Characteristics Of Evolution
Our journey starts with the nature of evolution. To begin primarily a political and psychological book from a biological standpoint may be unusual. One might ask what evolution has to do with present day socioeconomic and legal ideologies. Yet, we will discover that the study of evolution is quite relevant for comprehension of our current state of affairs—both societal and individual. In order to put political theories into proper perspective, we need to understand them in the context of human evolution; it remains the interminable background from which we have come to understand all the issues presented to us.
In this chapter, we will examine the basics of evolution. We will also see how our species has formed and progressed over time. Moreover, we shall focus on our distinguishing characteristics (i.e., what sets us apart from other species). This developmental tack will provide the proper frame of reference by which to judge, among many other things, our present political situation.
Evolution is the awesome, silent benefactor of every organism that has ever existed or will ever exist. Evolution relates to the gradual alteration and refinement of a species throughout a given period of time. Charles Darwin made renowned groundbreaking discoveries in this area of biology. He was one of the first main theorists to approach the formation and alteration of life itself from a scientific standpoint—instead of a theological, mystical, or plain commonsensical one.
Natural selection was the phenomenon Darwin identified that happens to species (and characteristics of species) as they are perpetuated or became extinct. He reflected on this:
It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.20(p.92)
Natural selection, then, is the process that screens out the maladaptive from the adaptive biological functions and variations over time. Capability for surviving in the environment determines what is ultimately useful and what is not.
The general conditions on Earth are such that a given level of action (both internal and external) is required for particular organisms to survive. For example, the bird must gather brush and other material to build its nest so that it can have shelter and a safe place for its young. The maple tree must move nutrients and water from the soil by its roots upward to its highest branches. Even the single-cell amoeba must ooze its way through its surrounding medium by jutting its pseudopodia forward to engulf food in its path. As we breathe, the cells of our heart are performing tremendously complex respiratory functions; their honorable task of sustaining our other systems, organs, tissues, and cells thus continues. Such processes continue endlessly in myriad organisms in countless ways.
Through its screening process, natural selection grants every living creature a built-in set of features or capacities that direct it on a proper course of action. This ensures success, the ability to function and live in reality. The particular outcomes of genetic mutations that did not provide for success were extinguished.
The fate of a species becomes sealed when its members do not survive long enough to reproduce, or it cannot sustain an adequate population over time due to its members’ inherent disadvantages. Thus, natural selection guarantees that only the biologically appropriate and adaptively functional organisms survive for any extended period, from the single-celled bacteria to the multicelled mule deer. But a fascinating question still remains about how organisms “got here” in the first place.
The time involved in the origin and evolution of life is, to say the least, immense. Geologists have determined that our planet is approximately 4.6 billion years old, which is still only about a quarter of the age of the galaxies in the observable universe—some 15 to 20 billion years.
Conditions on Earth during the first billion or so years were such that the constituent elements necessary for life to begin were either not yet available or not arranged properly. For roughly the next 2 billion years, this planet did not have an environment hospitable enough to promote anything other than very primitive life forms. Yet, a primitive life form, such as blue-green algae, is indeed life—one of the most astonishing natural milestones.
In order for us to grasp the essence of life, we need to inspect the properties of these first primitive life forms. Microscopic beings originated out of the primordial soup eons ago. In addition to still being around today, they also share certain properties with all other advanced forms of life.
All life forms, no matter how primitive, consist of cells (except viruses, which are basically cell protein fragments). Each cell has the characteristic property of being a more or less self-contained unit; it performs all kinds of very complex self-maintenance functions. Cells must also utilize their surroundings in order to thrive. In addition, they must play their particular roles within any given organism.
The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has written extensively and articulately about the processes whereby life begins and evolves, and to what life can be attributed. This entails inspection of the various “organs” of these cells, specifically the chromosomes. In addition to inorganic chemistry and the physical elements, essentially all life relies on genes—or DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)—in order to begin and continue (with of course the help of RNA).
To be precise, life hinges on the successful replication of DNA molecules. Parts of DNA molecules known as nucleotides hold the specific cellular instructions for utilizing nutrients and substances to produce any given plant or animal. These characteristic DNA can be viewed as rivers of genetic material flowing through time, branching off in myriad tributaries. They are isolated into species of animals by the “banks” of each particular genetic stream (i.e., by their genetic dissimilarities and reproductive incompatibilities).24
So, for any life form to arise, it must first be made of the proper molecules. In turn these molecules must combine in such a way that they can make more of themselves. In other words, they must be configured into cells in order to become replicating, multiplying, and self-maintaining systems. Once these conditions are satisfied, time and random (and non-random) mutations provide the key ingredients for natural selection to yield the fascinating kinds of life found on this planet.25
Scientists are still studying how the first DNA molecules, and their precursors, came to exist. The possible ways that some molecules differentiated from other combinations of molecules, formed cells, and began their chemical journeys through time, are still under investigation. Since such events occurred billions of years ago, the exact conditions and factors involved can be extremely challenging to identify. Nevertheless, some quite intriguing ideas are being offered. Scientist Stuart Kauffman had this to say:
Life, at its root, lies in the property of catalytic closure among a collection of molecular species. Alone, each molecular species is dead. Jointly, once catalytic closure among them is achieved, the collective system of molecules is alive. (p.50)
…Life is the natural accomplishment of catalysts in sufficiently complex nonequilibrium chemical systems….(p.51)
The striking possibility is that the very diversity of molecules in the biosphere causes its own explosion! The diversity feeds on itself, driving itself forward. Cells interacting with one another and with the environment create new kinds of molecules that beget yet other kinds of molecules in a rush of creativity.(p.114)45
As mentioned, DNA contains a series of instructions, one of which is to make more of itself. Slight alterations in replication of the genetic sequence of DNA provide new possibilities for new phenotypes to occur (phenotypes being the organisms themselves—the overt, physical consequences and functional characteristics of genes).22 This is why we see such things as wolves, dandelions, sea urchins, and ourselves.
New phenotypic characteristics may be more or less favorable than preceding ones, which determines whether they are selected by nature. It should be noted that “selected” implies no deliberate or conscious choice. It is merely a convenient way to convey how some organisms are born fit for their environment and others are not— —at least from the standpoint of being able to reproduce and continue the flow of genetic material through time.
All that genes actually “care” about is whether they are transmitted to the next generation. If they are successful in this process, then they will continue in the life forms in which they reside. The complex biological sequences and processes involved do not immediately concern us here. What is important for us is the realization about how we have come to exist on this planet. As will be noted frequently throughout this book, nothing is more important than understanding the nature of ourselves and of life itself. Once this understanding begins to occur, new possibilities can arise in all areas of our life—much like beneficial alterations in the genetic blueprint.
In the evolution of life, primitive forms emerged when the chemical and environmental conditions favorably changed. Once in motion, life forms started to take shape that were different from ones previous. There were many niches ready to be filled on the highly varied geography of this planet. This was especially the case during “the Cambrian explosion,” which started the Paleozoic era.
Up until the Paleozoic era (about 570 million years ago), however, the life on our planet consisted only of one-celled organisms, such as protists, bacteria, and blue-green algae. Untold generations of these basic life forms finally led to alterations whereby different types of cells became compatible with one another and functioned in synergy. Over the course of a few hundred million years (during the Precambrian/Cambrian boundary), many multicelled organisms came onto the scene, which were the precursors to even more complex designs.
With such an enormous quantity of time, the genetic configurations that led to dysfunctional phenotypes were continually eliminated by natural selection. Hence, the rates and the courses of genetic mutation were selected by nature according to their viability in surroundings of varying stability.44
Eventually, new animals arose with cells that formed various complex organs. Organ systems, then, could function efficiently as whole entities. The genes of these organisms of course resided in different types of cells that all had been selected over great stretches of time to successfully function in unison. Cells were now structured into tissues and organs, in which each performed their tasks as nature had outlined.
Usually such processes of evolutionary change are hardly perceptible. One can accelerate them, however, through artificial selection. For example, by repeatedly breeding the offspring of wolf species that have certain appealing characteristics, people were able to rapidly produce the hundreds of diverse breeds of dogs known today—terriers, dachshunds, bulldogs, poodles, Labrador retrievers, and so on. Apart from selective breeding, the constantly progressing field of genetic engineering employs many methods to yield quick phenotypic effects.
