“But Sage sir, don’t tell me you already have writer’s block!” I’m afraid so. After just the first blog entry yesterday I’m already grasping at idea straws. What do I write about? What topics should I cover? Luckily for the reader, I’m excellent at talking about nothing. You’ll see that a lot in this blog, little gaps of text which doesn’t really say anything. It is my gift, and my curse.
“Sage sir, you were cursed to say nothing, even while writing sentence after sentence of text?” Why yes, astute reader. You’d be exactly right. This happens because all day long I sit and wonder. I wonder about what I’d be saying to a specific person during a specific circumstance. It’s all I do all day, just wondering what he or she would say given a certain situation. Usually it’s not a good conversation, because I end up upset or feel like that person is going to ask me something I won’t be able to answer, which makes it seem like an exercise in futility. Well luckily for you, reader, you get to peer into the complex workings of my inner mind and see for yourself the ramblings of the apen conscious, which may or may not lead you to believe, (along with myself), that these bored conversations have little meaning.
But low and behold, here I am talking about hypothetical conversations that never happened, and here you are wondering how this is interesting or why you’re even reading this. Well I’ll tell you why, sport. It’s because occasionally I do cover topics of interest, such as the subject of the human consciousness.
What then, specifically, drives me to think of all those hypothetical scenarios? What part of the human brain evolved to deal with these scenarios? As you may already know, humans are social creatures. We thrive because we are able to pass information we’ve learned from one generation to the next, and improve slowly but steadily on these ideas. Cooking food is probably responsible for our ability to see into the hypothetical future. Human brains developed after the invention of fire. Being able to cook our food meant that we got more nutrients that we weren’t used to getting. Meat was also easier to eat and digest. People talk about brain foods but really, you don’t have to look too far to find food that helps develop our brain, because it’s all based off the simple fact that we cook our food.
Sure, eating raw vegetables can give you more nutrition that’s lost during the cooking process, but can we stop talking about vegetarians for a second. If you’re still here it means you’re a meat eater, even an omnivore, and that makes you one of the most successful mammals to ever walk earth. Fish and other seafood became extremely important to our diets as we moved to the coast where there was an abundant source of water and food. Eventually we even moved into the frozen tundras of the Ice Age, and tackled beasts such as Woolly Mammoths. What makes an ape stop to wonder, “I like fruit, but putting that antelope in my mouth would be the tops, because I see those cats over there chewing on them and they look so happy, blood all over their mouth and everything. Too bad my teeth aren’t designed to tackle and kill prey as tasty looking as that. Perhaps I’ll take this sharp stone, flay the flesh and roast it over an open fire!”
Consciousness may not have sprung forth only because of food though. Let’s take a step back, and mull over what I’ve already said. There may be physical links to the development of consciousness, but what about the social aspects of homosapien behaviors? Well that developed many areas of our brain. Recognizing other people as individuals takes a lot of brain power. Recognizing faces is one of the abilities that came from our extra brain power. It’s a super power most of us have, except for the poor few with prosopagnosia. Recognizing your family and your own group has great benefits which ensure survival. The more brain power you use, the more energy your brain needs to complete these tasks. Our brain uses a massive 20% of the energy we consume.
Other factors for the development of conscious were the desire to observe and study the universe around us. When you start thinking of the world and it’s systems, and what governs those systems; and you start thinking about the people around you, and how they are unique and have skills which can be useful to your survival, you start seeing the world from a completely different perspective. We noticed things like seasons, and how the celestial bodies in the sky coincided with those seasons, and by working together we were able to freely exchange ideas through another important evolution: language.
So what was our first true sign of intelligence, of conscious thought being put into action? I don’t know the answer for certain, but what I’ve seen as one of the first signs of higher intelligence is the gathering of ritualistic objects of significance and ceremonial behaviors that we don’t see very often in other animals, like burying our dead. Recently we have seen chimps, one of our closest relatives, behaving in ritualistic ways. They don’t bury their dead, but they collect special stones which they throw at specific trees. Chimps will gather from miles to do join in on this behavior, cementing the idea that they may find significance in the tree where there is no significance; something that governs the way they think, or changes their perspective on the world around them.
