Humanity and the Evolutionary Phenomenology of Preanthromorphic Cognition

The period from hominid evolution to human civilization is unprecedented in Earth’s history.  Fossil records reveal that the majority of our planet’s past has been comprised of equilibriums lasting from tens to hundreds of millions of years, during which the composition and distribution of species remained extremely static.  Primates have been around for 50 million years; the reign of mammals has lasted from the extinction of dinosaurs approximately 65 million years ago to present; dinosaurs and their reptilelike ancestors diversified and predominated soon after the Permian extinction 250 million years ago; eukaryotic life began to assume the macroscopic features characteristic of modern ecosystems upon the Cambrian explosion roughly 550 million years ago, with contemporary forms of photosynthetic and metabolic chemistry, internal and sense organs, limbs for motility, jaws for predation, sense organs, gills, fins, wings, and fertilization of egg with sperm all entrenched for 400-500 million years.  It has become apparent that adaptive radiation happens with rapidity once an ecosystem is destabilized by depopulation or a particularly advantageous trait develops, but until the advent of our own Homo genus, these transition periods tended to be constrained by what we acknowledge as physical environments and bodies: climate, availability of minerals, size, speed, sensory recognitions, rates of reproduction, or survival-related physiology and behavior.  Descent is clearly demarcated within stratifications of sedimentary rock as eras lasting tens of millions of years, and while there are plenty of fascinating surprises, we have no trouble imagining what the whole of these ancient worlds looked like in comparison to wildernesses of our own time.  Organisms with much resemblance to those we see today have been growing, swimming, crawling, burrowing, flying, scurrying, scampering, intruding into each other’s metabolic and reproductive business in line with principles of nonhuman population dynamics, food chains and nutrient cycling for 2000 times as long as Homo sapiens’ existence, and 70 times as long as the ancestral bipedalism anything like what we would distinguish as closer to a human than to a bonobo or chimpanzee.                

This provides stark contrast to the evolution of Homo sapiens from the first hominids such as Austrolepithecus.  In somewhat less than six million years, a walking anthropoid species with what was in all probability chimplike intelligence went from subsisting sparsely in Africa to diversifying into multiple Homo species, most prominently Homo habilis, then Homo ergaster, Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, whose ranges spanned the entirety of the Old World by three hundred thousand years ago.  These species engaged in technological behaviors that were novel for Earth’s organisms, fabricating tools for hunting, gathering and storing.  This is intriguing, but pales in comparison to the consequences of our own species’ origins: in two hundred thousand years, anatomically modern humans occupied every land mass on the planet, successfully adapting to all but the harshest environments on Earth, either absorbing or displacing the rest of the genus.  We displayed problem-solving and aesthetic sensibility of a high functioning nature, disjuncted from anything that had yet arisen: archaeological finds dated to more than a hundred thousand years ago reveal the first signs of deeply symbolic art and artifacts, what would become the aforementioned global wanderlust, and surplus capacity to arrive at solutions for dilemmas posed by natural environments, eventually including prehistory’s first ecological methods such as deforesting with fire and cultivating plants.

Cosmopolitanism of the human race was abetted during the most recent ice age, which peaked roughly twenty thousand years ago.  Sea level dropped a hundred feet, connecting formerly inaccessible regions to mainland Asia, most notably the Western Hemisphere by way of a land bridge between what are modern day Siberia and Alaska.  As world climate became more hospitable from twenty to ten thousand years ago, human populations throughout the world swelled, and protocivilized mingling between hunter-gatherers seems to have grown commonplace, with remnants of expansive meeting grounds dated to this period found in many locations.  No later than ten thousand years ago, humans had achieved enough proficiency in the selective breeding of plants and animals to enable a lifestyle centered around farming, probably driven by trading of ideas and techniques as well as the necessity that larger, more concentrated food supplies be secured for bigger populations.  

Transition to civilized living took place in fits and starts, cycling between dispersals and reorganizations over thousands of years as fluctuations in climate repeatedly rendered rudimentary methods of agriculture inadequate.  But by the 6th or 5th millennium B.C.E., food production had reached an advanced enough stage in some regions, such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and soon Europe, that civilization was able to lay down permanent roots.  Economies, political institutions and technological development got up and running, along with the first written records, then artistic and philosophical literature, ultimately seeding a cumulative discourse attempting to understand nature and the cosmos in terms of its seemingly systematic principles, which gave rise to academics and methodological empiricism in our historical period persisting to the present day.