Large mutations—of a highly refined internal organ, for instance—in most cases lead assuredly to death of the organism. Some minor alterations may be neutral. But most alterations must either beneficially contribute to or successfully replace biological structures that have already proven to be viable. Natural selection only favors successful alterations, so genes with grossly inaccurate mutations are mostly eliminated.
As Dawkins has noted, there are many more ways to perish, genetically speaking, than to survive. He discusses a figurative multidimensional place (of space and time) called genetic hyperspace. It contains all the possible points of DNA configuration that lead to similar or dissimilar organisms.23 For instance, human DNA in genetic hyperspace is in closer proximity to feline DNA than to the DNA of mollusks, insects, or plants. Since genetic hyperspace constitutes every conceivable genetic formulation, it contains all the organisms that have ever existed as well as all those that could exist, for however brief a time. It also contains all the distorted sizes and shapes that would be incapable of functioning.
So, genes and their phenotypic counterparts, the organisms in which they reside, follow two very divergent paths: one that leads to the evolutionary dust heap, and another that leads to more changes or simple continuation due to their initial successes.43 Although only relatively stable replications of genes remain viable, they still must have enough inaccuracy in their countless duplications to allow for slight phenotypic differences; these differences are favored or disfavored by reality accordingly. For example, with geographical separation of species’ members, new species may emerge as a result.
Numerous members within each viable species either never make it to maturity or simply never reproduce. Yet the survival of genes demands the survival of the species. So enough members must sustain themselves and reproduce. Every healthy living organism is in a constant process of maintaining its individual survival, regardless of how many members of its species are doing the same. Only independent entities survive and transfer genetic material and, hence, can form a group.6
For most organisms, death is a necessary part of sustaining the species. As long as aging is a factor, death is the price organisms must pay for genes to move down their rivers in time. Since the cells in which genes reside usually perform their life-sustaining processes less well over time, genes must jump from their “sinking ship” to the next, new healthy organism. Of course, they are not the exact same genes this time, but rather fresh replications of them.
Members of a species face death either biologically or by their environment (which includes predators, competitors, overpopulation, and forces of nature). Species able to discover ways of dealing with these situations—and specifically those able to stop the aging process itself—could conceivably forestall death with no ill-effects on genes, organisms, or the species. Humans are the only known species potentially capable of such a feat (although a few organisms, such as some species of trees, are extremely slow aging). Modern medicine has already slowed or even prevented many processes of natural selection. The fields of genetics and bioengineering, for example, will continue to make further advancements.
If members of a species do not reproduce, and aging is still a factor, the species obviously would only last a lifetime—all genes would march to the evolutionary dust heap. This situation is clearly hypothetical of course, because the replication of genes via reproduction is necessary for the species to form and endure in the first place; they would have reached a level of viability that ensured their perpetuation.
Taxonomists divide the diversity of life on this planet into five generally accepted kingdoms: Monera, Protista, Plantae, Fungi, and Animalia. This classification system includes, in descending order of generality: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.
Organisms are categorized not only by differences in their visible characteristics and functions (both internal and external) but also by the types of cells that constitute them. For example, Protista are single-celled organisms or colonies of cells that are eukaryotic (i.e., they have a nucleus and other membranous organelles). Monera—bacteria and cyanobacteria—are also single-celled but are instead prokaryotic (i.e., they lack a nucleus and other membrane-bound organelles). Plantae and Fungi are eukaryotic, but unlike the other three kingdoms, they have a cell wall (not just a cell membrane); this contributes to their noticeable differences with other organisms. Members of the kingdom Animalia are multi-cellular (as are Plantae and Fungi) and eukaryotic. Animals acquire energy and nutrients from ingesting external food sources.
The great diversity of the animal kingdom alone testifies to the tremendous capability of DNA. The animal phylum Arthropoda is extremely diverse and numerous; it in fact comprises millions of species, with astronomical numbers of members in many of them (e.g., the insects). They are characterized by such things as paired, jointed appendages and a tough exoskeleton.
Phylum Chordata contains the subphylum Vertebrata, of which our particular class—Mammalia—is part. Other vertebrate classes include Osteichthyes (the bony fishes), Amphibia, Reptilia, and Aves (the birds).
Over time, many organisms (most notably the arthropods and chordates), arose with more advanced and refined faculties of perception. Although the range and scope of awareness and capacity for learning varied greatly among these life forms, they provided new ways to deal with reality. Now certain organisms could interact with their surroundings with senses that provided a quite varied quantity and quality of data. We commonly ascribe higher levels of awareness to animals that have more than just tactile senses or rudimentary biochemical feedback processes. The senses of sight, smell, and hearing all contribute to new levels of perception of the world.
As the various senses become even more refined and the brain of the animal develops further, relatively more unpredictable and unprogrammed behaviors arise. Learning from experience becomes a more noticeable form of dealing with reality. This form of consciousness we easily see in higher mammals.
The vertebrates developed the potential for complex nervous systems. Nature found that a brain and spinal cord would do well to be encased in a protective structure of bone; a spinal column also allows a place of attachment for more muscles. Mammals—the higher mammals especially—have greatly utilized a skull and vertebral column to form the most advanced nervous systems.
Again, the time frame required for appearance of these complex designs is staggering, practically beyond comprehension. Yet, after billions of years and multitudes of paths taken through genetic hyperspace—after subtly dramatic falters, abrupt errors, tragic extinctions, life-giving renewals, outgrowths, transformations, and evolutionary spurts—the successive mutations in a specific genetic pathway produced a wondrous organism. It was an organism possessing not only awareness, but also self-awareness: a human being. The species Homo sapiens arose and evidenced characteristics far different than others.
Self-awareness embodies all sorts of facets and features that make our species unique. Psychologist Nathaniel Branden wrote about the uniqueness of our species and about the implications of having self-awareness:
No other animal is capable of monitoring and reflecting on its own mental operations, of critically evaluating its own mental activity, of deciding that a given process of mental activity is irrational or illogical—inappropriate to the task of apprehending reality—and of altering its subsequent mental operations accordingly….
No other animal is explicitly aware of the issue of life or death that confronts all organisms. No other animal is aware of its own mortality—or has the power to extend its longevity through the acquisition of knowledge. No other animal has the ability—and the responsibility—to weigh its actions in terms of the long-range consequences for its own life. No other animal has the ability—and the responsibility—to think and plan in terms of a life span. No other animal has the ability—and the responsibility—to continually work at extending its knowledge, thereby raising the level of its existence.
No other animal faces such questions as: Who am I? How should I seek to live? By what principles should I be guided in my actions? What goals ought I to pursue? What is to be the meaning of my life? What should I seek to make of my own person?(p.35)10
To grasp how great these observations are, it helps to put them into the context of evolution. Knowledge of the developmental process enables us to better appreciate our identity. A fascinating complexity resides in our own reflective capacity, and in living organisms in general. The scientific explanations for the tremendously intricate and complicated design seen in ourselves (and in hundreds of thousands of other species) reveal nature’s awesome capabilities—given enough time within a fertile environment.
What we see, then, is the end result. Eons of time have shaped the manner in which organisms are structured anatomically and function physiologically. Many levels of symbiotic relationships of species foster elaborate balances and specific utilizations of surroundings. Such is the nature of ecosystems.
Science is our guide for comprehending nature. Science obviously cannot postulate anything “supernatural” to explain nature. It must deal with what can be observed and investigated. While a postulation of supernatural factors may be easier, it can cause scientific understanding to regress and inquiry to cease (or be forbidden). Thus more problems would be created than purportedly solved in such an activity.
Obviously, science is unable to explain evolution through unreserved acceptance of the religious teachings of creationism. It would have to eschew its methodology, which enables it to separate fact from fiction. Nonetheless, the issue of evolution versus creationism is far from resolved in our culture. Numerous polls have shown that the majority of people in the United States would favor the teaching of creationism in schools. Additionally, upwards of 90 percent of the American public believe in God, even though interpretations of the Creator’s attributes (e.g., power, presence, and actions) vary considerably.
