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Symbolic Thought Broke the Bond Between Humans and Nature
By Martin LeFevre
Sep 14, 2022, 1:05pm

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Humankind stands at an evolutionary crossroads. Our species cannot continue fragmenting the natural world without inducing a collapse of natural systems, with devastating consequences for humanity.

Symbolic thought was a gift of Promethean fire that evolved in humans, but we have been using this gift to plunder the planet and fragment the earth and ourselves to the breaking point. So the question a 100,000 years in the making is: Is the human brain exapted for awakening insight, just as it was exapted for symbolic thinking?

A radical change occurred when the brain was rapidly rewired and reconfigured for symbolic cognitive processes. That "Cognitive Revolution" brought with it the necessity of self-knowing and self-understanding, because without it, humans cannot stop dividing and fragmenting. Self-knowing is still rare however, and we have little insight into the psychological and social implications of the origin of symbolic thought.

To my mind, changing course as a species requires the awakening of a latent potential for insight within us. I propose that is the next step/leap in human evolution.

What made us human in the first place, and how did our species came to so dominate the planet? If we resolve what used to be called 'the riddle of man,' which I feel I've done for the first time, then we can see how the basic human adaptive pattern can be transformed with our conscious participation as individuals.

Symbolic activity has been the defining feature of our humanness for tens of thousands of years. Our ability to abstract elements of our experience and represent them with discrete mental symbols defines and delimits us as humans.

Consciously separating out 'things,' generating names and images for them, accumulating knowledge, and manipulate our environments is what has allowed humans to build worlds overlaid on nature. Everything we do as humans is based on this basic ability. However we subconsciously carried our separative activity over into the psychological realm, which formed the inherent existential alienation of the self, and eventually the fragmentation of the Earth.

How did man acquire such power? The modern human brain existed in its present form for tens of hundreds of thousands of years before an environmental or social stimulus ignited a latent ability for consciously separative activity. At that point humans made the transition from essentially subconscious intuition to intentional symbolism, with all the implications for good and evil it entails.

By contrast, Neanderthals were a tremendously successful but distinct human species, which had achieved the zenith of a lifestyle based on intuitive processes alone. But then fully modern humans, called Cro Magnons in Europe, migrated from Africa, as had all previous hominin species. They were physically and cognitively indistinguishable from us -- Homo sapiens sapiens (a double misnomer, since it literally means 'wise, wise humans'). Whether intentionally, through conflict and genocide, and/or unintentionally, through out-competing them, our species, with minor intermingling, displaced and drove our cousins Homo neanderthalensis into extinction. The same thing occurred with other hominid lineages in other places, so that only one hominin species remained, and Homo sapiens was alone.

Before 100 thousand years ago, there is almost no evidence of symbolic cognitive activity. However after 40 thousand years ago in Europe (and well before that in Africa, though there is less evidence there so far), there is abundant evidence that an entirely new order of human had emerged. In cave art, in tool making, in sculpture, engraving, music, elaborate burial of the dead, and much else, human culture as we know it had suddenly appeared.

There are two shibboleths that have become common intellectual currency: the idea that evolution works through gradual progression toward a perfected form; and the idea that ready-made adaptations emerge through natural selection, making creatures more fit to compete.

In actuality, innovations in nature occur through what Stephen Jay Gould called "punctuated equilibrium," where "evolutionary development is marked by episodes of rapid speciation between long periods of little or no change."

Sound familiar? Though humans have developed tremendously with respect to science and technology, we haven't psychologically and emotionally changed since the ancestors of the Cro Magnons left Africa more or less 100,000 years ago. A transmutation is long overdue, one that consciously and effectively brings about a new human species -- without eugenic, scientific or technological intervention.

Innovations in nature also arise through a process called 'exaptation,' whereby a characteristic evolves in one context before being exploited in another. The classic example is birds' feathers, which, millions of years before they were used for flight evolved for insulation in dinosaurs.

Clearly, the expanded human brain developed in another context and for another purpose, probably sub-conscious intuitive learning. Whatever the context and purpose, exaptation released the latent capacities for symbolic activity, and humans became uniquely powerful symbolic hominins, able to make conscious separations and manipulations of 'things,' prisoners of psychological separation and time. On the positive side, diverse languages and cultures flowered, which, until about a century ago, defined the human species across the planet for tens of thousands of years.

But because there was not sufficient insight into symbolic thought, the evolution of cognitive symbolic processes carried with it the inexorable tendency to eventually fragment the earth to the point of ecological collapse. Man became like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, equipped with a power that he didn't have the insight and understanding to use wisely.

This raises huge philosophical questions, foremost being: How could evolution produce an exaptation and adaptive strategy so at odds with the rest of nature, in which all development occurs in seamless wholeness and interconnection?

I have proposed insights into that question that may pertain to cosmic evolution, but for now, suffice to say that the capacious human brain evolved for survival purposes in a goal-less, non-linear way, and only much later was exapted for symbolic thought. That exaptation enabled us, Homo sapiens, to acquire language, culture, art and science. In short, to build societies and worlds.

No one knows what drove the brain's enlargement, but the logic and evidence is inescapable: morphology precedes not follows innovation in nature. In other words, nature can only produce innovations (like flight or symbolic thought) out of structures that already exist; it doesn't develop structures for a particular use. That's the meaning of exaptation.

Given the global ecological, psychological and political crisis of humankind, is there a latent exaptation that will enable us to meet the intensifying human crisis? I feel so. It's related to a universal capacity for what is often pejoratively labeled mystical experiencing, which is actually simply the experiencing of the state of insight and oneness, which occurs with the complete quieting of thought in effortless attention.

Just as the pre-modern human brain contained the potential for symbolic thought, our present brain, which is generating more and more noise and fragmentation by using thought unwisely, contains the capacity for an explosion of insight, which will enable us to use thought (including science and technology) intelligently. Indeed, the brain is exapted for states of insight beyond thought altogether. That is meditation.

Humankind is stuck at crucial juncture. Our awareness of the next step in our evolution (which has nothing to do with idiocy like merging our computers with our 'still evolving brain') is indispensable to making the leap to a new human being. Transmutation is truly within.

One senses, in these contemplations, compassion of the cosmic mind for humans in our terrible dilemma. That fits, since humans didn't ask for the Promethean fire of symbolic thought. Even so, it's our urgent responsibility to understand ourselves and awaken our latent capacity for insight.

Not to further scientific or any other kind of knowledge, but for silent states of insight, which spontaneously occur through the non-accumulative learning of attentive self-knowing.

Awakening the state of insight is essential now because it will imperfectly align us in harmony with life. Homo sap will grow into Homo sapiens, and cease being an invasive species decimating the Earth.

Link: "What makes your brain different from a Neanderthal's?":


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.

© Fair Use. No Copyright intended by Fountain of Light

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