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Studies in the Origination and Evolution of the Human Psyche : [2] Pre-Conditions in the Modes of Life and Learning Capacities of Ancestral Primates

Studies in the Origination and Evolution of the Human Psyche

[2] Pre-Conditions in the Modes of Life and Learning Capacities of Ancestral Primates

In so far as the human psyche is a social product of the human brain – a brain which itself has a biological prehistory and which predates the origination of consciousness itself – the pre-conditions, which were established in the modes of life and learning capacities of ancestral primates of hominids for the origination of this psyche, must be considered. It was the capacity of these ancestral primates to learn and develop new skills that constituted the most essential pre-condition for the origination of hominids and humanity, for the rise of consciousness, and thus for the origination of the human psyche itself as a totality (fm1).

In primates, the learning process is directed towards the acquisition of new skills and the innovation of new forms of behaviour which augment survivability. The process of learning in primates serves to generate new modes of behaviour and to increase the primate’s capacity to survive its conditions of life. In the primate forerunners of hominids, the ability to learn new skills and to transmit them to others in the group through mimicry was a crucial aspect of their mode of life which gave them a distinct advantage over other primates and animals in the struggle to survive under the prevailing conditions of existence. Such abilities, and their acquisition, are observable in contemporary primates where imitation is an essential vehicle for transmitting established skills to offspring (fm2). Interestingly, for example, with Chimpanzees (fm3)…

tool use is basically done by females. Males can make and use tools, but tool use is a learned and practiced behavioural tradition usually passed from mother to daughter. Sons are less apt to learn these techniques because they spend less time with their mothers and therefore have less time to observe how tools are made and used [1]

The transition to human life presupposed fundamental pre-conditions in the mode of life of these ancestral primates. Firstly the use (on a regular basis) and the capacity to fashion simple tools for use in the acquisition of the physical needs of these primates was essential (fm4). Again, with Chimpanzees, we observe the widespread making and use of simple tools for use in the acquisition of food, fending off predators, etc. To date (2005)…

It is now known that at least thirty two populations of chimpanzees make and use tools. Furthermore, diversity in tool use has been found, as well as in almost every other aspect of chimpanzee life and social organisation including hunting behaviour, fighting and social interactions [2]

Implicitly, making and using tools for various purposes in our primate ancestors must have involved the acquisition of specific skills which could be transmitted (i.e. learnt) and refined in the course of their transmission and repeated use from one generation to the next as we observe with contemporary primates in nature (fm5) [3]. This learning of new skills and the development of novel forms of behaviour enabled these ancestral primate groups to gain an edge over competitors in the struggle to survive.

This learning process equipped these primates to ‘cope’ – in a more adequate way – with the demands placed on them in their interaction with their natural conditions of life. The advanced learning capacities of ancestral primates and the transmission and refinement of acquired skills and behaviour resulting from the operation of these learning capacities were therefore essential, pre-constituted conditions necessary for the transition from animal primate to human.

This ‘culture’ of transmission of acquired skills gave such primates a distinct advantage in the struggle to survive, enhancing their chances of survival and augmenting adaptational capacities (fm6). The acquisition of these skills and their further elaboration and development into an ever-widening repertoire of skills and modes of behaviour was determined by the natural conditions of life of these primates. The demands placed on them by their conditions of life were the real determinants which governed the necessity to learn novel skills and forms of behaviour in order to counter and survive the impact of these conditions on their mode of life which was, indeed, organic to these conditions and vice versa (fm7).

In the course of developing new skills and forms of behaviour, ancestral primates must have engaged in a continuously changing relationship with their conditions of life in the course of which making adaptation an intensely active process. Changes in this relationship necessarily involved neurological developments in these primates and, as a consequence, an augmentation of learning capacities and mechanisms (fm8).

Behaviour which has been learned contrasts with those forms of behaviour in primates which are instinctive. In the former, the primate learns in order to adapt itself to and, at the same time, to actively engage its conditions of life. Therefore any adaptive activity is not simply a passive response to conditions. Such adaptations serve the primate in its active struggle to survive in the course of which it assimilates a wider repertoire of skills. In the course of its struggle, it becomes better adapted for the struggles to come in the future.