As already alluded to, we have some general notions of how the genus made its way from the first hominids towards human civilization: changes in physique allowed the brain to grow larger and utilize greater amounts of the body’s metabolism, technological facility steadily increased within this timeframe, full-fledged humanity is more artistic and communal than its ancestral species, and we have obviously inclined towards more intellectual refinement than other biological forms of sociality.  But evaluating the causality of this transformation along with its cultural import is a vexing theoretical difficulty.  

To start with, as previously indicated, macroevolution during preHomo epochs happened via natural selection over the course of at least tens of millions of years, depositing huge amounts of evidence as to what transpired, clearly differentiated as fossilization in rock-hard groundmass, while the switch from chimplike intelligence to enculturated human cognition in technology-based civilization, unprecedented for Earth’s history, materialized in only six million years, with the better part of this process ascribable to the most recent one or two hundred thousand.  Combined with effacement of geologically shallow evidence by prescientific humans, we have much less to go on in conjecturing about ourselves.  

Not only this, but as mentioned, earlier instances of adaptive metamorphosis and radiation differ in that they promptly reached stases sustained by material factors exacted upon macroscopic eukaryotes for at least 500 million years, instating the exigencies of nutritional acquisition, reproduction, and survival in general with all their instantiations in matter.  Evolutionary success or failure of every species outside the Homo genus can be attributed to bodily form and the physical purport of behavior.  Our own genus differs because its cognition evolved enough sophistication that these organisms strategically remodeled environments, social arrangements and even their own selves as motivated by thoughtful, outstandingly creative intentions.  Concept-formation and psychical comportment were largely liberated from restraints imposed by foregoing intrinsicalities of nature, with a brain and behavioral repertoire evolving in ways highly independent of material conditions, via more mind-centric effects on selection pressures and trait profiles, attaining the potency to change nature at a speedy pace.  The first 500 million years of eukaryotic subsistence are intuitive within the bounds of a thoroughgoing paradigm for modeling life’s evolution, but at current rates the next one thousand may very well be unlike anything that has ever been imagined let alone proven.  

More concept-based lifestyles of our genus, proceeding towards civilized society, have left some residual signs in the physical world, again size and shape of the skull relative to body mass, throats variously conducive to language, or fabricated objects indicating in trace ways the degree of memetic complexity, but our apperception-impelled evolution is almost unembodied historically.  Positioned between the primarily corporeal history of Earth prior to six million years ago and a detailed conceptual history of civilized humanity as recorded in writing that began roughly three thousand years ago, there is a gap that would, as the situation stands, only be filled with exacting certainty by an impossible archaeology of consciousness.

The mind itself has left not a shred of evidence, but there are alternate approaches in constructing an account of humanity’s cognitive evolution.  Extensive observation of the natural world is possible, with behaviors of a hundred thousand relatively high functioning species being especially illuminating.  These organisms differ amongst themselves in a vast quantity of ways, but it is clear from scrutiny that they all understand and predict each other’s activity with much accuracy.  Nonhuman animals experience motivations to avoid and seek out stimuli, garner a meal or mate in much the same way as we do, though our psyches seem to be sublimated into a more intricate sense of identity, purpose, communal meaning, which simply shows up as the transparency of animal intention compared to humans we associate with.  Animals sometimes appear to show affection while more in pursuit of physical sensations and satiations, but it is also the  case that core cognitive structures of pain, pleasure and empathy – amygdalic and hippocampic midbrain regions, dopaminelike neurotransmitters and glutamate, mirror neurons – are present in nonhuman species as well, so the biology of human to human communality is very much like that of the human to nonhuman and nonhuman to nonhuman varieties.  We are not delusional if we believe that pets for instance think and feel in similar ways, for it is obvious that they do; shared conditions and common interests between all kinds of species soon produce mutualized socialities witnessed all around us.  At this stage of scientific knowledge, it is premature to attempt a comprehensive elaboration of comparative psychology by referencing either intention or perceptual and behavioral physiologies, but we can nonetheless fashion a picture of cognition which proximates the truth in its essentials.  The foundations of our own cognizing are biological and considerably transspecies, provisional of an introspective naturalism.

