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The Cultural Evolution of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes and Ken Wilber

Bicameral Mind.

      We all use our brains to think, but few people seriously take the time to think about thinking. Why are we conscious? Why do we think? The common assumption is that we think because we have big brains. It is assumed that our ancestors gradually evolved bigger brains, and consciousness came with the gray matter. But this biological theory for the origin of consciousness doesn't fit the archaeological record.

      For instance, pottery was apparently discovered when one of our ancestors either intentionally or accidentally burned a clay-coated basket in a fire. For generations afterwards our ancestors made baskets, coated them inside with clay, and incinerated them to make pottery. Eventually they made pottery without the basket molds, but for many more generations they still scratched lines on the pots to produce the basket-like appearance.

      People from our own time would immediately forget the basket part and focus careful research on the properties of the clay. We would use logic and scientific methodology to quickly gain mastery of this new resource. Our ancestors had essentially the same brains as we do today, yet took generations to make simple leaps of thought. If they used their heads the same way that we do then they would have built computers and rocketships tens of thousands of years ago.

      I am not suggesting that our ancestors were dumb. On the contrary, after practicing and teaching primitive survival skills for fifteen years, I am convinced that our ancestors had to learn far more than people do today to survive in the world. The difference is that in primitive societies children learned those skills by mimicking others, and through accumulated experience. From generation to generation they passed down vast encyclopedias of information about the world, but it was knowledge acquired without conscious thought, by copying it, the same way that babies learn to talk.       Dr. Julian Jaynes of Princeton University was probably one of the first people to theorize that consciousness is cultural, and not just biological. In his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Jaynes makes the startling assertion that the first glimmerings of self-awareness and introspection came only about 3,000 years ago--after our ancestors had developed languages, farming, and even after they had built cities.

      The reason for the conscious awakening was simple: the mimicked behaviors and the accumulated experiences of the past were inadequate to deal with new and unfamiliar problems that arose from increasingly complex societies. Cultural evolution forced our ancestors to find new coping strategies for dealing with problems: they had to think and imagine new possibilities. Julian Jaynes provides nearly 500 pages of meticulous evidence to support his hypothesis. He walks the reader through many ancient texts and artifacts pointing out details that point to a sudden awakening of the human mind.

Roadmap to Reality. My own interpretation of the data is a bit different, as outlined in my book Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit. In essence, it appears that self-awareness arose gradually, starting with the cultural revolution of 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Through language and culture, our ancestors developed a first-person perspective, much like children do today. The second-person perspective arose with agriculture, while the third-person perspective is tied to the rise of science and industry and is still integrating into human consciousness.


A Brief History of Everything.       Author Ken Wilber also covers the cultural evolution of consciousness in his book, A Brief History of Everything. Children today develop through many well-documented mental stages on the way to maturity, for example, from magical thinking to mythical and ultimately objective thinking, and for some, holistic thought. Wilber suggests that cultures evolved consciousness following a similar path that children mature through. His writing is difficult to read sometimes, but worth the effort.

      Wilber especially talks of worldviews and how they change as people and cultures mature. Worldviews are not philosophies, so much as patterns of thought. For example, a magical worldview was common through many Stone Age cultures, like the Jivaro head-hunters of South America who took the heads of their enemies, skinned them, and through an elaborate process shrunk them to the size of a fist. They danced around the heads to get the magic out, after which the trophies were "powerless" and discarded with yesterdays news.

      Magical thinking can be highly successful within the context of the appropriate culture. However, it is useless in a culture with a different worldview. This was demonstrated by a Brazilian man who found a glowing piece of metal in a landfill (left over from X-ray equipment). He rubbed the metal on his private parts in the hopes of gaining special powers, but instead suffered severe injuries. Before we poke fun at backwards thinking, it is important to keep in mind that in this rapidly changing world we are all in danger of becoming dated.

      Although our culture has essentially left magical thinking behind, much of our thought is still rooted in mythical thinking, defined by a God-and-the-Devil outlook, where all issues are black and white, right and wrong, and there is no middle ground. It is the world we saw on television decades ago, where the good guys wore white and the bad guys wore black.

      Mythical thinking tends to be highly ethnocentric and nationalistic. There is tremendous allegiance to one religion, one team, one viewpoint, and everyone else is simply wrong. It was this pattern of thought at work in Iran when their soccer team beat the Americans in 1997 and the entire country partied in the streets for days, chanting slogans like, "We have beaten the Great Satan!" It is the same kind of worldview espoused by the religious right in our country, which perceives no gray areas in issues like gun control or foreign policy.

      The mythical worldview was prevalent at the height of the Cold War when there was a clear line between who was right and who was wrong, and Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire." These days we keep the good-versus-evil drama alive with the War on Terror by dropping bombs on people who didn't like us to begin with and now have more reason than ever to hate us. It is a strategy that perpetuates fear and conflict, sustaining the mythical worldview.       The objective worldview has been building momentum for decades, applying what might be called scientific reasoning or linear thought to the issues of an increasingly complicated, diversified world. Objective thinking reminds people that other religions or other ways of being are equally valid, that no one has the monopoly on the truth. It is a worldview where there is more than one right answer and many shades of gray. This objectivity translates to unprecedented individuality.

      The objective worldview is spreading, but already it is inadequate to deal with an increasingly complex world where all cultures are rapidly melding into one. Survival demands broad, creative leaps of integrated or holistic logic, connecting together many diversified concepts. Wilber's and Jaynes writings were influential to the writing of both Direct Pointing to Real Wealth and Roadmap to Reality.


Books about the Cultural Evolution of Consciousness

The Essential Ken Wilbur.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Dr. Julian Jaynes
Paperback. 491 pages. Reprinted October 1990.
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Sex and Ecology.

A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber
Paperback.
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The Essential Ken Wilber: An Introductory Reader by Ken Wilber
Paperback. 176 pages. October 1998.
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Eye of Spirit.

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality : The Spirit of Evolution by Ken Wilber
Hardcover. 831 pages. February 1995.
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The Eye of Spirit : An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad by Ken Wilber
Hardcover. 432 pages. March 1997.
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