A common interpretation, however, represents a deistic approach: God created the physical universe and then allowed evolution to take its own course. Because the huge amount of evidence for evolution is very hard to deny upon critical examination, creationism then becomes simply an origin theory of the universe.
As science has rapidly progressed over the last 300 years—especially during the last century—direct references to the supernatural have become less popular and more esoteric. Mostly, supernatural explanations have receded to the realm of metaphysics, which is the branch of philosophy that deals with the underlying nature of things and the meaning of reality itself.
Since these ideas involve a foundational branch of philosophy, metaphysics—the very nature of reality—they are far from trivial. Some may say that they are merely differences of opinion. Others may say that they are of life and death importance. Ultimately, as individuals, we need to understand the significance of what we know—and how we have come to know it.
Homo Sapiens: The Rational Animal
The idea of evolution sometimes arises in political argument, but usually from a wrong perspective. Conceptions such as “survival of the fittest” may apply to herds of animals and predators, but in the realm of politics such notions typically just inflame strong emotions. Evolution may also be used erroneously to explain human behavior. Some theories of evolutionary psychology, for instance, hold that our behavior is an inexorable outcome of natural selection—that is, humans have no choice and are thusly impelled by a variety of “tendencies.” In other words, most behavior, at least in the long run, supposedly has an adaptive function; otherwise, the particular behavior would not have been selected.
Ironically, many who take an evolutionary perspective on society and psychology overlook essential evolutionary attributes of humans. Up to the point of explaining human behavior, many of their theories have clear validity; they can be effectively applied to species such as salmon, alligators, doves, and hamsters. But their arguments begin to fall apart with their own kind. Insufficient or even false explanations begin to surface. The reason for this will be covered in the coming pages.
Before we delve directly into this reason, we must place it into a context. We must go back and consider our species as it has evolved, or rather arisen, over the last few million years. We must go back to a point where it would be difficult to say that we were fully human—back to a time of watchful, hungry days of foraging and scavenging and dark, often insecure nights.
When we examine Homo sapiens’ evolution, we see that we are a relatively young species. Primates started to branch off on their separate evolutionary courses about 8 to 10 million years ago. Though a relatively short time geologically speaking, those 8 to 10 million years have led to drastic differences between humans and other primates.
Primates encompass roughly 200 species consisting of monkeys, lesser apes, and the great apes (the chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan), and of course Homo sapiens. Certain apes, especially the chimpanzee, are most often compared and contrasted with humans. In fact chimps are our genetically closest relatives. They have approximately 99% of the same genetic makeup (i.e., DNA configuration) as humans. Surprisingly, this is the same minute disparity that exists between horse and donkey, water buffalo and cape buffalo, and house cat and lion.100
Since this is the case, why are humans and chimps so remarkably different? What is it that distinguishes us from all other primates? Answers such as “our different social order,” “our culture,” “our unique language use,” or “our instinctive tool-making ability” all fall short of the fundamentals of this topic.
A brief sketch of our “family tree” is in order. A degree of controversy exists about when—and from what former species (or subspecies)—humans branched off from earlier hominids. Even though this has generated various “branch” theories, the following stands as a general approximation of our evolution.
Our most distant ancestor, Australopithecus, lived approximately 3 to 4 million years ago. This species had more human-like qualities than any of its predecessors. It had a brain roughly one third the size of modern day humans. Judging by such things as spinal column and hip/femur configuration, it appears to be the first primate species that was an upright biped. While it shared with other primates a particularly unique anatomic characteristic in the animal world—an opposable thumb—its thumb was more usable, on account of being longer and more divergent. Undoubtedly this allowed for greater inspection and manipulation of objects, which enhanced the possibilities for greater intelligence to emerge as a viable trait.17
Australopithecus was followed by Homo habilis about 1.5 to 2 million years ago. This species was somewhat larger by current fossil records. Most scientists infer that habilis was a scavenger. It made use of round tools to do such things as break apart bones of dead animals to access calorie-rich marrow.
Homo habilis was then followed by Homo erectus, a considerably larger creature (5 to 7 feet tall) that existed approximately 1 to 1.5 million years ago. Erectus had a brain much closer in size to modern humans (about two-thirds the size)—which it put to use by making sharp tools for hunting, not just scavenging. This species was also the first to use fire, and fire was advantageous for traveling out of Africa (a direction of migration currently considered the most plausible). The characteristic ability to walk on two feet freed the hands to carry and transport all sorts of necessities and instruments. Presumably, this allowed erectus and its descendants to venture into previously unknown areas. Now a creature had evolved that was more independent of its immediate surroundings. For example, it did not have to stay close to a watering hole; it could transport water to wherever desired. Similar advantages were apparent with food.53
From Homo erectus emerged varieties such as Peking Man and Java Man, as well as Neanderthal Man. Most speculate that the Neanderthals either died out or were wiped out by competition with sapiens. The other hominid types further evolved into Homo sapiens.
Our species has changed little physically during the last 100,000 years (or maybe even the last quarter million years). Yet it began to evidence behavior resembling modern day humans about 30,000 years ago—for example with the art drawings created by Cro Magnon Man. From that period, Primitive Man emerged, which brings us to present day humans.
Hominid brain size has basically tripled within the last few million years—from Australopithecus to us. This has been mostly in the frontal cortex area, providing new levels of thinking and decision-making. We can also note the corresponding evolution of wider hips in females (yet not so wide as to impede mobility), which enabled the birth of infants with larger craniums.
The enlargement of the hominid brain is a genetic mutation beyond comparison. In fact, the mutation allows one to make statements such as these. Quantitative brain changes led to qualitative shifts in cognitive capability. The increases in brain size (and accordingly, the new integration of nerve cells) were not merely additive in nature. Instead of yielding just more of the same, they generated entirely different qualities.85 Scientist James Trefil explained it elegantly this way:
I will take as a working hypothesis, then, that as we add neurons to our nascent brain, we will see the same sort of behavior that we see in any other complex system. When we reach a certain level of complexity, new kinds of phenomena will manifest themselves.
Given the level of complexity of a single neuron and the degree of connectedness of the brain, it also seems to be reasonable to suppose that there would be more than one kind of emergent property that characterizes the system, and that these properties will appear at different levels of complexity. The result will be a sort of cascade of emergent properties as more and more neurons are added to the system.101 (p.201)
The immense brain alteration in hominids gave rise to a form of consciousness like no other in the known universe: the capacity to reason, or conceptualize. To say that this change definitely benefited the species is the understatement of all understatements. Without such a change, words like “benefit”—in addition to having no meaning for us—would not exist. But what exactly is the ability to reason?
The philosopher Ayn Rand eloquently defined reason as the faculty and process that identifies and integrates the material or data provided by one’s sensory/perceptual mechanism.76 Abstract identifications are made by means of concept-formation. Rand defined a concept as “a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to their distinguishing characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition.”81(p.10) She expanded on this:
The units involved may be any aspect of reality: entities, attributes, actions, qualities, relationships, etc.; they may be perceptual concretes or other, earlier-formed concepts. The act of isolation involved is a process of abstraction: i.e., a selective mental focus that takes out or separates a certain aspect of reality from all others (e.g., isolates a certain attribute from the entities possessing it, or a certain action from the entities performing it, etc.). The uniting involved is not a mere sum, but an integration, i.e., a blending of the units into a single, new mental entity which is used thereafter as a single unit of thought (but which can be broken into its component units whenever required).81(p.10)
Concepts are a completely new level of awareness that allow an organism—now a rational organism—to function in highly creative ways. Reason allows an organism to alter behavior consciously (or volitionally).
In order to be fully formed and utilized, concepts need to have labels to represent them in a concrete fashion (for instance, the words on this page). Be they actual words or signs (such as in American Sign Language), these concrete labels become the repertoire of a language.
To be comprehensible, all words or signs in a language must have specific meanings. They must be defined according to their most distinguishing aspects. Without definitions, we could never differentiate one word or sign from another; language would be a mess of inarticulate concretes (or emotional cues not dissimilar to other primate squeals, grunts, and groans).