Infused into this broad layer of cognitive function within nature is the Homo genus’ evolutionary contribution to the human psyche.  Direct observation is of course impossible at this time unless we pull off some unlikely mad scientist feat such as cloning a hominin or hominid, but even so we have some information to go on, particularly if we restrict our examination to the domain of reasoning as opposed to psychology in general.  The range of moods, fantasies, delusions, unconscious wildness to which the human race is subjected defies cohesive classification at the current stage of science and philosophy, though perhaps this knowledge is within reach of techniques such as psychoanalysis, but when our minds are brought into adjacency with basic fact in thinking about the practical ramifications of cause and effect during acts of technical problem-solving, it seems most pull themselves together at work or in public, so that a functional sphere, relatively uniform cognitively, stands out in the behavioral foreground, which performs according to more universal and thus generalizable principles.  When human beings grapple in largish collectives with concerns held in common, during which time explicit, maximally justified and comprehensible decisions must be made, these individuals coalesce into a formal sort of cognizing distinguished by the logiclike standards it employs to assess meaning.  This mode of thinking can be called ‘civic’, and is the foundation for institutional operations, so that the conditions of the possibility of civically minded cognition are the conditions of the possibility for civilization’s organizing.  Thus, if we formulate a model of the mental modules involved in civic-focused thinking, we have made significant progress towards defining the psychology of civilized culture in contrast to every other form of sociality, and adumbrated much of what has to be explained in order to theorize conversion from hominid existence to the historical period.       

So we have an array of puzzle pieces that are prerequisites of human cognition in general.  Some of these are so pervasive in nature that they stand out as a near universal transhumanality, though with innumerable variations upon the main themes, and some are salient as universalities of historical civilization, responsible for its very possibility.  We toss many pieces of this puzzle that we currently possess into a single pile, and anticipate connecting two broad forms in the complete image: a model of the intelligent mind as such and a model of the human mind as suited for civic reasoning.  The generalities of intelligence are indispensable for human reasoning, and the faculties of formalized, institutional reasoning make the difference between mere intelligence and indispensabilities of civilized thought.  The partial image etched into some puzzle pieces will be easy to identify and put in its proper place, while others could be more obscure and uncertain.  As we put the pieces in order, we may find that we lack some of them, but those that are absent might be suggested with enough precision by surrounding segments to construct working hypotheses postulating their nature.  So lets start fiddling with the puzzle pieces and see if we can gain an understanding of how details constituting the entire image fit together.

As specified in previous chapters, experience derives from a basic qualitative contexture consisting of core patterns in phenomenal content that philosophy of mind terms ‘qualia’, also auxiliary sensations of the outside world which increase the efficiency of recognition and response to some of the most prevalent aspects of Earth’s environments such as electromagnetic radiation, sound waves and chemical trails, as well as representational memory priming organisms for reaction to stimuli via sensitization and habituation.  The many particulars and modules of these qualitative manifolds vary considerably between organisms, and neuroscientific psychology has not established with certainty what the substance of firsthand experience is or even how it adheres to the physique, though resonant combinations of quantum entanglement and additive superposition amongst matter were proposed as a plausible hypothesis, but if one looks to pinpoint as inclusively as possible the essence of what makes qualia functional in the context of organic life, it is probably synchronization.  Though the difference in qualia and qualitative modularity between organisms is vast, also with much moment to moment variation even in single individuals, this activity becomes a ‘mind’ by virtue of its coordination, some binding property uniting disparate cognitive components, a dynamic of integration for carrying out perceptual interpretations which syncs the phenomenal with differentiated and often far-flung physiology.  It was surmised that this synthetical agent is at least in part the electromagnetic field supervenient on an organism’s body, with especially strong presence in the nervous system and brain, alongside some kind of CPUlike clock mechanism embodied in tissue.

As a subcomponent of qualitative contexture, the mind evolved a faculty for interfacing phenomenal experience with both environment and body on larger scales, the association-making substratum as well as evolutionary precursor of humanesque minds, which seems to exist in most macroscopic species, from the lowliest worms, to kinds of insects that can live without their heads for days, to moderately cognitive species such as most birds and mammals, to the most high functioning like great apes, dolphins or humans.  This consists in functionality orienting the organism within a perceived positional matrix, similarly instantiated in a vast quantity of species, from the extremely simple to the most complex and conceptual, together with inclinations of attraction and repulsion that are more malleable and which can be extremely species specific.  

The existence of a positionalizing awareness, which Kant painted with rather broad strokes as ‘space’ and ‘time’, is obvious enough that examples probably do not have to be provided, for most species are clearly sensing a general location in relationship to surroundings, instinctively navigating the substrate of objects, forces, textures of aggregate matter we all reside in, a capacity which appears to be almost completely hardwired.  The physiological scale at which this orientational sensibility takes effect is excellent fodder for biological research; science can determine whether it is linked to nervous tissue in some way, cellular biochemistry in general, or otherwise.

