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Self-Awareness and the Fall of Man

1962
In the following pages of his work Mankind evolving. The evolution of the human species (1962), Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) highlights how the emergence of  self-awareness and the production of ethical thought confer a character of singularity to the species Homo sapiens  throughout the context of animal evolution. Thus, the uniqueness of the human species appears as a phenomenological fact.

Self­-objectivation is a late product of evolution. When and at what stage of the evolutionary development it entered upon the scene is conjectural. Rensch (1959b) finds its rudiments in some animals, but affirms emphatically that a fully developed self-awareness is diagnostic of humanity. Teilhard de Chardin (1955) writes: "The animal knows, of course. But certainly it does not know that it knows."

For a generation (about 1910-1940), many psychologists found it possible "to write psychology" without using such words as self­awareness, self-objectivation, consciousness, or ego. More recently these words were legitimized. No one has set forth the adaptive significance of self-awareness more clearly than Hallowell (1953, 1960):

"The attribute of self-awareness, which involves man's capacity to discriminate himself as an object in a world of objects other than himself, is as central to our understanding of the prerequisites of man's social and cultural mode of adjustment as it is for the psychodynamics of the individual. A human social order implies a mode of existence that has meaning for the individual at the level of self-awareness. A human social order, for example, is always a moral order [...] It is man's capacity for and development of self-awareness that makes such unconscious psychological mechanisms as repression, rationalization, and so on of adaptive importance for the individual. [...] Man, unlike his animal kin, acts in a universe that he has discovered and made intelligible to himself as an organism not only capable of consciousness but also of self-consciousness and reflective thought [...] An organized social life in man, since it transcends purely biological and geographical determinants, cannot function apart from communally recognized meanings and values, or apart from the psychological structuralization of individuals who make these their own."

The meaning of the acquisition of self-awareness in human evolution is expressed beautifully in the biblical symbol of the Fall of Man. Self-awareness is a blessing and a curse. Through self-awareness man attained the status of a person in the existential sense: he became conscious of himself and of his environment. He is able to form mental images of things and situations which do not yet exist but which may be found, brought about, or constructed by his efforts. Man can create in his imagination worlds different from the actual one and can visualize himself in these imaginary worlds. Before you build a house, construct a machine, write a book, or go on a vacation, you have already built, constructed, or written them, or gone vacationing in your mind. The adaptive value of forethought or foresight is too evident to need demonstration. It has raised man to the status of the lord of creation.

Self-awareness and foresight brought, however, the awesome gifts of freedom and responsibility. Man feels free to execute some of his plans and to leave others in abeyance. He feels the joy of being the master, rather than a slave, of the world and of himself. But the joy is tempered by a feeling of responsibility. Man knows that he is accountable for his acts: he has acquired the knowledge of good and evil. This is a dreadfully heavy load to carry. No other animal has to withstand anything like it. There is a tragic discord in the soul of man. Among the flaws in human nature, this one is far more serious than the pain of childbirth.

It would not do for a student of human evolution to ignore the tragic human predicament, although scientists in general have prudently avoided coming to grips with such problems. Here we arrive dose to that ill-defined line which is the boundary of science, at least of science as at present understood and constituted. Let us simply acknowledge that on the other side of the line there exist profound insights into human nature, the nature we know to be an outcome of the evolutionary process. The psychoanalytic schools have attempted to describe this nature in quasi-scientific terms. Their conclusions are stamped with deep pessimism. The view of Freud (1930) is characteristic:

"In all that follows I take up the standpoint that the tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition of man, and I come back now to the statement that it constitutes the most powerful obstacle to culture . [But the evolution of culture is] the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instincts of life and the instincts of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species."

Plato and Plotinus, St. Augustine and Luther, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, and many others have explored the abyss of human nature. It is a dark abyss, but the greatest of the explorers discerned a bright light shining up from it.

"Reason is only reason, and it satisfies only man's reasoning capacity, while the desire is a manifestation of the whole life, of human life in its entirety, including the reason as well as all the quirks. [...] I, for example, quite naturally want to live in order to satisfy my entire capacity to live and not in order to satisfy only my rationality, which may amount to only one­ twentieth of my entire capacity to live."

But the same Dostoevsky who wrote the above wrote also that "beauty will save the world." It is a sad fact that man has always been able to depict hell more convincingly than paradise, and not even Beato Angelico and Dostoevsky were exceptions to this rule. And yet, man has also risen , not only fallen. We are, in Muller's words, "hastily made-over apes." The evolutionary process has managed, the haste notwithstanding, to do more than equip the made-over ape for mere survival. It implanted in us extraordinary strivings for self-actualization and self-transcendence, for beauty, and for rectitude. Homo sapiens is not only the sole tool-making and the sole political animal, he is also the sole ethical animal.

T. Dobzhansky, Mankind Evolving. The Evolution of the Human Species (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1962), pp. 337-339.