The Evolution of Consciousness as a Byproduct of Language

I have been thinking for a long time about the evolution of consciousness: how did it emerge in the human species and I guess where is it going?

The first thing I have to do is to define consciousness. Usually when we think of it, we think of it as something which distinguishes us from the animals from which we came. It seems to me that everyone who tries to analyze it comes up with a different definition, so that the subject itself becomes lost in confusion. There is a philosopher named Chalmers who tries to analyze it in terms of “philosophical zombies”. These are beings whose outward behaviour is identical to our own, yet who have no consciousness, by which he seems to mean that they do not have a real experience of the world. They do not experience, for example, the “purpleness” of a coloured object, or the chocolately taste of chocolate. Yet they react to it in a way which makes it seem as if they had. It is an extreme manifestation of behaviorism ( a behaviorist being one who “thinks he has no thoughts, and believes he has no beliefs”). Yet how could they possibly react to something that makes no impression on them? Why would they? He goes on to say that they fact that we can imagine such beings means they could exist, but that I can’t believe. We can imagine travelling faster than light, but as far as we know the universe won’t let us.

It seems to me that a more useful model to analyze these questions is the figure of Kaspar Hauser, a child discovered to have been raised possibly by wild animals and therefore deprived of human language during his formative years. What did Kaspar see when he saw something purple? Obviously he saw and experienced the essence of purpleness, but what did it mean to him? He could use it to distinguish, say, a purple berry from a green one, and his experience could tell him that the green was sour and inedible while the purple one was sweet and good. The difference from us is that he did not have a word for the difference in colour, and we do. We can extend that concept to other things, to all sorts of aesthetic and practical considerations, but could he? Did he for that reason like purple things in general more than others? Would the concept of a favourite colour have any meaning? I think not, because the idea of “favourite” did not exist for him. He was an animal, a “lower animal” in old speak, because he did not have language.

I am rambling. But what I am trying to say is that consciousness as we understand it, that thing that distinguishes our mental processes from that of other animals is language. It is a system of organizing thoughts in an efficient manner in order to accomplish more than we could without it. Human language has many characteristics which put it far above other systems of communication, and it evolved in us in a complex manner until it reached the incredibly powerful facility we all have today. We can see its traces in the archaeological record, faint and elusive hints which tell us that something was happening in our brains which allowed an increasing “control” over our environment. From the first tools, rocks used to crack bones and maybe heads, to the conscious shaping of those rocks into specialized objects for particular tasks, to today’s Internet, jet planes and atom bombs, the history of consciousness is one of developing ways to talk about things and categorize them, but was this the driving force for evolution? The social function is probably a majorl force, forming bonds with others and persuading them to do what we want.

What is consciousness? One definition might be “the brain’s way of letting itself know what it’s doing.” Most of our actions are only made known to us after the fact. During a conversation, do we know what we are going to say when the other stops speaking? The interplay of a conversation can be surprising to the participants, as they only know, from memory, how they responded after they have done it. And of course they usually accept it as the logical thing. They said it, after all, so it must be right. But the initial response was unconscious in that they did not (usually) plan it out consciously before they said it. A vast amount of processing power, more than the most powerful computer, went into formulating that response while the other was talking, first? the meaning, and then the putting into an intelligible response using both the universal laws of language and then the rules and vocabulary of one’s own dialect of that language. And then they know what that response is, and are committed to it. There is usually no time for reflection, however, because the other has already processed it and is uttering their own response. The same of course can be said about animal conversations, which certainly exist on a lower level, but the animal, as far as we know, does not reflect on it later.

A topic I will be pursuing here, a sort of thread of history, is to speculate (without any real evidence) on the stages of the evolution of language and hence consciousness. One way to do this might be to ask when the first time was that something happened. For example, what (and when) was the first time that someone

  • had a thought in words? I would say sometime after the words themselves existed in common usage
  • said “I (or everyone) will die”
  • realized the connection between sex and birth
  • lied (apparently chimps do this)
  • gave a group of things a number
  • asked a question (who, when, where…?)
  • said something was big, green, good
  • used a metaphor

? etc. Which of these were used by homo habilis, erectus, sapiens?

This is the beginning of my speculation. Comments welcome.

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