Attraction and repulsion in organisms is dazzlingly varied.  Ants are drawn to pheremonal signatures.  Honey bees have a pheremonal sensitivity also, love to slurp nectar, and seem to get off on the bright colors and intricate shapes of flowers.  The smell of kitty litter prompts cats to seek out and do their business in litter boxes.  Protozoa dart away from sudden brightness and back into the dark.  Insects are averse to large vibrations and for good reason, usually engaging in some kind of evasion maneuver such as fleeing or attempting to camouflage themselves with motionlessness.  These tendencies to seek out or withdraw from stimuli as initiated by sensing, anatomy and biochemistry, along with cooccurring phenomenal perceptions, are naturally selected in conjunction with the mutating relationship between body and environment.  Bee awareness keys in on pheremones, certain small objects, the colors and shapes of other bees, insects and flowers, or vibrations and additional signatures produced by large organisms when they may pose a threat, a narrowed selection of substance attributes most relevant to the functions of their bodies as exacted by mouthparts, stingers, wings, compound eyes, nesting and swarming.  Humans are attracted to symmetry, musical sound as composed of numerical ratios between changing pitches, or the appearance of genitalia, and repulsed or bothered by sulfuric smells, sudden loud noises, and often the mere thought of their own past or possible pain.  Any explanation of humanity’s perception is of course more complex than in the case of bees, for a permeative conceptualizing renders our mental activity and resultant behavior more variegated, with well-educated human cognition able to subtly modulate almost all instinct via intentionality.  Nevertheless, we have similarly been conditioned by physiological and evolutionary pasts, factors which are intimately tied to the nature of our bodies.

How did the type of cognitive activity we have termed ‘conception’ emerge?  Demystifying the processes of evolutionary development that gave rise to it is uncharted territory, but its apparent locus in modules of the brain clearly indicates that it must have appeared as a sequence of accretions augmenting some limitations in the interfacing functions of positional matrixing, attraction and repulsion previously described, allowing for greater degrees of specialized association-making as well as structures providing executive control in order to sync the disparate facets of these expanding minds.  Some of this enhanced association-making is what we call ‘thought’, and the executive metaorganization of proliferating modularity in cognition is what we refer to as ‘self’.                                             

Thinking, a further associational integrating of qualia, seems firmly attached to the nervous system and principally brain matter.  Cognitive configuring involved enhances the mind’s representation of environments, increasing the quantity and duration of phenomenal and physiological particulars that stimulus/response can confect and coordinate amongst at a given time, essentially diversifying and prolonging memory and its utilization in conjunction with less hardwired, more rewritable neuromaterial types of tissue.  

So the basic qualitative contexture with its form-giving and aesthetic perceptualizations is supplemented by higher order functions that participate in differentiating and arranging it, conceptualizations which are the rudiment of ordered imagination or ‘reasoning’.  This makes minds more adaptable to changing conditions in the body and environment, hybridizing experiences which are farther removed from each other so as to better orchestrate preexisting phenomenalilty, drive and impulse, as well as platforming new kinds of qualitativity such as math, language, and various kinds of causality.  The defining feature of this conceptualizing domain, to the limited extent that it can be segregated from the perceptual substratum, is probably compound contextualization, for its role is to observe fluctuating qualia constituting the kaleidoscope of mind in a sort of paralleling suspension of libido discharge, which picks out obscurer patterns by internalized motivity and fixes them into composite cognitive forms.  The most accessible example of this is simply our human technical sense, how the body and its milieu of objects manifest to our minds as sharply relieved relations between multitudes of causes and possible effects, in most cases including entirely potential motions and purely conceptual meanings, a synthetic framework parsed by symbolic and abstract boundaries that are much greater in implication than the immediate phenomena themselves.           

Along with this conceptual association-making called ‘thought’, the mind evolved a means for exerting control over which of its brain regions and other nervous system components are active at a given time, what is approximately referred to as the ‘self’.  This is the source of basic intentionality, found throughout the animal kingdom.  While lacking command of most mental activities, such as vision, hearing, startling or noticing, which are all mostly unconscious, we can rapidly bring collections of these unconscious factors into synchronous alignments at will, a sort of mode-selection phenomenon generating overall dispositions via executive mechanism.  These amalgamating states of intentionality are not freely chosen to the point of independence from context, for they get sculpted over time with conditioning as well as directed by instantaneous cues from both environments and the unconscious mind itself, but we can readily carry out feats such as waking ourselves up, suppressing affect in order to focus while we reason, purposely blocking out external stimuli, as well as adopting various social and communicative strategies.  Introspective meditators can even learn to radically regulate their states of awareness with experience, which shows up on an EEG machine as crisp transitions between brain wave shapes.