In the operation of instinctive capacities, the animal responds to the impact of its conditions of life on itself by means of the activation of innate capacities which are not learned. These innate capabilities themselves originated and evolved in relation to the conditions of existence of antecedent, ancestral, forms and have been transmitted directly, without the need to learn them, for their survival value. They serve as a collective means of survival in the struggle for life. They are, for each species, a ‘collective instinct’ (fm9) [4].

These innate responses function at all levels in the life of the animal and, by serving to maintain its survival, also facilitate its propagation as a species. However, it is in the learning capacities of the primate ancestors of humanity and in the behaviour and skills associated with them that the seeds of human consciousness must be sought and identified.

Humanity in the making inherits a legacy of ‘instinct’ from its animal predecessors. This legacy is itself modified with the rise of consciousness so that its activity as an aspect of the human psyche is distinct from its activity in the life of ancestral primates (fm10). Notwithstanding the importance of this inheritance, it is towards a consideration of the learning capacities of the ancestral primates of humanity that our attention must be directed. By ‘learning capacity’ is meant all those forms of behaviour, skills, biological and neurological mechanisms that serve the primate in its struggle to survive by a process of learning (fm11). These capacities constitute the most essential ground out of which consciousness arose and, therefore, out of which the human psyche as a whole originates in the course of the transition from animal to human.

Primates cannot survive without learning. Survival in primates depends on the development of definite forms of behaviour that are not instinctive but are learned in the course of their life activity (fm12). In the fight to obtain food, avoid or fight off predators, etc, those forms of behaviour that gave pre-hominids an advantage in the struggle to survive would have facilitated survival and been passed on to their offspring. By widening their repertoire of acquired skills and diversifying their modes of behaviour, the primate ancestors of humanity became more capable of surviving and reproducing in the context of continuously changing conditions of life.

The supersedence of a given complex of natural conditions – within which and through relationship to which definite forms of behaviour and skills had been developed – would have necessitated the alteration, or even complete transformation, of previous modes of behaviour which were adequate for survival under previous conditions but had become, with the changes in conditions, inadequate for survival. Under threat of extinction new modes of behaviour and skills had to be developed in order to continue to survive (fm13) [5]. For example, the move from arboreal to a ground-dwelling modes of life.

Therefore, whether an ancestral primate species survived or not (and evolved to a further stage of existence or into a different species) depended on whether or not it acquired and developed the necessary skills and behaviour (in the course of changing conditions) which provided it with the means of surviving the newly-posited conditions within which it found itself and struggled to maintain itself as a species.

It was the learning capacities of ancestral primates – the ability or inability to learn new skills – which gave them an advantage or disadvantage in the struggle for survival under changing conditions. The disadvantaged tended to perish whilst the advantaged or other distinct species filled their niche, in and under the new conditions (fm14). This process would have been shifted into an accelerated mode in periods of catastrophic change. For example, in the ‘extinction’ of the dinosaurs and their ‘eclipse’ by the mammals where catastrophic changes constituted the basis for this episode in the history of animal life. Or, generally, under conditions of rapid climate or environmental transformation.

In primate evolution – more specifically in those primates which immediately preceded the hominid line – the development of a wider repertoire of skills and complexity in their operation would have provided ancestral primates with an edge in the struggle to survive such catastrophes, e.g. drought, floods, disease, etc. On the road of primate evolution towards the hominid line, the ‘best’ learners tended to be the ‘best’ survivors so that survival and learning became linked. This learning necessarily precluded an overspecialisation. Rather it was the acquisition and development of generic skills (‘portable’ skills as with tools carried from place to place in later hominids) which had to be established in order to survive in a range of different (if not all) environments and conditions which were encountered on the path towards hominid evolution (fm15).

This general applicability of acquired skills in a wide range of situations and different conditions meant that the threat of extinction became lessened compared to those species that had overspecialised and thus were more vulnerable to rapid changes in their natural conditions of life. Therefore, it was not simply the ability to learn new skills – which in the evolution of ancestral primates facilitated survival – but to learn specific kinds of skills which, at the same time, had a general and enduring applicability under a wide and altering range of conditions (fm16). These generic skills could be adapted to counter demands placed on a species with alterations in their conditions of life and thus provide the necessary versatility requisite for survival.