Concepts must be defined distinctly in order to be comprehensible. As Rand so wisely said, “The truth or falsehood of all of man’s conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions.”81(p.49)
So, our ability to conceptualize is what fundamentally distinguishes us from other animals that possess consciousness. While it can be said that higher mammals such as chimpanzees are extraordinarily intelligent in their own right, they lack the ability to abstract and form concepts.
Though seldom mentioned, being intelligent and being able to conceptualize are two entirely different characteristics. Intelligence is a contextually related phenomenon that depends on a specified standard by which to judge it. For example, a dog that fetches a ball or walks at heal could be considered more intelligent than a cat that is quite apathetic to these activities (no offense to cat owners). A horse that runs the barrels or poles in a rodeo could be considered more intelligent than a cow whose usual destiny is to be pastured, eat, grow, and be turned into steaks and burgers. One standard of intelligence for these animals would be the extent to which they respond keenly to training. Other standards could be their degree of alertness or the manner in which they interact with each other or with us (presumably a cat could gain points in this regard).
Brain size has a bearing on whether an organism can reason. This observation is based on study of the brains of other primates, and dolphins, which lack a rational faculty. Their brains, albeit relatively large in their own right, are still quite less developed than humans’. The general amount of folds, or convolutions, and thus total area of cortex is much less, and the frontal cortex in particular is significantly smaller.
Large brain size in relation to body-size appears to be a necessary condition for rationality, but not a sufficient one. A certain amount of cortex is required for reasoning capability to emerge. The natural path on which Homo sapiens advanced genetically, and therefore physiologically, resulted in the unique acquisition of reason.
Chimpanzees may be at a stage of development that immediately preceded the emergence of language in hominids. But the australopithecines were already on a different evolutionary track. They had the necessary genetic makeup to eventually evolve into Homo sapiens. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, as well as the rest of the species of apes and monkeys, did not. Apparently their adaptations were suitable to their environments. And for some genetic or environmental reason, no mutations were either proper or sufficiently adaptive enough to put them on a course to reasoning ability.
Unique hominid features probably all contributed to the emergence and utilization of a rational faculty. The ability to walk on two feet freed the development of highly specialized hands. Remarkable visual/hand coordination facilitated complex tasks. The mouth and throat were configured to allow precise speech, which enabled language. These and other distinguishing physical characteristics opened a new world for a new species.
Although humans evidently are the only reasoning creatures in this solar system, reasoning ability can evolve in other solar systems as well. Actually, it is quite probable that our planet is merely one of thousands (if not millions) capable of sustaining life of an advanced form.91 To hold the view that we are the only fortunate ones, naturally denies recognition of the enormity of the universe and the statistics of the situation. As far as astronomers can see, there are tens of billions of galaxies. Each contains hundreds of billions of stars. Thus, perhaps billions of planetary systems have allowed intelligent life to flourish in galaxies throughout the universe. Multitudes of extraterrestrial life forms probably have either acquired reasoning ability or will acquire it. Although, for many to acquire it simultaneously is less likely, because the window of time in which we have acquired it is a mere fleeting instant, geologically speaking.
While the rational faculty can be seen as a unique model of life—which we will further explore and validate—many levels or dimensions within this model could definitely arise. For example, other reasoning creatures could have greater memory power than us (for instance, better encoding, storage, and retrieval). With a more potent memory, a reasoning creature could deal more efficiently with concepts and possibly work with many different cognitive sequences concurrently. But we will leave these types of transformations open to speculation. For now, we need to explore the complex nature of our own particular faculty.
One could surmise that the evolution towards conceptualization (and hence language) began with primitive hand gesturing. Australopithecus had at least the cognitive capacity of present apes. Like apes, it lacked speech. Specifically, it did not have the proper configuration of the supralaryngeal vocal tract, which allows for rapid transmission of phonetic segments. Speech arose during the last phases of hominid evolution—within the last few hundred thousand years. Presupposed in this trait are brain mechanisms that facilitate voluntary vocal control.59 (This, of course, is in contradistinction to the mimicking and vocalizing of a parrot, which to us can be heard and understood, but to the parrot are conceptually meaningless. As human as it sounds, “Polly want a cracker” enunciated by a bird is simply a learned utterance.)
The new human anatomy allowing speech did make it harder to efficiently chew food and easier to choke on it. But we gained the inestimable advantage of being able to convey our thoughts efficiently and communicate with ease—a small trade-off indeed.
The transition to conceptualization enabled humans to pull themselves out of a world laden with a constant array of particulars or concrete-bound perceptions. We began to see relationships, form generalizations, and formulate categories and classifications of things. Without the ability to deal with reality conceptually—as opposed to merely perceptually—we would be like our fellow primates, living in an austere environment, sustaining ourselves by a combination of learned and innate, repetitive operations. Fishing out termites from mounds with sticks, traversing the open savanna in search of a watering hole, running or hiding from numerous predators with slashing claws and puncturing fangs, would all be part of our world.
Scientists and laymen alike frequently note that humans and other primates possess intelligent behavior, but just in different degrees. Few appear to stand firm on the statement that only humans can reason and therefore utilize language. A question might remain about whether primates possess any ability to conceptualize. Naturally, research with primates has tried to ascertain their cognitive capabilities.
To be sure, the debate over whether other animals such as primates can “communicate with language” is a long-standing one. However, communication can be interpreted in many ways, and it should not be equated with the ability to reason. If we equate the two, we hinder epistemological clarity. Epistemology is basically
the study of knowledge—specifically conceptual knowledge. Thus it is a foundational branch of philosophy (like metaphysics). Epistemology must ask questions such as: What is knowledge? What type of being can acquire it, and why? How is it acquired? How is it validated?
Many studies have been done to see exactly what other primates, namely chimpanzees, can do with gesturing techniques—in response to the fact that chimps, like our early ancestors, cannot vocalize proficiently. Hence, signing systems have been regarded as most conducive to training chimps because such systems do not place impossible physical demands on them. From an evolutionary perspective signing seems to be the next plausible step for creatures that resemble humans but are unable to vocalize an assortment of phonemes that is a prerequisite to utilizing speech.
One effective type of sign language, American Sign Language (ASL), was originally developed for people who were deaf or hearing impaired. ASL has emerged as an entirely self-contained language. In fact, it contains a rich complexity of semantics that rivals any verbal language, even though for efficiency reasons it lacks the larger vocabulary of languages like English. Syntax and meaning in sign language are often compacted in unison and contemporaneous, rather than being presented in a consecutive and progressive fashion as with verbal words.90 A person who is proficient in ASL can articulate any sort of concept he or she desires.
When chimps are trained in ASL from a young age, they sometimes respond in a fashion similar to children about the age of two. Although the range and diversity of symbol use is less than children, chimps can generate rudimentary associations and make various requests. They can also recognize classes of objects such as dogs, flowers, and so on.58
Certainly, we should see this as highly intelligent behavior. The chimps’ capacity for discrimination among all sorts of things reflects greater cognitive processing than many other animals. Their operations are somewhat more refined than, for example, a dog that barks to be let outside, or playfully brings one a rope to play tug-of-war. The fact that they can utilize signs to make simplistic observations and requests tells us that they are at a more refined stage of cognitive functioning—and, perhaps, at the start of conceptual functioning.
One could make a solid case, though, that trained chimps do not fully understand—in a conceptual manner—what they are doing (much like talking birds). Yet this also calls into question whether small children around the age of two understand what they are doing. Many researchers have searched for comparisons and contrasts between young children and chimps.
