Chapter Three

The Evolution Of Social Consciousness In Humans 

In Chapter One, which traced the development of cognitive abilities among increasingly sophisticated animals, culminating in the emergence of the mammal, an equivalence was established between increased cortical capacity and the degree of complexity of an animal's social environment. Social responsiveness, being the cognitive ability an animal has to be aware of conspecifics and its interaction with them, was allowed to have developed to a limited extent among amphibians. In Chapter Two, social responsiveness, more or less equivalent to Edelman's 'primary consciousness', involving the use of a 'remembered present' in combination with extensively integrated sensory/hedonic mappings, and referring specifically to the cognitive equipment needed for an animal to take part as an individual in group activities, was seen to have appeared among Sauropsids, particularly birds, and to have reached already a high degree of complexity in mammals.

This chapter surveys the emergence of more advanced social behaviours among primates, and takes forward the evolution of social consciousness (groupishness) to the stage at which biological evolution had produced anatomically modern man, Homo sapiens, approximately 50-100,000 years ago. There has not been time since then for man's genetic endowment to undergo radical alteration, so it must be assumed that groupishness in a genetic sense has also not materially changed since then, although there have been pervasive cultural developments which have profoundly affected the expression of groupishness in society.

Primate Groups

Primates display a level of groupedness which is intermediate between the 'animal' and 'human' versions. For Dunbar (Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language) primate groups owe their origin to kin groups, and have defence against predation as their primary function. Intra-group social interactions are seen as being about mating tactics.

Research conducted in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, by Seyfarth and Cheney (2003) showed a sophisticated level of understanding of kinship status and social rank in a baboon's reactions towards other baboons; but the researchers were doubtful about the complexity of the social models that might exist in the baboons' minds. And they found no evidence that the baboons have a theory of mind (ie that they can attribute mind to other baboons).

Researchers are continually pushing back the origins of group characteristics to earlier and earlier stages of evolution, so it's rather dangerous to pinpoint the first occurrence of particular behaviours; but with that proviso, the current state of knowledge would indicate that primates introduced complex social structures which operated on many dimensions other than simple dominance, suggesting that they could belong to multiple groups such as 'males', 'females', 'young people', 'older people', 'peacemakers', 'warriors'. Belonging to a group in this way strongly suggests that there is a equivalent conceptual category, possibly associated with or helping to construct a matching archetype; this is one of the ways in which a semantic structure began to be assembled in the brain.

Primates also considerably elaborated sets of social behaviours such as grooming, deception and altruism, which already existed in simpler form in less evolved mammals, and even in some Sauropsids. Despite Seyfarth and Cheney's doubts, other researchers have concluded that primates, especially higher ones such as the apes, demonstrate a marked degree of intentionality (an understanding of the 'otherness' of others). For instance, Bickerton (The Evolutionary Emergence of Language) discusses reciprocal altruism in the context of the development of syntax, and says: 'Reciprocal altruism is widespread among apes and not uncommon in monkey species'. However he thinks that the complexity of the social calculus involved in keeping track of behaviours over a long time period is such that the ape brain would not have been able to synthesize the elements of inter-personal behaviour into an overall assessment of other individuals, but that data would have been stored separately in different categories, such as food-sharing, grooming, etc. However, the categories had to exist for all individuals in the group, or interaction wouldn't be possible or accurate.

Thus primates have the ability to distinguish considerable numbers of individuals and remember their behaviour, and behave back accordingly. An ability to recognize individuals presupposes that there are individuals to recognize, and it is therefore reasonable to credit primates with a substantial degree of individuality and personality. Even quite humble mammals display personality traits such as greed, sloth, aggression, courage, timidity and so forth; in primates these differences became more marked – as the texture of the social backcloth grew more intricate, so did the actors in front of it need to become more sharply delineated.

On the cultural level, there is evidence that some learned (as distinct from instinctive or genetic) social (group) behaviours can be transmitted between primate generations. The method of transmission is of course by copying and by passing on from mother to child (difficult to know whether to call it teaching or not).

Whitten and Boesche (1999) and Van Schaik (2006) described non-genetic behavioural patterns in chimpanzee groups which are transmitted across generations, remaining distinct from similar patterns in other groups, and not linked to particular sub-species.

A young bonobo ape copying an older one

Photo credit

Van Schaik hypothesizes that this behaviour will give an evolutionary advantage over time, and that it should be associated with the process by which advanced primates acquired larger brains, leading to the development of humans.

Certainly one must credit primates with social consciousness, and it is hard to deny them self-awareness in addition. This means that primates, at any rate apes, are aware of themselves as social agents, can project themselves into 'not now' scenarios, and can plan and execute complex 'what if' programs which take into account the probable behaviour and the observed characteristics of others. Does this seem extreme? Can a dog not predict the likely behaviour of the cat next door when it brazenly steals its food? Surely then a chimpanzee can predict the behaviour of the weaker fellow whom it chooses to bully away from a choice morsel of meat? On the other hand, primates do not seem to be able to generalize this behaviour to other species. Hare (2004) described research which proved that dogs' ability to interpret human social clues in a hunt for food was acquired genetically by proximity to humans, and is lost again if the dogs are away from humans for a genetically significant period. Chimpanzees (which have never been domesticated) are more or less hopeless at equivalent tasks.

Donald, in Origins of the Modern Mind, takes self-awareness in chimpanzees to have become more marked as part of the development of the visually-guided hand movements in which chimpanzees are highly proficient, and speculates that such awareness, extended to the whole body, 'could have taken the next step, in hominids, to a completely new kind of self-representation'. Donald then asks: 'Is it possible that the cognitive adaptations that were needed to allow large groups to cohere were the same that enabled self-awareness?' In terms of syntax, the mental process of Agent – Theme (ie category) – Goal (eg I groom you) and its inversion (You groom me) can be seen as being a probable precursor of sentence structure.

