Group Terminology

Although the word 'group' has multiple uses in English, dictionaries do not offer any satisfactory adjectival or adverbial derivatives. In this book, which is mostly about groups, it would be cumbersome to use constant circumlocutions, so the noncewords 'groupish' (having to do with or having an affinity with groups), 'groupishness' (the quality of being groupish) and 'groupedness' (the state of being in a group) will be used when appropriate. They are to found here and there on the Internet and in published works, in fact, so they are not completely new inventions.

Consciousness And The Human Group

In our evolutionary history, individual separateness in a physical sense is of very long standing, although some types of animal never developed it, or even abandoned it. So also is the division of individuals into two kinds, male and female. Other, physical distinctions exist among us, and play a role in mating or in survival, such as eye or skin colour, strength, height, and so on. Some mental attributes also go way back, perhaps, such as courage and propensity to nurture kin (most often children). Such attributes can be observed in many other species. But humans are unique among species in having developed a wide range of 'social' emotions and behaviours which are nonetheless genetically encoded just as much as height or eye colour.

Some of the more basic of these social emotions or behaviours also evolved among other species, such as ants or wolves, which are often termed 'social' species as a result; but the range and depth of human social emotions and behaviours far outstrips anything to be observed elsewhere, even among non-human primates, who evidently set out on the road we humans later followed.

Among the characteristic features of humans is also the set of cognitive abilities we call consciousness, including the ability to report to each other about our current state of mind through language. Conscious activity is a key contributor to the 'face' presented by an individual in a group. It will be a major proposition of this book that consciousness as we humans experience it is a product of our social natures, perhaps even more epigenetic than genetic (NB some technical words are unavoidably used in this book - they are explained in the Glossary).

Many evolutionary biologists believe that consciousness arose or at least gained greater salience as a result of the demands posed by the group, accompanied by the emergence of individual personality and complex inter-personal behaviours. Although some primitive precursor of consciousness presumably originated way back in animal evolution, there's no doubt that cognitive power, and consciousness as part of that, expanded greatly with the arrival of social groups. Other things that happened during the same period (roughly speaking between 2m and 250,000 years ago) were the arrival of bi-pedality, the rapid enlargement of the human brain, and the development of communication techniques to supplement and then largely replace physical grooming as a means of social interaction, culminating in the development of language. All of these innovations are tied together in a complex web of cause and effect, whose details are much debated. But each one is eventually necessary to all the others; that too is not disputed.

Of course it seems to make sense that a wide repertoire of facial expressions (only humans have such complex facial muscles), emotional displays and meaningful sounds would have developed as part of living in a larger group of people, and especially so as that group began to display co-operative social behaviours such as those of the 'hunter-gatherer'. The larger group also saw the emergence of reciprocal altriusm and intentionality (an understanding of the 'otherness' of others), something which is the sine qua non of a human social group, and the emergence of 'social' emotions such as empathy, shame and love. Finally, a developing awareness of self (full-blown consciousness, in fact) allowed the individual to plan and undertake social interactions as an autonomous agent. This all meant increased cognitive demands on the brain, including the storage of massive quantities of information about other members of the group and interactions with them. Eventually there was some sort of limit on group size at around 150 individuals, thought to be linked to the cognitive capacity of the brain, which could no longer become bigger given the constraints of the birth canal in human females and the brain's own energetic requirements.

The larger, co-operative group was already effective enough for humans to compete successfully against rivals and enemies, both animal and Neanderthal. Nature was not tamed, but could be lived with. And with the development of the human social group came the emergence of morality as we now understand it. Neumann (Depth Psychology and a New Ethic) paints consciousness as being at the centre of the process by which the collective (the group in its most general sense) applies an ethical (moral) structure to its members.

Individuals do not in fact in the normal course of life make conscious distinctions between the origins of the rules they adhere to; this is a process that is carried out unconsciously, and it has a great deal to do with internal knowledge of group membership. There can be conflicts between group memberships, each with its distinct set of moral imperatives, and these sometimes require a conscious decision to be made between conflicting rules, or at least conscious awareness of a decision that has, perhaps, been made unconsciously. Both Socrates and Confucius discussed the dilemma of a son who knows that his father has committed a serious crime, and is faced with an agonizing choice between his kin-group leaning to protect his father, and the moral imperatives of wider society. People in such situations find it extremely difficult to decide what to do, and can become very stressed.

Such conflicts are rare, however. For the most part, people do accept sets of rules that are presented to them as the writ of the group, whether consciously or unconsciously, without enquiring too deeply into their legitimacy. This tendency to conform has evolutionary fitness, emerging as hierarchical group-centred living became the norm (Sherif, The Psychology of Social Norms, Asch, 1951). 'We just did as we were told', is a frequent cry of humans who are accused of breaking some law or principle of which they were, or claimed to be unaware.

Up to this point, there is perhaps little for most people to disagree with; it is the next step that has some people sucking their teeth (facial emotional display). And the next step is to assert that human individuality as it is experienced by modern humans could not have existed (and could not have been perceived either by the individual or others) until the battery of group-centred human social attributes, often termed the social calculus, had emerged. It might be more accurate to call them 'cognitive' attributes, but in this group-oriented book they are going to be treated as if they are indissolubly linked to social situations.

