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This essay is a direct follow up to my previous essay "Consciousness and Complexity." In that essay I asserted that:

By expanding our innate mental abilities to abstract essential details from complex reality-just as the apes did when using numbers rather than actual objects-we can develop clearer understandings of which forms of social ordering are sustainable and which are not. In the context of possessing a wider awareness of others than most contemporary humans have, we can then be much more likely to act with the good of all others in mind. Such a society would likely pass the test I mentioned above. We could then be that creature which is to humans as humans are to great apes.

Here, I will explain my thinking as to why I believe this to be true.

The social organization of primates, including great apes and humans, constitutes a type of complex adaptive system. A system is a group of mutually interacting elements which meet three conditions:

1) Interconnectedness

2) Boundedness (having a definite boundary between system and not system)

3) Emergence

If the system is completely isolated from all else it is said to be a closed system. If it interacts with its environment it is an open system. All primate social systems are open systems. Systems can be further classified as being either simple or complex. A simple system behaves predictably and mechanically: for example, a spring-wound alarm clock. A complex system is one for which system behavior cannot be predicted from knowledge of the characteristics of its individual components: complex behaviors emerge from the behavior of the system's constituent elements. Emergence, such as consciousness from the interconnectedness of a hundred billion neurons, none of which is conscious individually, is perhaps the greatest scientific miracle of our universe. Systems composed of conscious beings are the ultimate type of complex adaptive systems.

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Different kinds of such systems have existed, or exist now. I will evaluate them in ascending order of the cognitive abilities of their constituent organisms. I am doing this to show how the overall emergent properties of each social system vary depending upon the mental abilities of the species.

Great Apes: These primates are intelligent, observant of the actions of other members of their species and the world around them. They can learn from observing other apes behavior, although apes do not teach one another new skills or complex behaviors, and this limits group cooperation. They are emotionally impulsive and selfish, which further limits group cooperation. While culture in the form of shared learned behaviors does exist, the lack of a formal abstract language limits coordinated or complex group actions. While the abilities of a troop of great apes significantly exceeds the sum of their individual abilities, they are clearly limited by their inability to understand the overall benefits of cooperation and sharing, by their limited ability to innovate, and by their inability to share knowledge of their new learning with other members of their band. Little specialization of labor exists.

Homo Erectus: A now-extinct ancestor of humanity. This species is characterized by division of labor, development of relatively sophisticated tools for hunting, control of fire for cooking, warmth, and defense from nocturnal predators. Rudimentary language seems to have been developed, and deliberate teaching of tool-making techniques. Sharing of resources and labor would have been necessary to maintain this level of group organization. This would require increased conscious control over emotional impulsivity. This species clearly exhibited substantially greater emergent complexity than was the case of great apes. The sum of group endeavors was substantially greater than the arithmetic sum of each individual member's abilities. However, it was still only incrementally greater than that of a corresponding great ape tribe. The increase in net group emergence was only incremental.

Homo Sapiens: That's us. About 150,000 - 200,000 years ago, humans developed moderately complex societies organized around tribal bands. Sophisticated hunting technology and complex, coordinated group activities, indicate that conscious control over impulsive, selfish, behaviors was fairly common. However, innovation, and technological and social development remained incrementally slow for most of this species' existence. The net emergence of a human tribal band would have been only modestly greater than that of a homo erectus band. It represented another incremental advancement in net emergent complexity from homo erectus, which itself was only incrementally greater in net emergence than was the great apes. Anatomically modern humans were not all that different in terms of societal complexity and net emergence than were other primates.

The previously glacially slow pace of change in societal complexity accelerated dramatically in the upper Paleolithic period beginning 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Suddenly, very complex technology for hunting, sewing, cooking etc. appears. Art-both representational and abstract-developed. Substantial regional cultural differences emerge rapidly between geographically separated human bands. Long-distance trade and a complex, differentiated economy develop. Undoubtedly, formal, more or less organized religions developed also in this period.

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As there are no physical differences - including brain size - between late Paleolithic humans and early Paleolithic humans, biological evolution cannot account for the great explosion of emergent behaviors and organized social complexity. Most modern anthropologists believe that this explosion of complexity was due to the development of a fully articulated, abstract language, which could refer to tangible objects ("...that cave over there..."), and also to intangible concepts such as beauty, truth, what happens after death, etc.

A consequence of the development of a common language was the construction of a socially constructed reality. Adoption of a common, verbally transmitted, inter-subjective understanding of reality became necessary to participate in tribal activities. This did allow for even greater coordination of group actions, leading to ever more net emergence, and which manifested itself as greater health, wealth and security for the group. Late Paleolithic human social systems were fundamentally different-much more complex, and possessing order of magnitude greater levels of net emergence than their early Paleolithic predecessors.

For all intents and purposes humans with language became the successor species to humans without fully developed language.

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Michael P Byron is the author of The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow: Your Guide to Personal Survival and Spiritual Transformation in a World Gone Mad. This book is a manual for taking effective action to deal with the crises of our age including (more...)

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