Summary of Our Improbable Universe
Chapter 10: Human Spirit
What a human is or should be is a question that five billion people must deal with in their own way. We are not born with the hard wired behaviors of ants. We have instincts but, as with the elephant, they get highly modified. Most of what we do as adults has to be learned. In large measure we construct our psychic essence, or spirit, from our experience and received wisdom. The adaptive power of this new approach to behavior has led to the flowering of human personality, the arts, the sciences, the sports, and innumerable other activities that are uniquely human. However, as with the Greek heroes our greatest virtue is also our greatest weakness. The ability to be almost anything also allows us to become hideous monsters and leaves us adrift with the question of what we should become.
The plasticity of the responses of our brain has made it possible for people to adapt to every environment that is found on this planet. Along with the ability to become anything comes the need to learn to become something. Children have a great need to play and to learn. The need is filled by providing them with a rich environment in which to play, and by providing direct instruction in the mental and physical skills that they will need to succeed as adults. They also need an overall compass or sense of direction so that they know what kind of human they should become. The culture of each society must fill these learning needs.
The various cultures of humanity are imbedded in a larger collective psyche that Teilhard de Cardin calls the Noosphere. The history of human evolution involves the parallel evolution of our collective genetic content and the content of our collectivity of mind. Human spirit evolved on both fronts for millions of years in order to change an ape like being into the richness of modern humanity. Even in the lush environment of the African rain forest our ancestors depended heavily on their troop for survival. The dependence of the individual on the group became much more intense about seven million years ago, when our early ancestors first came out of the jungle and on to the savannas and sparse woodlands of eastern Africa . It was only with reluctance that they did this. The trees of the jungle provided safety from many of the predators that they had to deal with on the ground. Collective defense became imperative. Membership in the troop became more necessary for survival than ever before.
On the open savannas of Africa our ancestors had a hard life. They have been named "Australopithecus" . It is very unlikely that they engaged in any significant hunting at first. They were not fast enough and they had no tools that were appropriate to hunting. They probably were scavengers. They competed with hyenas and vultures for the leaving of large predators. Their only tools were unmodified sticks and stones.
At first the chief uses of stones was in butchering carrion and warding off predators. The use of found stones as tools went on for millions of years before hominids became "tool makers". The first stone tools that were made consisted of stones that were "flaked" (shaped) only on one side. They appeared in abundance about 2.5 million years ago. The appearance of this culture was soon followed by the evolution of the small brained Australopithecus into the larger brained Homohabilus. In a half million years this hominid evolved into the nearly modern hominid call Homoerectus. For more than a million years Homoerectus flaked stones on both sides, built fires, and probably used clothing.
By three hundred thousand years ago the evolution of Homoerectus resulted in two distinct large brained humans. The Neanderthals had brains that were slightly larger than ours. They lived in Europe and parts of Asia. The branch of the human family tree known as Cromagnons is the one which led to us. Genetic studies indicate that they originated in Africa about two hundred thousand years ago. From there, they radiated across Europe and Asia by one hundred thousand years ago. Their tool kit was more sophisticated than that of the Neanderthals and was soon copied in part by them. By 90,00 years ago they were definitely hunters.
The development of hunting tools and skills has been paralleled by the development of arts, culture, language, and mythology. Bead necklaces became common eighty thousand years ago. Drawings on the walls of caves in France from forty thousand years ago, appear to have been part of rituals of some kind. The existence of theses artifacts, and their associated mythologies implies complex cultures. These cultures required language to transmit from one generation to the next. The use of a complex language may in fact be the characteristic that most distinguishes Cromagnons from our nearest ancestors and relatives .
The survival advantages of complex speech, and its importance to cultural development, cannot be over stated. Speech enables people to expand their perceptions from the here and now to the every where and to all of time. It enables people to pool their knowledge and concepts. In the process, new knowledge and concepts are synthesized that would be totally inaccessible to any individual. It does for the world of mind what sexuality did for the biological level of existence. Ultimately it has united all of the human minds on this planet into a single collective psyche. This new level of reality is the most profound and complex evolved creation of the Big Bang to date in this vicinity of the universe. It provides the medium within which mental entities evolve and proliferate in processes that are analogous to the phenomena associated with replication and evolution of biological life. It is one of the most important forces in the shaping of modern humans and therefore cannot be neglected in this discourse on Human Spirit.
The use of complex language not only made it possible to transmit utilitarian knowledge from one human to another. It also made it more possible to communicate a deeper understanding of individual psychological essence. Our psychic being, is imbedded in this collectivity of mind more deeply than ever before. The biological being of an individual animal, arises from the gene pool of its species. This biological aspect of being, returns to the gene pool through sexual reproduction. The psychic being of an individual stands in analogous relationship to the collectivity of human personality. There is a kind of immortality, or reincarnation, in this process of propagation of mental content from one individual to another. But as with the survival of individual genes within the gene pool, it is fragments of the individual psyche that go on in this way and not the unique whole self.
The use of complex language and tools made people so successful as hunter that they drove almost all of the big game animals into extinction. As with many disasters in our history, the extinction of our favorite big game animals led to a new spurt of creativity. As hunting became more difficult people adapted by inventing herding and agriculture. Once the agricultural revolution had begun, all that it implied was fated. Civilization, commerce, hierarchy, writing, the arts, technology, and science evolved in places where agriculture took route.
The rise of vast civilizations led to many new technical and psychic inventions that never existed before. Political collectivity, produced mass societies in which the old moral systems based on kinship, reciprocity and reputation (face) were less effective at preventing sociopathic behavior. Systems of law were invented to allow society to function in an orderly fashion. Religions evolved to provided mythological foundations for laws in an effort to shore up societies. Within stable societies, that were often protected from invasion by natural barriers , commerce, industry, agriculture, and technology evolved toward ever higher levels of development. As society became more complex, the need for records of commercial transactions became more acute. This necessity was the mother of the invention of writing. The development of writing is one of the great stepping stones to our modern technical civilization and to the philosophic and scientific self reflexivity that goes with it.
The use of writing quickly expanded from the mundane commercial applications to the political, historic, religious, scientific, technical, and literary spheres. Everywhere it created new opportunities for evolution in these realms. The world of collectively held knowledge and ideas made quantum leaps in development that are still occurring today. The shape of the psyche of each individual became ever more influenced and imbedded in this expanding collectivity. The nature of human spirit began a new round of evolution based on written inheritance (e.g. the Bible, the Constitution, etc.) as opposed to oral traditions. Mass media would ultimately become a dominant force in the way people thought and behaved . This had to await the technological revolution that also resulted from the development of civilization.
Over the last ten million years we have seen a fun loving ancestral ape, that lived in an African jungle evolve into, fun loving members of a world wide collective mind, economy, and ecosystem. The psychic nature, or spirit, of that beast evolved in coordination with its DNA to make what we are today, for better or worse. We now have the degree of self awareness that we need to chose the future form of human spirit. If we make the right choices (the "adaptive ones"), then we may succeed in dodging the many bullets that are flying towards our heads. Rapid evolution of human spirit can stay the many political and ecological disasters that threaten us. Ultimately we might become loving custodians of this planet. If we do this, then we will continue to evolve for ever.