Some quite ingenious “theory of mind” experiments have been devised. They reveal, for example, that chimps (stationed as helpers) are typically unable to form an idea of what another person (or chimp) knows or does not know based on the shared experimental experience. Children, however, are able to form a mental theory as they observe and assist uninformed subjects in the experiment. Children form a theory, while chimps proceed through the usual trial and error process.101
Children between the ages of one and two may not explicitly reflect on thought and behavior in the complex ways older children do. Nonetheless, they do comprehend the nature of their experiences. They are constantly making judgments and sometimes pondering them. In contrast to chimps, young children around the age of two also follow numerous rules of grammar and syntax (and with a high degree of precision). Moreover, they learn hundreds of words automatically, while chimps have to be taught—often painstakingly—to assimilate a small fraction of the average child’s vocabulary.72
Also, small children who have reached the stage known as the “language explosion” (which normally begins when they approach the age of two), evidence a thirst for knowledge, unlike chimps. The human ability to acquire and deal with knowledge, in the conceptual sense, not merely learned behavior, therefore makes them different than other primates—even the most impressively intelligent ones, such as chimps. We are active processors of information in our environment. Eventually we gain knowledge of more and more complex abstractions.
By being inquisitive, focused, and thoughtful, children are constantly trying to make sense of their environment in an abstract way. Question-asking and discriminating among a continuous flow of particulars are orders of the day for young children. Even though science demands that grown humans resolutely attempt to teach chimpanzees language, we must keep in mind our differences. Grown chimpanzees never earnestly try to teach their youngsters (or us) a language, although they show the signs they have learned and youngsters may pick up some symbols and signs vicariously. In any event, we must comprehend the nature of both final products: a mature human and a mature chimpanzee.
To do this, we must conceptualize. We must grasp reality in a our own unique way, a way impossible to other creatures, no matter how many signs or symbols they are taught to use. After all, no matter how hard we try, we will never be agile enough to climb and swing from trees like chimps. We will never be able to take off into the sky like Canadian geese. We will never be able to swim like dolphins or gallop like horses. Why, then, should we request that these other animals perform our unique feats?
Related to the topic of conceptualization are cases of persons who are congenitally deaf. Some unfortunate babies are not recognized as hearing impaired until a number of years after birth. Hence, they are not taught a language appropriate to them; when spoken to, all they see are lip movements and rudimentary gestures. When their exposure to language is delayed on account of this, their conceptual ability is negatively affected. Oliver Sacks investigated these consequences, and commented on an 11 year-old boy he came to know, named Joseph. Joseph was finally diagnosed deaf after living four years in silence:
Joseph saw, distinguished, categorized, used; he had no problems with perceptual categorization or generalization, but he could not, it seemed, go much beyond this, hold abstract ideas in mind, reflect, play, plan. He seemed completely literal—unable to juggle images or hypotheses or possibilities, unable to enter an imaginative or figurative realm. And yet, one still felt, he was of normal intelligence, despite these manifest limitations of intellectual functioning. It was not that he lacked a mind, but that he was not using his mind fully.90(p.40)
Other persons, such as the widely known Helen Keller, have neither hearing nor sight. One might think that being stripped of the two most prominent senses would totally debilitate one’s capacity to function in a conceptual manner. Helen Keller was able to reflect on this issue later, after she had acquired—astoundingly—the ability to read and write.
When she was without language for a large part of her childhood, her world consisted of all the sensations of smell, touch, and taste that gave her countless varieties of perceptual experiences—to which she could ascribe different meanings and value-judgments. Up to the poignant episode when she acquired her first word, “water” (which was when her conceptual world opened before her), she was relegated to highly diverse perceptual experiences that could only be related to in a simplistic manner.47 One could say that before she learned language, she could not make her concepts explicit. She had neither concrete names for various concepts nor definitions to differentiate them. So the acquisition of regular knowledge was an impossibility for her; she could not expand her mental world through precise linguistic thought.
The point of all this is that, for a human being with a physically healthy brain, the capacity to conceptualize is always intact. Under extreme and harsh developmental conditions, such as early childhood isolation from language (for instance, the inferred condition of the “wild boy” of Aveyron), this capacity may never be fully activated.52 But it still exists as a potentiality.
As mentioned, language is a necessary extension of our ability to conceptualize. One could suspect that primitive humans without language might have been able to form elementary concepts about aspects of their surroundings. But, similar to those of the young Helen Keller, they were all implicit. Without a language by which to make concepts explicit, perhaps only a fleeting abstract grasp of particulars mixed with more or less vivid emotions could be experienced. What pre-language, primitive humans lacked was a method of filing concepts by means of words and definitions.
Over time, hominids began to see reality in a new way. In conformance to the laws of evolution, the original genetic alterations that facilitated this were probably minute (thereby allowing greater chance for viability). And perhaps the gradual physiological changes were just as small, taking into account the time scales involved. But again, with DNA, small quantitative changes can yield substantial qualitative differences. Amazingly, what was created from this DNA alteration was a mind and psychology ready for acquiring knowledge and, accordingly, for experiencing a whole new world through thoughts and emotions.
But for thousands of years, multitudes of people have lived and died never quite understanding the internal power they possessed. If there is one thing besides their own existence that people have taken for granted, it is their ability to reason. But then, only a reasoning mind can take something for granted. And, only for a reasoning mind is psychology an issue. Only for a reasoning mind is politics an issue as well. Only humans can think in terms of issues.
The Crucial Faculty Of Choice
The necessary aspect of our ability to conceptualize is free will, or volition. To identify and integrate, we select from a plethora of perceptions and conceptions. From our experiences, we choose to isolate. As we develop during childhood, we become better at this task. Eventually, much of everyday functioning becomes automatized (such as walking or reading). Nonetheless, at almost any point, we can choose an alternative path of thought or behavior; we can direct our focus to something else (either in mind or surroundings). Consequently, we are not bound by yesterday’s functioning.
Our conceptual, volitional awareness grants us a powerful ability. On any topic open to inspection, we can decide to increase or decrease our level of awareness; we can expand our attentiveness or shrink our world down to the everyday. Or, we can remain content with our present level of awareness.
Evolution has provided us with the biological adaptiveness needed to reproduce and survive as a species. Yet, we are advanced beyond any conceivable notion of being “programmed” for success. We have a choice of what to think about and what to do, what to concentrate on and what to disregard.
As we form and relate various concepts, as well as take actions, we quickly learn that these processes are susceptible to mistakes. The very concept mistake indicates that a better way was not foreseen or was not included in the decision-making process. Thus, we can choose to alter the course of our life—even to our disadvantage.
So, our range of awareness enables us to do more than take spontaneous, conditioned, or simply learned actions. We have the responsibility to consider the repercussions of and possible alternatives to behaviors as well as ideas. In this way, other animals just act, while human beings decide upon a course of action (or type of thought).
This necessarily means that we are not guided by innate knowledge or skills; human beings do not possess instincts. We must choose to acquire and utilize particular abilities—which takes concerted effort.82
Unlike the beaver, we possess no intrinsic ability to build a dam. Unlike the salmon, we cannot navigate to a particular birthplace hundreds of miles upstream based on an internal drive. Actually, to say something possesses an instinct explains little. It is merely a convenient, superficial account of an organism’s behavior; it does not tell us what is really inducing the behavior.10
Even though some of our actions may appear instinctual, we make choices based on knowledge. Of course, infants and even small children have elementary drives or built-in responses—such as to be aware and conscious of one’s environment, to smile at caregivers in physical proximity, or to seek pleasurable and life-sustaining activities. (Later, we may develop keen intuition based on our experiences as well.) However, as we mature to fully volitional beings, the decision to pursue values arises. This is key to understanding human behavior as well as motivation.76
The ability to shift awareness to whatever or wherever appropriate by choice follows from having the ability to reason. To focus and integrate is a basic property of a conceptual organism.76 Additionally, choice cannot be reduced to any other principle, because to do so would be contradictory: one would have to choose to deny one’s capacity to choose. So, in the epistemological sense, free will is its own cause and does not need to be proven.7
Since free will is a phenomenon of the human brain, no mind/body dichotomy can exist. Volition has certain biological and physiological causes and concomitants. However, because choices are different than particular brain processes, the two phenomena cannot be equated.
Our perceptions are basically automatic. They are the given. They have been finely tuned by natural selection to correspond to and recognize objects and events. In certain circumstances, though, they may prove inadequate, or evidence illusions. Conceptually we can reflect on our perceptions. We can recognize their amazing intricacy and efficacy, as well as their various flaws and shortcomings.