The relatively advanced capacities of superior tool users and makers over other groups and the ability to transmit these skills to succeeding generations formed the embryonic complex out of which hominids could emerge and evolve towards modern humans. The use and fashioning of simple tools in hominoids (fm17) contained, potentially, the more advanced forms of hominid toolmaking and toolusing behaviour embracing co-operation, communication and, consequentially, the rise of language and consciousness itself (fm18)…

First labour, after it and then with it, speech – these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man, which for all its similarity is far larger and more perfect. [6]

Accordingly, all these acquired skills and forms of behaviour – taken in their totality and interrelation – constituted the embryonic ground out of which human society could come into being and evolve as a new, distinct socio-historical form of development. Learnt behaviour in primates which is advantageous to their survival is not ‘selected’ at the genetic level in the same way in which an advantageous change in physiology or biochemistry resulting from genetic mutation is selected (fm19). However, in the sense that a specific mode of learnt behaviour is associated with, but not necessarily ’caused’ by, the specific biological character of an organism, then the transmission of that mode of behaviour to offspring through mimicry becomes associated, inevitably, with the transmission of the general biological character which defines the nature of the species in question and which, accordingly, is associated with definite modes of behaviour.

Therefore, if learnt behaviour facilitates survival because it gives an advantage in the struggle for life, then the continued survival of a population, whilst others are perishing, means that it will be in a favourable position to reproduce. In so doing, the next generation inherits its genotype and hence displays its general biological characteristics. Where advantageous modes of behaviour ensure the propagation of a species and are associated with the given biology of an organism, the latter will be passed on to the next generation which learns and assimilates the acquired skills and behaviour of, and from, the previous generation.

A complex relation develops between acquired skills and behaviour and the biology of the species. Acquired skills and behaviour, in facilitating the survival and propagation of a species, also simultaneously and necessarily facilitate the transmission of the biological character of the species. Biology, in its turn, serves as the physiological basis for the further development of the acquired forms of behaviour and skills (fm20).

The demands placed on an animal by its conditions of life are the real determinants which govern the necessity of the animal to learn new skills and forms of behaviour in order to survive the impact of these conditions on its mode of life (fm21). This, of course, is found in Darwin’s conception of Natural Selection…

Natural Selection, as enunciated by Darwin, is a simple and powerful process that depends on three conditions. First, members of a species differ from one another, and this variation is heritable. Second, all organisms produce more offspring than can survive [….] Third, given that not all offspring survive, those that do are, on average, likely to have an anatomy, physiology or behaviour that best prepares them for the demands of the prevailing environment. [7]

In learning and developing new skills and modes of behaviour, the animal, in its turn, alters its mode of life. Survival involves the development of behaviours and skills in the animal which are not only adaptive responses to its conditions but are, at the same time, an increasing and augmenting of the capacity of the animal to more readily and effectively respond to and counteract further changes in its conditions of life.

‘Adaptation’ in living organisms is therefore a two-way process in which the animal becomes better equipped to deal with the prevailing conditions of its life whilst, at the same time, within the context discussed here, it is an assimilation and refinement of new modes of behaviour and skills that prime the animal to actively overcome problems confronting it in novel situations and changing conditions. Hence, to a certain extent, the ability to survive or win through later struggles is prepared beforehand in the course of the life activity of the animal. In overcoming previous problems, it becomes better prepared to take on and overcome those obstacles yet to come.

For example, consider the origins of the nervous system of mammals out of the earliest neural structures in ancestral organisms and the development of these nervous systems into the complexities of the brain and nervous systems of primates. Leakey remarks that in relation to brain size…

The pattern of change through time is quite striking: the origin of major new faunal groups (or groups within groups) is usually accompanied by a jump in the relative size of the brain, known as encephalization. For instance, when the first archaic mammals evolved, some 230 million years ago, they were equipped with brains four to five times bigger than the average reptilian brain. A similar boost in mental machinery happened with the origin of modern mammals, 50 million years ago. Compared with mammals as a whole, primates are the brainiest group, being twice as encephalized as the average mammal. Within the primates, the apes have the biggest brains; they are some twice the average size. And humans are three times as encephalized as the average ape [8]

A correlation exists between the size and complexity of nervous systems on the one hand and the capacities of the animal to learn and develop new forms of behaviour and skills on the other hand. Generally speaking, the more complex the nervous system, the greater the ability of the animal to learn novel forms of behaviour and acquire new skills (fm22). Studies in contemporary primatology have more or less confirmed this general conception [9]. However, developments in neurological organisation and the increase in the complexity of nervous systems stems from the necessity to meet and surmount the ever-changing demands placed on the animal in its life activity under definite conditions in nature. Such neurological developments are driven by the demands of ‘external’, environmental factors and relations in the conditions of life and activity of primates. They do not simply arise and become established without these ‘external’ mediations.

