Book Extracts
  • Summers of Discontent by Raymond Tallis
  • Raymond Tallis |  Summers of Discontent
Summers of Discontent by Raymond Tallis

Chapter One:

Man and Animal

We know much less about the nature and the origin of consciousness than we think we do. Consider, for example, our ability to see. Seeing is so closely related to our awareness that the phrase ‘I see’ also means ‘I understand’. The evolution of sight, the transition from a sightless creature to one which has something like a recognisable eye, represents a long journey across genetic space. Many thousands of mutations are required. Biologists (such as Richard Goldschmidt) have claimed that, since the first few thou-sand mutations would confer no advantage, the organisms affected by them would not enjoy preferential survival. And this would seem to suggest that the long journey from sightlessness to vision would not be likely even to begin unless all the necessary mutations took place at once – an event that has a negligible probability. Richard Dawkins has reminded us, however, that even the smallest steps towards an eye might have conferred advantage: most obviously, a single photo-sensitive spot on an organism’s surface would give it some kind of edge over the competition. A gradual evolutionary journey towards eye-hood is therefore possible. Even so, something fundamental remains unexplained. An ever more complex photo-sensitivity correlating with salient features in the outside world and regulating and fine-tuning behaviour makes evolutionary sense; but there is no reason why that photosensivity should be conscious; why the eye should see, in the sense of understand.

The questions that hover around the evolution of the eye are nothing compared to those that haunt the more general question of the evolution of our minds. Consciousness has always been an awkward customer for biology – and evolutionary theorists – to deal with. Samuel Butler complained that Darwin’s theory ‘banished mind from the universe’. What he meant was that it removed not only the need for a purposeful Creator to explain the origin of the species but also intention and purpose from the entire evolutionary process. This hasn’t worried many biologists, for whom it is a positive virtue of the theory. But it does make it rather difficult to find a place for mind, or consciousness, in the scheme of things.

Consider the extraordinarily complex ordering process that is associated with crystallisation. Would a solution of copper sulphate produce better crystals if the individual molecules knew what they were about, if they got together and defined their aims and objectives? Of course not. It might be objected that the analogy is not fair, because the crystallisation of copper sulphate is not a conscious objective whose realisation is to be carved out of natural process. But since, according to evolutionary theory, the universe from which consciousness emerged was that of unconscious and purposeless matter, in which there were no conscious processes, the analogy seems perfectly fair. So we cannot explain the emergence of consciousness on the basis of the needs created by the adoption of conscious purposes.

Are we entitled to envisage consciousness emerging in the same gradual fashion as the eye as a result of the operation of natural selection on random change? At first sight it would seem so. One could imagine a long evolutionary journey, a Great Trek across genetic space, from the ‘low cunning’ of the potato in the dark cellar (or E. coli in some even darker place) to the much higher cunning of the fully conscious human being. But is consciousness a property, a feature of organisms that can emerge gradually in this way? Can consciousness come into being in the piecemeal fashion of organ systems or plumage? It seems that there is a clear difference between consciousness (or mind) in this respect and life, which can, it seems, many scientists now think, come into being by degrees. Consciousness is either there or not: you can’t be a little bit conscious any more than you can be a teeny-weeny bit pregnant.

Moreover consciousness doesn’t necessarily confer an evo-lutionary advantage, though we hopefully – a better word might be vainly – tend to assume it does. It is a common observation that many procedures that can be carried out automatically may be performed less efficiently, or indeed break down altogether, if the subject tries to enact them deliberately, consciously executing each step. Consciousness has to be kept in check if the many activities of daily life are to be accomplished with the requisite expedition and fluency. It is an equally common observation that, as a skill is acquired, mechanism increasingly dominates over conscious and deliberate action. A learner driver at first specifically addresses himself to the tasks of changing gear, keeping the car in place by moving the steer-ing wheel, braking when instructed, etc. The experienced driver no longer does these actions separately and deliberately but simply drives himself from A to B. It is possible to find that one has driven fifty or a hundred miles along a motorway without being able to recall ‘doing driving’ at all – the so-called ‘time-gap experience’. This emphasises the way in which skilled behaviour is hierarchi cally organised, so that its components become automatised. Consciousness-driven activity emerges out of background driving only when the unexpected happens – for example, a sudden obstacle has to be avoided – although even in such cases appropriate responses have often been initiated before conscious decisions have been taken. Conscious intervention in acquired skills may be a necessary preliminary to further improvement; apart from this, however, it is the road to paralysis, to the inhibition that results from a dysfunctional self-consciousness. Hamlet’s awareness made him dither.