Yet many philosophers throughout history have entertained the idea that our perceptual mechanism is somehow flawed in principle—that it represents reality in a tainted fashion, instead of “as it really is.” Perhaps this notion’s formal origin is with Plato (another version was forwarded later by Immanuel Kant). Plato wrote about Ideas or Forms, which he described as being perfect concepts or absolute truths of things (i.e., the real nature of things). Although they are part of reality, supposedly they are not fully attainable because our perceptions get in the way. Plato contended that we usually see only metaphorical shadows or appearances of Ideas or Forms—which are provided by our allegedly untrustworthy senses.
In order to formulate concepts such as “tainted,” “distorted,” or “reality as it really is,” however, one must rely on the senses to reach a correct conclusion. In order to discover that one has not been experiencing reality properly, one has to first experience it properly. Hence, only specific aspects of reality can yield distorted perceptions or illusions. The whole of reality cannot be an aberration, since an aberration is a deviation from normal reality.
In fact, if it were otherwise, one could not prove anything—for proof presupposes truth, and truth must invariably begin with what one perceives in reality. We necessarily rely on the truths (i.e., facts) of reality during the process of logic by which we differentiate the correct from the incorrect. If our perceptions were actually flawed in principle, we could never accomplish this epistemological task. So, nothing we contended would have any meaning.
Clearly, the sort of creature proposed by many philosophers and psychologists throughout the ages—a hypothetical creature whose very senses cannot be trusted—would never have been allowed to exist by natural selection. Our senses, in concert with our rational faculty, allow us—by virtue of being well adapted to perceiving reality—the capacity to doubt and question in the first place, and therefore arrive at the truth.
Incidentally, only a conceptual organism is able to doubt its method of perception—and further think that it drew a correct conclusion. Only a person can claim to correctly perceive an allegedly flawed perceptual mechanism and go on to devise the idea of unreliable senses. Doubting one’s senses goes hand in hand with repudiating one’s method of functioning, which results in repudiating reality. This was a practice during a long period of history known as the Dark Ages. Ironically, many who doubted their perceptions of reality adamantly claimed to know of another reality—one that could not be perceived. They claimed to know of a reality that was ineffable and beyond the senses (heaven or hell). How they “knew” this was always beyond inquiry.
Another troublesome perspective with regard to epistemology concerns the traditionally debated theories of “rationalism” and “empiricism.” The former holds that knowledge and truth are derived from the thinking mind, from higher reasoning. The latter holds that knowledge and truth are derived from experiences and observations via the senses. These two views plainly create a split between two very natural and interconnected aspects of consciousness—its dealings with thoughts and its dealings with external reality. To devise a more arbitrary dichotomy with regard to the functions of a volitional mind would be difficult.
In truth, we all choose to look at reality, to observe and understand our experiences, and we utilize concepts to make sense of them. We all choose to think about our own (or some one else’s) ideas, and we need input from our experiences and our observations (or at least someone else’s) to validate them. These ought to be integrated processes. Only when the definition of reason is muddled or insufficient do we see debates over which process is preferable; concepts then are treated as floating abstractions cut off from their referents in reality and concretes are not integrated fully into principles.
Yet another doctrine found in philosophy and psychology university departments today is known as “constructivism.” This takes issue with the idea that we perceive, know, and act in response to an objective reality. Rather, we construct our own personal views of the world, and our subjective perceptions of things (instead of things as they really are) influence our psychology and behavior. Here we see an oddly unilateral stance. Constructivism tends to deny the other critical aspect of our experiences—the objective one.
Even though we can have perceptions of a subjective reality, we need to acknowledge the objective reality that is distinct from consciousness. Subjectivity would have no meaning if objectivity were a fantasy. While we will take up this issue again, no reason exists to lend credence to a theory that divides individuals and their experiences into countless separate little worlds, each of their own design. We must account for the objective material from which perceptions are organized (and to which people respond in their own personal ways).
Ideas that disregard our capacities of reason and volition must rely on these very same capacities. Thus, such ideas are self-defeating. They indulge in what Rand called “the fallacy of stolen concept”: To question the human ability to think or choose (or to perceive), one must utilize these very abilities; so, one denies the basic conceptual roots, or preconditions, involved in one’s attempted refutation of them (concept-stealing).81 The stolen concept fallacy resides noticeably in the psychological theory of determinism, the doctrine stating that humans have no fundamental capacity of choice.
Determinism mostly originates from the classical scientific observation that we live in a so-called mechanistic universe. To many, this means that everything has been set out on a predestined course from the “beginning” to the “end” of time (including our choices), like a bunch of billiard balls that collide on a table, their trajectories set after impact. Thus, everything is “determined.”
The term mechanistic implies that every effect has an antecedent cause—or more accurately, antecedent causes. This much is certainly true. Such a term, however, is not a sufficient description for all the entities and events of nature. We must also account for the causal properties inherent in the identity of various entities. Entities in existence have properties and, hence, do things that affect each other—and that affect themselves. Our task is to discover these relationships and conceptualize the nature of them by means of hypotheses, principles, theories, laws, and so forth.
Scientists have noted that particularly complex sequences of events contain numerous causal factors, and that they happen everywhere in countless ways. For example, cloud formations or avalanches cannot be accurately calculated beforehand even with the best knowledge and most refined methods of measurement of the initial conditions. The inevitably small errors in (or impossibilities of) measurement and various uncertainties of knowledge multiply into larger ones when a complex sequence of events and interaction of factors are set in motion.36
In actuality, many of the events in nature are of such a complexity that long-term, precise prediction of their future outcomes becomes unworkable. So many interconnected and interacting factors (i.e., multiple causal agents) are involved that calculating accurate end results can be quite difficult.
The more data and information we acquire about phenomena, the better we can understand and thus predict them (at least for the short term). Primarily over the last three centuries (starting, say, with Sir Isaac Newton), science has discovered many of nature’s principles and laws. The identity of all sorts of things can be ascertained based on their causal properties. By finding out what something is and what it does, we can deal with it effectively. (We will discuss identity and causality specifically in a later section.)
In regard to volition, we have the following facts: the attribute of free will is an intrinsic aspect of a reasoning mind; a reasoning mind is an attribute of a specific organ known as the brain; the brain functions by means of cellular actions involving biochemical and bioelectrical processes; these actions stem from certain combinations of molecular elements; and, these elements behave according to the laws of physics. Finally, this neural system interacts with and responds to its environment, both internal and external.
From this set of facts, determinism draws the erroneous conclusion that free will must be reduced to the laws of physics. That is, we do not really make choices; we only conform to the laws of physics. Clearly at this point the metaphor of a mechanistic universe begins to fall apart. Reducing characteristics of mind to characteristics of atoms confuses rather than clarifies. (Incidentally, quantum theory, not Newtonian physics, applies at the subatomic level. And, while not acausal, it is not seen as adhering to a strictly mechanistic model.)
Attempts to reduce complex phenomena to more basic levels of explanation tend to deny the meaning and significance of the currently perceivable level. For instance, the behavior of living creatures in general is best explained by biology. An organism’s physiology and characteristic ways of functioning in its environment are more informative than the various molecules of which it is composed. Clearly, tissues, organs, organ systems, and the complete organisms themselves all take on attributes and properties—and therefore functions and behaviors—quite different from their more basic internal parts. Emergent properties with new causal factors must be taken into account.
Scientist Paul Davies noted “…that each new level of organization and complexity in nature demands its own laws and principles.”21(p.191) On the issue of physical matter in relation to the phenomenon of consciousness, he stated:
A major problem is to understand how these mental events are consistent with the laws and principles of the physical universe that produces them.
The reductionist is here presented with a severe difficulty. If neural processes are nothing but the motions of atoms and electrons slavishly obeying the laws of physics, then mental events must be denied any distinctive reality altogether, for the reductionist draws no fundamental distinction between the physics of atoms and electrons in the brain and the physics of atoms and electrons elsewhere. This certainly solves the problem of the consistency between the mental and physical world.