Nervous systems become more intricate and tend towards a more complex level of organisation because, in the struggle of the animal to survive, the animal is subjected to ‘selection pressures’ to meet such demands. Those with the necessary neurological organisation which enables them to learn new skills and modes of behaviour, and which enables the animal to effectively meet and surmount the specific demands placed on them by changing conditions, will tend to survive (fm23). Those animals which are deficient in this respect will tend to lose out and be at a disadvantage in the struggle for survival. Any advantageous increase in the complexity of the animal’s nervous system will augment its capacity to learn new skills and modes of behaviour that serve it in that struggle.

Accordingly, it is the continuously changing conditions of existence on the one hand, and the advantage or disadvantage that specific modes of behaviour give the animal in relation to these changing conditions on the other hand, which determine whether or not any corresponding changes in its nervous system are ‘selected’ at the molecular and physiological levels. If behaviour is advantageous, then associated structures in the biology and neurology of the animal will be selected and transmitted to the next generation (fm24). In this way, the next generation possesses the appropriate biological structures that enable it to mimic established modes of behaviour and learn new ones. Established modes of behaviour can be both passed on and modified according to the changing needs of ancestral primate as the relationship between itself and its conditions of life changes.

Therefore, the relationship between biology and behaviour develops under specific conditions of life of the animal and cannot be understood in isolation from these conditions (fm25). For example, consider the ability of chimpanzees to use a stick in order to obtain food of one sort or another. This ability, often observed by primatologists, has been learnt and elaborated in the struggle to survive and is biologically conditioned only in so far as it is hunger that motivates the need to feed and, secondly, that the primate needs to possess the pre-requisite anatomy of forearm and associated neurological mechanisms, etc, which enable it to co-ordinate its movements. Therefore, in these respects, its biology must come into play. But it is a relationship between biology and learnt behaviour which enables the chimpanzee to use the stick to acquire food and feed itself and its offspring.

The manipulation of the stick to attain food (for example, wetting or licking the stick and then poking it into a nest of termites or ants) implies a necessary anatomy and dexterity of hand and forearm which is intrinsically associated with the biological inheritance and characteristics of the individual animal as being part of a definite species. However, whilst taking such biological mechanisms as a pre-condition for the development of new skills, it is the actual skill and capacity to use the stick to obtain food which has been learned and which confers an advantage in the struggle to survive. In situations where food is scarce such a skill would give an invaluable advantage over those which had not developed this skill and therefore would be a critical aid to survival. Such behaviour could be passed on to the offspring of the species group, thereby facilitating the survival of the group as a whole (fm26).

We can see that the ability of primates to learn new skills and modes of behaviour is an essential and necessary condition in their struggle to survive in changing conditions. Where this ability fails the primate, it inevitably loses out in its struggle to survive when and where changing conditions require the learning of advantageous skills and behaviour to survive. This development of new skills increases and widens the animal’s adaptational capacities in relation to its changing conditions of existence. The acquisition of new skills additionally raises the animal’s sensuous awareness of its environment to a different level, giving it a richer, more complex, conditioned awareness of its surroundings (fm27).

The behaviour of our ancestral primates was, therefore, a synthesis of the instinctive and the learnt. Their behaviour necessarily involved both simultaneously. Instinctive responses are selected at the physiological level of the organism because, in operating automatically and without the need to learn them, such responses are biologically indispensable for the survival of the species. If it were necessary to acquire instinctively-driven behaviour by a process of learning then animals would not be able to deal with the most immediate impacts of their conditions of life on themselves as living organisms and they would perish before they had time to mature.

For example, the mechanisms that biologically regulate drinking and reproduction in animals are instinctive. They do not have to be learnt. Instinctive mechanisms operate in order to maintain or realise the biological needs of an animal. An animal may have to learn to drink or eat in a certain way but it does not have to learn to be thirsty or hungry. For example, when an animal learns to associate the presence of a predator with threat, this learning process simultaneously involves instinct when it is threatened by that predator. Learning and instinct operate together in co-ordination with each other (fm28). The hedgehog, for example, learns that an inquisitive fox or badger can be threatening. However it does not have to learn to curl up into a protective prickly ball in order to defend itself against it. Likewise, it learns to discriminate between edible and inedible morsels of food but it does not need to learn to be hungry nor to regurgitate unpalatable food which it has learned to recognise as toxic. Spurred on by hunger, both learning and instinct are at work together.

