The emergence of consciousness on planet earth is a great mystery and its
evolution from animal consciousness to human consciousness has been an enigma.
In the last couple of centuries a number of biologists, psychologists,
sociologists and scientists have presented a number of theories about human
evolution and consciousness. Some of those theories became more popular than
others. While Charles Darwin connected human consciousness with biological
unconscious, Sigmund Freud with psychological unconscious and Karl Marx with
social unconscious, Julian Jaynes connected evolution of human consciousness
with the breakdown of the bicameral mind, the Half God / Half Human mind.
Although his theory was a significant contribution, worthy of serious
consideration, it did not become as popular as other theories.
Julian Jaynes was one of the original psychologists, philosophers and
scholars of the 20th century. Born in Massachusetts in 1920, he
studied at Harvard, Yale and McGill and taught at Princeton University from 1966
to 1990. His book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the
Bicameral Mind was nominated for the National Book Award. He died of a fatal
stroke in 1997.
Before presenting Jaynes’ theory of the Bicameral Mind, let me set the
context by briefly reviewing the theories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell
Wallace. In his books, The Origin of Species (Ref. 1) and The Descent
of Man (Ref. 2) Darwin presented a unified theory of evolution and
challenged the theory of separate evolutions. Many Christians, Jews and Muslims
believed that God created animals on earth while He created Adam and Eve in
heaven. After they ate from the tree of knowledge and committed the original
sin, they were cursed and sent to earth to reproduce as human beings. Darwin
proved that animals and humans had common origins on earth and humans were
evolved animals. Darwin highlighted that animals and humans not only had
similarities in their bodies but also in their brains and minds. He wrote, “…the
difference in mind between man and the higher animals, as great as it is,
certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” (Ref. 2, p. 130) He showed that
animals exhibited a wide range of intellectual and emotional characteristics
similar to humans. Whether it was pain or pleasure, happiness or sadness,
jealousy or grief, wonder or curiosity, devotion or love, they were all present
in higher animals. He even thought animals could communicate with each other,
but it was non-verbal communication. Humans evolved further than other animals
because of their spoken and written language which enabled them to create art
and literature, religion and culture and become civilized.
Darwin did not believe in God and divine revelations. He believed in a
secular interpretation of life. But Darwin’s secular views were not only
challenged by religious clerics, they were also criticized by other biologists,
psychologists and scientists. Even his contemporary and great admirer,
Alfred Russell Wallace, whose paper on the theory of evolution was presented at
the same time as Darwin in 1858, did not agree with Darwin’s secular views.
Wallace believed that human consciousness “could not possibly have been
developed by means of the same laws which have determined the progressive
development of the organic world in general, and also of man’s physical
organism.” (Ref. 3, p. 10) Wallace observed such a miraculous difference in
animal and human consciousness that, “he felt the evidence showed that some
metaphysical force had directed evolution at three different points:
the beginning of life,
the beginning of consciousness and
the beginning of civilized culture.” (Ref. 3, p .10)
Wallace’s supernatural explanation of evolution was not accepted by all those
mainstream biologists, psychologists and scientists who were looking for natural
explanations for natural phenomena.
Alongside Wallace’s religious theory of human consciousness and Darwin’s
atheistic theory, another theory was offered by Julian Jaynes. In his book,
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. (Ref. 3),
Jaynes discussed that animal consciousness passed through the stage of the
bicameral mind in which humans had Half God / Half Human consciousness, before
there was a development of the full human consciousness. During this phase of a
few thousand years, human minds heard the voices of gods, angels, spirits and
their dead relatives routinely. During that time, the right brain was more
active than the left brain. The right brain that heard God’s voices was the
executive half, and the left brain, the follower half, received those directions
from the right brain and acted on those orders without questioning them. That
was the time human minds had not developed the capacity to question and
challenge. During that phase of evolution, gods were more important than humans.
