolls), so early man apparently tried to influence the
killing of real animals by jabbing painted one (symbols).
believed that all magic started with symbolic substitution of one object for
another. Yet, we must go slowly here. People in earlier stages of consciousness
experienced the world very differently than most modern people do today. To
understand magic consciousness one must realize that, in this state, symbol and
actual are experienced as equally real. Thus, when Pygmy tribes in the
Congo kill pictorial animals and actual animals in exactly the same manner, they
experience both hunts as being equally real. Whenever we insist on taking our
beliefs and views as equal to reality, we too are harkening back to this
Gebser believed that magical consciousness reached its heights with
Cro-Magnon and his cave paintings. Yet, this stage (and all the others) is still
buried within us. This has both pros and cons. Magic conscious is crude by
current standards, but it also has a richness of community which is still buried
within us today. As Combs says:
[Magical consciousness brings] a deep sense of community...of
belonging to a family or any other group of people. Music, with its ability to
transport us out of the moment, is also a product of magic consciousness. On
the negative side, there’s a tendency for the magic structure to hold too
tightly to other persons, sometimes refusing to allow them space to breathe.
There’s also a very dangerous tendency to follow the drumbeat of collective
ideological movements, religious or politically totalitarian, as was
experienced so widely before the Second World War and all too much today. The
only remedy to these tendencies is to shift one’s attention to the more recent
structures of consciousness. (1995, p. 102)
was probably also a transitional case and 20,000 BC probably marks the beginning
of a slow transition to a new phase. This time witnessed an acceleration of tool
making and social development which led to the kind of societies which mirror
3. Mythical Consciousness. The next stage, mythical
consciousness, was certainly in full sway by the time of the Neolithic farming
revolution, which is usually given as around 14,000 to 8,000 BC.
life was giving way to stationary communities. Sophisticated speech was now the
norm and so too were sophisticated tools. Animals were domesticated, crops were
planted and villages blossomed into cities. Staying in one place allowed new
technologies to flourish. Crafts like pottery and weaving emerged alongside the
wheel, boats, musical instruments, and painting. New social specialties from
policeman to priest grew with them. Religious symbolism became sophisticated and
focused on the idea of fertility and bolstering life. The concept of law was
invented and also central political control. In short, human societies began to
look much like our own.
By 6500 BC an entire Old European civilization
based on agriculture was well established throughout Eastern Europe and the Near
East. This society brought commerce, metallurgy, new forms of artistry and even
early forms of script. It probably also marked the height of mythical
Mythical consciousness gets its name because this was the
time of myths. Language was now sophisticated and the telling of tales was
beginning. These stories allowed information to be preserved and passed along
through time. Myths also helped usher in a new sense of time that is at least
somewhat linear. This was probably not the modern sense of time, but what Gebser
calls temporicity, the feeling of being in a certain time, for
example, during the reign of a certain king. Hence, mythic tales take place
‘once upon a time’ or ‘long ago and far away’ and have a sense of an enchanted
time that has long since escaped the world of day-to-day affairs.
sense of enchantment also fed another theme The imagination that began in
magical consciousness ripened into a deeper reverence for nature and the life
force. Spirituality took a theme appropriate to the new agricultural society.
This theme was the bountiful Earth/Mother Goddess.
The Goddess image was
reflected everywhere. Thus, archeologists studying this era have uncovered large
numbers of female figurines standing or seated, usually naked, often pregnant,
and sometimes holding or nursing a child. But we must go slowly here lest we
impose our own biases on these people too. Many experts argue that exaggerated
breasts and pregnant abdomens symbolize fertility and were used to beg the
Goddess for help with crops. No doubt this was partly the case. Yet, other
researchers say that the people of mythical times felt a more present force.
They were, after all, still immersed in nature and in tune with it in ways we no
longer are. This meant their experience of spirituality was more direct. Hence,
as American mythologist Joseph Campbell says, Goddess images point “not to a new
theory about how to make beans grow but to an actual experience in the depth of
that mysterium tremendum that would break upon us even now if it were not
so wonderfully masked.”
Hence, Goddess images probably represent
recognition of and gratitude to the life force at work in the world. UCLA
archaeologist Marija Gimbutas calls it, “the celebration of life energy.” We
might call it the first articulated awareness of the Great Ordering
Yet, this awareness was also blended with a new step toward
individuation. No longer utterly embedded in Nature or lost in the tribe,
humankind became a child of nature, at once awed by and grateful to the life
force. Mythic consciousness thus brought humankind’s first covenant with nature.