However, one problem is solved only to create another. If mental events are denied reality, reducing humans to mere automata, then the very reasoning processes whereby the reductionist’s position is expounded are also denied reality. The argument therefore collapses amid its own self-reference.21(p.189)
Let us just suppose that scientists could (and they probably will) decipher the exact brain processes involved in—or correlated with—any isolated choice. Next, let us suppose that neuroscientists will then discover the biochemical and molecular (or atomic) reasons for this occurrence. Though research on brain functioning is still a far cry from this scenario, holistic principles of organization must be taken into account for thorough understanding. As Davies noted:
The mystery of life, then, lies not so much in the nature of the forces that act on the individual molecules that make up an organism, but in how the whole assemblage operates collectively in a coherent and cooperative fashion. Biology will never be reconciled with physics until it is recognized that each new level in the hierarchical organization of matter brings into existence new qualities that are simply irrelevant at the atomistic level.21(p.101)
One could say that the whole of free will is more than the sum of the brain’s parts. The molecules that compose brain cells surely allow human consciousness to arise; they cause its existence. But unless the brain is damaged or impaired in some significant way, they cannot impede free will or “determine” one’s choices. This is because free will is the resultant attribute of these combinations of molecules (or more holistically, combinations of cells and neural circuits of the brain).
Despite all the great scientific discoveries about the brain and mind that are in store for us, volition has its own unique model of explanation. Even if we knew all the brain factors in a particular choice, prediction of free will is hampered by lack of knowledge of the mental factors. Any physiological explanations (in cellular or molecular terms) of a volitional organism’s conscious decisions could only be real-time correlates of those particular decisions.
Conscious decisions reveal a model of consciousness as an irreducible primary.81 While inspection of the brain through the lens of physics or chemistry gives us one model of explanation, the lens of psychology gives us quite another. Mental factors (cognition and evaluation) and choices are the domain of psychology. As stated earlier, free will in the epistemological sense is its own cause.
If we were to reduce free will to something that does not involve the basic exercise of choice, then the very concepts “chosen” and “determined” would have no meaning. They would not be formulated through the mental—volitional—process of abstract selection. This would imply that humans are incapable of conceptualization, which would mean that this present exposition as well as all human activity is inherently meaningless (which would include this statement). Obviously, certain concepts are being stolen here.
Determinism contends that no one makes choices; choices are an illusion. Ideas are espoused solely because people are determined or fated to espouse them. Well then, are people then determined to either accept or reject them? If so, then people are incapable of being persuaded, because they are incapable of deciding to learn anything. What is one’s goal or motivation in espousing a theory if some people are destined to be persuaded and others are not? Actually, there can be no goals or motivations or intentions here, because everything is determined one way or another.
Persuasion involves an appeal to free will. In order to assert a theory of determinism that negates free will, one has to select (choose) among an assortment of theories. This is the whole idea of a theory; if one is destined to advocate (or be persuaded by) a theory without any choice in the matter, its meaning is nullified. The reason why there are notions of being “determined,” “destined,” and “fated” is that there is behavior to contrast them with—that is, volitional behavior. Choosing is the opposite of being determined.
The main consequence (intentional or not) of such a contradictory theory is this: Minimization of the idea of human consciousness as an essentially conceptual faculty. Determinism can also be used to rationalize behavior that would otherwise be considered deficient or irresponsible—“because we have no choice in the matter.” Ultimately, the price we pay for volition is the freedom to use concepts and capabilities that are denied in order to perpetuate misleading notions.
The Early Human Condition
Life would have been much more difficult if we had been reared without any words for concepts, that is, without a language. And this would have been even further the case if we faced a seemingly unforgiving and harsh world like primitive hominids did. Most likely, it would have been harder to relate and work with others to ensure a successful life. One can imagine how disputes and disagreements were normally settled. Subhumanly is the word that comes to mind.
Words need to accompany the concepts they depict. Otherwise, very little can be grasped and dealt with cognitively; one’s mental range becomes constricted. Without the ability to speak our thoughts and feelings, our life most likely would embody a world in which many events remained frightening and inexplicable.
Language grants new possibilities. As our distant ancestors acquired the ability to form concepts, they acquired the ability to change their natural fate, the typical course of their lives on Earth. Thereafter, the more discoveries that were made, the better life could be for people, physically and psychologically. The formation of language, however rudimentary, was an indispensable achievement in terms of progress for early humans. With the ability to use words to name concepts came the ability to think in long chains of abstractions and, as a consequence, communicate effectively and efficiently with others. Now a system was in place to relate ideas and modify behaviors.
Though our species was able to develop more advanced tools and refine its language abilities, little else was accomplished other than sheer survival. Until just a few thousand years ago, humans had developed the technology to make weapons and build shelters, for example, but not much else was done. They had not made the types of discoveries that we take for granted today. Basically, their mental frame of reference was geared primarily to perpetuating the modest knowledge they had. Their main concern was probably how to find nourishment, protect themselves from predators, and survive through the next season.
Because we are no longer in their context, we may fail to comprehend how difficult and disorienting this time likely was for people. Large numbers of individuals, if they survived birth, died in their youth because of diseases and harsh environmental conditions. If they did manage to live past childhood, they were still faced with a relatively brief period of life; the average lifespan was a half or a third of ours today.
Imagine yourself born into an environment stricken by a prevalence of death, disease, and famine, and ask yourself how much you could progress mentally or contemplate in these desperate conditions. How many original ideas would occur to you while learning the basic necessities of hunting and gathering?
Currently, similar conditions exist on an even greater scale throughout most of the so-called third-world countries. The amount of misery in these areas remains unequaled. Millions of people starve to death yearly, and hundreds of millions (possibly billions) are stricken by the “hidden hunger”—mineral deficiencies. Multitudes of children experience so much horror in their formative years that little can shock them afterwards concerning their insecure predicament. So many live and die, never knowing what life was about—and what it could have been. A sense of normalcy has enveloped their plight, and few can see things otherwise. For many, a toleration of pain seems to be the standard, rather than an achievement of joy. Due to the nature of our physical pleasure/pain mechanism, extended and heightened pain can make life truly insufferable. Such pain can seem worse than death itself.
One may wonder why all the humanitarian aid does not significantly alter the situations found widely in developing (and sometimes even in developed) countries. Even though many plea for more funding of these programs, this type of aid is merely a temporary fix. It avoids the fundamental political and psychological causes. To correct these causes requires, as we shall see, even more compassion and courage—and more thought.
At this point we can develop a sense for how miserable our life could have been or can be. For those whose lives really are miserable, reading a book is neither useful nor possible. One just does not focus on intellectual matters when one’s next meal is at stake or the next week’s survival is not certain. We and every other living thing in the universe have only a certain amount of time and resources to dedicate to certain tasks. And these certain tasks are determined by our particular conditions.
We might be reminded here of the psychological theorist Abraham Maslow and his outline of people’s “hierarchy of needs.” Maslow stated that we have an escalating scale of needs. Each need in the hierarchy must be satisfied (at least partially) in order to best move on to the next higher need (e.g., food and water, shelter and clothing, social needs, and so on, with self-actualization at the top).
Once our basic needs are met, though, the psychological motivations of humans can become complex and at times may not fully conform to the need hierarchy. Nonetheless, the most basic physiological and safety needs must be met before we can endeavor to fulfill other higher needs. Intellectual pursuits thus require the basic needs to be met.
Most of Homo sapiens history was a continuous process of satisfying the most basic and ultimately essential of needs—survival. The demands of the physical environment were enough to deter early humans from expanding their awareness of what was actually possible to them. They were people just trying to survive on a seemingly harsh planet.
While this seems to be a pretty grim picture of the plight of primitive humans, not all was bad. Many individual lives flourished, and periods of pleasure assured them that life was still worth living. By inspecting tribes that have lived recently, we can get an idea of what life was like for so many thousands of years. For the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa, for example, normally half their week is spent hunting and/or gathering; the rest is spent resting, gaming, and socializing.72
Actually, a life of day in and day out toil to ward off the constant threat of deprivation would have been unacceptable for primitive tribes. Most sought to establish a way of life that involved an adoration and appreciation of nature as well as merriment with others.74
The internal mechanism or capacity to experience pleasure is a key factor in human survival. Life needs to be worth living in order for people to accomplish the task. A mere absence of pain is usually not enough to strengthen one’s will to live; although, it may be encouraging if one has been constantly suffering either physically or emotionally.