A child does not have to learn to rapidly withdraw its hand from something that causes pain. Such an action is an automatic reflex i.e. it is an instinctive response which the child does not need to learn. However, a child does learn to associate particular situations or objects with danger (potential or actual) to itself and possible injury. In this process of learning, it acquires and develops a conscious knowledge of such situations and can modify its behaviour for its own safety. In the former instinctive case, a need to learn would mean certain injury or death whereas in the latter case a deficiency of learning could result in the same. Learning and instinct are not mutually exclusive; they involve each other, operate together and mutually determine each other.

Likewise, the behaviour of primates involves both instinct and learning and this must have been the case in the ancestral primates of humans. Learning in primates involves the acquisition of new skills and forms of behaviour which serve to facilitate their survival. However, learning does not take place independently of instinct and vice versa. Primates acquire their material needs by means of behaviour and actions which are conditioned and mediated by both instinct and learning at the same time. Learning becomes necessary for the primate in order to survive. The learning capacities of the primate become integrated with its instinctive inheritance in the course of its lifetime.

The neurological results and modifications involved in and associated with learning new modes of behaviour become synthesised with instinct at the neurophysiological level so that the latter can be affected by learning whilst instinct, in its turn, conditions the learning of new skills and behaviour (fm29). This coalescence of instinct and learning functions to provide the primate, in the course of its life activity, with a means of orientating its behaviour and developing its skills and actions in the struggle to survive under prevailing conditions. The non-conscious awareness (fm30) of the ancestral pre-hominid primate – mediating the life activity of the animal – is a synthesis of instinct and learning acquired in the course of its interaction with its conditions of life. This awareness orientates it in its life activity. This relationship between instinct and learning becomes transformed with the emergence of consciousness and, simultaneously, the human psyche as a whole.

Psyche as a whole is a product and outgrowth of the social development of hominids out of their pre-hominid, animal ancestors. This means that this lengthy process of evolution from the animal to the human does not absolutely abolish the animal legacy of human ancestry. Rather, it ‘conserves’ it in a higher, human form in the actual process of transforming it. For example, in order to survive, the animal ancestors of humans developed responses for dealing with the threat of predators. These same responses also served the animal in its struggle to acquire its means of subsistence. Such responses involved the capacity to evade or confront dangers which the animal encountered in its continual struggle to survive. In these situations, the response of the animal was mediated by an awareness of threat i.e. an awareness of when it was in danger of being attacked by predators. Its behavioural response to such threats involved the co-ordination of both instinct and learning (an awareness of the immediate, surrounding conditions of life acquired in the course of their life activities) (fm31). This legacy remains with us today in the form of the ‘fight or flight’ response to confronting danger. Humans have inherited these powers for dealing with threat from ancestral primates.

In the evolution of mammals and their forerunners, the constant threat of predators must have been a most important selection pressure in the development of instinct. Indeed, selection would have taken place at the biochemical level where the co-ordination of the activities of the nervous system and hormonal systems is vital in order to maintain the survival of the animal in the face of threat (fm32). Accordingly, instinct must have evolved in order to facilitate survival. Over a long period of natural development, instinctive responses must have originated, evolved and become more highly developed in succeeding generations in response to the changing conditions of life (fm33). In the immediate precursors of hominids, learning and instinct become more closely integrated and mediate each other. In the case of threat, animals learn to associate specific situations with danger. Such associations activate those instinctive responses which are inherent and prepare the animal to deal with possible or actual threat. It is the animal’s immediate awareness of threat which activates those instinctive capacities which prepare it to deal with threat, to run or to fight. Those responses that served to maintain the survival of the ancestral primates of human beings in the face of such threats from predators would have become part of the behaviour of the individuals of the group. Learnt behaviour that enabled a primate to effectively counter threat, by adopting one form of behaviour or another, facilitated its survival and became an intrinsic part of its life activity.