This age was “the time when human kind discovered its own soul and that of the
world at large,” as Combs says. It expressed both in the worship of life.
Mythic culture thus brought the first high forms of technological,
artistic and spiritual culture. It brought the main inventions of civilization
from weaving and the wheel to cities. It climaxed in the great artistry and
technology of ancient Greek civilizations, such as the Minoans on Crete (circa
3000 BC to 1500 BC). One might have imagined that this wondrously creative and
soulful age would have simply continued to ever greater heights. But, times
change and with them humankind.
The deep mythic experience, formed during
the neolithic period carried over into ancient civilizations such as Sumer,
Egypt, and Homeric Greece. But, by then, signs of a new mode of consciousness
were emerging, one with a greater sense of individuality and ego. Then too,
there was a crisis of some sort. Somewhere between 4000 and 2000 BC the Old
Society civilization underwent a major transformation. Apparently consciousness
changed with it.
4. Mental Consciousness. The next
stage was mental consciousness, the time when thinking came into its own. Hence
where stone tools signaled the change from archaic to magical consciousness, so
cognitive tools highlighted the change from mythic to mental consciousness.
Number systems began to appear in the Middle East about 3500 BC and by about
3100 BC writing was well developed. Time as the linear quantity we know today
began, along with recorded history itself. The first calendars from the Middle
East are found around 2800 BC. The first libraries are found in Egypt around
Writing gives researchers a better glimpse into changing
experiences. The Epic of Gilgamesh written about 2700 BC, for example, suggests
self-reflection is becoming strong. Having failed in his quest for immortality
Gilgamesh experiences an almost existential crisis, an exquisitely personal
emergency not seen in recordings of more ancient myths.
The new stage, of
course, also brought a new emphasis on thinking — especially as separate from
feeling. Not surprisingly, this new type of consciousness places the sense of
self somewhere in the head. This contrasts with earlier tradition seen in
ancient Greeks and Native Americans who experience their essence as being in the
Centering oneself in one’s head brings, in turn, what Gebser
called a perspectival element of consciousness. We perceive the world as
if it comes in through our eyes and informs a ‘self’ which is located in the
head right behind those eyes. This new perspective also reflects another major
development, the birth of highly individuated egos. No longer embedded in Nature
or the tribe, the separate, self-aware, and often self-serving ego emerges.
Evolving slowly since the time of Egypt, evidence of the new mental
consciousness is strong by the classical Greek period (circa 600 to 400 BC)
which brought us science, philosophy and drama. Socrates likened the soul with
pure thought and by 480 BC Parmenides would say, “For thinking and being is one
and the same.”
Strongly associated with reason and critical thinking,
mental consciousness had arrived. By the time of the Roman Empire some five
hundred years later, the ego had become a highly individualistic,
self-reflective center of inner life. Thus, where classical Greek statuary
pursued universal perfection, busts of Roman citizens became studies in
character and attempts to capture individual uniqueness. Autobiographical
documents such as personal diaries also appear in Rome. Historian Morris Berman
who traces the development of self awareness notes that periods of strong self
awareness are usually accompanied by sharp increases in the use of mirrors. As
he says, “Mirrors became so popular in Rome that they were even owned by
servants; and Seneca reported his disgust at one Hostius Quadra, who had himself
constantly surrounded by mirrors.”
We are still in the age of Mental
consciousness, but the next stage, Integral consciousness, is simmering. It is
simmering because the current age is exhausted and a new way is needed. Let me
take a moment, therefore, to expand on the problems that Mental consciousness is
The Problem with Rational Thought
consciousness begins the story of rational thinking, but, it is not the story
one might expect. Gebser stressed that rational thought was not the pinnacle of
mental consciousness. Indeed, he described it as an inferior form, a distortion
of the true mental miracle.
Gebser said that each form of consciousness
had an authentic and a distorted form (or as he said, an efficient and
deficient form). The authentic form of mythic consciousness, for example,
created myths which encapsulated deep insight in metaphoric form. We have a hard
time grasping the deep meaning and hidden accuracy of such myth because we no
longer understand the symbolism. The result is the distorted form of mythic
consciousness — myths as tall tales. The stories of the Greek gods, for example,
were eventually told as colorful yarns not intended to convey real meaning.