Thus, the arrival of primates added to the basic animal 'group' tool-kit, a capacity for observing, using and communicating individual social behaviour, and a primitive level of transmissible social development. However, the primate group, while a more complex organism than the previous animal group, remained incapable of intentional group action other than on a very basic level. In Reintroducing Group Selection to the Human Behavioural Sciences, Wilson demonstrated that collective retribution for free-loading behaviour evolved as part of more sophisticated group strategies; there is no evidence that it exists among primate groups. The new cognitive tools allowed the individuals within the group to be collectively more successful; but it remained for humans to develop the group into something 'with a life of its own'.

Human Groups

Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne and Moll (2004) conclude indeed that the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other species is the 'ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions'.

As the author watches a group of ants carrying off a dead fly (building materials? food? war trophy?), this conclusion seems intuitively weak; and when a dog at Battersea Dogs Home in London is reported to have unlocked the cages of his friends in order to group-plunder the Home's larder, the author wonders even more. At any rate it can be said that collaborative activity is a marked feature of human groups, and one that gave them an evolutionary advantage.

Simultaneous membership of different groups is another feature of human sociality which reached a much greater degree of expression among humans than had been the case among primates. This is something that is mostly carried on unconsciously. The brain produces the right behaviours for the group you happen to be in at a particular moment, although when membership of two groups is incompatible, we call it a 'conflict of interest' and it has to be dealt with consciously. Multiple group membership probably exists in higher primates, as seen above, but the notable human capacity for juggling conflicting group memberships may have been honed when the hunter-gatherer group arose alongside the kin-group.

It may not be too extreme to say that individuality is itself a phenomenon of the group environment; and as will be seen later there is plenty of support for this view, although it will outrage some in its apparent denial of free will.

Although humans are aware of aspects of their membership of one or more groups, it does not necessarily follow that they have a clear understanding of the nature or origins of the groups to which they belong. Boyer in Religion Explained emphasizes the extent to which the group is an entity which somehow transcends its individual members:

'It appears to everyone that these groups were not created by their current members, nor will they disappear with them . . . . People often say that all members of a village or a clan "have the same bones", that they share some essence that is the eternal life of the social group'.

The capacity for multiple group membership, like a lot of other groupish characteristics which evolved in humans, is 'hard-wired'. This chapter is focused on such genetically determined, evolved characteristics, rather than on later, culturally-determined developments in the form and function of the group, which are dealt with in later chapters.

The Role Of Consciousness In The Human Group

In the early human group, at least up to the point at which the kin group developed complex social structures, and hunter-gatherer bands began to need sophisticated inter-personal communication in order to plan and execute group predation strategies, consciousness is not to be thought of as manifesting a very advanced degree of self-awareness.

The development of the human psyche was still at a very early stage, rooted far more in the collective than in any sense of personal individuality. The ego and the self were still relatively or completely unformed.

Durkheim (The Division of Labour In Society) takes the pre-historical human being to be almost devoid of conscious individuality: "If the individual is not distinct from the group, it is because the individual consciousness is almost indistinct from the collective consciousness".

It needs to be said that Durkheim, as would be expected for the period at which he was writing, does not distinguish clearly between the conscious and the unconscious as these terms are now understood.

A San hunter-gatherer group
consisting of several families

© Emila Potenza, curator of the Apartheid Museum Johannesburg

The very word 'unconscious' does not occur in Durkheim's book (first published in 1893) until page 150, where the word 'instinctive' would do almost as well. It wasn't until Freud (after 1900) that humans began to be conscious of their unconscious in the modern sense of the term! 'Psychic' might be a possible replacement for 'conscious' in Durkheim's writing.

In The Origins and History of Consciousness, Neumann emphasizes the usefulness of consciousness (to be understood as advanced social consciousness or primitive self-awareness) as a stabilizing factor in human cognitive development:

'The development of consciousness itself, and everything that has followed in its train, owes its origin to the urgent need for the creation of a stable structure to stand firm against the tendencies towards disintegration in the unconscious and in the outside world'.

He also lays emphasis on the importance in the evolution of consciousness of the male group in its struggle to become free of female domination.

'Precisely because the male group, in accordance not only with its "nature' but also with its sociological and psychological trends, requires the individual to act independently as a responsible ego, initiation into the men's society is always bound up with the testing and strengthening of consciousness.'

It would not be possible for a man to write those words today without being instantly put to death by the ladies; but it's not to be excluded that some aspects of the bundle we now call consciousness may have originated in the masculine hunter-gatherer band. It's probably just a question of the contents of consciousness; the thing itself can exist with scarcely any contents, but perhaps 'group consciousness' so to speak, may have got its start among men. Nowadays most women would think they are more conscious than men; and who is to say they are wrong? It's an interesting (and perhaps testable) question, as to whether men or women are more 'groupish'. There have been plentiful studies of male versus female conformity, which have tended to show that females conform more readily than men (eg Eagly and Carli, 1981). But even the researchers conclude that the results may be heavily skewed by modern gender stereotypes; and in any case these studies do not test 'groupishness' as such.

