Mental Evolution

Rodney Chang, 1980



Long ago some primordial soup received the miraculous type and dose of energy to activate the chemical ignition necessary to initiate life. Actually, it probably occurred time and time again before the environment remained stable and proper enough to sustain it and allow the biological code to develop to a highly complex state of being able to reproduce itself. Talk about the odds of such a combination occurring in such a haphazard world!

Once a self-sustaining chemical/physiological code had developed, it probably never diverged much from a central course of refined sophistication. All living things today rely on identical biosystems to sustain their species-specific evolutionary and morphological differentiation. All living things have similar solutions to the same life-supporting problems of appendicular support (skeletal system), locomotion (muscular system), digestion (adding new foreign material to one's makeup), respiration (breathing in life-sustaining gases), circulation (transporting energy, nutrients, and waste products throughout the body), nervous system, endocrine system (hormones), and uro-genital system (removing waste products from the body and reproducing one's type). And all the cells that compose the larger organism, such as a man, have intracellular micro-systems handling these basic requirements of maintaining life. Along with all the physical biochemistry must go the intricate coded information to run these infinite reactions. Thus emerged the biochemical beginning of the thing we refer to as living "thinking". We think to maintain homeostasis or equilibrium and growth in our life; an individual cell accomplishes the same tasks vital for us to succeed in remaining alive. How can there not be a hidden continuum between the auto-regulation via the nervous system of a single cell and the supposedly complex realm of human emotions? How are we much different from, say, an onion cell, when we "sleep" each night? when we reach the depth of sleep that can only be described as a BLANK, is not everything to sustain our life completely unconscious or auto-regulated? It's as if we're analogous in deep sleep, functionally speaking, to one huge solitary cell- similar not only to the paramecium under the high school microscope but also to the indoor potted plant that also occupies the room. Nature's sense of practical economics of organic functional design and creation has left all living things with a common ancestry - the cell. Darwin, in the nineteenth century, introduced the theory of animal evolution that included man after the apes. He claimed that through adaptive differentiation and "survival of the fittest," all the living things that inhabit this planet, past and present (and future), are antecedents of something simpler.

But along with this physical evolution went the species-specific mental information coding (memory). Although all animal brains have the basic functional parts, morphological proportions and shapes vary drastically across animal classes. Look at the proportionate size of our cerebrum as compared to that of an earthworm! But the basic requirements of regulating the biological systems of circulation, respiration, and so forth, form a central intelligence core that cannot be denied as existing in any and all living things. Although secondary adaptive needs tax and cause evolution in the nervous system of an organism, the automatic life-supporting regulators continue with a silent commonality. We (via our automatic nervous systems) are not alone.

As things evolved physically, so did their minds (nervous system). A little more new nervous development had to evolve in order to support a slightly different mutant morphology. It is interesting to speculate what came first... the physical mutation or the mental one? Anyway, as a living thing , plant or animal, changed to be more fit to compete in a particular ecological niche, the brain mechanism had to adapt to the added level of environmental complexity. As each step's problem on the path of morphological evolution is solved through "natural selection" (survival of the fittest), so must the intelligence hardware evolve and progress accordingly. And who's to say whether or not the essence of each sequential step of mental development is not recorded and stored in the more developed progeny of evolution? In fact, Ernst Haeckel, in the late nineteenth century, coined the phrase, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." That means the chronological and physical development of an embryo/fetus reveals the sequence or unfolds the stages of animal evolution. For example, gill-like slits are noted during the early weeks of human fetal development. And the environment is similar to that inhabited by one's simpler ancestor - it's aqueous. All animal fetuses during the first days of development look remarkably alike. Can it not be that, to support such physical structures at relatively similar early development, only the similar evolved mental operations are necessarily concomitantly developed and operating to sustain fetal morphological form?

