7. The Evolution of Hominids

7.9 The Noosphere

Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit paleo-anthropologist, observed30 that we are so much immersed in the human phenomenon that during the whole of the 19th century, and most of the 20th, this phenomenon escaped scientific investigation. According to him, man is not only a primate responding to the social imperatives of this animal group, but he also represents a new evolutive step. The human phenomenon is the crowning of the life phenomenon. Man is the final outcome of the cosmogony, which Teilhard saw as different layers of complexification: first photons and subatomic particles, then atoms and molecules. On earth, there is the formation of the lithosphere and hydrosphere, which allowed the formation of organic molecules of considerable complexity. These were followed by unicellular life, and thereafter the appearance of multicellular organisms during the Precambrian. This biosphere diversified into various phyla that explored the potentialities offered by Life, with one phylum outstanding by the development of a nervous system in such a way that it allowed the formation of a true head and individualization31 of the members of the species. The development of the cerebral cortex is the spearhead of evolution and, with man, we have attained the level of the Noosphere.

This view has been restated32. According to de Duve, life and humans are an unavoidable consequence of the evolution of the universe; consciousness is the natural outcome of an impending trend toward complexification. This straightforward deterministic description of the history of life culminating with the noosphere is a rationalization due to the advantage of hindsight. What appears to be an unavoidable development of the noosphere neglects the role of historical contingence. Evolutionary convergences show that the contingency is not as restrictive as some would like it to be but the record nevertheless registers many culs-de-sacs and abortive attempts. This observation is apparently valid also at the level of the various human civilizations that will develop: change or continuity is not necessarily an indication of progress.

There is a discontinuity of human nature from everything that came before. The most powerful motive for human beings is the desire to be good. This desire makes Man unique among animals. There is no animal model for human pride, shame and guilt. Human conscience, morality and mental life are not those of a bonobo. Humans have a spiritual nature. “Spiritual” stands for a being who is free enough to do things for reasons, self-conscious enough to entertain ideas about the significance of his deeds, planful enough to be aware of the long-term consequences of his actions and sufficiently “divinely” inspired to feel a justification in what he does. Plato and Descartes are right: human beings are a special creation. But this does not mean that Aristotle is wrong. The behavior of Man is influenced by his biological heritage. The solving by the human species of problems not foreseen by primate evolutionary trends may appear desperately, embarrassingly and appallingly stupid.

7.9.1 Human behavior33.

Behaviorism sought to exorcise from psychological science all concepts that could ultimately not be explained by conditioned responses. It offered a vision of human nature so proscribed that it would legitimate treating humans as little more than animals, including conditioning techniques designed to cure everything from schizophrenia to homosexuality and criminality.

Social Darwinism attempted to explain human behavior by subsuming it within an evolutionary theory based on blind natural processes driven by fitness and selection. Obnoxious social philosophies of eugenics and race science were associated with it. Other “biological” approaches attempted to associate mental life and social behavior with specific parts of the brain and brain surgeons cured social deviance with lobotomies. The science of human sociobiology faced vigorous public protest in the 1970′s by those who felt that biological difference would in effect “naturalize” social, racial, gender or personality difference and prejudice.

The regulation of expression of genes offers the key to understanding the regulatory events in behavior, including fundamental processes such as learning and memory and the effects of stress and adverse life events on the adaptive capacity of the body. For example, genes do make a difference in how people handle situations that can precipitate depression. People who lack the gene responsible for the synthesis of the liver enzyme cytochrome P450 2D6 (7% of the Caucasian populations) appear not to be predisposed to depression. It is probably not surprising that antidepressant drugs have a strong affinity for cytochrome P450 2D6 and render the enzyme inactive34. Those predispositions that lead to depression cause people to create the environments that can enhance the likelihood of depression in themselves. This applies to the atmosphere in families and the choice of living environments and friends.

Experience shapes neural circuitry. Gene expression is affected by pre- and postnatal experience, and the behavior is constrained but not dominated by innate mechanisms. Innate mechanisms in an infant trigger an environmental response (e.g. parental grooming) that in turn triggers genetic mechanisms that then produce the very response mechanisms that will allow the infant to be a responsive parent in the future. Mechanisms develop through childhood for self-regulation, balancing emotional controls with cognitive controls. Such control modifies brain circuits and guides the developing individual. Cultural and personal experience work in coordination with genetic mechanisms and neural protein expression to define both our mind and our brain.