The authentic form of mental consciousness is menos: balanced
thought which evolves through discussion. The object of balanced thought is to
improve through dialogue and continual rethinking. Socrates dialectics and
Plato's Dialogues are examples. ‘Rational thinking is a distorted form
because it was characterized by ratio, or as Combs says, “by divisive,
immoderate, hair-splitting reason.” The object rational thought is to pick
things apart, often as a destructive act. The quest to refine understanding is
lost to obsessive love of haranguing over microscopic bits. Small wonder Gebser
saw it as inferior. Understanding its inferior nature is of importance to our
times because this hair-splitting thought is often held up as the one true form
of thinking. As Gebser says:
Ratio must not be interpreted...as ‘understanding’ or
‘common sense,’ ratio implies calculation and, in particular,
division...This dividing aspect inherent in ratio and Rationalism...is
consistently overlooked, although it is of decisive importance to an
assessment of our epoch. (Cited in Combs, 1995, p.
Rational thinking, therefore, is divisive and often
destructive. If you add egos which can become big and self-absorbed you can see
some of the threads which lead to a change. Self-centeredness and focus on
division tends to thwart balanced, evolving thought (menos). Instead, one
gets rigidity and an inability to go beyond one’s own perspective instead. Human
These kinds of distortions help push a new stage of
consciousness which Gebser believed was in the offing. On the other hand, a more
pressing problem is simmering.
The Great Transition — From
Collaboration to Coercion
Mental consciousness came with a new society,
of course. The catch is that the epoch which brought it is best described as the
Age of War (or, if you prefer, the Age of Empire-building). Hence, Mythic
culture was shunted underneath and a new more violent culture rose in its
The Neolithic culture of Old Europe and the Middle East flourished
in peace and prosperity for thousands of years. Then, in a crisis that would
mirror that of many civilizations yet to come, it ended in a relatively abrupt,
mysterious and violent manner. No one really knows what happened. Theories
abound. Natural disasters may have been part of the problem with tectonic
movement creating new rounds of floods and earthquakes. The story of Atlantis,
for instance, is thought to come from a volcano and tidal wave that destroyed an
Old Society civilization on the island of Thera in the Aegean circa 1628 BC. The
other major theory is that the pre-ancient world was rocked by waves of
barbarian invasions from nomadic Indo-European (Kurgan) tribes from the steppes
to the east.[] Whatever the cause, disaster and disruption appear to have
brought a period of cultural regression and stagnation. Villages vanished as did
painted pottery, frescoes, shrines, sculptures and script. The development of
Old Society civilization came to a halt.
Whatever the cause, the most
notable effect of the crisis period of 4,000 BC to 2000 BC was a large and
distinctive shift in the direction of war. Metallurgy, for example, had been
known for some time, but Old Society metal implements were religious, domestic
and agricultural. Weapons of war were distinctly absent. The 3500-2500 BC time
period, however, brought the Bronze Age and with it bronze weapons such as
daggers, maceheads, and thin sharp axes. These appear first along what are
believed to be the routes of barbarian attack — hence the theory that invaders
But, bronze weapons were just one symptom. The whole
culture changed. Burial practices, for example, also changed. Large-boned male
skeletons began being accompanied not only by weapons and riches but also by the
skeletons of sacrificed women.
Mental consciousness was thus forged in
the fires of what I call the Great Transition, a shift from a social system
based on the life-force and mutual contribution to one based on war and
domination. The contrast here is important. The original Neolithic culture was
agricultural and egalitarian. Its people often lived in large townships where
land and all principal means of production for example, animals, plows and looms
were held in common. Social power was viewed as a responsibility, a trusteeship
used for the benefit of all. Elder women or the heads of clans administered the
distribution of the fruits of the Earth which were seen as belonging to all
members of the group.
In short, the Old Society had a fundamentally
cooperative social organization and absence of fortifications and weapons
attests to the fact that they lived in peaceful coexistence. It was this
peaceful society which brought many of the core inventions of civilization as we
know it from the wheel and metallurgy to farming, pottery, music and religion.
The palaces, arts and technologies — including indoor plumbing — of Minoan
civilization show the heights to which it led. I call it a mutualist
society because it is based on mutual benefit between members.
cooperative culture was replaced by a socially-stratified patriarchal society
that exalted war. The contrast in ideology is striking. Where weapons were
nonexistent in Old Society imagery, the New Society symbols were the dagger and
battle ax. Where Old Society religion focused on the cycle of birth, death, and
regeneration, embodied in an Earth/Mother Goddess, the New Society worshipped
virile, heroic warrior gods that forced their bloody will on the world. The
biggest difference of all, however, was in social organization. Riane Eisler,
perhaps the most famous researcher of the Great Transition, calls this a
dominator society because it is based on domination. It included:
beliefs soon made struggle and war the order of the day. The Tigris-Euphrates
valley, an invasion crossroads in Eisler’s terms, spawned a series of aspiring
empires — Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Hittite — known for their bloody
ways. Sumer is often credited with inventing organized warfare as we know it.