The Human Social Tool-Kit

At a superficial level, the story of the evolution of the human brain during the last few million years is primarily one of burgeoning size. Table Two in Chapter Two shows that the squirrel brain is comparable to that of primates and humans as a proportion of body weight, but of course in absolute terms it is much smaller (by a factor of 100). Some, but not all of the difference in size can be accounted for simply in terms of the greater volume of interoceptive sensory input to be dealt with in a larger body; the remainder represents an absolute gain in processing capacity. Relative cortical volumes, also shown in the Table, are a better measure, although still crude, and they show a doubling or more of cortex volume as a proportion of total brain volume in the progression from squirrels through apes to humans.

Countless studies have shown that the more complex social behaviour of primates, and later of humans, is strongly associated with increasing brain size, and by now it is a commonplace that the extra brain is needed for an expanded communication repertoire and for remembering multiple other individuals and their behaviours. One particularly clear association is between brain size and group size. Says Dunbar (ibid):

'There is a species-specific upper limit to group size which is set by purely cognitive constraints: animals cannot maintain the cohesion and integrity of groups larger than a size set by the information-processing capacity of their neocortex. The group size identified by this relationship appears to refer to the maximum number of individuals with whom an animal can maintain social relationships by personal contact. It is not necessary that all these individuals live in the same physical group: chimpanzees (among a number of other species) have a fission/fusion form of social system in which at any one time the community (the group in the sense defined above) is divided into a number temporary foraging parties whose composition changes repeatedly. Nor does it follow that a species' social system consists only of a single type of group: it is now clear that most primate species live in complex multi-tiered social systems in which different layers are functional responses to different environmental problems. Rather, the neocortical constraint seems to be on the number of relationships that an animal can keep track of in a complex, continuously changing social world: the function subserved by that level of grouping will depend on the individual species' ecological and social context.'

Aiello and Dunbar (1993) attempted with some success to derive a predictive model for fitting expected average group sizes to hominid fossils on the basis of their brain size. Interestingly, the proportion of frontal cortex to overall cortex does not vary between the great apes and humans (Semendefri, Lu, Schenker and Damasio 2002) although the human cortex is larger than than the great ape cortex in absolute terms by a factor of three times.

Although the basic structure of the brain remained fairly unchanged during the progression from early mammals to humans, important improvements apart from the sheer increase in size included the addition of specialized areas to handle sophisticated inter-personal communication (Wernicke's and Broca's areas), the proliferation of re-entrant circuitry through the much-enlarged thalamus, and a general increase in connectivity between different regions.

The key steps in cognitive ability that led to social consciousness and eventually to self-awareness include the following:

  • The development of a sense of time and the idea of causation.
  • The development of attentional mechanisms in the brain, allowing (eventually) analysis and planning functions to emerge.
  • The ordering of concepts to form pre-syntax – repeated reinforcement of the piece of cognitive knowledge (a thought and/or a memory) that identification (categorization) of an object must always precede motor action, and of the further piece of knowledge that the action affects a further, categorized object, eventually lays the foundations for grammar.
  • The emergence of symbols as tools of thought, probably based on archetypes (themselves not usable in thought processes).
  • Symbolic modeling of 'self' and 'not-self' in social encounters.
  • The development of the 'social calculus', that's to say, the set of social techniques used by members of the group to interact with each other. Obviously, it is based on intentionality (an understanding of the 'otherness' of others) and begins with the techniques already in use by the primate group, including mimicry, physical grooming, deception, reciprocal altruism, and the ability to distinguish individuals and remember their behaviour, and behave back accordingly. Empathy (a consequence of a theory of mind), laughter, tears and other emotive displays are highly characteristic of human groups.
  • The development of non-linguistic communication and finally of language.
  • The definition in the mind of a 'social agent' to take part in external relationships, and accompanying psychological mechanisms such as repression.

These are not particularly in order. Some perhaps came before others, and may have had to, but for the most part they probably overlapped to a considerable extent. Another impossibility is to determine the extent to which the higher mammals, primates and early humans shared in the superior abilities which were developing. It will be said that some of these social tools are on display in primate groups; but if that is so, and there is much doubt about it, they are very pale shadows of the highly effective techniques they become in human groups.

Evolution Of The Social Emotions

Pinker in How The Mind Works, states the Darwinian case for the evolution of 'social' emotions in the group:

'Every psychologist who has written about the function of the social emotions has talked about their benefit to the group'.

However he insists that the evolution takes place at the level of the individual, not at the level of the group, adducing Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. It must be true that humans' genetically embedded groupish characteristics evolved at the individual level, although that evolution may have been sharpened by group pressures, partly explaining why evolution seems to have speeded up during the later stages of human development; however there comes a point at which social development takes off on its own account (see below).

Pride of place among the social emotions must surely be given to reciprocal altruism, as the glue, more than any other, that binds groups together. Reciprocal altruism has justifiably received an overwhelming amount of attention in the literature; one of the most thorough treatments being given by Trivers (The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism). Says Ridley (ibid): 'Trivers noticed that moralistic aggression serves to police fairness in reciprocal exchanges' (think of queueing).

Reciprocal altruism is however just one of an extensive range of social emotions, which also include empathy, shame, humour, anxiety, hate, love, loyalty, confidence and many other 'limbic' states.

Ridley quotes Frank's theory of the origin of the emotions (he was, interestingly, an economist) first given in Passions Within Reason. Ridley says:

'Moral sentiments, as Frank (and Adam Smith before him) calls the emotions, are problem-solving devices designed to make highly social creatures effective at using social relations to their genes' long term advantage.'

For Frank (ibid), humans have a propensity towards the development of moral sentiments, although those sentiments are not directly expressed through any genetic mechanism:

'Definitions of honesty, notions of fairness, even the conditions that trigger anger, all differ widely from culture to culture. If people inherit anything at all, it is a receptiveness to training about the attitudes that are likely to serve them in life.'