The bicameral mind was not only reflected in the personal lives of people but
was also present in their social lives. In bicameral cultures, God was at the
centre of people’s lives. In many such cultures God’s house, whether a mosque or
a church, a temple or a synagogue, was built in the centre of the town, and then
people built their houses all around it. Even in people’s homes, humans built a
room for God and put different idols there to represent different gods. In
bicameral cultures, gods were at the centre and humans were at the periphery.
Jaynes theorizes that hearing the voices of the dead was the beginning
of hearing the voices of gods. He writes, “the dead were then called huaca
or godlike, which I take to indicate that they were sources of hallucinated
voices…that the dead were the origin of gods is also found in the writings of
those bicameral civilizations that became literate.” (Ref. 3, p. 163)
Jaynes believes that the bicameral mind was only able to cope with small
communities and the small problems of small tribes. Each tribe had a God / King
who was the chief and received messages from gods and dead kings to guide his
tribe. Jaynes states, “…a new king ruled by obeying the hallucinated voice of a
dead king.” (Ref. 3, p. 176) For bicameral minds, gods were realities and not
just fantasies. “The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination’ of
anyone. They were man’s volition.” (Ref. 3, p. 202) But as human beings evolved
because of agriculture and developed complex communities, the bicameral mind
could not deal with their complex problems and collapsed.
That was the time in history when gods stopped talking to humans. That
was the beginning of human consciousness and the development of language,
literature and culture. When humans did not hear the voices of gods, they
assumed that the gods were angry with them. To please the gods, humans started
praying and offering sacrifices. Jaynes is of the opinion that different cults
and religions were born after the death of the bicameral mind. When humans heard
God’s voice directly, they had a personal authority. After that authority was
gone, humans had a need to consult religious leaders and prophets who could
still communicate with the gods and receive divine revelations. During that
period cult leaders and prophets had the authority of the gods and scriptures.
As human consciousness evolved and the left brain developed, human
beings started relying on their own rational minds and secular conscience, and
began challenging their religious leaders and scriptures. For them their own
logic and conscience became their personal authority. Jaynes highlighted that
although humans have outgrown the bicameral religious mind and developed a
secular consciousness, we can still see the remnants of the bicameral mind all
over our communities and cultures. He writes, “We, at the end of the Second
Millennium AD are still in a sense deep in this transition to a new mentality.
And all around us lie the remnants of our recent bicameral past. We have our
houses of gods which record our births, define us, marry us, and bury us,
receive our confessions and intercede with the gods to forgive us our
trespasses. Our laws are based upon values which without their divine pendency
would be empty and unenforceable. Our national mottos and hymns of state are
usually divine invocations. Our kings, presidents, judges and officers begin
their tenures with oaths to the now silent deities taken upon the writings of
those who have last heard them.” (Ref. 3, p. 317)
Although human beings have left the gods behind, yet there are times
they feel nostalgic about them and miss them especially when they are stressed
and experience a crisis. That is why it is not uncommon for people to have
visions of dead relatives when they are grieving or hear the voices of gods and
angels when they are a experiencing a nervous breakdown. Jaynes believed that as
human beings evolve and the human mind and personality grow, humans will have
less and less need for gods.
Jaynes associated the evolution of human consciousness with the
development of language, a sense of “I” and an ability to reflect and
introspect. Such introspection helps them develop a sense of self and a unique
Jaynes believed that with the evolution of human consciousness and
personality, human beings are able to develop self confidence and trust their
own judgment. They would no longer need the authority of prophets and
scriptures. The more humans mature, the less they need gods.
If we consider the contemporary world, we can easily see that many
communities and cultures are still following a bicameral mind or need the
authority of gods, prophets, scriptures and religious leaders. The changes that
individual humans can make in their personal consciousness in a few years can
take a few centuries in the collective lives. The evolution of human
consciousness has been a slow, a very slow process.
Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Castle Book:
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. Prometheus Books: Amherst, New York, USA. 1998.
Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the
Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
Mariner Book: USA, 2000.