Yet, each of these societies also had a base in life-centered times and a memory
of mutualism in a time before. Sumer is a good example. Sumer’s early legends
refer to the Supreme Deity as “Queen of Heaven” or “the Mighty Lady, the
Creatress.” Written about 2300 BC, the Urukagina Reforms of Sumeria even
includes a requirement that food grown on Temple land be used, not just for
priests, but for those in need ‘as it had been in the times of old.’
- A hierarchical social structure dominated by strong-man
- Accumulation of wealth for status,
- Coercive social power,
- Private ownership of land and means of production,
- Slavery and human sacrifice
- The reduction of women and children to the property of men,
- A central focus on war and militarism.
These kinds of contrasting before-and-after images have led some
scholars to argue that the Garden of Eden is a myth about the Fertile Crescent.
The harmony and abundance of early times was replaced with the baleful struggle
for existence in a time of subjugation and endless war.
consciousness, thus, grew up in a battle between radically different cultures.
This struggle is particularly apparent in spirituality, one of the key aspects
of consciousness. Hence the new culture brought Gods who exalted war. Religion
also became part of the political control structure. As a matter of expedience,
the king often served as head priest or even proclaimed himself a God. Religious
hierarchies that pulled resources up and issued commands down became common. The
new culture also remade older Gods in the new order’s image. Struggles between
the life-force Goddess of the old religion and new, violent, vengeful, male
insurgents such as Horace, Marduk, Zeus, and Yahweh ensued. The recording of
ancient traditions, thus, often includes a blending of old and new myths as
priests rewrote ancient stories. This is clearly seen in the Bible with its
conflicting images of a compassionate and a vengeful god.
I shall have
more to say about these two cultures later. Meanwhile their struggles set the
stage for mental consciousness and all the history to follow. We are still in
this Age. For the last five thousand years human societies have been centered on
war, empire-building and domination. The social structures listed above remain
and so do many of the violent cultural ways. Human societies have not always
been so, but most are today.
5. Integral Consciousness.
Mental consciousness is still dominant, but there are problems. Indeed, many
of today’s problems can be traced to deficient aspects of mental consciousness.
Thus, the down side of the strong ego is the grandiose ego with its need
to be the center of attention. The down side of balanced evolving thought
(menos), is divisive, hair-splitting rationalism. Add a society
centered on dominator imperatives and one gets the two egos of modern times the
embattled, lonely ego...and the arrogant, self-centered ego which sees the world
through the lens of conquest and domination. Naturally enough, individuals and
communities both fail with alarming frequency. Gebser’s description of failure,
thus, echoes those of many observers of the Modern condition.
is visible everywhere, isolation of individuals, of entire nations and
continents...in the political arena in the form of ideological monopolistic
dictatorship, in everyday life in the form of immoderate, ‘busy’ activity devoid
of any sense-direction or relationship to the world as a whole; isolation of
thinking in the form of the deceptive dazzle of premature judgments or
hypertrophied abstraction devoid of any connection with the world. And it is the
same with mass phenomena: overproduction, inflation, the proliferation of
political parties, rampant technology, atomization in all forms. (Cited in
Unfortunately, since mental consciousness still dominates,
many academics view it as the highest and final form of consciousness. Gebser,
however, saw things differently in part, because he had lived through the worst
effects of the calamitous twentieth century.
Born to an aristocratic
family in Poland in 1905 and studying in Berlin until encountering Nazi Brown
Shirts in 1933, Gebser had little hope for a world controlled by men’s egos. In
the winter of 1933, however, he was struck by a realization that would become
the core of his life’s work. This realization was that a new and radically
different form of consciousness was beginning to emerge. He believed this form
of consciousness, Integral consciousness, had the potential to transform
the fabric of civilization from top to bottom just as mental consciousness had
done in its time.