Emotions are not just something felt by the individual (one of their purposes, indeed) but are also displayed by the individual for the evident purpose of communicating with or influencing other members of the group. Donald (ibid) notes that Darwin believed facial expression to be a very efficient device for the communication of emotion in small groups, and that the continued use of facial expressions by modern humans is a vestige of this early adaptation.The Anatomy of Human Expression, written and illustrated by Sir Charles Bell (1806) has a detailed exposition of the anatomical basis of facial expression. Recent research has given a firmer basis to the idea that many aspects of facial expressiveness are genetically transmitted. Peleg et al (2006) describe a study showing that blind volunteers had facial expressions almost identical to their relatives’ expressions.

Musical ability and the propensity to dance also arose alongside the social emotions during the early development of the social group; they are definitely genetically rooted, and are frequently described in groupish terms. Ridley (ibid) says:

'The evolutionary benefit of letting the emotions be stirred by music may well be to synchronize and harmonize the emotional mood of a group of individuals at a time when they are called upon to act in the interests of the group.'

Darwin thought that song would not have developed if symbolic language had already been in place (Donald, ibid). Song is indeed usually associated with emotional states, and both presumably developed before conceptual language.

The Archetype In The Development Of Groups

In the transition from animal groups to human groups capable of communal self-knowledge and action, one key agent of change was the expansion of the ability to communicate, strongly associated with (and probably impossible without) increases in brain size and cognitive capacity.

While it is tempting to seize upon language as being the bed-rock of human communication, commentators are nearly unanimous in thinking that language could only have evolved from proto-languages such as signing, visual representations or signals, and indeed non-linguistic vocalization. In all of these the human mimetic capacity was crucial. In order to be more than a collection of interacting individuals, however, the group needed not only a means of communication, but also to develop concepts, not least that of itself, of the idea of leadership, the idea of rules (laws), and many other conceptual ingredients of the brew we call 'society'.

In thinking about the more or less simultaneous emergence of language, 'groupishness', and these early social concepts, it's clear that myth played a large part, and myth itself was strongly linked to (and employed) visual images. One of the greatest difficulties in trying to imagine how this set of advanced behaviours might have evolved is their seeming inter-dependence. How could they all have evolved (more or less) together if each one depends on all the others so intimately? While there is certainly no agreed-upon answer to this question, and there may never be, because brain tissue, unlike skeletons, doesn't survive for millions of years, it yet did happen; and archetypes are surely an important component of the puzzle.

The archetype, a word used in this context initially by Jung (The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious) and very much elaborated by his follower Ernest Neumann (The Origins and History of Consciousness), is a numinous (potent, powerful) unconscious psychic content. In itself it is not to be thought of as having a specific form – it exists in a very deep layer of the brain – but it gives rise to images in the visual cortex which partially represent it. The case for the evolution of groupish archetypes is well put by Gray (Archetypal Explorations):

'A mechanism for . . . inheritance of culturally determined patterns has been identified by Lumsden and Wilson (Genes, Mind and Culture: The Co-Evolutionary Process). Lumsden and Wilson have hypothesized that it takes something on the order of 1,000 years for a cultural element, or a propensity to express a culturally defined trait, to become established in the gene pool as an inherited trait. That is, during 1,000 years of selection for a specific tendency towards culture or the manipulation of cultural artifacts, a group will result that exhibits an increased propensity for displaying that trait or being able to use that artifact. This is strongly suggestive of Jung's observations that the archetypes represent the accretion of endless repetitions of typical patterns of behaviour (Jung 1959/1968a, para 99).'

Gray also describes archetypes as nodes of concentrated psychic content in the collective unconscious (an archetype is useless unless it is collective); that's not a bad way of describing groups, as well. You can never quite separate an archetype; you can never quite separate a group either. Many concepts which are essential components of human (and group) thought originated as archetypes; later on, both in time and in terms of cognitive activity, they put on the clothes of visual imagery and verbal identity. But they began perhaps in the limbic brain as archetypes.

Such is the theory of archetypes. It is not an unavoidable part of explaining the evolution of thought, language and society, but it is certainly very helpful, and there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence for the existence of and the role played by archetypes. While a partial treatment of the general importance of archetypes is given here, because it is a relatively unfamiliar aspect of human evolution, they are dealt with at greater length separately in Appendix Three. Here the concentration is on the importance of the archetype in the development of the group.

Ridley in The Origins of Virtue illustrates the importance of archetypes in cultural development without using the word 'archetype':

'It would be as odd to find a tribe in New Guinea to whom the words dance, myth or ceremony (suitably translated) meant nothing at all as it would be to find one that did not know the meaning of hunger, love or family. Ritual is universal; but its details are particular.'

In this quote, 'tribe' = 'group', and dance, myth and ceremony are expressions of universal archetypes. He continues:

'I am about to argue that one way to understand ritual is as a means of reinforcing cultural conformity in a species dominated by groupishness and competition between groups.'

The group itself began in some sense as an archetype, since the individual members of a group would not be able to understand themselves as such unless they shared a collective (and of course unconscious) understanding of the concept of a group. Some writers suppose that the group has a psychic structure similar to that of an individual human, that is to say with a more or less conscious level and an underlying unconscious level of content. See for instance Gray (ibid).

A more speculative idea is that the psychic structure of the individual in fact began as the psychic structure of the group, and that the conscious/unconscious division of the human mind as we know it is nothing but a group phenomenon copied into the members of the group. Anyway, it's easy to see how consciousness of being a member of a group could naturally evolve along with the psychic fact of the group. Gray (ibid):

'It is possible from Jung's writings to understand large groups as being possessed of a structure that parallels the structure of an individual psyche.'

