The First Men and the Last Men

By Razib Khan | September 24, 2012 11:59 pm

In the comments below there is a discussion about whether personhood is a continuous or categorical trait. I lean toward the former proposition as a matter of fact, but let’s entertain the second. What if personhood, and in particular consciousness and moral agency, emerged repeatedly over the past two million years in singular individuals? A model I propose is that the reason that ‘behavioral modernity’ exhibited such a long lag behind ‘anatomical modernity’ is that the first conscious human kept killing themselves. After all, imagine that you come to awareness and all your peers are…well, ‘dirty apes.’ You are literally the sane man in the asylum. This is similar the idea proposed, reasonably enough, that a demographic ‘critical mass’ was required for cultural evolution to truly enter into ‘lift-off.’ In any case, perhaps ~50,000 year ago a psychopath was born who could live with the knowledge that their days were to be spent copulating with and eliminating with animals. Animals whom said psychopath could congenially manipulate to increase their own fitness. No sensitive soul, he.

Ultimately obviously my hypothesis is far more science fiction than serious model. But it does get to the heart of something critical: the essence of humanity is not our rational reflective individual faculties, but our powerful social awareness and need for embeddedness. Even a misanthrope like me can recognize this. By our negation of it we recognize that which is the standard. Consciousness and self-awareness did not explode into the world like a shot in the dark in the form of the original human. Rather, groups of proto-humans through their collective actions stumbled upon the configuration of characteristics which connote to us humanity. There was no sentinel, only the passage of countless generations, melting unto each other.

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  • Eurologist

    Envision an exceptionally smart person today with an IQ of ~160, who by definition lives in a society in which about half the people have an IQ of between 60 and 100. By analogy, there were exceptionally bright people at some point long ago (halving the above numbers*) with an IQ of 80 (not too shabby) who lived in a society in which half the people had an IQ of between 30 and 50 (measured by today’s standards) … I know what I would’ve done – grab a few of the sane ones and get the hell out of there! 😉

    There’s a lot of group/family counter pressure, of course, and beauty versus smarts, and non-verbal charisma and strength, etc., but I firmly believe that there must have been periods when groups of smarter people tried to band together – to share their songs, stories, and ideas in front of an equal audience.

    (*) caveat lector

  • Michael

    That is something I did not dare to ask in the previous blog entry.

    Couldn’t the neaderthal admixture be caused either by neanderthals (dirty apes) raping human women (and the offspring acquiring modern human cognitive ability)?

    At some point in human history persons had to have sex with dirty apes.

  • Tim

    I don’t know if this is any good, but I just remembered there’s a novel that deals with this exact situation. It’s been sitting on my kindle, but I guess I’m gonna have to get off my butt and read it.

    It’s about the first conscious man, I’m expecting lots of prehistoric teen angst.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Although in general I find the writing of Stephen Baxter to be much more shallow than it should be for a hard science fiction writer (I usually recognize his sources of research directly, which is always a bad sign), I found his story about the origin of true human consciousness in Evolution particularly poignant in a strange sort of way. There is some merit to the idea that only an unhinged person could have developed consciousness to begin with, because the human need to see actors behind every action is as much irrational as it is rational.

    As to your second paragraph, I remember back when I was an undergraduate (in the political theory class I discussed in the other thread) I wrote a whole essay on how the search using science for “the essence of mankind” is false. Of course there are numerous things which distinguish us in some ways from chimpanzees, but evolution is a process, not a singe event, and they all happened at different times. Thus in the early/mid 20th century, many anthropologists focused on hunting, but by the late 20th century, there was a much greater focus on social and sexual interaction. Unlike much of science, however, there wasn’t so much a stumbling closer to the truth here, as there was an accentuation of a different element of the truth. Since the process to “us” was a long one over millions of years, people can come up with totally different dividing lines for “personhood” because their own salient elements, if not outright definitions, of personhood vary dramatically.

