There Is No Evolution of Consciousness
By Martin LeFevre
It’s become a commonplace in the West to comfortingly believe that “everything is always evolving forwards even when it looks like things are moving backwards.” But each week that conceit becomes harder to sustain. For one thing it’s simply not true. Without respect to society, we can fail as individuals, and with respect to nature, we are failing as a species. Humans are destroying themselves in direct proportion to the degree that we’re decimating and degrading the Earth. Human consciousness is not “evolving” but devolving. There’s been a concerted attempt by philosophers and scientists to ignore the incoherence between the basic way nature operates (through seamless wholeness) and the way human consciousness operates (from separation and division). Denying and obscuring the contradiction between man and nature has become thoroughly accepted, even though the contradiction between man and nature has never been more glaringly apparent. To my mind, conflating natural processes with human consciousness has been the biggest philosophical mistake of the last 30 years.We should be asking: How did nature, which unfolds in seamless wholeness, evolve a creature with such separative power as man, which is fragmenting the Earth and humankind all to hell? That’s a very difficult and subtle question. It was the philosophical obsession of the first 15 years of my adulthood. Finally I had a few original insights, which ended the conundrum to my mind. The adaptive strategy of ‘higher thought’ is essentially the ability to make conscious separations of nature at will. The evolution of symbolic thought is not neutral however, contingent on how each person and people use it. It’s such a powerful adaptation that it carries with it the strong tendency to believe that separate ‘particles’ is actually the nature of nature and the universe, and not just of the mind of man. Hominins — the entire branching tree of primates that eventually produced the sole remaining super-primate, Homo sapiens — have been creatures of thought for millions of years. For even to make the crudest stone tools, which have been dated to 3.3 million years old, our ancient predecessors had to prepare a core, visualizing the sharp flakes they could strike from it. No other primate, even chimps, comes close to that degree of cognitive ability. At the same time ancient humans began to make stone tools in order to butcher animals they scavenged or hunted, they probably began to conceive of time. Speech was a long way off, but a bright australopith could point to the sun, point to where the group stood, and then point to where the sun would be later in the day. Everyone would understand it meant, ‘Meet here then.’ So the separation of ‘things’ (and time) in nature ineluctably carried over into the psychological realm, from the earliest many species of proto-humans down to us. When combined with group identification and the passing down of traditions, both of which must also have rudimentarily begun very early, there was inevitably the division between ‘us and them.’ Most people still carry that atavistic tribalistic mentality within them, and act out of it, as the regurgitating wave of nationalism worldwide attests. War, as Jane Goodall observed to her horror with her beloved chimps at Gombe in Tanzania, is so deeply rooted that it’s shared even with our closest genetic and cognitive cousins. They too are able to identify with ‘my group’ as opposed to the enemy group, and form plans to attack and wipe them out. Consciousness as we know it is based on thought, and thought operates in a completely different way than the rest of nature — by separation. That’s obviously enormously useful in the functional realm, since language, technology, science and the entire built world is based on it. But it’s also, psychologically and spiritually, the ‘original (and ongoing) sin’ (that is, essential universal mistake). We need to understand ourselves, and stop conflating human consciousness with natural processes. Man is devolving rather than evolving; there is no evolution of consciousness or civilization in the sense of gradual development over time. Have you heard of something called “punctuated equilibrium?” It’s Stephen Jay Gould’s insight that evolutionary forms generally remain stable in nature, but that adaptive pressure builds up over many generations until a ‘leap’ occurs, or the species becomes extinct. Since 99% of all the life that has existed on Earth has become extinct, the creatures that survive are the ones in which made a successful (newly adaptive) leap. In short, evolution isn’t a gradual improvement in nature, but a periodically revolutionary response to the pressure to bring about breakthroughs and new forms. Does this principle apply to humans and Homo sapiens? I feel so, and it means that as the pressure has been building in human consciousness from our own fragmented and self-centered activity, life is intensifying the necessity for radical change. There could have been a breakthrough from man to human being at any point. But it hasn’t happened — not with the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed or any of the other great teachers. Consequently there has been increasing fragmentation of the Earth, and increasing darkness (the toxic byproduct of thought) in human consciousness. There is now tremendous pressure to radically change, which we’re apparently resisting apparently to “the last trumpet.” Neither the individual nor humankind will ever transform by believing “everything is always evolving forwards even when it looks like things are moving backwards.” What a cunning way of avoiding the urgency of change!
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Martin LeFevre, a contemplative, philosopher and writer in northern California, serves as a contributing writer for The Seoul Times. His "Meditations" explore and offer insights on spiritual, philosophical and political questions in the global society. LeFevre's philosophical thesis proposes a new theory of human nature. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org