Conservatives and Darwin
Michael Tomasello

Psychologist Michael Tomasello recognizes that, because all the minds of our ancestral species have gone extinct, the only way we can scientifically approach how the mind of apes evolved into our own is to comparatively study the minds of apes and developing children to ascertain what is exclusively human in human nature. In Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontgeny (2019), Tomasello successfully demonstrates that collective consciousness (1) is unique to humans based on comparative studies of apes, and (2) has genetic roots and is not just a by-product of culture (which, of course is collective through-and-through). He has come to this conclusion based on the predictable timing across cultures of the  unfolding of shared intentionality arising at 9 months old (“Let’s both look at that pretty bird”) and collective intentionality, starting around 3 years old (“That is the right way we ought to do it”). So I differ from Tomasello only on when and how collective consciousness arose, not on its significance.

Based on an evolutionary psychoanalysis of mental illnesses, my proposal is that collective intentionality first arose in the aversive social emotions causing primates to cohere into hierarchical groups, and then these social emotions galvanized into the collective intentionality that has defined our hominin tribe from the beginning. Remember, intentionality refers to the source of collective motivations, another word for which is will. My theory is that will was precipitated into the relational sphere in the wake of natural selection for teamwork. So now the task is to attempt to knit together the known physical facts of human evolution by interpreting them, in large part, as having been caused by this initial transformation from a predominantly individual intentionality to a collective intentionality. As a starting point for this project, I will compare my approach with Tomasello’s own speculations on how collective consciousness arose in human evolution.

Although Tomasello doesn’t specify when human collective consciousness arose, he assumes that it was a somewhat recent phenomenon, perhaps 400,000 yrs ago with big-game hunting as some have suggested. He accepts that it was an adaptation selected for the benefits of teamwork, but then he encounters the difficult problem that I avoid, which is having to describe exactly how the transformation from individual to collective conscious was accomplished:

Coordinating with others on shared goals in the context of collaborative foraging . . . was very likely the adaptive challenge leading to humans’ unique forms of cooperative communication and recursive mind-reading . . . [which is] recognizing, recursively, how the partner is thinking about how she is thinking about his thinking, and so forth.

Becoming Human

Here we can begin to glimpse the difficulties in crossing the Rubicon from an individual to a collective consciousness within the paradigm of individual-level natural selection for cognitive capacities. My basic problem with this recursive mind-reading theory is that I just don’t think kids are that smart. To me it’s all emotional: shared intentionality is primarily a feeling of oneness on the part of both the parent and nine-month-old which produces a single shared motivation that in reality does derive from their relationship.

Considering a shared and collective human agency as grounded within its own evolutionary trajectory presents a simpler more parsimonious path than the calculations of perspective taking and recursive mind reading, which makes the whole thing more complicated than it really is. Anne moves the ball from the basket where Sally, who left the room, placed it. The kids know when Sally returns she has a false belief, not because they are thinking it all through, but because they are hatching into an ancient human motivation which has been evolved to seek that which is both right and true for all–considered equally. The kids know that Anne switching that ball is a sneaky thing to do, and they are eager to set Sally’s false belief right.

Understanding false beliefs

Realizing that recursive mind reading can’t cross the monumental watershed into a collective consciousness, Tomasello states:

Based on but going beyond this ability to simulate the perspectives and values of other individuals is the ability [of the child] to self-regulate using supraindividual social structures [a.k.a. superego*].

Becoming Human

In viewing the process through these cognitive capacities, the ultimate source of collective intentionality behind the whole transformation remains rooted in the individual child’s own “ability to self-regulate using supraindividual social structures” (which strips them of agency). In my view, it is the reverse: it is the collective intentions that have been selected to use the child for the benefits of teamwork. A collective consciousness has been broadly rooted in the ground of being human from the very beginning. Nevertheless, in one of his rare philosophical passages Tomasello does recognize the significance of this momentous transformation he is attempting to explain.

As a final attempt to characterize the monumental transformation of human ontogeny that shared intentionality has effected, let us invoke the grand evolutionary scheme of Maynard Smith and Szathmáry (1995). They identified eight major transitions in the evolution of complexity of living things on planet Earth, including everything from the emergence of chromosomes, to the emergence of multicellular organisms, to the emergence of human culture (see also Wilson 2012). Remarkably, in each case the transition was characterized by the same two fundamental processes: (1) a new form of cooperation with almost total interdependence among individuals (be they cells or organisms) that creates a new functional entity, and (2) a concomitant new form of communication to support this cooperation.

Becoming Human

* I cannot but wonder at what Carl Jung would have thought of Tomasello’s speculations in light of these testy remarks about Freud:

As for Freud’s concept of the “superego,” it is a furtive attempt to smuggle the time-honored image of Jehovah in the dress of psychological theory. For my part, I prefer to call my things by the names under which they have always been called.

Freud and Psychoanalysis. Bollingen Series XX

See follow-on next post.

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2 Comments on “Michael Tomasello and Collective Consciousness”

  1. Very interesting post. In my simple way of thinking, the fundamental starting points for understanding human evolution are individuals and the inherent problematic nature of reality. One of the immediate problems that our ancestors encountered was survival. By trial-and-error, if by no other means, individuals realized that survival required community. Among other things, communities create knowledge about how to communicate within the group (words, gestures, dance, sounds, etc.) to solve problems of survival. Individuals who can learn these communication tools survive; the others don’t survive. As humans solve one problem (e.g., famine), another arises (e.g., obesity). As I think along these lines, I wonder about the desire to survive. Could that desire be the most primal and critically important human emotion? Could the inability to solve problems that arise in life be the most critical cause of emotional distress and community dysfunction?

    1. Thanks as always Mark for your response. Yes, that is a very central question, what precisely is the desire to survive. Survival of the fittest has become such a cliché, and it is just an abstraction without drilling down and asking what it really is. The key, I think is to realize that “desire” is a really an evolved motivation. I think about it as a “precipitant” that natural selection leaves behind: many generations of surviving animals do many different things to survive, but all of them need to be set in motion by the desire to do them. Desire carries the connotation of being attracted to something because it causes pleasure, such as food or sex, but I claim that the “social emotions” such as the fear of separation, and the fear of being trapped at the bottom/periphery of a group, motivate individuals to survive by cohering into a social group by the avoidance of these painful fears (which become pathologically hyperactive in the major depression illnesses, for example, delusions of poverty and indictment). My patients suffering with major depression convinced me that the pathologically magnified social fears in which they were painfully immersed, exist in their normally much more muted emotional function, as (1) collective, and (2) emanated from the social sphere itself. That leads to the idea that the social groups themselves have “precipitated” their own “desire” to survive (which is frequently at odds with the survival interests of the individuals within them) by inflicting these fears on individuals. So that is when I started my long journey to the counter-intuitive idea that the human mind is in part comprised collective intentions that have evolved into a dynamic with the survival interests of individuals; this is really just interpreting Freud’s id-superego dynamic in evolutionary terms, which is my “thing.” So you can imagine how excited I was when Tomasello, whom I have been tracking for years, finally came out with this massive evidence that, indeed collective intentionality is what separates us from apes.

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