Mental ontogeny recapitulates mental phylogeny. As the stages of evolution unfold as the fetus develops, so do the corresponding stages of mental development. At the age of five days, the thinking development of the fetus may be no different from what that of whatever lower form of life has the comparable mental capacity and limitation. I'm not saying that we go through a stage of life with the mentality of a fish and everything else along the line of evolution, but I am also not denying my belief that there are common threads of behaviors interwoven through the essence of living things... from the "simple" amoeba to us and beyond. I know that I relate to my house plants in a different manner now, after the adoption of my theory of a mental evolutionary mutuality. I feel that we are of similar origins and of comparable levels of mental operation when I go into deep sleep. We both, side by side, occupy a similar space, while both our basic biological needs are taken care of automatically, without deliberate decision making or cognition necessary. I now have more respect for lower forms of living things; they are all identical to me and an evolutionary mirror to my essence. Through studying other forms of life we may discover unknown parts of our mind. The Chinese assign animal types to people born under the different calendar months; cartoonists interject anthropomorphism into every living animal and succeed at it. Everything has "character." Could it not be that all this concoction of human feelings in only an erroneous interpretation of a simple fact that our emotional involvement with the other things of the world is not our creation but the natural consequence of a mental origin from identical ancestral fathers?

And with the passage of time, the diverse forms of living life and form evolved. As the body changed in a particular form to accommodate to a particular environmental niche, so did the mental genetic material. For example, take man and chimpanzees. What other mammals, besides monkeys, could be as humanly expressionistic with their facial musculature? Is it that chimps have such an anthropomorphic quality because they just happened to look so similar to our anatomical form? Or could it be that their mental development is closer to ours than to that of any other animal and thus they remind us of ourselves? In other words, could there not be a psychosomatic evolutionary commonality between us and apes? Does not the ape have to master similar somatic control to his facial musculature so as to communicate properly with his kind and his foes? And so isn't it possible that similar types of thinking processes have evolved to handle the functional requirements of similar types of physical structure (for example, a man's head and an ape's head)?

By tracing the phylogeny of physical living change one can also restage the development of living mentality through time. And like exploring the soil sediments for the records of physical change, so can one submerge back into time to explore the depths of our mental origin. Much can be learned through comparative mental research. But we should not only discover how other living things are similar and different from ourselves, but also use the understood and recognized behavior as a possible revelation to another part of our own essence. Locked within the phrase "mental ontogeny recapitulates mental phylogeny" is the record of our mental evolution, from the single cell to our present consciousness. Words like "trance' and "sleep" are very humanistic; could they not really really be describing subhuman thought processes that were pioneering directions of our subhuman ancestral past? Could not worms also sleep and moths also go into a trance, especially around a porch light? I hypothesize that within the realm of Freud's "unconscious state" is a fathomless body of separate levels of consciousness, each corresponding to a specific evolutionary development of our mental heritage. And many of our altered mental states may just be the manifestation of the remaining or residual mental past of ourselves.

Freud divides the human mind into the conscious and the unconscious. It may not be as simple as that. There seems to be a dynamism between the two contrived parts, so that, in actuality, they are one and the same at different simultaneous peak levels of mental activity. For example, many times something we experience is so powerful that we experience it simultaneously as real and as fantasy. An example is a good horror flick (movie). We know, and thus maintain a degree of mental security and control, that it's all make-believe, but it sure seems like a real experience when we jerk back in fear from a sudden close-up hand on the back-turned shoulder of the main fair lady. It seems that we are always relating to other things of the world at different mental levels. We can simultaneously love and hate, protect and destroy, and laugh and cry. Who's to say how many specific and discrete levels of thinking are going on every time we select an orange at the supermarket or experience the feeling we call love? Everyone knows that human emotions are complex thought processes, but that doesn't necessarily mean that any thinking other than that done by Homo sapiens is simplistic.

Here is the theory. Along the evolution of our bodies to the best of environmental adaptation marched the development of our cognitive processes. And, like the recapitulation of our physical origin during our fetal life stage, so blossoms out our evolutionary history of mental change. Our minds are not just a polished and finished human product, but an amorphous entity of an infinite variety of thinking, all inherited from the potpourri of intelligent mechanism adequate to support long past different ancestral forms of life. All these levels, whether conscious or unconscious, today play their vital part in keeping us not only in psychological equilibrium and in environmental harmony, but alive.


From Mental Evolution and Art, Rodney Chang, Exposition Press, New York, NY, 1980