A Brief History Of Human Society

1.4m BC To 2015

I. The Role Of Consciousness In Society

Let us begin with consciousness, which among its other qualities, allows us to see ourselves, both as individuals and as groups of people, with a degree of self-detachment. Without self-awareness (part of consciousness), we would presumably be unable to speculate about ourselves and our future. No-one has a satisfactory theory of the origins and evolutionary purposes of consciousness, but nonetheless it is possible to make some statements about it.

Although a primitive form of consciousness may have originated way back in animal evolution, there's no doubt that cognitive power, and presumably consciousness as part of that, expanded greatly with the arrival of social groups. And as these groups became larger among early humans, the human brain also became larger, allowing the development of conceptual language, the ability to store a lexicon, the capacity to store information about multiple relationships, and the emergence of 'social' emotions such as empathy, including the grandly-titled Theory of Mind, that is, the ability to impute intentionality to other humans, something which is the sine qua non of a human social group.

It is certainly not a recent idea that awareness of self is a by-product, albeit a necessary one, of the process of social development in humans. Many 19th century writers, of whom Durkheim is just the most prominent, believed that to be the case. In 1934 G H Mead 1 wrote: 'the self, as that which can be an object to itself, ie essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience . . . . it is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside of social experience'. Mead's formulation has often been criticized, along with other 'social performance' theorizing; but it holds true as an example of the importance attached by successive waves of theorists to the role of social development in enlarging or creating aspects of consciousness.

Early advances in social skills developed in the group environment were already enough for humans to succeed against the competition, both animal and environmental. Nature was not tamed, but could be lived with.

Inter-group trade, by the way, seems to have been a pronounced feature of human society long before settlements appeared. Although in the modern mind trading is essentially an activity carried out by individuals, and the joint stock company is a recent innovation, trading by an early human kin-group was almost certainly thought of as a group activity, and as an important part of life. Much later, the mediaeval guild is an expression of the groupishness of trading as an activity. The city-states themselves seem to have evolved from the 'market-place', which had a special protected status quite similar to that of consecrated ground (and maybe even stemming from the same mythic roots).

With the development of the human social group came the emergence of morality as we now understand it. It's not clear, however, how far consciousness is implicated in (or necessary for) human morality. Darwin believed that morality was capable of being created by evolution (ie, could be selected for), as he makes clear in The Descent of Man. In the mid-20th century, conventional thought went more in the direction of a cultural, non-genetic basis for morality (part of the great tabula rasa heresy) but by the end of the century the neo-Darwinists had re-established an evolutionary explanation of a basic set of human morals.

It's likely indeed that the set of moral precepts that developed along with the basic groupishness of humans is housed and delivered unconsciously. Michael Ruse2 echoes Immanuel Kant's view that true morality occurs only when one is a totally disinterested participant: 'Evolutionists . . . argue that the evolved sense of morality in humans indeed does not necessarily involve conscious manipulation or calculation of possible return.'

The feelings that demand fairness in relationships, that drive gossiping behaviour (gossip is an important component of groupedness), and that make grooming important both to the giver and the receiver (grooming both in the physical sense but even more in the verbal sense), just to pick a few of the many dozens or probably hundreds of components of group behaviour, are not habitually experienced consciously. On the other hand, sets of external moral precepts such as the 10 Commandments, which seem to have appeared in all or most early organized societies, are clearly intended to operate primarily through consciousness, and must have played a part in enlarging it.

It is evident that the typical individual's understanding of her position in society has evolved substantially in the last few hundred years. You could say that consciousness has enlarged to take in many more dimensions of a social being. At a stretch, you could say that whereas 500 years ago, for most people morality in inter-personal relationships was largely unseen and unfelt at a conscious level, with behaviour being driven by unconscious structures, now a far larger proportion of people would be able to give a coherent account of their ethical positions. This has resulted partly from the emergence of moral structures out of the unconscious into the conscious, and partly from the internalization of external moral controls. However, you would have to say that the moral structure which has emerged into consciousness, or perhaps has been adopted by it from external sources, is much weaker than its original unconscious forbear, and that people on the whole are much less inclined to accept external moral controls (even though the State is far more able to enforce them).

Emile Durkheim3 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". He criticizes Spencer and his followers for imputing a modern kind of inviduality to early humans which was then crushed by the developing power of leaders and (eventually) the State. For Durkheim, the chief of the group, by taking onto himself the collective consciousness, was the first one who displayed individuality. Be that as it may, it is Durkheim's view which has become orthodox: the early human had little if any conscious idea of himself as a separate actor.

Many commentators have been tempted to suggest that the need for consciousness results from the need to incorporate external inputs or content with internal states and content. It's even possible that given the history of development of the brain, there wasn't an elegant way other than the invention of consciousness to create a decision forum in which external inputs could be married to internal inputs on a dynamic basis. As will be seen in later chapters, this idea does not sit well with developing understanding of neural timescales in the brain, but if it were true, then how much more true it would become when those external inputs began to include the information in other people's brains, libraries and the media.

It's certain at least that the use of external cognitive input such as library or Internet content in a decision process is moderated by consciousness, especially if it involves other people, and arguable that it has to be so. If a person sitting at breakfast and trying to decide whether to rob a bank at lunchtime needs to go to a library to look up the type of security precautions employed by banks, it would be a peculiar thing for him to suddenly say to his wife, 'I'm going to the library' without conscious awareness of why he was going to do it. It's logical for him to go to the library, and if his wife wasn't there, perhaps it wouldn't be necessary for him to be aware of the reason; but once more, it seems that consciousness may be part of evolution's solution to the problem of mixing internal and external inputs in social situations.

Humans in social settings are continually confronted with similar situations in which complex behavioural decisions have to be made involving other people. The origin of self-awareness as a dimension of consciousness is likely on these arguments to have been at the time when individuals needed to start being aware of themselves as separate actors within social groups.


1 Mead, G H (1934) Mind, Self and Society, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

2 Ruse, M (1989) The Darwinian Paradigm: Essays on its History, Philosophy and Religious Implications, Routledge, London

3 Durkheim, E (1984) The Division of Labour In Society, tr W D Halls, Simon & Schuster, New York (originally published in French in 1893)