    I do hope, within our lifetimes, we make some process on non-human persons (AI, engineered life forms, finding proof of aliens, etc), because I think that once human being and person are separated in the minds of people, it will be much easier. We could argue, for example, certain things make us “human” but not “persons,” while for other things, the reverse is true. Only time will tell.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    2 –

    I would presume that any sexual contact between “non-person” and “person” hominids would have to be rape in some form or another, and given how rape works, it would almost entirely be male rape of females.

    I actually said in an earlier thread that I wondered if this is why no mitochondrial Neandertal (or Denisova) legacy remains. Basically, only AMH had the “software,” but the other populations had enough of the “hardware” that their hybridized children would be able to grow up in AMH culture with no disadvantage.

    In addition, I’ve wondered if the Châtelperronian basically represents a brief period where AMH-style thinking moved over into a Neandertal population (either through hybridization or simply acquiring AMH language through osmosis), albeit too late to make a substantive demographic difference.

  • miko

    Yeah, I dunno. I do think consciousness is to some extent a quantitative trait. However, I’m not sure that a “fully conscious” individual is possible in the context of a non-conscious society. I think 1) our subjectivity and ways of being conscious require cultural training in the form of cognitive tools that make sense of our own perceptions and of others, and are a required substrate for the kinds of symbolic reasoning we do — just having a theory of mind is not enough to qualify as conscious in this human sense, 2) It requires a developmental period of shared intersubjectivity with others — testing our own responses and thoughts against others. I think a baby that grew up alone and somehow survived would always be less or differently conscious than any socialized human. Our modern consciousness is only party biological.

  • Andrew Lancaster

    I wonder if “rational reflective” faculties in individuals are in any way truly separable from “powerful social awareness”, at least at the time when they come into being in an individual. So i also wonder whether the continuous/categorical choice is a false dichotomy.

  • Tim


    While it’s likely that consciousness didn’t appear out of the blue, I think it’s likely that there was a first fully conscious individual born into a society of partially conscious individuals. This individual somehow managed to overcome that disadvantage.

    I think it would be likely that the population he/she was born into was biologically capable of such advanced cognition, however because of the factors you mention no one had not yet achieved it. If so, such behavioral modernity likely spread quickly among that individuals younger peers do to his/her influence. Though I’m male, I’d lean slightly toward the first fully conscious individual being female, since they seem to inhabit a more social environment in a hunter gather society, and such social interaction would.

  • AllenM

    What a fascinating suggestion that the first person with an IQ of 80 would have committed suicide- why? Because we moderns with a huge built up cultural overlay would think it horrific? I think most likely that it would have been just marginally more successful at breeding and surviving than the dumb ones (avoid a few poison salads and sabertooths to ensure success).

    We tend to forget the lessons about how stultified the really neglected children are in our culture when we raise them “wild”.

    Now, strip away the 100 centuries of “culture” and consider that first psychopath male, and how many females could have been impregnated.

    On the other hand, uplift was excruciatingly slow. Look at the slow diffusion of technology and the slow uptake. Intelligence like today is tremendously accelerated, maybe even compared to moderns from just two thousand years ago.

    I really think modern man only really got going with the mass mega fauna extinctions in terms of what we consider even semimodern.

    Think about the sheer amount of advanced cultural learning “modules” and scientific “modules” that are now part of the western technology “canon” of learning, and how difficult it is for even modern competitor cultures to deal with some of those century old canons.

    Trajectory and momentum are difficult to overcome, now just imagine how hard it would be to make significant changes with rudimentary speech, no writing, and low persistence of intelligence in inheritance.

  • van Rooinek

    imagine that you come to awareness and all your peers are…well, ‘dirty apes.’ You are literally the sane man in the asylum…

    “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!

  • Jack

    Razib, are you familiar with Julian Jaynes and his work on the emergence of consciousness? Out there and speculative but thought provoking.

  • Grey

    “A model I propose is that the reason that ‘behavioral modernity’ exhibited such a long lag behind ‘anatomical modernity’ is that the first conscious human kept killing themselves.”

    I think there’s a lot of scope in that idea but i think they’d more likely be killed or driven out on the basis of being weird and therefore potentially dangerous to the group – at least the “nice” version of that type. A sociopathic version might hide the difference better.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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