Gebser spent many years charting evidence that Integral
consciousness was emerging. His book, The Ever-present Origin, details
that evidence in a impressive array of cultural forms including physics,
mathematics, biology, sociology, philosophy, jurisprudence, music, painting, and
literature. For instance, Gebser believed Integral consciousness brought a
growing ability to make multiple view points appear as integral wholes. He saw
this new ability evident in the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee, for
example. It suggested a new freedom from possessive, ego-based consciousness.
The new consciousness also brought a new sense of time as a tangible experience,
and not the abstract quantity known since the age of Newton. Gebser pointed to
the works of writers such as T. S. Eliot, Hölderlin, and Rilke as evidence of
this new sense of time. Born of World War I’s lost generation, these writers
cherished the reality of each moment, thus generating a revolutionary new
fullness of existence.
Paradoxically, while time became more tangible,
the experience of reality also became more fluid, or as Gebser called it,
diaphanous. Using the Buddhist term Void, Gebser described this
new experience as “a spiritual transparency by which we experience the whole
almost as the whole lives through us.” He argued that this transparent quality
came from a new spiritual awareness which was again grounded in felt experience
of the creative force which permeates the world.
This new spiritual
awareness was important. Mental consciousness had brought institutionalized
religion heavily involved in social control. Such religions invariably moved
toward increasingly rigid and often hair-splitting beliefs that smothered the
spiritual awareness from which all true religions emerge. Integral consciousness
brought a new spiritual depth, one which contained a solid clarity missing in
earlier forms. This clarity was supported by a more integral reason, and new
scientific abilities to apprehend the design in which humankind is embedded.
Thus, no longer an awed child or an arrogant adolescent, humankind returns to
its spiritual roots, now with a more lucid awareness of the mysterium
Gebser saw a danger, however. Powerful contact with
spiritual roots often left soulful selves lost in the light. These souls follow
blindly, without judging ideas critically or cross-checking their validity
(these last traits being mental consciousness’ great strength). Thus, Integral
consciousness had a deficit form, diaphainon, a shining through of
spiritual light which lacked substance.
Well-meaning New Age romantics,
filled with the light, but unable to separate quality from quackery, are an
example of diaphainon. Unfortunately, the lack of grounding makes this
kind of spirituality a natural feeding ground for charlatans, megalomaniacs, and
psychopaths in many guises. The rise of charismatic cults producing horrific
ends in this century is a sign of diaphainon’s inability to discern. Jim
Jones, David Koresh, Aum Shinrikiyo — the list is long. Charismatic leaders’
ability to play on blind passion, is one reason that it is important to keep the
new vision well-grounded.
Gebser hoped that the twentieth century’s great
calamities were part of the birth struggle of a new way. He viewed the outcome
as uncertain, however. Hence, though he believed humankind’s only hope lay in
the embryonic new consciousness, he found that most people were still mired in
egoistic, rationalistic consciousness and that the power structures that
supported these traits still seemed secure. As he said:
...the coming decades will decide whether a fundamental
transformation will occur during the next two generations or not for the next
The Evolution of Consciousness
Gebser’s work helps us see that the evolution of consciousness
is not a figment of New Age imagination. Whether you believe his theory in
detail or not, this and other research makes it clear that changes have taken
place inside our big beautiful brains. Consciousness changes are directly
relevant to the kinds of cultures human beings produce.
between Integral and Mental consciousness also helps us see our crisis more
clearly. Individuation enriches the community, but the pendulum has swung too
far. Modern individuals often lose all sense that they are contributing to
anything larger than themselves — a predicament enshrined in the image of
selfish genes. Small wonder fragmentation now plagues the end-of-the-millennium
world. As biologist David Sloan Wilson says, “Western societies seem to spawn
far more self-absorption than sacrifice for any greater
Self-absorption among some, however, spawns the opposite among
many. Frightened and alone selves often fall prey to blind, yearning need. They
willingly submerge their identities to charismatic leaders and commit atrocities
— usually in the name of community and soul.
Add the centrality of war
and you get the modern world. The age of Mental consciousness has left us 1)
brilliant but disconnected, 2) powerful but vicious, 3) antagonistic and often
This list helps us understand the direction of the
return swing. Learning is enhanced by strong selves and strong bonds. The
two must go together. Strong selves without strong bonds produce self-absorbed
egos who ravage society and the world. Strong bonds without a strong self is the
basis of pathological conformity. Integral consciousness must have both because
either side without the other can lead to disaster — a society with very little
group intelligence and a lot of destructive tendencies.
The Learning Universe Revisited
The story of the stars, that of life, of human beings, and of
thought, are one and the same story.