Social situations are of course not limited to those that might have existed during the evolution of early Homo sapiens, and the later history of human societies encompasses a host of 'cultural' innovations which are to be thought of as being passed from generation to generation through education or by being recorded outside the brain, in books, paintings or nowadays on the Internet.

The thesis of this book is that those genetically encoded human attributes that are expressed through individual personality evolved largely in a group environment, and that human individuality as it is experienced by a person has to be understood, and can mostly be described, in terms of group memberships. Put in another and more blatant way, individual personality and self-awareness (as defined in the Note on Terminology) are tools of groupishness (or groupedness) and developed because they had adaptive benefit.

What Is A Group Anyway?

In this book, the word 'group' is frequently used to define a collection of people, each of whom can say, we XyXyXy-ers . . . They belong to the XyXyXy group. Evidently, this excludes animals, in the sense that a dog cannot say (and may or may not be able to think): 'We dogs like bones'. Actually there is some evidence that dogs can have shared intentionality, which is reviewed in Chapters Three and Five.

Certainly it is not possible to deny the existence of groups among non-human organisms; they clearly exist, and were necessary precursors of the human group as it finally emerged. Groups pre-existed humans, and the early stages of the development of the human group took place among earlier types of organism.

A group in the human sense is a mental concept; it is something that a person feels that she belongs to, or, equally important, does not belong to. It isn't possible to talk about groups without accepting their exclusiveness alongside their inclusiveness. This feature of groups is an essential clue to their origins, and also arose among precursor species.

Given that the idea of 'groupedness' is very central to and deeply embedded in the human psyche, it is not surprising that there is an extensive range of dimensions on which humans can plot their affiliations. Men are a group. Women are a group. People are a group. Man-hating women are a group. Women-hating men are a group. Cat-lovers are a group. Chinese chefs are a group.

There are a lot of groups, and we all belong to lots of them. How many groups do you belong to? What part of you doesn't belong to a group? Ah, stop! You are a unique individual. Absolutely. You believe it, I believe it, everyone believes it. Of course. But again, what part of you doesn't belong to a group?

You are a Canadian (group) woman (group) and you are married (group) with children (group). You drive a car (group) but you also have a bicycle (group) and sometimes you even walk on the sidewalk (group). You have pets (group), you play netball (group), you are a lawyer (group), your family came from Kiev (group), you are a fan of Eminem (group), you are a lapsed (group) Orthodox Christian (group), you paint water-colours (group). You have a summer house (group) and it is on the lake (group).

But you are unique.

It's true that nobody else has exactly the same combination of group memberships as you do, you can easily agree, but of course that has got nothing to do with uniqueness. It is more a question of personality, perhaps, or of other, less definable characteristics. Eventually, for many people, it is a matter of 'soul'.

From an evolutionary point of view, however, there is no reason to suppose that individuals with distinct personalities would have any reason to exist in the absence of a forum in which individuality has value, meaning, that it somehow increases the 'inclusive fitness' (jargon for evolutionary adaptiveness) of its possessor. That was as true when the first sexual differentiation occurred among primitive worms as it is true today of the contribution made by the infinite gradations of the human personality to our complex society.

It is the task of this book, therefore, to chart the development of human individuality, itself deeply interwoven with the idea of the 'self' and of consciousness, but at every stage to insist on understanding the purposes of the gradual accretions of social complexity and cognitive power that have marked our progress, if such it is.

In fact, as seen from the perspective of a believer in the central importance of groups to human individuality, the message of this book is an immensely hopeful one for humans, because it provides both an explanation of the anomie or social divisiveness that is the curse of modern society and at the same time provides a cure for this social disease.

One disclaimer needs to be mentioned right at the outset: the book has no group selectionist twist to it; but is strictly Darwinian! (Group selectionism, very popular during the second half of the 20th century, proposes that evolution can take place at the group level. It is discredited, but can still be found here and there.) It is accepted that genetic evolution takes place in the individual, although it is perfectly feasible that it may be influenced by a group environment, as was the case with language.

Cultural evolution is a different matter: once humans began to be able to transmit their social constructs to succeeding generations through education and written records, evolution began to operate at the level of society. But a human born away from that education or those records would be no more evolved than his forbear tens of thousands of years ago.

The book has a number of interlocking purposes and themes:

  • To describe the dominant influence of group membership ('groupishness') and the demands of social existence on the genetic evolution and more latterly the epigenetic development of the human psyche;
  • To track the development from earliest times of the cognitive assemblage we call consciousness and its anatomical basis in the brain, largely by means of a summary of state of the art research;
  • To present the evidence from evolutionary biology and other disciplines supporting the idea that human consciousness and 'selfhood' developed to support the role of individuals in groups, based by all means on previous cognitive and neural developments that allowed higher animals to plan and to behave appropriately with conspecifics.
  • To describe the development of modern society, its moral basis and the consciousness of its citizens from a 'groupish' perspective;
  • To speculate on the future of human consciousness in the context of advanced forms of 'machine' intelligence and the oncoming ability of humans to re-engineer their own psyches.