Humans would carve figures and paint walls, paint our bodies and give ourselves tattoos. In my opinion, engaging in ritualistic behavior, or the emergence of religion is trying to make sense of the world in it’s most ancient form. It’s taking a wealth of knowledge you don’t understand about the world and attributing it to a higher power, something you have no control over but happens regardless. Did the first human who stared into the stars beyond the skyline and think those celestial bodies ruled and governed his life? Probably. But that doesn’t make him stupid, people of the time simply didn’t have the enormous data we have now to extrapolate information about the universe from. When you recognize someone as a person, and the lifelessness that occurs after death, something happens in our minds that helps us recognize this person has passed on, and makes us wonder “What happens after death?”. Burying our dead may have started with the simple need to keep corpses away from predators, from spreading disease, and also laying them to rest as they changed into something different; a passage into the underworld.
Ancient people weren’t stupid, but they hadn’t collectively learned how to create tools to measure the universe as we do today, and yet they still managed to create intricate technologies that led to building structures of religious significance like Stonehenge. We have trouble sometimes trying to go back in time and figure out some of the ways these people managed to build and organize their structures, societies, and religions. What would you think of the world if you grew up as a hunter gatherer, someone who traveled as a nomad from place to place gathering food for you and your group? What would you think of the world when you were able to settle down into larger groups, form villages, and begin to lay the foundations of agriculture, which is the ability to grow food when and where you want it? The more food, the more people, the more ideas, the more specializations people can fall into, and the more technology is developed.
As people settled down, and technology advanced, they were able to associate these kind of behaviors with their gods. Gods that represented fertility are among the oldest, but there sprung up gods for other tasks as well. When you think of life after death, you begin to tell the story of the process of what happens after death occurs. Obviously someone has to be in charge of death, because it’s a powerful force that comes for us all. Thus led to the belief in the underworld in all it’s forms. And these ideas sprang from multiple cultures from around the globe, some of which grew up in completely different environments and were influenced by different types of plants and wildlife that grew there. People adapted to varying climates and with that came varying ideas about the world.
As far as religion goes, I think storytelling played a huge role. The art of storytelling predates historical record, before we had invented a way to write down what we thought of and pass that information down to new generations. Religion has existed so long that it’s in the unique position and carrying the full load of the generations before it’s ideology and beliefs. When people’s lives began to change with the advent of technology, so did their idea about gods. Higher powers represented the pinnacle of existence, so gods had to become smarter and wield absolute power over their subjects. In some cultures it meant that their gods were in decline because they were no longer happy with the population. Sometimes this meant that a human sacrifice was in order, to please the gods.
It’s hard to get rid of the stigma we often find with religion, because it’s not all good. You have to distill these texts and find the good amidst the greed of individualism, the thought that one man is born better than another, and inequality in other disturbing measure. People have been thinking about religion and what it means to us a species for a very long time however, and there are new ideas put forth every day that challenge some of the more ancient ways of thinking. There are staunch traditionalists, and there are people working towards a religion that makes sense for everyone, one that improves life and works towards a greater good. This happened as human culture became more complex as societies arose across the globe. It’s important, in my uniquely unimportant opinion, to find a moral compass that suits you and all the people around you, so you can grow and function as a contributing member of society who isn’t obstructive or tries to take advantage of other people. It’s morals, the idea of right and wrong, which helps govern our more animalistic behaviors and helps us evolve our minds.
So what is consciousness then? Did it spring up among the various developments of our brain hemispheres due to climate change, the development of society and culture, and the way we cook our food? There is likely way more to it than that, and science is getting us closer to the answer every day. Our generation is in the unique position where we may get to see the pinnacle of human evolution, a turning point in our history where man finally integrates with his technology and we begin to cultivate life on other planets.
Evidence also points to viruses, disease, bacteria and other microbes playing huge roles in the way our bodies and brains developed. After millions of years we’ve reached this point, this turning point where we may be able to finally understand what consciousness is in the first place. Now, we are even peering into our own genetic makeup, seeing the proteins that are the building blocks of our species and all life through the study of DNA. Editing our genes is a technology that is already being studied, and in the near future we may be able to alter our own DNA to eliminate certain diseases, grow synthetic organs that are stronger and better than our originals, or even change the cellular structure of our DNA to alter things like hair color.
In my opinion the collection of neurons and the subsequent connections between them, connected between the two hemispheres of our brain, lead to a collective consciousness that is the amalgamation of many theories, memories, and biological elements that result in the collaboration between these factors for critical decision making. My right brain, who is incapable of speech, often tells my left brain what course of action it wants to take, while my left brain thinks of something else it should be doing, and only by having the connection between the two parts does a whole opinion form. Left brain then explains why it had this epiphany, and you feel satisfied knowing why you did something because you have a false sense of control over the inner workings of your mind. Do we actually have control over our actions though? How much of this process of consciousness automated? I guess I’ve written enough for one day.