Behavior plays an important role in the biological responses to a changing external world. Brain mechanisms underlying behavior are themselves targets for biological mediators such as the adrenal hormones, making it impossible to separate behavior from biology. Stressful experiences activate physiological responses that alter the expression of genes in the brain and other organs of the body. These effects are mediated by catecholamines and glucocorticoid hormones of the adrenal cortex. They generally promote adaptation over the short run but promote pathophysiological processes over longer time periods. Identification with a poor, uneducated family can generate enough anxiety to create a level of physiological stress that may contribute to the greater morbidity among the economically disadvantaged. The emotional states created by a chronic identification with a low self-esteem rating and compromised status contribute to the vulnerability to illness (deficient immune responses).

Human social behavior plays an important role in creating challenges, in the form of social and physical living and working environments that may be stressful or supportive. We construct environments on the basis of temperament, self-esteem, and sociability, all of which can potentially be influenced by the genome. Certain environment influences may be crucial for some individuals and less so for others. Conversely, because environmental factors regulate gene expression, genetic factors may be a more significant source of influence in some individuals than in others. Many undesirable outcomes flow from a person’s belief in his relative disadvantage and, therefore, perceived class position. The number of poor families in a region affects the strength of the child’s identification with his class position. The strength of the identification with a category “poor” is strongest in societies where the majority is not. Because many people believe that a willingness to work, conscientiousness and intelligence are all that are needed to gain the wealth that has become over the last half century a primary feature of personal virtue in the US, the belief that one is located at the bottom of the social ladder has a greater potential for creating shame among citizens from the US.

An infant born to a poor family that is also a minority in the society is not protected indefinitely from the self-doubt that can follow an identification with a disadvantaged class or victimized ethnic group. Ten-year-olds who identify with their poor families are vulnerable to feelings of shame or impotence if they wonder whether their parents were lazy, incompetent or did not care about the welfare of the family. Biological processes bias humans to develop a particular set of cognitive, affective and behavioral forms but the cultural context of growth shapes these forms in very particular ways.

7.9.2 Human learning

Human learning evolves from a few processes destined to fit species-specific human needs.

One theory of cognition holds that the human brain works by the elaboration of symbols and their handling according to abstract rules. The ability of the human brain to recognize abstract patterns of cognition is a basic ability of the human mind, detectable in 7 months-old infants. Rule formation and abstraction are there from the beginning and are not a late acquisition35. The rules support generalizations that work like deductions. During childhood and adolescence, formal schooling and extensive training can magnify reasoning subserved to rules. Some educational methods exploit to excess the capacity of the human mind to deduce and synthesize according to rules of logic, as does the French educational method. This logic tolerates no modulation of thought, rests on propositions and truths that are false and admits no terms of probabilities and no nuances. It is an unrefined system based on “yes or no” that is solely the product of the human brain and is without evolutive antecedents. To illustrate this, let us analyze the famous proposition of Descartes: “If I imagine that nothing exists, then, at least, I think and I think, thus I am“. This proposition was taken at face value by the libertines of his time because it went counter the proposition of the Church: “I believe, thus I am”. But is the proposition of Descartes true? If we try to imagine nothingness, we may safely bet that this nothingness is either black or white. To imagine nothingness is beyond human capabilities. It simply cannot be done. Further, would the reverse proposal also be true: “I do not think, thus I am not”?

A second theory of cognition holds that human intelligence is based on associative networks. The mind connects things that look alike and generalizes to new objects according to their resemblance to known objects. This theory of cognition holds that the mind proceeds by similarity gradients. Associationism follows from the tendency of animals to pick up statistical patterns among events and objects, and generalize them to similar events and objects. Associationism has strong evolutive antecedents, as I have shown.

These two methods of cognition are at work in the human brain and conjugate with human behavior to develop a Weltanschauung, i.e. a cosmic understanding of the world.