Although this book is aimed at the general reader, some sections of it are unavoidably technical, and unfamiliar vocabulary cannot always be avoided. The following description of the contents may assist readers in finding a path through the book to suit their particular needs:

  • Chapters One and Two chart the evolutionary development of the precursors of consciousness in animals, with a fairly anatomical bias, and can safely be skipped by anyone, specialist or general, who accepts the general principle that consciousness as we experience it is the culmination of a gradual process of building-up of an unconscious cognitive structure, rather than an inexplicable and immanent property of the human brain.
  • Chapter Three focuses on the role played by groups in the development of consciousness in humans.
  • Chapter Four consists of a Table which summarizes the conclusions of the previous three chapters in terms of the elaboration of social behaviour that marched alongside the evolution of increasingly advanced species.
  • Chapter Five contains the core of the book's argument that consciousness (self-awareness, as it will be called by preference) arose to equip the human to be a social agent.
  • Chapters Six and Seven are concerned with the human individual's social environment, the conflict between evolved human nature and the demands of society, and the situation of the self-aware individual vis-a-vis Leviathan.
  • Chapter Eight presents the central conclusions of the book, dealing with the nature and purpose of human individuality.
  • Chapters Nine, Ten and Eleven are concerned with the possible future of human consciousness, and the role that technology, particularly the Internet, may play in that future. They are partly speculative.
  • The Glossary has already been mentioned.
  • The Appendices contain relevant material which supports the general theme of the book but is not essential to understanding of its conclusions.
  • Appendix One: An Introduction to Brain Anatomy gives a minimal account of the more important parts of the brain, their history and their inter-relationships; this material is essential for non-specialists to understand vocabulary and concepts used in the body of the book, but can be safely ignored by anyone with even a moderate level of anatomical expertise.
  • The Note On Terminology (Appendix Two) is aimed at general readers and can be skipped by practitioners in evolutionary biology and related fields; it explains the vocabulary used by some prominent writers on consciousness and sets out the consciousness-related terms that are used in this book (they are briefly explained in the next paragraph, below).
  • Appendix Three gives a more extended treatment of archetypes, which are introduced in Chapters Two and Three as the forerunners of symbolic thought in humans.
  • Appendix Four: The Pathology of Consciousness sets out evidence from the behaviour of brain-damaged individuals which supports many of the conclusions set out in the body of the book.

The Terminology Of Consciousness

It is the purpose of this book to describe consciousness as essentially a social phenomenon. As will become clear, the cognitive activity which supports the social self is much more extensive than is implied by the hackneyed term 'self-consciousness', so it is proposed to use the term 'self-awareness' in this book, to allow a broader meaning. By more or less common consent, self-awareness is restricted to humans, higher primates, and possibly some birds. Before self-awareness, there came a more limited set of cognitive social skills, possessed by all mammals, and arguably, to a degree, by reptiles and even amphibians, which will be called social awareness.

Self-awareness is not the final stage that humans have reached ('What do you mean, my last string quartet?' Shostakovich used to tick off people who congratulated him on his most recent effort); we are also capable of higher-order reflection on our mental states, which has been given the high-flown term 'meta-cognition'. 'Introspective consciousness' might have been an alternative; but there is controversy over whether introspection is possible other than in a trivial sense, and an emerging preference for 'mind-reading' instead, which can apply to other people as much as to oneself. So meta-cognition it is.

It is less easy to deal with the unconscious cognitive processing which underpins social awareness and self-awareness. Any new term sounds contrived or awkward; but better contrived than ambiguous. The ugly terms 'categorizing responsiveness' and 'social responsiveness' will be used, the first indicating that an organism can categorize its exteroceptive and interoceptive inputs, has memory of these categories, and can respond to external stimuli in a way that combines remembered categories with internal affective drives or states, and the second indicating that the organism has short-term memory, an unconscious and unreportable autobiographical self, and can moderate its actions according to an integrated (but unconscious) set of neural mappings and concepts. This term may have application to fishes, birds and amphibians.

For the next stage below 'categorizing responsiveness', the term 'somatic responsiveness' will be used, indicating that an organism is able to assemble an integrated or partially integrated representation of its bodily state from moment to moment and behave appropriately in response to external and internal stimuli. This term may have application to such animals as worms, crustaceae, and insects.

Thus, the following ascending ladder of cognitive abilities was climbed during the emergence of what we now call 'consciousness':

Somatic responsiveness;
Categorizing responsiveness;
Social responsiveness;
Social awareness;

There may be further stages to come!


Asch, S E (1951) Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgements, in Groups, Leadership and Men, ed. Guetzkow, H, Carnegie Press, Pittsburgh

Confucius, The Analects, tr. Soothill, Oxford University Press, 1962, Book 1, chapter 2

Neumann, E (1969) Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, tr Eugene Rolph, Hodder & Stoughton, UK (originally published in German)

Plato (c380 BC) Euthyphro, available on-line at

Sherif, M (1936) The Psychology of Social Norms, Harper, New York



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