Yet, the will to live should include not only the drive to continue one’s existence but also a psychological state whereby one considers new alternatives and makes new choices. Again, as conceptual creatures, every moment of our existence is related to choices. The choice for most humans throughout history was to basically repeat what was normal for that timeframe. A man who lived 50,000 years ago assuredly chose to perform actions that seemed perfectly appropriate for his life, as he saw it—and as his tribe saw it. Correspondingly, a man living in present day New York City also chooses to perform actions that have become perfectly acceptable routine to him, as he sees it—and as his culture sees it.
Pressures from the age may be such that it becomes increasingly difficult to make new choices concerning one’s own path and outlook. Ultimately, ideas about how to live and function are accepted and advocated for various reasons—some physical, some psychological, some economic, and so on.
When we examine the psychological context of most of human history, the factors that influenced behavior become more apparent. The physical aspects of human history are accompanied by social and psychological aspects. For us, psychology is the key that opens the door to genuine understanding of behavior and mental experience (which, of course, includes political systems).
Understanding the psychology of our ancestors might lead us to conclusions that prevent a repeat of history. As a nineteenth century political theorist, Michael Bakunin, stated poignantly:
If it is justifiable, and even useful and necessary, to turn back to study our past, it is only in order to establish what we have been and what we must no longer be, what we have believed and thought and what we must no longer believe or think, what we have done and what we must do nevermore.3(p.21)
Human beings have been called social animals. They tend to live and interact in groups. Since most creatures can be classified similarly, this really does not tell us much about who we have been and who we are.
Rather than observe the mostly beneficial aspects of life among others that we are all familiar with, we must go further and address the problematic aspects. We must discuss the hazardous ways that humans have lived and interacted in groups.
For a human, to live in a group is different than for any other creature. Our ability to reason is the main explanation for this. Within groups of people, the rational process of making compromises and reaching agreements maintains social tranquility and prevents disruption among individuals. Unfortunately, people in any era may not completely value this process.
Although comprehension of the process of reason was especially important for people centuries ago, it was commonly overlooked. The group’s or particular individual’s guidelines often took precedence over such mental considerations. To voice opinions that opposed the general rules concerning “how things are going to be” was met often with strong disapproval.
Within primitive societies there were mostly customs instead of laws. Customs were wrapped in ritual and reinforced by tradition. They yielded an atmosphere of social unity in which reliance on organizations such as the “joint family” was primary.26 To speak out against the group or to disagree with an “authority” was often equivalent to disobeying the appropriate norms established. Early on, children were told and shown what could or could not be done, should or should not be said. Just a few frustrating encounters with the group (and its accepted guidelines) were normally enough to stop psychological growth.
Customs offered individuals something reassuring, though. Because so little was known about reality (and thus about life’s possibilities), routines that could be followed granted feelings of security and belongingness. Eventually in such a context, the subtle psychology of the group and its practices became accepted as the authority, and it was not questioned. Anthropologist Paul Radin wrote of the group’s customs:
There is no compulsive submission to them. They are not followed because the weight of tradition overwhelms a man….A custom is obeyed there because it is intimately intertwined with the vast living network of interrelations, arranged in a meticulous and ordered manner.74(p.223)
As a result, an intolerant, collective mentality tends to develop. Radin stated further:
Where tribal consciousness has become completely dominant, as in so many parts of Africa, any self-assertion of an individual against the community is, theoretically, sin. Where a theocracy prevails, as among the Zuni of New Mexico, any self-assertion of the individual against the priesthood is witchcraft and punishable by death.74(p.245)
Of course, early humans knew that life in a group better ensured their health and survival. The phrase “strength in numbers” made definite sense. In a tribal milieu, to be physically strong and healthy helped also, since hunting and gathering at times required as much power as a person could muster. Not surprisingly, the strongest men were able to provide many things that others simply could not. Depending on their personalities, this might have granted them an authority to control others in the group.
Power cannot be described in mere physical terms, however, because it is a psychological concept too. How a person perceives power in other individuals (or groups) will invariably affect how he or she behaves toward them; it will affect the range of options seen as appropriate in dealing with them. This is one reason why people can allow themselves to be intimidated by others of all sizes and types. The ability to convey and utilize one’s psychological power (and be influenced by another’s psychological power) depends on one’s attitude towards power itself.
Yet, being more powerful physically might have been a major factor in people’s perceptions of who was psychologically powerful. Intimidation and fear tactics are common ways to enforce rules. Various incentives and rewards for belonging and conforming to the group’s standards are other ways. The goal of the group’s leaders was typically to shape its members’ ideas and behavior to fit their needs and the needs of the group.
Those who challenged the given atmosphere of authority (for whatever reason) were usually confronted by the main evil to a reasoning mind: physical force. The use of force basically violates the capacity for identification, integration, evaluation, and subsequent action.75 Even the threat of such aggression is sufficient to snuff out the assertion of independence and autonomy—key traits necessary for an individual member of a thinking species.
As noted, in terms of human evolution violent behavior can be classified as the subhuman. As Homo sapiens acquired the capacity to reason, the initiation of physical force in human relations was invalidated. Human beings were now able to make choices and identify aspects of reality, including disagreements with others, and then communicate them through the invaluable tool of language. This necessarily meant that conflict resolution could only occur between reasoning people—be it adult to child, child to child, or adult to adult.
Since only reason allows us to understand and comprehend differences of opinion, only reason can resolve them. Any other process or action is self-refuting. The instigation of force can never be effective for anyone in terms of reaching an agreement or achieving proper resolution. If force is used to deal with peaceful others, communication and language become irrelevant; barbarism is the only avenue of existence.
The age-old idea that force is needed because people cannot be reasoned with, in the words of philosopher Leonard Peikoff, “amounts to the claim that brutality is the antidote to irrationality. It is the same as telling a person: ‘I’m going to bash your brains in to assist you in using them.’”70(p.322) Such an attitude only engenders more brutality.
In this coercive setting, man becomes no longer a social animal but, rather, an anti-social animal capable of limitless destruction and disintegration (including his own). Such circumstances certainly cannot treat life as the ultimate standard of value by which all other values are chosen. Aggressive actions are the exact opposite: anti-reason and anti-life. They are contrary to a physically and psychologically nourishing environment in which human life can flourish.
But, for centuries human beings resorted to and sanctioned inherently anti-life methods to deal with one another—typically on the basis of unexplained feelings and a rationale that no other alternative is desirable or useful. These destructive social and psychological elements definitely impacted people.
Important ideas and emotions were habitually relegated to a lower status of awareness. Habits developed in which focus on new things was shunned. Throughout much of human history, the mentality might have been this: We function as a group in order to survive, and we must think as a group in order to survive; dissenters are to be chided or punished because they disrupt the group; consequently, stability must be maintained. In 1894 an expeditionist wrote about the Australian Aborigines he encountered:
[They]…exhibit in extreme form the strengths and weaknesses of conservatism as a way of adapting. For them everything had a completed quality; everything was accounted for, once and for all.
The memorizing of songs and myths and dance sequences was a way of preserving the status quo. So were the mutilations, pain and bloodlettings of rituals dramatizing the desperate seriousness of doing things as they have always been done. Everything was spelled out in detail so that there would be no questioning. No one thought of modifying ideas about dreamtime tracks [images of heroes, mighty accomplishments, plentiful goods, effortless acquisition of game] and sacred places, much less of inventing new ideas, because every feature of the desert had long since become part of a time-honored and firmly established legend. The landscape was effectively ‘used up.’72(p.330)
For centuries, the psychology of the group reigned supreme and its norms and routines were performed mostly unthinkingly. This made it difficult for people to see beyond their particular view of relationships and environment. Similar to many areas of our world today, most people throughout history saw few alternatives to the kind of existence they were living.
In order to discover what the various alternatives for us might be, we need to turn to the topic of individual enlightenment. To do this, we first need to comprehend the nature of emotions.
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