The origin of mankind and consciousness



From the appearance of hominids to the beginning of human evolution

When the first hominids appeared on the scene of this planet, probably an external observer would not notice any major difference with respect to the previous natural world: these creatures interacted with the environment in a similar way to that of other animal species, the higher primates. What began to diversify with the passing of centuries and millennia was their way of feeling, their awareness, more and more wide and complex than the animal one. Later, these new creatures were able to use the faculties of communicating and interacting, thus forming the first social nuclei and with them the first cultures. However, only with the appearance of the first civilizations the signs of something essentially different from the natural scheme became evident. Here and there, in nature, human constructions began to manifest themselves as a discontinuity in the environment, bearing the mark of a different order than the pre-existing one. There were deforested and uniformly cultivated surfaces, cities built according to rules alien to the natural world, roads that allowed these organisms to move quickly from one place to another, overcoming natural barriers. Now we human beings are not only viewers of a scenery reconstructed with our imagination, through the signals and clues that come from the remains of the past or the references of the present, but actors aware of the continuous performance that takes place under our eyes, as we have communication systems capable of transferring from one to another the testimony of what we perceive, what we see and feel, what we think or imagine. Many written testimonies and many remains of the buildings of the past have come to us and allow us, to some extent, to overcome the barrier of time: thus, we are able to establish interpretative links between our consciousness (and the psyche's contents that it tunes) and the one of beings similar to us, who lived centuries and centuries ago.

Differences between humans and animals

It should be noted, however, that all the processes involving man as a cultural being, starting from the development of language, probably date to no more than a few hundred centuries ago, while those relating to the development of historical civilizations began no more than 10,000 years ago: a negligible period of time when compared to the geological eras that characterized natural evolution. The fact remains that there are substantial differences between humans and the other mammals. A cat, a horse, a monkey, for example, feel emotions, probably have feelings, and perhaps their brains also generate forms of thought, but not those evolved human-type reasonings, which are made possible by the use of language and the psyche's contents which come to our consciousness. Animals do not speak, even though they can communicate through signals, and we do not know if and how far they are self-aware. But the fundamental difference is that with the passing of time the human mind began to produce knowledge and was able to create, that is to carry out its own projects, while the animals do nothing like this. It is true that some species may perform the construction of works such as nests, dams or anthills, but they do it according to the pre-established programs of their species, and can not invent and create anything new.

So what is a human being today? An organism, an animal, one of the many organisms currently living as a result of those famous three billion and a half years since the appearance of life on Earth? Certainly, with their brain and nervous system, they are also mental computers that process the information and the stimuli coming from the environment (both outside and inside the organism) and produce signals, programs, and reactive behaviors. But such operations could be activated without any form of consciousness, and in fact a considerable amount of functions take place in the human body, without we being in any way aware of them: we know so little about the functioning of our organism to have the impression of being almost like aliens trapped inside something unknown. Many of the programs that determine our functioning and our way of processing information originate from the socio-cultural environment in which each of us has been brought up and with which interacts, and change over time in relation to all the knowledge and the experiences stored and transmitted by generations of our kind, as coded information communicated in the form of language, writing, symbols and behaviors.

Our mental hardware, let's say the brain, has been enriched with some creative components, which are not limited to elaborating functional responses to certain stimuli based on the species code, always repeating the same behaviors generation after generation as do animals, but produce new projects that can be carried out in the environment through the body tool, or transmitted to the brains of other humans through cultural encodings. This website is a trivial example of this faculty: I, through my brain, elaborate a series of information – encoded in a written language – that through a transmission system made up of computer networks reaches a number of other Egos (the people who visit this site). These people read, that is, decode the text according to the received and learned programs, and acquire the information as an input signal to their mental processors, letting it interact with other programs and other information already present within them.

Intelligence, creativity, language and human culture

It seems to me that the presence of human consciousness puts myself, organism among other organisms, in the new and singular position of being a recipient and an interpreter of information, capable of taking decisions about any further development of the information itself. This marks a huge leap in quality, even though it happens by degrees, compared with other animals, whose operating mode, at least up to a certain level of evolution, can be considered as automatic and almost robotic, to use a term reserved for mechanisms built by humans. And if from a certain degree of evolutionary complexity animal behavior can let us suppose the existence of a conscious or even self-conscious function (many friends of animals are sure of that), this function appears to be aimed mainly at managing the interaction of the animal with its environmental context, and not to the reception, recognition and creative processing of information as such. That is the reason why animals do not produce culture.

So in the human being there is something that does not exist in the animal. The ability to receive, interpret, creatively process and transmit information takes place through a twofold process: on the one hand, one gets information and programs, and can send them through his/her socio-cultural interaction with other people through coded transmission tools such as language, books, or the internet; on the other hand, one has a tool that allows him/her, through the creative processing of the information received and the presence of an important intuitive component, to obtain within themselves new and more advanced information. This is what the scientist, or the inventor, or the designer do when they discover, alone or in collaboration with others, new elements of knowledge, or develop new inventions or new projects: these elements, that were not present in human culture, from a certain moment on affect its further development. Furthermore, over time men have transformed themselves from organisms at the mercy of natural events, not unlike all other animals living in this world, to intelligent beings able to interact with such phenomena by reaching a certain degree of mastery over them, a dominion that clearly makes humans different from the rest of the animal world, and has been made possible by those transformations that have occurred through our conscious mental processing, and which translate in the structure of our knowledge of the world.