These powers therefore predate the history of the human psyche (fm34). With the rise of the human psyche, i.e. of beings possessing the capacity to think consciously, these powers – incorporating the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response – become integrated into the operation of this psyche. This integrating of instinct with emergent conscious awareness in early hominids enabled these ancestors of ‘modern man’ to more readily survive and counter the hostile impact of their conditions of existence on their life activities.

Those hominid ancestors of modern humans which possessed these instinctive capacities but which did not learn new modes of behaviour and skills, as established and changing conditions demanded, lost out in the struggle to survive and inevitably perished (fm35). As conditions changed, the need to acquire the material means of life demanded, at the same time, the modification of established practices and the development of new skills and modes of behaviour.

The punctuation of gradual changes in conditions by catastrophes of various kinds would have necessitated very rapid adaptations – involving an accelerated rate in the learning of new skills, etc – to changed circumstances on the part of hominid groups. Those groups that were more appropriately adapted to tackling and overcoming the constraints imposed on them by the new conditions resulting from such catastrophic changes would have survived. Therefore, any increase in the learning capacities of a given group of early hominids, especially the development and transmission of novel skills, would have given them an advantage over other groups in the struggle to survive.

In the course of the evolution of hominids, as one generation succeeded the next, the repertoire of skills and behavioural characteristics would have become widened and enriched. Older established skills became refined in the course of their historical usage and assimilation as well as becoming modified and diversified into new forms (fm36). This diversification and multiplication of basic skills and modes of behaviour into a wider range – quantitatively more numerous and qualitatively more complex – enabled hominids to survive within a widening spectrum of conditions and circumstances. The accumulation of ‘portable’, adaptable generic skills (with tools which could be carried from place to place), which were transmittable to succeeding generations, enabled hominid groups to spread out into previously unexplored regions (fm37).

Within the African ‘cradle’ itself….

from what we can gather, our human ancestors – and the australopithecines before them – had already left the forest (where the apes still live) and inhabited areas similar to the modern Savanna: tropical grasslands with tall vegetation, bushes, and scattered trees inhabited by large quadrupeds and a wide variety of plant and animal species. About two million years ago, Homo Erectus began to travel and colonize Asia, Europe and virtually all the Old World during a period of hundreds of thousands of years. This expansion probably was possible because tools were more evolved and intelligence greater (Erectus brain was more than twice the size of an australopithecine’s) [10]

The development of the relationship between instinct and learning in the ancestral primates of hominids (ancestral pre-hominids) provided the basis for the attainment of a wider repertoire of skills in the course of their evolution. The greater the capacity of a primate to learn and assimilate new skills and develop a wider range of behaviours to ‘deal’ with the different and changing conditions of its life, the more capable it becomes in its efforts to secure its material means of life and thus to survive and propagate its kind. However, it is the rise of consciousness itself which transforms the relationship between the instinct and learning capacities found in the ancestral pre-hominid. The beginnings of this transformation marks the beginning of the emergence of the human psyche as a whole with historically new features and relations.

Those ancestral pre-hominids (animal hominoid ancestors) – that immediately preceded the emergence of the specifically hominid line of evolution eventually leading to ‘modern man’ – were characterised by the highest possible form of non-conscious awareness. That is, by a form of awareness which stood on the threshold of the beginnings of conscious awareness whilst still retaining its character as a form of animal non-conscious awareness. This state of affairs constituted the transition phase between the two distinctly different forms of awareness which corresponded to the transition between the evolution of the ancestral animal hominoid and the beginnings of the lineages of the Hominidae.

The physical and sensuous interaction of these pre-conscious hominoids with their conditions of life took place on the basis of the unity of their instinctive capacities and acquired learning about their environment. This conditioned learning about their conditions of life in itself results from the interrelationships of the animal with its natural environment. What the animal learns about its life conditions mediates the activities and interrelationship of the animal with its conditions of life. Moreover, this learning must have involved ‘memorisation’ of one kind or another in which the animal’s immediate experience of its surroundings, the learning of new skills specifically, are ‘registered and stored’ neurologically, and not forgotten but can be replicated as and when required. For example, in the use and simple making of tools to acquire food, fend off predators, etc (fm38). Memory, therefore, is not a specific feature found only in hominids but also characterised their primate hominoid ancestors.

