Human Consciousness: Evolutionary Blunder?

Two months ago I treated myself to a major binge session with the intensely captivating HBO miniseries, True Detectivestarring silver screen veterans Woody Harleson and Matthew McConaughy. In the one of the best roles ever written for a television character, and not to mention, the role of his lifetime, McConaughy plays armchair philosopher, Detective Rustin Cohle, a man with plenty to say and not a lot of desire to say it. When he does grace listeners with his wisdom, you can count on it being deeply complex, well articulated and mainly bleak. In an illuminating discussion of the human condition, Rust enlighten’s listener’s with his take on where things went wrong:

“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.” – Rustin Cohle

This sentiment continues to resonate with me. While Rustin Cohle is a fictional character reciting a line, there is a real live writer behind these words, and for all of the time and energy we as a species spend thinking about our selves, as well as my own recent musings on the subject, I’m inspired to give it some more organized thought.

Wikipedia tells us that human consciousness is a state or quality of self-awareness “defined as sentience, awareness, and subjectivity;” having a sense of selfhood. This state of human self-awareness is often said to be what separates human consciousness from animal consciousness. Animals, of course, are conscious beings in the sense that they perceive the world around them through sensory experiences and respond to those sensations, storing and comprehending information so they can relate past sensory data to new situations. But (as far as we humans can see), they are not implicitly aware of their own existence; they do not possess an explicit self-awareness of their place in the world; they do not experience themselves as active agents.

An article in Discover Magazine describes the evolution of consciousness thusly: in short, way back when we were all of fish variety, living under water, we could only see a short distance ahead of us at any given time. This means that when we moved, in just a few seconds we would reach the edge of where we were able to see, which necessitated “highly reactive nervous systems” to allow us to react effectively to the “potentially deadly threats” that were just a couple seconds ahead of us at all times. Later, after a whole bunch of years as fish, we finally started making our way above water where the views were much better, allowing us to “survey things for quite a considerable distance,” and giving us the ultimate ability to see “multiple possible futures and pick the one most likely to lead to success.” For example,

“rather than go straight for the gazelle and risk disclosing your position too soon, you may choose to stalk slowly along a line of bushes (wary that your future dinner is also seeing 10,000 times better than its watery ancestors) until you are much closer.” (

Choosing to stalk the gazelle instead of going directly for the kill simply because it is in sight indicates ‘plan-driven behaviour’ instead of ‘environment-driven behaviour’–a  definitive hallmark of consciousness. As for how we got from being aware of ourselves in our environment to being aware of ourselves in our minds, psychologist Bruce Bridgeman claims “dwelling on land may have been a necessary condition for giving us the ability to survey the contents of our mind” (1992).

With this (quick and dirty) understanding of the very basics of consciousness and how it began to evolve, I return to the beer-soaked sentiments of Rustin Cohle and ask, was it all a big mistake? Without our sense of selfhood that sets our thinking apart from that of, say, our sweet and simple dogs, would humans experience the same degrees of unhappiness, frustration, self-doubt, resentment and perceived failure as we so often do? What about love, sympathy, empathy, success and self-actualization? Would we have been happier if our range of consciousness hadn’t developed past the ability to engage in plan-driven behaviour, living to fulfill our basic needs? After all, it is our sense of selfhood that is responsible for our quests to find ourselves, our painstaking efforts to improve ourselves (often to meet the standards of others), and our spiritual journeys to seek some higher plain (where we can leave our self-centred worries behind!), along with the rest of the things in our minds that complicate the human experience: subjectivity, unity, intentionality, mood, boundary conditions, and a few others (Searle 1992). To be sure, while the complex social relationships that consciousness allows for have proven to be important to both humans and animals (like apes, for example), Andrea Vianello (2005) points out that it “often creates more problems in human beings than it solves.” It’s here where those who share Cohle’s view of consciousness as a “tragic misstep in evolution” find their footing, wherein “sticking to the rule of efficiency,”

“natural evolution should have limited any unnecessary or potentially damaging feature. In other words, you need eyes good enough to see the environment that surrounds you. More or less powerful eyes would constitute a liability. And so it should [have been] for consciousness.” (Vianello).

From an evolutionary standpoint, our sense of self is not necessary for successful survival, yet it defied evolutionary law so far as to allow “humans to distinguish [ourselves] from all the rest” (Vaniello). I suppose this leaves us with two (purely unscientific) options: either our sense of selfhood is something the universe intended and so was undeniable to the process of evolution, or it is indeed a big, huge, evolutionary mistake!

Image source.


2 thoughts on “Human Consciousness: Evolutionary Blunder?

  1. All this, assumes, of course, that only humans are fully awake, and animals are not, which is something that cannot be decided satisfactorily in any event, since consciousness is an inherently private phenomenon.


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