He quotes Piaget in support of this idea. Again: Gray (ibid), in the context of the Jungian 'Hero's Journey':

'Although the classical application of the pattern of the descent of libido is to individual psyches, there may be reason to believe that a similar pattern applies in larger groups.'

It's possible therefore to conceive the 'dark' behaviour of some groups (Nazis naturally spring to mind) as being parallel to the regression of an individual personality into 'dark' behaviour as a result of an intolerable psychic situation.

Certainly, the need for an individual to adopt a 'persona' or 'face' or 'role' in dealing with the world – or indeed to adopt a whole series of different ones – is reflected in the behaviour of groups as well. This is nowadays known as 'spin' in politics. Thus, Gray:

'Just as the normal individual projects an image that allows him to function in the world as a normal member of society, so groups can project images that may not be consistent with their actual goals or circumstances.'

The advertising industry is of course devoted to this task, as expounded very well by Mitroff and Bennis (The Unreality Industry).

Seabright in The Company of Strangers describes how politicians appeal to groupish emotions and loyalties for their own opportunistic purposes:

'A politician speaking on television is cultivating the illusion of speaking to each individual viewer as a kinsman or a friend. The viewer's brain may not be fooled, but the brain may not be the target. . . . A reference to the fatherland tugs at our reserves of loyalty – how could we be so churlish as to withhold our cooperation now?'

The Components Of Groupedness

Having dealt with the advances in cognitive equipment which were necessary for individuals to form part of a social group, this section focuses on the characteristics which allowed the emergence of the group as an actor in some sense distinct from its individual members.

Members of a human group self-evidently have 'shared intentionality'; that is to say, they are capable of behaving jointly with other members of the group to achieve a goal which is in the interests of the group. This seems a simple enough statement, but for it to become true required a means of communication among group members, and the development of institutions, if that is not too grand a word, through which the group's goals could be established.

The crucial innovations that came together to provide a basis for joint intentional action were:

  • Language: proto-languages involving gestural communication or non-verbal vocalization are not likely to have been effective at describing communal goals or enabling communal action; for this, semantic and syntactical language was required. In addition, the human members of a group can use language to affirm groupedness. It's possible indeed that language is essential to the existence of a human group as we understand it, and may be the defining characteristic of human groups as distinct from animal groups in general.
  • Status, hierarchy and reputation: for a group to operate in an efficient way, some kind of structuring is vital; the individual has to know how he or she relates to other members of the group, on a large variety of scales, of which dominance, as was explained above, is only one.
  • Myth: while ritual can and did exist in the absence of language, expressed very probably through song and dance, and assisting in concretization of the group, myth is necessary as the basis of transmissible rules of behaviour;
  • Law: the archetypal concept of 'The Fathers' (see below), as the fount of accumulated group wisdom and the source of law needs to be accepted as at least partially genetic in nature; later on, with the development of conceptual language, much of the controlling and law-giving apparatus surrounding 'The Fathers' came to be culturally transmitted, but in the early stages at least there was a major genetic component.
  • Last and not least, the concept of the group among groups (in competition or cooperation or both with them) is necessary for the group to have meaningful existence in the real world. Whatever the nature of the original human group, and there seems to be a fair measure of agreement that it began as a kin-group which spawned or morphed into a hunter-gatherer group, and later still into a territorial group, its external relations must have been a matter of evolutionary adaptation from the beginning just as much as its internal relations. External relations at this stage is still understood to mean external relations as in the mind of one of the group's members, and still as an evolved genetic trait; only later on did the group develop culturally transmitted characteristics which indeed would have included collective norms for its external character and behaviour.

It will be seen that each of these is dependent on the existence of appropriate archetypes – for where else would the relevant concepts come from? Archetypes have been discussed, if briefly; now each of the above components will be treated separately, always with a focus on 'groupish' aspects.


Language is widely understood to have been an evolutionary adaptation to increasing group size, which brought with it the need for more efficient (faster, more precise) communication than could be achieved with proto-languages and with grooming, which were adequate in smaller, less sophisticated groups; or at the minimum, language and large groups evolved in tandem, each pushing the other. Studdert-Kennedy (The Emergence of Phonetic Structure) describes a mathematical simulation of language development which shows that language is very unlikely to develop as a means of communication except in a close-knit community of individuals (a group).

The evidence for the development of language as a Darwinian adaptation to the needs of social (ie group) interchange is thoroughly reviewed by Knight, Studdert-Kennedy and Hurford (The Evolutionary Emergence of Language), based on Pinker and Bloom (1990), Bickerton (1990), and Dunbar (1993), among others. Although they agree that language developed from as long ago as 2 to 4 million years in response to the growing complexity of social life, language at that time does not have to mean speech, which from the fossil record was probably not anatomically possible until as recently as 400,000 years ago, but was based on mimetic signing, primitive vocalisation and visual communication. Still, they agree that syntax would have emerged long before speech, and that language would not have been adaptive in the absence of mechanisms to limit (punish) deception.

The growth in group size as primates gave way to early hominids was charted by Dunbar (Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language). He calculates the percentage of time that would have been required to maintain social contacts through grooming until the point comes when language would have been required; that point is about 250,000 – 400,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens appeared, and optimum social group size reached its expected modern level of about 150. 'Language' here means something close to modern speech and Dunbar describes a succession of intermediate phases between physical grooming and spoken language. The relative contributions of genetic and cultural evolution to this change are unclear; an increasing number of writers doubt the contribution of genetic as opposed to cultural evolution to the evolution of modern speech.

Language as it is now understood is just one of an enormous variety of communication techniques developed within the primate and later the human social group.