We are back to our own time, now with a new sense of how our minds fit in
evolution and history. Thanks to the Enlightenment, rational thought spread
across the world along with public education. Human societies of mind now reach
phenomenal levels, best seen in that most rapidly-learning society of mind,
science. On the other hand, big egos and the idea that war is central to the
world also leave us ever-floundering on the edge of extinction. How can we
achieve a more viable way? The next section explores some of the obstacles to
human learning in detail. Meanwhile, let me close with a
Clockwork thinkers were apt to argue that life was an anomaly
going nowhere. Consciousness was merely the latest pin-stripe on the lumbering
automaton that selfish genes call home. An alternative view is emerging,
Just how differently might our descendants view the world?
Perhaps they will believe that humankind’s great strategy is a mind one. Our
inquisitive, collaborative nature was forged in a cauldron of crisis. From this
came our one defining task — ‘knowing and doing’ in ever better forms.
Then too, perhaps our descendants will believe that the Great Ordering
Oneness gave us consciousness that we might consciously aid in the project of
creating an ever-more harmonious, well-flowing world. After all, when mind is
seen as a project of the world (and not just a human quirk), then one has to
wonder whether the ability to see so far has some aim beyond, say, making money.
And so the noble thought. We were born of a universe which is driven to
learn and this urge is implanted deeply in us. Following this urge is what makes
us who we are. Following this urge together has made us the most
remarkable creatures on the face of the earth. It is time we started using those
big beautiful brains to envision something wiser and more loving than parochial
self-interest and quality through war.
Humankind is not a finished
product. Our ultimate place in history remains to be seen. Our existential
question looms large. Yet, there is reason for hope. We can remake ourselves
rapidly. That is what culture is for. We have done so many times before. So
while our straits are dire, our potential is still great. If anything emerges
from the ideas in this chapter, I hope it is that humankind’s strategy is
learning, done in community and aimed at wellbeing—our own, our society’s
and that of the world with which we are so tightly bound.
Calvin, William H. (1995). The Ascent of Mind: Ice
Age Climates and the Evolution of Intelligence. New York: Bantam
Combs, Allan. (1996). The Radiance of Being: Complexity, Chaos and
the Evolution of Consciousness. Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris
Freeman, Walter .J. (1995). Societies of Brains. Hillsdale, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Potts, Richard. (1996). Humanity’s Descent.
New York: Morrow Publishers.
1. The reptilian brain consists of the midbrain and
basal ganglia, plus a thin shell of cortex including the hippocampus. It is
found in all animals with a brain. It is called the lizard brain because
salamanders were the favorite subjects of early researchers trying to study this
brain in its most basic form. The paleomammalian brain surrounds this core
reptilian brain and is primarily associated with the limbic system (the part of
the brain most associated with emotion). It is found from lower mammals up to
human beings. The neomammalian brain, found only in higher primates, is the
2. Each brain’s characteristics reflect pressures which gave
it birth. Thus, the lizard brain would have been the brain that brought us out
of the ooze. It provides a tremendous amount of coordination between primitive
survival needs and internal visceral response. It represents a kind of primary
consciousness based on millions of years of experience on the four basic
elements of survival: feed, flee, fight and reproduce.
the lizard brain is inflexible. As life evolved, simple lizard brain responses
probably reached their limit. As the ecosystem began to fill with other animals,
simple responses were not enough. Survival began to demand more complex
responses and speedier learning. A new strategy came into being which used rich
emotions to enhance personal learning and bonding emotions to enhance group
learning. The furry-mammal brain allowed faster learning and produced more
diverse responses. Modeling emerged as a way of transmitting learning to one’s
fellows. Yet, apparently at some point, this strategy too was insufficient and
the thinking brain emerged.
3. Paleontology is a rapidly changing field
and estimates of the dates of this event vary wildly. I am using a rather
mid-range estimate. More recent work puts the split between the Homo
genus and its nearest relative Pan, the genus of chimpanzees, about 8
million years ago during a tectonic shift that left an East/West rift in the
African continent with mountains in between.
4. And now championed most
strongly by Elaine Morgan, see The Aquatic Ape (1982) and The Scars of
5. Riane Eisler is the most famous proponent of
this theory. In her book, The Chalice and The Blade, she reports three
main waves of barbarian attack, No. 1 about 4300- 4200 BC; No. 2 about 3400-
3200 BC; and No. 3 about 3000- 2800 BC. (1987, p. 44).