The ancestral pre-hominid’s capacities and activities were, accordingly, mediated by a state of non-conscious awareness which arises out of the evolutionary legacy passed on to it by its antecedents. This highest possible state of non-conscious awareness stands on the threshold of a move forward into the beginnings of the very earliest, primaeval, primordial forms of conscious awareness characterising the very earliest hominids as they began to emerge from their animal hominoid predecessors. This state of non-conscious awareness in these immediate ancestors of the hominid lineages stands as the highest possible synthesis of instinct and learning developed in animals in which the capacity to be aware of and ‘know’ their environment, and to be orientated by this awareness in the relationship with their conditions of life, is developed in these animal primate ancestors of humanity (fm42). Beyond this stage lies the beginnings of the hominid lineages and thus the primaeval beginnings of consciousness itself.

Next Section : The Rise of Consciousness

References (given in square brackets thus [ ] )

[1] McKee, J.K. et al. Understanding Human Evolution. (5th Edn). (Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2005) p.94

[2] McKee, J.K. et al, Ibid, p.93

[3] See, for example, Pereira, M.E. and Fairbanks, L.A. (eds) Juvenile Primates: Life History, Development and Behaviour. (University of Chicago Press, 2002). Also the article by Whiten et al, Cultures in Chimpanzees. Nature, Vol 399, pp.682-685

[4] See, for example, Toole, G. and Toole, S. Understanding Biology. (Stanley Thornes Publishers, Cheltenham, 1995) p.549

[5] The work of Stephen Jay Gould and others is important in this area. For example, Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard University Press, 2002) and Bintliff, J. (ed) Structure and Contingency: Evolutionary Processes in Life and Human Society (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1999)

[6] Engels. The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. Marx-Engels Selected Works. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1973) p.357

[7] Lewin, R Principles of Human Evolution. (Blackwell, 1993) p.30

[8] Leakey, R. The Origin of Humankind. (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994) p.142

[9] See, for example, Reader, S.M. Relative Brain Size and the Distribution of Innovation and Social Learning across the Nonhuman Primates, Chapter 3 in The Biology of Traditions: Models and Evidence. Fragaszy, D.M. and Perry, S. (eds) (Cambridge University Press, 2003) p.56ff

[10] Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. and Cavalli-Sforza, F. The Great Human Diasporas. The History of Diversity and Evolution. (Helix Books, Addison-Wesley, 1996) p.44


Footnotes and Memoranda (fm)


(fm1) The development of learning capacities and new skills in primate ancestors of humans.

(fm2) Learning through experimentation and mimicry in primates.

(fm3) Chimpanzees are part of the taxomomic family of Primates known as the Pongidae (sometimes called ‘Anthropoid Apes’) which are biologically related to humans, including the gibbons, orang-utans, and gorillas.

(fm4) The use of natural objects then later fashioning of simple tools for use in acquiring food, fighting off rivals, predators, etc.

(fm5) The transmission of acquired skills in primates through mimicry and learning : human ‘culture’ in embryo.

(fm6) Advantages (enhanced capacity to survive changes in conditions) conferred by learning and transmission of new skills in ancestral primates.

(fm7) How established conditions, and gradual or rapid changes in them, impel primates to develop new skills or to perish.

(fm8) The relationship between learning and neurological changes.

(fm9) Instinct. A particular form or tendency of behaviour found in animals which is innate for a given species. Such forms of behaviour are not learnt but may be mediated and affected by learning and vice versa. Instinctive behaviour arises and evolves in animals directly in relation to the confronting and impacting conditions of the mode of life of a given species. Natural Selection acts on definite forms of behaviour to which a given species is biologically pre-disposed and, in so doing, the phenotypic characteristics intrinsically associated with these forms of behaviour in an organism are selected. Concomitantly, the genotype of the organism (at the molecular level of the DNA) – underlying the ‘selected’ anatomy and physiology of the phenotype – is simultaneously selected.

Instinct does not emerge and evolve in isolation from learning and vice versa. In their unity, each mutually conditions and affects the development of the other. For example, nidification (nest-building) in birds takes different forms according to the material conditions of life of a given species. In the process of nest-building, a bird must also learn various skills involving the use and manipulation of different materials and construction technique. If one observes a bird constructing its nest, one can actually see it making ‘errors’. But these errors are the source of it learning to build a strong and stable nest for its hatchlings. It literally ‘learns from its errors’. Nidification is instinctive in birds but they must also learn in the actual process of building their nests. Thus, in nidification, both instinctive and learnt capacities are at work simultaneously. Therefore, animal instinctive behaviour is an inherent or innate pre-disposition towards certain forms of behaviour for a given species and directed towards the realisation of a specific objective or aim (non-conscious purposefulness) which can be mediated and affected by learning and vice versa.