Jaynes (The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind) emphasizes that these were almost all related to interaction within the group, and had little to do with describing the external physical world:

'tactile communication ranging from mouthing and grooming to various kinds of embracing, nuzzling and fingering;

'sounds ranging from assorted grunts, barks, screeching, and yakking, all grading into each other; non-vocal signals such as grinding teeth or beating branches;

'visual signals in a variety of facial expressions, the threatening, direct eye-to-eye gaze, eyelid fluttering in baboons in which the brows are raised and the lids are lowered to expose their pale colour against the darker background of the face, together with a yawn that bares the teeth aggressively;

'various postural signals such as lunging, head-jerking, feinting with the hands, and all these in various constellations.'

A thoughtful gorilla contemplating life at Port Lymne Zoo Park in South-Eastern England

Public Domain

The requirement for a high degree of expressive precision in non-linguistic communication and later in language itself would have been a major factor in the need for increased brain size in hominids (Bickerton, How Protolanguage Became Language). Striedter (2004) presented evidence associating increase in brain size with the development of language:

'unusually extensive projections from the neocortex to the motor neurons of the medulla and spinal cord . . . probably allowed modern humans to produce more finely controlled movements of the hands, respiratory muscles, eyes, jaws, lips, tongue, and vocal folds. Those increases in manual, ocular, oral, and vocal dexterity were probably prerequisite for the emergence of human language, some 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. . . human language probably evolved, at least in part, as an automatic but adaptive consequence of increased absolute brain size.'

This dating of the emergence of language is considerably later than the conventional account.

The development of a larger brain and greater cognitive capacity permitted the additional storage required by a lexicon (dictionary) and the greater processing power needed to handle syntax and the conceptual aspects of language. But language and larger group sizes are in fact inseparable; it's chicken and egg to try to say which came first.

However substantial the contribution of genetic evolution to linguistic communication, there is no doubting the advantages that can be gained within the group through the ability to share information gained over the lifetime of individuals (Brandon and Hornstein, 1986; Tooby and DeVore, 1987).

Say Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby (The Adapted Mind): 'there is an obvious advantage in being able to acquire such information about the world second-hand', quoting Isaac (1983) and Konner (1982) in support of the importance of linguistic interactions in the social group, and emphasizing the complexity of the linguistic apparatus already presumed in use at an early stage of development (Homo habilis, 2 million years ago). They conclude:

'In a group of communicators competing for attention and sympathies there is a premium on the ability to engage, interest and persuade listeners'.

For 'listeners' perhaps understand 'watchers' during the mimetic phases of development of language.

The physiological facilitation of language by the 'dropped glottis' and larger acoustic vocal cavity (both resulting from or maybe just accompanying bi-pedalism) is also seen as linked to the emergence of larger group sizes which became possible and necessary as hominids developed. There are competing explanations as to why this development took place: the transition from forest to plain dwelling is one; the change to a nomadic way of life is another; and a third is the development of competition between human groups.

Deacon (The Symbolic Species) argues that language emerged concurrently with the development of social contracts, which as non-physical concepts cannot be represented by mimetic techniques. He gives a list of reasons for the development of language, each of which is strongly tied to the existence or ongoing development of the group: organizing hunts; sharing food; communicating about distributed food sources; planning warfare and defence; passing on toolmaking skills; sharing important past experiences; establishing social bonds between individuals; manipulating potential sexual competitors or mates; caring for and training young.

For Deacon, it is the ability to communicate (and think) symbolically that marks off human beings from their predecessors, and he takes this ability to arise and to be transmitted through some mixture of genetic and cultural processes, with the group having central importance:

'All symbolizing hominids are linked by a common pool of symbolic information, one that is as inaccessible to other species as are human genes. We are all heirs of symbolic forms that were passed from one generation to to the next and from one group to another (author's emphasis), forming a single unbroken tradition.'

Deacon's symbols likely have a strong connection with archetypes, and must have played a key role in the evolution of pre-linguistic communication.

Steele (On The Evolution Of Temperament And Dominance Style In Hominid Groups) notes characteristics of language which suit it to being a means of communication in a group environment:

'a number of aspects of human conversational exchanges (cyclicity, repetition, turn-taking routines, mutual adaptation of parameters such as voice pitch and amplitude) have properties which tend to reinforce the affiliative quality of a relationship.'

Hogg and Abrams (Social Identifications) give an extended analysis of language as a component of social groupedness, and the extent to which language contains social 'markers' and other social information.

The cognitive mechanics of language are of course highly relevant to an understanding of how the individual psyche develops and operates in society, since almost all of the individual's interactions with the group and its members take place through language. Once language had evolved, human behavior changed dramatically without further changes in average absolute brain size.

Status And Reputation In The Human Group

Radcliffe-Brown (The Social Organization of Australian Tribes) describes how the individuality of a person arriving into a primitive kin group is established by using complex (linguistic) kin terminology to describe the relationship of the new individual to each and every member of the group:

'As soon as he knows his relation to a given individual he knows how to behave towards him, what his duties are and what his rights.'

The word 'status' does not necessarily imply hierarchy. It is tempting to ascribe a modern 'top-down' model of hierarchical control to prehistoric societies, with the inbuilt assumption that there was a chief with over-arching power, but few writers go along with this, and evidence such as it is from contemporary primitive societies suggests that early human kin groups and the hunting groups which are supposed to have developed from them were far more cooperative than competitive.

