The Predated Mind

Traumatic Origins of Human Thought

Humanity in its formative stages was not the apex predator of the ecosystem, but only by slow effort clambered up the trophic pyramid by clambering down from the trees, making the transition from a fruit-eating, arboreal primate to being a bipedal scavenger, to being a scavenger that is, at the same time a hunter, to being the unequaled hunter no longer the prey (except in an unusual moment of opportunity) of any other animal, but always with the ancestral memory of being prey still percolating in human evolutionary psychology.

The mind of a being that has been hunted and killed for generations, indeed for millions of years, the mind of a social animal that has watched as other members of its social group have been snatched away and eaten, is a mind that has been shaped by that experience of predation. Our mammalian limbic system has been flooding our brains with powerful emotions since long, long before we could rationally conceptualize the fear and the dread and the anxiety of being hunted day in and day out. We should not wonder that human beings are primarily driven by emotional motivations; what is a wonder is that we ever transcend this condition.

We were prey for a much longer period of our evolutionary history than the period of time we have been predators. However, we were predators for long enough — at very least hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions of years — that our history as predators has left its mark upon our minds no less than our history as prey has left its mark upon our minds. We are hunters who have also been hunted, and that means we hunt while casting glances over our shoulders, tracking our predators as carefully as we track our prey.

What is sometimes called the “man-the-hunter hypothesis” was powerfully conveyed in Robert Ardrey’s The Hunting Hypothesis: A Personal Conclusion Concerning the Evolutionary Nature of Man (1976). Recent research has tended to downplay humanity’s hunting past (and this is often politically motivated), but there is no question that human ancestors were bringing down enormous animals like mammoth with little more than flint-tipped spears. There is also a measure of agreement that switching to a meat diet of concentrated protein made it possible for human ancestors to have a much smaller stomach and not to have to eat all day or even every day. Compare the human skeleton to a gorilla skeleton, and you will see the large, conical rib-cage of a gorilla, which fit over the large stomach necessitated by its vegetarian diet.

In this connection it is worth noting that the brain is an extremely expensive organ for human bodies to sustain, using up about twenty percent of our bodily energy (“…the human brain, at 2% of body mass, consumes about 20% of the whole body energy budget…” cf. Brain metabolic cost out of whole body). The brain, then, is an extraordinarily expensive organ, and it may have been the concentrated protein of a carnivorous diet that made it possible for small, slight beings like ourselves to support such disproportionately large and expensive brain (certainly this wasn’t the only factor, but it was probably among many factors).

That large and expensive brain wasn’t doing nothing for millions of years; it was busy taking in everything in its environment that could affect its differential survival and reproduction. This was the environment of evolutionary adaptedness for human cognition, and it made the human mind what it is today.

In my recent series of posts on mythology — Origin Myths of Spacefaring Civilization, The Archetypal Age and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, and Cognitive Descent with Modification — I tried to show the cognitive dimension of the continuity of human nature with the rest of nature, which is a fundamental regulative idea of evolutionary theory. Another fundamental regulative idea of evolutionary theory is that the older and deeper histories of our bodies and our minds are supplemented by more recent history, but the recent history, which often blots out of our conscious mind the older history, does not supersede or replace the older history. The older evolutionary history is the basis of all the follows, and it is still there, operating in the background as the substratum of the recent overlay.

For us, the older and the longer evolutionary experience was the experience of being prey, followed by a significant evolutionary period (a period during which the hominid bush branched repeatedly in numerous speciations) when we came by our calories in the bloodiest way imaginable, taking down enormous beasts, themselves powerful predators, face to face in mortal combat. Bared teeth, slashing claws, and screams of agony from predators unaccustomed to being made prey would have regularly punctuated the days of our hunting ancestors, all the while knowing that they, too, could become prey.

Human thought arises from this traumatic evolutionary context, and it would be wrong to dismiss this as an arbitrary contingency of our evolutionary history. Nietzsche once wrote, in the second section of Beyond Good and Evil:

“HOW COULD anything originate out of its opposite? For example, truth out of error? or the Will to Truth out of the will to deception? or the generous deed out of selfishness? or the pure sun-bright vision of the wise man out of covetousness? Such genesis is impossible; whoever dreams of it is a fool, nay, worse than a fool; things of the highest value must have a different origin, an origin of THEIR own — in this transitory, seductive, illusory, paltry world, in this turmoil of delusion and cupidity, they cannot have their source. But rather in the lap of Being, in the intransitory, in the concealed God, in the ‘Thing-in-itself — THERE must be their source, and nowhere else!” — This mode of reasoning discloses the typical prejudice by which metaphysicians of all times can be recognized, this mode of valuation is at the back of all their logical procedure; through this “belief” of theirs, they exert themselves for their “knowledge,” for something that is in the end solemnly christened “the Truth.” The fundamental belief of metaphysicians is THE BELIEF IN ANTITHESES OF VALUES.

We want to transcend this metaphysical bias, affirming that our highest and most refined thoughts today can be traced back in time, and to their foundations, to thoughts that have their origin in avoiding and then engaging in predation. The sun-bright vision of the wise man is what can be derived, by descent with modification, from the predatory mind of our earliest ancestors.

In an odd way, a naturalistic philosophical appreciation of our animal origins brings us to an almost existentialist insight into the centrality of death in human thought. Perhaps the existentialists were on to something, though their methodology leaves much to be desired from the perspective of a philosophy of mind that has fully assimilated the scientific findings about the human past. This is suggestive, but its further investigation will have to wait for another time.

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