A good deal of conscious behaviour – hobbies, loving people as well as lusting after them, creating and enjoying art – and many of the uses to which consciousness is put (such as speculating about the origin of consciousness) seem to have little to do with survival in any but the most tenuous or metaphorical sense. Indeed, much of conscious human behaviour even in the undeveloped world, and certainly in the developed world, is concerned less with survival than with happiness or satisfaction. The pursuit of knowledge far exceeds the seeking out of information necessary to satisfy physiological need. It is as though consciousness, if it had originally developed to help us to avoid tigers and catch cows, has gone out of control so that it now allows (or drives) us to enjoy reading philosophy and talking about music, and to try to make a more complete sense of our origins and destinations by, for example, constructing theories of evolution.

It is difficult to believe that such an ‘exceeding of its brief ’ is purely accidental, or even that it is merely secondary; on the con-trary, it seems closely related to the essential nature of conscious-ness. Conversely, the evolutionary view of consciousness as a mere servant of adaptive behaviour, a mere instrument of survival, some-thing that serves a particular, defined purpose, seems to be untrue to the facts of everyday experience: we are conscious of much more than is expressed in our behaviour and there are many forms of consciousness for which there is no behavioural expression relevant to survival.

And there is the problem of the distinctive nature of human consciousness. The relationship between human and animal faculties may be captured by imagining the animals fighting their way through a wilderness near to the beginning of a motorway that humans are travelling along at sixty miles an hour. The animals may move in the wilderness parallel to that motorway for a few yards but cannot drive on it. With a few exceptions, each generation of animals, moreover, begins at the same point in the wilderness as the last and there is no cumulative progress – not even painfully slow progress – except in so far as the animal’s body changes over vast periods of time. The power of making explicit, the explicitness inherent in human consciousness, is what makes motorway travel possible for humans and lack of it that denies animals such travel. The analogies between human and animal faculties deceive us into thinking that we and they are travelling along the same road, that they are on the same road as us, only further back. In fact, animals are not even on the road; only at a location corresponding to a point just beyond the beginning of the road. Thus the relation between animal tool-using and human technology; or between animal communication and human language.

This account of the difference between man and animals leaves the relationship between them deeply puzzling and the transition from the one to the other almost inexplicable. There is a difference not in degree but in kind between animal tool-using and human technology and between animal communication and human language. Ought I to apologise for this failure to accommodate the evolution of consciousness into the evolution-of-bodies story? Not at all. It is better to have an unsolved problem than a false solution.


In the classical country house, the park or garden is separated from the countryside by a Ha-Ha. Essentially, it is a trench: on the side nearer to the house it is perpendicular and faced with stone; while the outer side is turfed and slopes gradually up to the original level of the ground. The most important feature of the Ha-Ha is its near-invisibility from within the house. It permits an unobstructed view of the countryside – hence its alternative name, claire-voie. From the house, the fields appear as a simple continuation of the park. This is, of course, deceptive. For the Ha-Ha presents a formidable barrier to sheep and cows and other animals that might wish to enter the gardens and graze on the prize roses or trample through the kitchen garden. Moreover, it is a potential hazard to human beings, who might easily overlook it, as is indicated by its name: those who observed it said ‘Aha!’ and those who did not caused their friends to say ‘Ha ha!’ when they fell into it. According to most commentators, the Ha-Ha symbolises the boundary dividing human Culture from Nature, the domesticated house and garden from the wilder country beyond. It is possible also to see it as a rather precise metaphor of the invisible but very real divide between man, the explicit animal, and the rest of the living world. The non-human animals cannot cross this barrier; and those thinkers who do not observe it, who fall victim to the illusion of continuous ground between Nature and Culture, are destined to drop into it.

I commend this metaphor to all those who look to a return to animal knowledge and instinct, or to primitive wisdom, as the way out of what they perceive to be ‘our present dilemma’. I would also commend it to anyone else who might be tempted to denigrate human Culture as a deformed or unsatisfied or dangerously sup-pressed version of the animal Nature. If there is such a thing as The Human Predicament, and if it makes sense to offer any kind of treatment for it, I suspect that the prescription would take the form of more, not less, explicitness; of capitalising on the advances that we have made, rather than falling back into the instinctive world of primitive man, of hominids, or higher primates. The major chal-lenge of the next millennium is not to return to our animal selves, but to deal with and perfect our knowledge. We cannot solve our problems by returning to, and perfecting, a nature we never had.

  • Raymond TallisSummers of Discontent