(fm10) Consciousness and Instinct. How the rise of the former in hominids affects and transforms the latter.

(fm11) A more detailed and elaborated definition of ‘learning capacity’ is required.

(fm12) The critical importance of learning in primates for survival.

(fm13) Catastrophic changes in Nature and the need for rapid adaptation to the resulting new conditions. Evolution ‘in leaps’ (Gould, transformation, dialectics).

(fm14) Examples of this in primate evolution? For example, rapid climactic or environmental changes causing extinctions and rapid evolutionary changes.

(fm15) The disadvantages of overspecialisation (funnelled into a narrow niche existence) and the relative advantages of generic, ‘portable’, adaptable skills and behaviour in rapidly changing natural environments.

(fm16) The ‘survival value’ of developing generic, widely applicable and alterable skills in the primate ancestors of humanity.

(fm17) Hominoid. A member of the Hominoidea superfamily of primates including the anthropoid apes (pongidae) and their extinct progenitors. The classification system of biological science includes the Hominidae (i.e. modern man and extinct ancestral and extinct relative forms) as a sub-group.

(fm18) Tool use and making in the immediate primate ancestors of hominids later developed into their more advanced forms in hominids. This, of course, becomes significant for the later co-operation, for language and the rise of consciousness in hominids.

(fm19) For example, as with the selection of skin colour according to ambient levels of ultraviolet light or density of body hair according to the ambient environmental temperatures. People in sunny climates tend to have more Melanin in their skin (darker skins) for protection against the mutagenic effects of ultraviolet light and people in cold climates more body hair for insulation against the cold. For example, a comparison of sub-saharan black Africans and white northern Europeans.

(fm20)The unity and interaction of biology, behaviour and the learning of skills.

(fm21) On the Origin of Species. Charles Darwin.

(fm22) The correlation between the size, complexity and organisation of nervous systems and the ability to learn new behaviours and skills.

(fm23) Neurological evolution. The evolution of nervous systems.

(fm24) The ‘selection’ of neurological variations at the molecular (biochemical) and physiological levels inseparable from behaviour and advantages conferred by it in the course of the life activity of animals.

(fm25) The evolution of the relationship between biology and behaviour in animals takes place on the ground of the specific activities of animals under their natural conditions of life. Ethology.

(fm26) Illustrations of this from primatology?

(fm27) If an ancestral primate learns and develops a new skill in its struggle to survive then this enriches its experience of its surrounding conditions of life and simultaneously alters its awareness of these surroundings.

(fm28) The close relationship between learning and instinct, their interaction, and mutuality.

(fm29) Examples of this from animal biology, primate biology and ethology.

(fm30) Non-Conscious Awareness of immediate surroundings and their impact and stimuli is the form of awareness found in animals not involving conceptualisation as opposed to the conscious awareness specific to humans. Non-conscious awareness underlies the general mode of learning in all animals. From insects which communicate with each other by means of Pheromones, for example, to the more advanced forms of communications and learning found in primates.

(fm31) The biochemical and physiological basis of the ‘fight or flight’ response in anthropoid apes (alarm, fear) is essentially the same as that in humans. Cortisol, Adrenaline, etc.

(fm32)The biochemical and physiological relationships between the neurological and the hormonal in the ‘fight or flight’ and other responses.

(fm33) How did instinct arise and evolve in animals, in their primaeval ancestors? At the dawn of life and afterwards?

(fm34) How far back does the ‘fight or flight’ response go? Reptiles? Therapsids, etc? This response, it seems to me, must be very ancient and

dating back many millions of years into the age of the dinosaurs and perhaps before.

(fm35) The different lineages and branches of the Hominidae.

(fm36) The modification and diversification of toolmaking and other skills.

(fm37) The ‘radiation’ of hominids into different regions of the planet and the resulting later emergence of different ‘sub-types’ of humans such as Sapiens, Neanderthals, Denisovans, Floriensis, Archaic Africans in central Africa, etc

(fm38) Studies in memory in contemporary primates.


Shaun May

October 2018

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