7.9.3 Human philosophy of life

Primitive humanity constructed a Weltanschauung based on assertive creeds. This primitive Weltanschauung evolved into structured religions and philosophies of Life by the curbing of the primitive representations of reality under coherent, abstract rules. The blending of assertive creeds with rules of coherent thought within established Churches was brought to its logical summit by Islam. Islam possesses the Truth. To defend and propagate such a treasure, the internal logic of those who possess the Truth commands that the revealed Truth be propagated and imposed on the whole of the universe. To achieve this noblest of ends, war is holy. The end justifies the means and the death of the unbeliever is preferable to the neglect or ignorance of the truth. The imposition of the truth at the expense of life is thereby heralded. Hatred of life becomes the fundamental dogma that governs human activities, and jihad (holy war) and fatwa (killing of the sinner) are the noblest of activities. The Christian faith, which also possesses the truth, initially had embraced the opposite position: life and love should govern all human activities and the truth may not be imposed by force but solely by persuasion. This stand was sometimes challenged and coercion advocated (“compelle entrare, meaning “ force them to enter”).

The Roman Catholic Church, pushed by a drive of coherency originating from within its ranks, advocated an equality between Faith and Objective Truth. The result of this quest was the elaboration of “rules of thinking” that would insure that true conclusions are drawn from true premises. Abelard was the most prominent advocate of this system of logical deductions leading to legitimate and true conclusions. The system of thought developed by Abelard was repudiated by the burgeoning Christian integrism that had appeared in Francia (the Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux) but protected by Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny. The Clunisians labeled the Cistercians “Pharisians”. The proposal “all humans are mortal, I am a human, thus I am mortal” appears today quite harmless and acceptable. To propose such simple deductions, as Abelard did, during a period of integrism was suicidal. In particular, this proposition opposes the belief in metempsychosis and runs counter to the creed that Lazarus and Jesus resurrected, that Mary went up to heavens and that all men will resurrect, at the end of the times, for the Last Judgment.

The concepts elaborated by Islam and Christian integrists led to a denial of the value of life that has generated abhorrent, repulsive behaviors and immense sorrow on Humanity. This disaster was amplified in our century by the concepts of “Struggle for Life” and “Vital Space”.

The notion that human beings are motivated solely by a desire to maximize their own pleasure and minimize pain is a seductive idea that has some logic but this is doubtful36. This erroneous exercise in stark dehumanized logic is paradoxically clothed in fallacious evolutionary arguments, used to cleanse greed, promiscuity, abuse and egoism of moral taint, with the claim that human beings bear the indelible stamp of their animal (taken as bestial) origins. But evolved vertebrate animals do not behave in the ways Humans pretend they do to excuse their own bestial behavior. H. Spencer (died 1903) over-applied the erroneous evolutive concept of Lamarck to the whole of the Universe and viewed human societies through his evolutionary lens. He introduced the idea “survival of the fittest” in 1852. This “survival” idea was promptly misused and overused by political leaders who emphasized the need to act according to abstract, dehumanizing rules paradoxically presented as being the way nature proceeds. However, a struggle for life under the form it was assumed to take place among animals is nowhere to be found in the animal kingdom, except perhaps in the deviant behavior of some insect societies. It is, on the contrary, precisely when Humans abandon the heritage of their phylum and adopt a behavior solely dictated by coherent abstract rules, that their conduct becomes “bestial”.

The behavior of Man is not governed solely by abstract traits and universal psychological processes. In human affairs, accommodations with Logic are imperative. Man’s activity is modulated by context, culture and history. Stark Logic should be amended by an intelligence of facts that takes into account all of the imponderables that underlie and structure a reality.


30. P. Teilhard de Chardin. Le groupe zoologique humain. Albin Michel, Paris 1956

31. P. Teilhard de Chardin. Le phénomène humain. Ed. du Seuil. Paris Vieme; 1955

32. C. de Duve: Life Evolving. Oxford University Press, New York, 2002

33. Unity of Knowledge. Eds. Damasio et al. A.N.Y.A.S. 935: 2001

34. M. Gittos : Drug Development Research: 51: 1-6, 2000

35. Marcus et al.: Rule learning by seven-month-old infants. Science 283, 77-80, 1999

36. Three seductive ideas. J. Kagan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998

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