The human limits of knowledge and of the representations of the world and life

Earth, the only living world known to human beings, is the stage on which the complex game of evolution is played and shows itself, including also the rise of consciousness and the unfolding of the effects of the human psyche, with all the descriptions and interpretations produced by the latter to explain the phenomenon of life. Consequently, the visions elaborated by the human psyche have not irrelevant effects on the dynamics of natural events, as demonstrated by the ancient and recent history of humankind. The intellect can also make us aware of the inadequacy and imprecision of the way in which reality is described, for example through anthropocentric representations that evolution would pursue a project aimed at self-consciousness, but in the absence of sufficient knowledge the human mind is forced to stop, or to resort to the psyche's imagery, with all the drawbacks that result from it. On the other hand, if human mind represent itself as an instrument of knowledge of the reality, it must necessarily consider itself able to produce forms of knowledge sufficiently adequate to the same reality. Thus, for example, even the myth that God created man in his image and likeness can be considered an imaginary representation of the fact that between the creature (the human mind as an instrument of knowledge) and the creator (the evolutionary process of life ) there must be some form of affinity, otherwise there could be no knowledge.

There is something in humankind that transcends nature

The various descriptions of the world elaborated by the human psyche are to be included in the history of the evolution on our planet: human beings, as animal organisms, that is, bodies operating according to the natural laws that apply to the animal world, are in all respects part of the evolutionary history of life. But if the complexity of the human body, of its functioning, and of all the events that have led to its formation, are already present in the higher mammals, it can not be said that man is merely an animal and nothing else. We are used to call nature all the events and the phenomena that affect the transformations of the physical environment of the world, as well as the evolution all sorts of living forms, their interactions and the influence they have on the changes in the environment. Although humans are part of nature and are subject to natural events, the human psyche has always shown some difficulty, and sometimes almost an aversion, to perceive and interpret itself as a totally and exclusively natural phenomenon. There are some phenomena that create an interpretative barrier between the conditions of the upper animals, which we still define as natural, and the humans. In man, nature expresses itself through the instinctive and emotional demands of the body, in a way not different from what happens in higher animals, that live their emotions and impulses (probably perceived as true desires) in the same way, if not more intense, than ours. Their nervous system, on the other hand, is perfectly adequate for this purpose. In order to realize the reality of this statement, it is enough to observe the behavior and manifestations of animals during the period of mating: we can notice a remarkable expressive intensity and a multiformity of behaviors, which must correspond to a very strong inner perception and emotional involvement, even without wanting to suppose a form of consciousness similar to ours.

Although we can not assert it with certainty, we can suppose that the vicissitudes related to the animal condition have produced a state of anguish and suffering in human consciousness, at least in some social groups. If it had not been so, no one would think of having to overcome the state of nature. Moreover, if we investigate the life of upper animals in the natural state, we find that hunger, illness, competition and struggle can determine also in them well perceived and evident negative emotions, though not as elaborate as human ones. However the nuclei of mental energy of animal origin are not homogeneous or in harmony with each other, due to the lack of awareness and reasoned processing of the laws active in nature. These laws are certainly endowed with creative power, but it is an indifferent power, insensible, not open to harmony, empathy, and love for everything. The interaction of these natural forces therefore does not produce an order, in the superior sense of conscious harmony that can be given to this term, but only a constant tension, not exempt from many conflicting elements, which for the mere reason of not being self-destructive is represented as a form, though imperfect, of order. 

Nature can in fact be interpreted as a series of different creative experiments, each of which, closed in itself, performs autonomously its function within what is perceived as an undifferentiated natural environment. In the light of a human interpretation, some of the factors involved in this process are aggressive, others are defensive, some benevolent, others malicious, some emotional, others arid, and so on. But each organism seeks its own vital space to affirm the physical manifestation of its existence in an autonomous way, subjecting itself to conflicts and competition for the use of natural resources. The resulting order is given, in this case, by the limit that every living being represents for the free expansion of the others, and by the limit that natural resources, unavailable in unlimited quantities, represent for everyone. It is not, therefore, an agreement or a conscious order, but a conflictual interaction of substantially polycentric elements, to which all the creatures falling under the dominion of one or the other natural force are subject.

The human being, through the activation of the mental nuclei of animal origin, is subject to the laws of nature as any other organism. At the instinctual level what is given to our Ego as a gratification (pleasure) or as a deterrent (pain, fear) does not differ, in the character of mental experiences activated, by what is given to other higher animals. It is only for the presence of psychic energy nuclei of different origin that humans differ from animals, and do not fall entirely under the influence of nature. It can be assumed that the presence of such nuclei in the human psyche is the result of a process through which a new element has appeared on the scene of the events on this planet. Indeed, the existence of civilization is not at all necessary for man's life as an animal species. Humans would be able to survive, both as individuals and as a species, even in the state of nature, as animals among other animals. It is true that none of us, brought up by a civilized culture, can bring back our consciousness to an animal level, even if we were able to live in animal conditions and we tried to adopt animal behaviors. Even in the most primitive cultures there are behaviors and rituals that highlight the conscious need to differentiate man from animals. But since in the historical past of mankind it has happened that humans have passed from natural life to the cultural life of the primitive social nuclei, and then to civil life, we must recognize that the need for this transformation was inevitable, at least within the human psyche. Some human groups must have felt the charm and the benefits, even in terms of emotions, of a cultural life and of the first developments of civilization.

The complexity of the human phenomenon with the arrival on the world scene of the multiform manifestations of the human psyche, received by the consciousness and transformed into action by the will and intelligence of the human beings, make the plan of evolution of life even more incongruous and difficult to interpret. The next pages of this section will give some further interpretative indication of the evolution of human societies and cultures, but the most important aspect of the history of humankind is represented by the confusing and often conflicting manifestations of the human psyche


Origin of life
Evolution of life
Societies & cultures
Complex societies