Evans-Pritchard, for instance, in The Nuer, describes the 'chief' of the tribe as one who has ritual and negotiating roles, but no secular power at all. And Chance (A Socio-Mental Bimodality) describes two social modes, 'agonic' and 'hedonic', both having evolved among earlier primate social groupings. While the two modes co-exist in great ape social groupings, he sees the hedonic mode (relaxed, flexible and cooperative) as more prevalent, and likely to have been the dominant condition in hunter-gatherer societies.

Hierarchies in the modern sense of the term may not have played a dominating role in human groups until a relatively late stage. Indeed, cooperative models formed the basis of village life and trading communities until very recently in human development.

A Nuer leopard-skin chief

Copyright 2003, The Trustees of Indiana University

Sects such as the Amish may reflect a more original model of social organisation: Richerson and Boyd (Not by Genes Alone) describe the very non-authoritarian and cooperative structure of the Amish:

'The emphasis is on preventing men from competing for office and preventing successful candidates from feeling too proud or mighty.'

Status does however definitely include kin relationships, and at first was perhaps limited to those, but as time passed and the group became more complex, status widened to include non-kin roles, eventually defined by language, which would have increased the permissible complexity of relationships. One of the main results of the use of complex linguistic interaction among group members, certainly including a major use of gossip (one of the evolved uses of language), is reputation, which gives access to sexual favours and to the various social goods that the group can provide, or in the case of a bad reputation, deny.

Dunbar (ibid) examining the uses of language, quotes Emler (1990) as arguing that much of our daily use of language is in fact concerned with reputation management. Thus also Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby (ibid):

'Gossip from an anthropological perspective is a means of social control, a sanction that forces one to adhere more closely to social norms than one would otherwise be inclined. Reputation is determined by gossip, and the casual conversations of others affect one's relative standing and one's acceptability as a mate or as a partner in social exchange.'

The currency in use in all these interactions is of course information. Why, asks Knight (The Evolution of Cooperative Communication) is it that within human coalitions status is earned through the efforts of the individual to display and acquire information, whereas in ape society it may be earned more effectively by manipulation or concealment of relevant information? For Desalles (Language and Hominid Politics) later in the same volume the answer is that in the human group ownership of information has replaced physical strength as the most important currency. In an ape troop you hardly need a reputation for strength; you are visibly strong or you are not. In a human group, there is no physical attribute that says you are wealthy in information, hence the need for reputation.

Noble (Cooperation, Competition and the Evolution of Prelinguistic Communication) addresses the issue of deception (why give away information?), giving various possible explanations; it is interesting that they all depend on the existence of the group. Trivers (Natural Selection and Social Theory) points out that individuals can move between groups as a result of social factors, for instance an individual engaging in much deception can be expelled, or a cooperator can choose to leave a group which permits too much deception. Trivers quotes Lee and DeVore, 1968, for evidence that such movement does take place between contemporary hunter-gatherer groups. Evidently, this would be a mechanism that would favour the development of 'cooperator' rather than 'deceiver' groups; this argues against a 'group selection' mechanism for social evolution, but highlights how the requirements of the group can drive rapid evolution at an individual level.


The scanty evidence that is available to us about the ethical basis of early societies, and the characteristics of modern survivals of primitive ways of life in Africa, Australia and South America, together suggest that myth played a large role in controlling the behaviour of social groups from a very early stage.

Myth has all the appearance of being a universal feature of human social life, strongly associated with archetypes. Just as, in the case of archetypes, the visual or conceptual instantiation of the archetype may vary across cultures, but the underlying archetype is invariable (genetically hard-wired), so with myth: the forms that myths take vary widely, but the meaning of the myths, their social and psychological purpose, remains constant.

Neumann (Amor and Psyche) says: 'Myth is always the unconscious representation of such crucial life situations, and one of the reasons why myths are so significant for us is that we can read the true experiences of mankind in these confessions unobscured by consciousness'. In The Child, describing the emergence of consciousness, Neumann says:

'The development of the stages of consciousness and the concomitant development of the ego are a process which is normally so dependent on the collectivity that we find rituals in almost all human groups. They make possible and facilitate the transition from one phase to another, for by identifying himself with the traditions, myths, rites and religion of the group the individual achieves an understanding of his existence and of his function in the collective.'

For example, all primitive societies seem to have had witches, and they almost always fly. A witch is a mythical creature, based on an archetype, and figures prominently in the mythical life of early societies. A witch is an anti-group figure; but that doesn't mean the group didn't invent witches – external threats are helpful in binding groups together.

Flying witches are wonderfully alive among Malinowski's south sea islanders (Argonauts of the Western Pacific). He says: 'But it can never be sufficiently emphasized that all these (mythic) beliefs cannot be treated as consistent pieces of knowledge; they flow into one another, and even the same native probably holds several views rationally inconsistent with one another.' Later, when discussing magic:

'Myth has crystallized into magical formulae, and magic in its turn bears testimony to the authenticity of myth. Often, the main function of myth is to serve as a foundation for a system of magic, and, wherever magic forms the backbone of an institution, a myth is also to be found at the base of it.'

Gray (ibid) describes myth as being at once the source and the legitimation of group behaviours: 'From the perspective of sociology, myth generally takes the form of legitimations for the current system of group function. But from the archetypal perspective they begin not so much as the rationale as the source of the behaviours themselves.' He gives examples from Chinese cultural history.

Gray (ibid) says:

'New forms of thought and action have their origins in the collective unconscious. Before an experience becomes part of the mythic corpus that defines a people, it must enter into consciousness.'

This could be put as saying that in so far as the conscious is a necessary building block of social and cultural development, it relies on input from the (collective) unconscious. If you believe that consciouness predates humans, is functions as a repository of the knowledge of group identity. Here, that type of consciousness would be labelled 'social consciousness', not self-awareness.