Whether association-making thought or a mode-selecting self were the originating feature that initialized evolution of the conscious mind is a bit of a chicken and egg problem; which came first?  It is not clear at this stage of science if the question can even be answered, but defining ‘self’ in terms of its anthromorphic form, as a phenomenon of introspective reflection, leads us to suspect that at least from this perspective, associational thinking was egg to the self’s chicken, an incredibly ancient type of cognitive modulization which preceded humanlike self-awareness and contributed to its construction.  Regardless, it is clear that the interaction of thinking with self tended towards synergy in many lineages over vast spans of time, hundreds of millions of years, built up into more elaborate forms of pattern processing and intentionality, a richer conceiving that in essence amounts to the metametaassociationalizing “presence of mind” depicted in chapter 17 of this section, “The Origins and Evolution of Perception in Organic Matter”.

The main mutative innovation in the realm of intention was an ability to concentrate, sustaining attentive states for longer timespans, allowing keener observation of both environments as well as the organism’s own phenomenal mind, a selection mechanism for associational thinking to become more astute.  Thought simultaneously evolved towards greater apprehension of order amongst patterns until protological awareness had developed, an intuitive knack for grasping some prevalent kinds of cause and effect, fitting phenomenal interactivities into a kind of conceptualizing chassis of which the simplest qualities are those enumerated as basics of formal logic: negation (not p), conjunction (both p and q), disjunction (either p or q), conditional (if p then q), and similar notions.  Association-making aptitude as logic’s precursor, together with better focus, capacitated problem-solving creativity that is a hallmark of species with the most elite technical thinking, a suite of traits we single out as elementary intelligence.                            

While mode-selection mechanisms we experience as the self progressed, some species gained greater cognitive control over affect, a function of suppression, sublimation, and in some cases, such as with humans, the repressing of drives and impulses by means of a subordinated unconscious.  Behavior became less likely to exhibit as exhaustive discharge of libido, overpowering to intentionality, but instead compulsion and willing fused into conscious/unconscious complexes, a more cohesive and minutely modulated purposefulness, the origins of psychical composure, which proved adaptive for the maintenance of durable social arrangements extended beyond immediate kin in more cerebral species.  Some examples are cooperative hunting in wolf packs, orca pods and prides of lions, where individual initiative is sublimated into the joint venture of ritualistically seeking prey, while cathartic release is delayed or resisted altogether in order to pursue the collective goal, and selfishness largely submerged below thresholds of conscious decision-making.  Grooming in primates fills a similar role, sublimating affect into gestures of amicable intention.  With the self in greater charge, mobilized to regulate and protract balanced mental states, reasoning is more deliberate and socializing reflection-based so that communal identities take shape, deeper personalities partaking in a sort of protocultural awareness.                 

At this point, a summary of top-tier cognition might be in order.  It is founded on qualitative contextural forms existing variably in very many and perhaps all species, embedded with a perceptual substratum of positional awareness along with more species-specific aesthetic penchant, added upon by specialized association-making processes and their synesthesias, which are largely responsible for the richer interpretations of causality we know as thought.  A mode-selecting function exerts some executive control over which collections of cognitive modularity activate at a given time, what we experience as the intentional self.  Thought and intention coevolved in many populations such that protological intuitions of associational structure and heightened attention span for applying these improved notionalizings blossomed into an intelligent mind with acumen in technical problem-solving.  Intelligent intentionality often evolves greater self-control arising from an integration of reasoning with affect, restraining and diverting instinctual drives with their attendant cravings and stresses, in many cases sublimating into group standards, disciplined individuality, and mutually conceptualized identities, adaptive for tighter knit communality, bringing about conversion from simple crowding, territorializing and kin bonding to protocultural kinds of collectivity.

Well-developed cognition of a protocultural type is not what secernates humanity from the rest of nature, for many birds and mammals display it, species with intellects which must have been vestigializing and collectivizing in sociality since the origin of their common ancestor eons before extinction of the dinosaurs.  Organisms everywhere show the signs of finespun qualitative experience, including positional sense, aesthetic preferences, thought and intentionality, with ecosystems throughout the world inhabited by intelligent selves retaining a strong, conceptually driven solidarity.  Mental lives of Homo sapiens have much in common with the rest of the animal kingdom, but there are of course some obvious differences, chiefly language, technology and civilization.  Humans are constantly emitting a stream of convoluted verbiage in large-scale, highly organized institutional settings while utilizing a fulgurous range of tools and devices, all singular for planet Earth.  Lets spend some time examining this uniqueness, where it started and how we arrived at our current, civilized phase of acculturated existence, as well as what it means epistemologically.  

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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