For Donald (ibid) myth is inseparable from the development of language, and had a strongly integrative function: 'The scattered, concrete repertoire of mimetic culture came under the governance of integrative myth'. And again: 'Mythic integration was contingent on symbolic invention and on the deployment of a more efficient symbol-making apparatus'. He means language; but archetypes are a 'symbol-making apparatus' and came long before language. It's likely that individual myths developed before conceptual language allowed the erection of an integrated mythic world picture; in fact it's evident from other parts of the book that Donald is talking here more about the culturally-transmitted narrative myth which could only come into being on the basis of fairly advanced, spoken linguistic achievement, rather than the archetype-driven mythical components used by the early human group to construct its ethical framework.

As with music, it is arguable that myth might not have been necessary as a means of creating a kind of ethical skeleton for early societies had conceptual language developed to the point at which a body of laws and religion could be expressed and understood by group members. Be that as it may, myth is alive and well in modern society, in artistic monuments such as Wagner's Ring Cycle, in 'folk' influences on writing and the arts, in religion itself, and in countless other ways. Myths are hard-wired into the human unconscious.

'The Fathers'

Although the inter-personal emotional and ethical structure of the group can be constant in different environments, conflicts can arise and external circumstances can vary considerably, so that there is a need for a mechanism which can deliver experience-based guidance to group members, making use of the accumulated life-wisdom of the group – this before cultural transmission became possible, probably meaning before the emergence of conceptual language. Hence the evolution of 'The Fathers', being a tendency in individuals to look up to and respect the wisdom of elders, even if expressed only in behavioural terms – a hand on the shoulder to stop a young man's ill-advised movement into the line of fire of an enemy is every bit as compelling as a whispered warning. A group which makes full use of the wisdom available from its members is adaptively fitter than one that does not.

Later on, when conceptual language became available, The Fathers were the natural originators, guardians and transmittors of the law, and they became leaders, priests, educators, lawyers etc; but initially they merely represented a guidance principle.

'The Fathers' are always men, even in a matriarchal society, which is a sure sign that they stem from an archetypal original. A 'Father' by no means has to be your own father. Malinowski (Sex and Repression in Savage Society) notes that in many matriarchal societies the less tender aspects of fathership, including male authority, dealing with tribal ambition, coercive measures etc are performed by the maternal uncle. There is a good genetic reason for that: there is no guarantee that the apparent father is the biological father, whereas the mother's brother is sure to be genetically connected with the child. It is possible therefore that the separation of law-giving from parenthood originated in this way.

The Fathers are to be observed in almost every contemporary primitive society: Kuper (Anthropology and Anthropologists – The New British School), describing social arrangements among the Nuer, writes:

'Any feud within the tribe could be settled by mediation and the payment of blood-wealth. This mediation was usually through the good offices of a 'leopard-skin' chief, a member of a hereditary group of mediators, respected but effectively powerless.'

Equivalent arrangements are described in very many tribal societies. And no need to point out the various types of 'Father' in our modern societies. De Jouvenal (ibid) comments on the early Roman republic, in which the Senate was the 'assembly of the fathers'.

Until extremely recent times, religions have universally preserved the male-dominated model of doctrinal hierarchy which they inherited in a more or less unbroken line from the societies of pre-history, and even now it is only really the Protestant Church which has admitted women to positions of ritual and organisational authority.

Tiger (Men In Groups) gives an extensive account of the tendency of males to form groups of their own, and for these to be secretive. The Masons can stand as a perfect example. Tiger is not convinced of the utility of such groups from the point of view of wider society; but it is at least clear that they demonstrate the continuing potency of 'the Fathers' as a concept in the unconscious.

The Human Groupish Endowment

It's now possible to make a list, no doubt only partial, of the main features of human groupishness as it emerged from the evolutionary process. Every human being has these characteristics hard-wired into his or her genetic makeup. They are overlain in many group situations by culturally transmitted aspects of the group which have developed in society over the last 50,000 years; but these latter can at least in theory be reversed by social engineering or education. Not so with the genetic components of groupishness, which could only be changed by hundreds of thousands of years of further evolution.

For anyone wishing to improve the social behaviour of mankind, it's absolutely necessary to accept for better or for worse that there is nothing to be done in the short term about groupishness as it exists as a result of biological evolution. Chapter Ten will consider whether one day we will be able to change our natures, and if so, in which dimensions; and most of all whether we ought to.

The list:

A propensity to affiliate

Ability to belong to multiple groups simultaneously

Awareness of one's membership of groups and of others who belong to them

Ability to communicate on a group level, and to display behaviours which are constant and predictable among members of a group

Ability to function in a complex social hierarchy

Use of grooming, deception, gossip and reputation management techniques

The ability to distinguish individuals and remember their behaviour, and behave back accordingly

Shared intentionality, and a theory of mind

Reciprocal altruism; a tendency to help other members of groups to which the individual belongs

Xenophobia; a tendency to fight and mistrust members of groups other than one's own

The possession of a shared (collective) unconscious among all humans which contains archetypes and myths spanning a very wide range of aspects of human life

The possession of a shared (collective) unconscious which contains information about the characteristics of groups to which the individual belongs

The ability to feel and express a wide range of emotions, including fear, joy, pride, rage, happiness, misery, shame

The ability to empathize

The ability to learn and use language of various types (mimetic, visual, conceptual and spoken)

Musical ability and the propensity to dance

Consciousness of group memberships and the capacity to submit to group demands at the expense of individual desires

A tendency to accept guidance from qualified 'elder' members of a group to which an individual belongs

A propensity to exchange



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